Jazz Development in Britain 1924—1974

7. Anglo-American Exchange


  The History of British Jazz

The next Anglo/American exchange, which was the first for 1957, had only remote connections with jazz, either extemporised or arranged, as the participating groups were Bill Haley and his Comets and the Charles McDevitt Skiffle Group. The Comets were the best known of the earlier post–war rock groups, much of their highly rhythmic music being based upon the simple ‘boogie’ ,bass foundation of third, fifth, sixth, seventh and back. Their instrumentation then comprised Spanish guitar, fender guitar, string bass, tenor and drums, and there were some highly skilled musicians among the players. But, as we were to find out in the years that followed, the sound they produced could also be produced quite effectively by far less skilled performers.

Charles McDevitt’s all–Scottish group, which featured the popular singer Nancy Whiskey, was among the best of the ‘Skifflers,’ its instrumentation comprising four guitars (all acoustic), string bass and washboard, Its music was both melodious and rhythmic and much of its repertoire, like that of most such groups, sprang from the field of folk music.

It is, perhaps, interesting to recall that the early Chris Barber Jazz Band of around 1954, the personnel of which comprised Pat Halcox (cornet), Chris Barber (trombone), Monty Sunshine (clarinet), Lonnie Donegan (banjo), Jim Bray (bass) and Ron Bowden (drums) featured a ‘skiffle’ duo consisting of Lonnie, vocals and guitar, and Chris on bass, and I seem to remember a time when the duo became a trio with blues singer Beryl Bryden on washboard! Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, which had previously included all the Barber band except Halcox, also featured a ‘skiffle’ group around 1954, in which Colyer switched from trumpet to guitar, the remainder comprising Alexis Korner (guitar and mandoline), Bill Colyer (washboard) and a bass player.

Those responsible for bringing the Comets to Britain obtained the necessary work permits without the then established exchange arrangement. In their application, and without any intention of misleading anybody, they had described the group as a variety act rather than as a band of musicians, and the then Ministry of Labour, having failed to do its homework, but having issued the permits, could not or would not withdraw them. However, whilst there were still a few red faces around, I received the information that the American G.A.C. agency were seeking to engage the McDevitt group for a TV spot and tour, but were up against the exchange difficulty in reverse.

Such a situation at that stage in the development of the Anglo/American exchange scheme was unique; no American bookers really wanted British bands but engaged them only to enable the American bands they represented to come to Britain. Indeed, any successes that were achieved in the States by British bands in those days came as the result of the musicians’ ability, rather than from any high–powered publicity, which they might have expected but did not receive. So by some quick telephoning to various offices I was able to arrange for the McDevitt group to be accepted into the States in exchange for the Comets, which saved a few people from further embarrassment and enabled a British group that was actually wanted in the States to go there.

I met Bill Haley soon after his arrival in Britain and, over the years that followed, when he made other British tours, met him on other occasions and found him to be a most pleasant person to know. It was also my pleasure at one point to provide him with some official help in collecting a debt owed to him by a forgetful London booker! So, having made clear that I hold the man in good esteem, I have to state that when I attended one of his band’s first British performances I was appalled at their antics; with the saxophonist rolling about the stage on his back, producing sounds on his instrument that I suppose were inevitable from that position, and the bass player adopting the tactics of an all–in wrestler in addressing his instrument.

Even more appalling, however, was the reaction of the youthful audience, who loved every bit of it, but who should have at least been won for jazz instead of for the horrors yet to come, whose performances managed to make the Comets look and sound quite dignified.

The Americans at least did not indulge in the on–stage destruction of instruments, as did some later British ‘Rockers,’ presumably to warm up their muscles in readiness for wrecking the hotel room.

In those years, too, I held the theory that some of the best of our modern jazz musicians were to some extent responsible for driving the youngsters away from their music. In retrospect, I still think that there was substance in this idea for, like so many generals and politicians of the past, they were way out and too far ahead of their followers.

During the ‘forties and early ‘fifties, British jazz audiences had become accustomed to the ‘Traditional’ and ‘Dixieland’ bands of the revivalists and the music of those usually labelled ‘Mainstream,’ as well as the swinging sounds of the big bands, ranging from rhe Squadronaires to the Glenn Miller Orchestra. All these produced a well defined beat and arrangements, either ‘head’ or written, that guided their listeners along through every eight, sixteen or thirty–two bar solo or ensemble passage in a manner that left them in no doubt about where the after–beat was. True it was that some had a little trouble with certain passages in “Woodchoppers’ Ball” or “In The Mood” but, in broad terms, audiences felt well at home with the performers.

With the arrival of bop and other post–war trends, however, the rhythmic and harmonic imagination of some of those who played the new styles was so fired that they completely overlooked the musical –limitations of their audiences, who had never read Ebenezer Prout on chromatic triads or, in fact, very much at all about music, but who, given time, could respond favourably to new sounds, so long as they were guided along in comfortable stages.

At some point, I think towards the end of the ‘forties, a report reached us in Britain to the effect that Charlie Parker had adopted the habit of sometimes playing with his back to the audience. This may or may not have been true, but it is well–known that he was a desperately sick man, through drugs and drink, with the result that at times his actions were somewhat unpredictable. If the story was true, it may well be that Parker’s genius was great enough to allow him to get away with such an attitude, but some of the British players who commenced turning their backs, and making snide references to their audiences as “the peasants,” never enjoyed such greatness.

The more experienced members of Britain’s jazz audiences accepted very seriously the new sounds and trends as demonstrated by our best and more responsible players, but younger members did not want to have to work so hard when they went out for entertainment. When Bill Haley arrived on the British scene in 1957 they went overboard for him, as they did for the various ‘Rockers,’ both American and British who followed him, and an important age group was lost to jazz in an all too short space of time.

If the first Anglo–American exchange in 1957 had proved disappointing to British jazz lovers, those that followed in the same year certainly made up for the lapse for, in April, Count Basie brought his orchestra to Britain for the first time ever, in exchange for the Vic Lewis Qrchestra, which ,by then had achieved a truly high standard of performance.

Among many of our finest players, who during the ‘fifties were at various times members of the Lewis personnel, were Art Ellefson, Bob Efford, Ronnie Chamberlain, Tubby Hayes, Ladd Busby, Les Condon, Ian Hamer, Ken Goldie, Kathy Stobart, Ken Thorne and others whose names were already, or were to become, household to the music profession.

Next to come over from the States, during the following month, was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, in which the other front–line player was the celebrated valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, whilst the piano–less rhythm section consisted of the late Joe Benjamin on bass and Dave Bailey on drums. The exchange group that went to the States consisted of Tommy Whittle (tenor, clarinet), who was also the leader, Eddie Thompson (piano), Jackie Dougan (drums) and Brian Brocklehurst (bass).

Also involved in the exchange, by sharing Mulligan’s British concerts, was the Jazz Today Unit, led by pianist Ken Moule, supported by Arthur Watts (bass), Allan Ganley (drums), Ken Sykora (guitar), Jimmy Walker (saxophones), Jimmy Skidmore and Don Rendell (tenors, clarinets), Dave Shepherd (clarinet), Eddie Harvey (trombone) and Bert Courtley (trumpet).

Jimmy Walker, incidentally, was the same musician who has for years been a member of the popular and technically excellent Polka Dots vocal group.

The Basie ensemble had long been widely known in Britain since the ‘thirties from its output of precision–packed but swinging recordings of a consistently high standard, in which had been featured many of the giants of jazz, like Lester Young, Walter Page, Dickie Wells, Jo Jones, Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton and countless others. But none of its various personnels had sounded better than the one that made its British debut, comprising Marshall Royal, Bill Graham, Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Charlie Fowlkes (reeds), Joe Newman, Thad Jones, Wendell Culley, Reunald Jones (trumpets), Henry Coker, Bill Hughes, Benny Powell (trombones), Freddy Greene (guitar), Eddie Jones (bass), Sonny Payne (drums), with the maestro, as always, directing from the piano, and last, but by no means least, the grand vocal blues of Joe Williams.

Basie’s audiences rose to every performance. In addition to the orchestra’s impeccable ensemble, to which a special contribution was made by the saxophone section which, uniquely enough, featured no clarinets, there was to be heard some really fine solo work from Messrs. Newman, Coker, Thad Jones, Foster, Fowlkes and Wess, the latter also doubling flute, whilst Eddie Jones, a giant of a man who managed to make his bass look more like a ‘cello, stopped the show in his solo spot, demonstrating a command of his instrument that stamped him as one of the greats.

Then, of course, there was the driving and almost frantic drumming of Sonny Payne, which seemed to lose nothing as the result of his persistent juggling. In the early days of the arrival of jazz in Britain I can recall being fascinated by the juggling drummers of the day, one of whom used to work with three sticks, keeping at least one in the air throughout his performance but, by the time I entered the profession a few years later, I had decided that, showmanship or not, the rhythm always suffered as the result of a juggling drummer and that this kind of diversion was not for me. I must nevertheless confess that I cannot recall the Basie section suffering as the result of Sonny’s exuberance, although I do recall an occasion during one of their later visits to Britain when he had something of an off–night and seemed to drop as many as he caught.

In addition to his musicianly leadership and grand piano work, Basie demonstrated what I have always regarded as the ideal form of showmanship. No prancing about, no toothy grins, no unnecessary arm waving, but a personality that assured the audience that everything would be going according to plan because, to musicians such as his, to play all these seemingly difficult arrangements was really a very simple matter.

Basie’s first British tour was promoted by Harold Fielding, in co–operation with Harold Davison, and Mulligan’s by the National Jazz Federation, who were also responsible for the next exchange, again with the co–operation of Davison, which brought us, in the October, the Jack Teagarden–Earl Hines All–Stars. Stars they indeed were. In addition to the joint leaders, there were Cozy Cole (drums), Max Kaminsky (trumpet), Jack Lesberg (bass)—who had come to Britain in the previous year with Louis Armstrong—and Michael “Peanuts” Hucko (clarinet), who had first come to our shores in 1943 as a member of the Glenn Miller reed section.

The Teagarden–Hines group played as everyone anticipated, despite the fact that Jack was suffering from a heavy cold, which did not help his vocals and announcements. He had been a trombone style–setter in Britain since we had first heard his records with Red Nichols in the early ‘thirties. Earl Hines had made his first impact upon us even earlier, in the tracks he had made with Armstrong’s Hot Five in the late ‘twenties, including “Sugar Foot Strut”, “Squeeze Me” and the ever–remembered “West End Blues”; and such numbers as “Basin Street Blues”, “St. James’ Infirmary” and “Muggles” with Louis’ orchestra. A couple of weeks later, the Basie ensemble was back for its second British tour, this time promoted only by Davison. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis had by then succeeded Frank Wess on tenor saxophone, Edward Eugene had taken over from Reunald Jones in the trumpets and Tom Mackintosh had replaced Bill Hughes among the trombones. The tour, of course, proved to be the second of very many visits that Basie was to make to Britain, his orchestra being one that could always be relied upon to draw the crowds, despite the developing competition of other forms of popular music—a description I hear used rather loosely.

In December the final exchange for 1957 occurred, which proved to be the first of many visits to Britain of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It was presented by the National Jazz Federation, in cooperation with Harold Davison, and its individual style of jazz chamber music won immediate popularity with British audiences. I got to know their leader, John Lewis, quite well—a most likeable personality with a deeply sincere approach to music. The quartet’s tour was shared by the Don Rendell Jazz Six, the personnel details of which I gave in an earlier chapter, and the two brass, two saxophones and two rhythm, with no piano, proved to be a tasteful contrast to the vibraphone, piano, bass and drums line–up of Messrs. Milt Jackson, Lewis, Percy Heath and Connie Kay.