Jazz Development in Britain 1924—1974

8. American Visitors


  The History of British Jazz

The first two years of the Anglo/American exchanges (1956/7) had caused no loss of employment for British musicians due to the well–controlled and efficient manner in which they were organised. In most cases, in addition to the American engagements enjoyed (if I may use the expression) by our own musicians, other British musicians were also engaged to perform in the same concerts as the American visitors.

American bookers made no secret of the fact that they did not want to engage British bands for the States, and I can well remember an animated discussion I had with the late Joe Glaser. then Louis Armstrong’s booking manager, who made himself quite clear on the point. What was perhaps more unfortunate, for I was used to dealing with such vociferous folk, was that he made clear to our musicians, when they arrived in the States, that he did not really want them—which was hardly calculated to improve their morale.

Tommy Whittle, I know, was one of the first victims of this sort of thing but, of course, for those days the money was good! It so happens that Freddy Randall, during his US tour during the previous year, had fared much better, for his band had been the only jazz ingredient of what was really a rock and roll package headed by Bill Haley’s Comets. This meant that there was a large, ready–made audience at every performance, which responded warmly to the good healthy jazz and collective musicianship of Freddy, Betty Smith, Eddie Thompson, and the other British visitors.

Glaser had, at the commencement of the tour, made clear to Freddy that he and his band were not really wanted but, well before the end of the tour, and on the initiative of Bill Haley, who certainly knew what jazz was all about, Freddy was offered a long–term contract to stay on in the States which, for various reasons, he could not take up.

During those first two years, too, there were still a number of purely British jazz concerts organised, and numerous regular small jazz club dates, and in consequence the exchange arrangements were considered to be operating satisfactorily, except, perhaps; by some of those who did not become involved in them.

The concluding two years of the ‘fifties saw many more exchanges between Britain and the States, with a fair sprinkling of others between Britain and various European countries, but at this point we are concerned mainly with those involving the Americans. In January 1958 came the first of the Glenn Miller “follow up” orchestras to hit Britain, led by Miller’s wartime drummer, Ray McKinley. It was my pleasure to meet “Sergeant Ray”, his A.E.F. broadcast description, and to enjoy a couple of the orchestra’s concerts which, it must be admitted, were no better than those of many other “Miller” orchestras we have since heard—both American and British.

Next, in the following month, came the Dave Brubeck Quartet, presented bv the National Jazz Federation. for the first of their many visits to Britain, and consisting then of the pianist leader plus Paul Desmond, one of the truly great alto saxophone players, the incredibly ambidextrous drummer, Joe Morello, whose solo work was always in the best of good taste, and that most solid and musicianly of bassists, Gene Wright. On that tour their concerts were shared by the Ronnie Scott/Tubby Hayes Jazz Couriers, about whom I have already written at some length, whose driving style made a well–chosen contrast to that of the Americans. Brubeck, incidentally, was very much a family man and a charming person to meet.

May 2, 1958, marked not only my birthday but the first performance in Britain of Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic package, which starred Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, but also included Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie. Peterson’s trio was then completed by Ray Brown and Herb Ellis, and the remaining rhythm men of the package were drummer Gus Johnson, pianist Lou Levy and bassist Max Bennett. I counted it a most enjoyable birthday present to be invited to meet Ella and Oscar at a Dorchester Hotel reception on the opening day, although I had met the latter, a native of Toronto, a few days earlier, when it had been my pleasure to enroll this charming giant of the piano into the Central London branch of the Musicians’ Union.

Apart from the British band that went to the States in exchange for J.A.T.P., which I seem to recall was either that of Vic Lewis or Johnnv Gray. a British group also took part in the J.A.T.P. concerts, consisting of the Dill Jones Trio augmented by clarinetist Dave Shepherd.

Mention of Johnny Gray reminds me that he, too, with his Band Of The Day, met with much success in the States, working mainly in hotels situated in the Catskill Mountains of New York State.

The Gray policy was based upon entertainment spiced with some stylish solo work from all concerned, and I recall that on the band’s first trip to the States there was a young vocalist whose surname I have forgotten, although I recall that his first name was Terry.

But these names are probably of no importance, as he was soon to become well–known as Matt Monro! Gray became so involved in comedy presentation, his boisterous personality and enormous moustache being an important part of his stock–in–trade, that he eventually went solo in cabaret and clubs: so there must be many younger musicians around today who do not remember him as a member of the early and formidable Ted Heath reed section in those years, when at various times it also included such players as Les Gilbert, Reg Owen, Ronnie Scott, Dave Shand and Tommy Whittle.

Apart from the Brubeck engagement the American presentations in 1958 had been the responsibility of Harold Davison’s office—as was “Jazz From Carnegie Hall” in the Autumn of that year. On this one, however, my memory is not clear, although I attended the show at the New Victoria Cinema, but I recall the participation of that famous trombone duo, J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding, and, I think, both Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. But the most important jazz ensemble to reach us from the States that year was undoubtedly the Duke Ellington Orchestra, a joint presentation of Davison and Norman Granz.

Ellington’s return to Britain after a period of twenty–five years, apart from an ill–fated visit in the ‘forties,, when he had been persuaded to come without his orchestra, was indeed an historic musical event, and if, to me, the orchestra did not seem so breath–taking as it had when I had first seen it at work at the Margate Winter Gardens in 1933, it was probably because in that early year there had been no other really great orchestra in competition, whereas, by the time a decade had past, there were a number in the field. The Ellington ensemble was, nevertheless, still the greatest and although, by 1958, there were many who had switched their loyalty to the Basie Orchestra, the Count was always the first to dispute any suggestion that his was the superior one. Anybody who met him will know that this was in no sense false modesty, but in genuine respect for a great musician who had for several decades modelled a magnificent ensemble around a book, ninety per cent of the contents of which consisted of his own compositions.

For me it was good to meet again Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney after a lapse of twenty–five years, both of whom had played the Margate concert, but sad to miss so many of the old originals, too many of whom had died.

During the first two years of the Anglo/American exchanges, a number of the more successful British orchestras, such as those of Ted Heath, John Dankworth, The Squadronaires (by then directed by Ronnie Aldrich), Vic Lewis, Oscar Rabin and Bob Miller, continued to play public concerts and dances without too much ill effect from the competition offered by the American visitors. The smaller jazz groupings continued their one–night–stand club dates as well as occasional concerts.

Two concerts at which it was my pleasure to be present occurred in 1958 and I think deserve special mention. Both featured the Ted Heath Orchestra, which also accompanied the charming June Christy, who had reached the height of success with the Stan Kenton Orchestra with which she had previously toured Europe, though not Britain. She had, in fact, been renamed by Kenton for, until she had succeeded Anita O’Day as his orchestra’s vocalist, she had been Shirley Luster. A delightful and most stylish singer, June had met Ted Heath when she had toured with him during his first American tour in a package show that also included the Four Freshmen and the incomparable Nat “King” Cole.

Sad to relate, the London concert, on a Sunday afternoon at the Royal Festival Hall, was not too well attended but the audience responded enthusiastically, not only to the songs of Miss Christy but also to the work of the orchestra, which included a trio led by pianist Stan Tracey. playing vibraphone. and completed by bassist Johnny Hawksworth and drummer Ronnie Verrell.

Tracey, of course, was to make a most important contribution to the British jazz scene both as an instrumentalist and as a composer, and other soloists featured were, I recall, Ronnie Chamberlain, Henry Mackenzie, Don Lusher, Keith Christie, Eddie Blair, Red Price, Ronnie Verrell and the late Bobby Pratt.

My earliest recollection of Ronnie Verrell was when, as an already brilliant young drummer, around the late ‘forties, he was employed at the Pavilion Ballroom, Gillingham, Kent, with the band of Claud Giddins. Came the day when, in my capacity as an MU official, I received a telephone call from an agitated Ted Heath, who wanted me to help him obtain the release of Ronnie from his contract with Claud in order that, with the departure of Jack Parnell to lead his own band, Ted would be assured of the replacement of his choice.

I, of course, had to tell him that I could not help with his problem as Ronnie’s release from his contract could be achieved only with the consent of Claud. Just how an amicable agreement was reached I never heard, but it was fairly soon afterwards, in 1950 or 1951, that Ronnie joined the Heath ensemble.

The other of the two 1958 concerts was presented by Lew and Leslie Grade, by arrangement with Harold Davison, and starred Sarah Vaughan at the Leicester Square Odeon. She, in fact, made her British debut around three weeks earlier than did Ella Fitzgerald.

I think it would be true to say that genuine appreciation in Britain for the artistry of the great Sarah had until then come mainly from among musicians and others who had been listening to her records ever since 1947, when thev had first heard her 1945 rendition of “Loverman”, backed by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others to which I referred some chapters ago; but her two performances at the Leicester Square venue marked the commencement of a fifteen–day tour of Britain that won for her many thousands of admirers; who, until then, had probably heard little of her work.

The Heath orchestra contributed half the bill as well as accompanying Sarah, under the direction of George Treadwell, her music director, but two smaller bands travelled with her on tour. These were the Ronnie Scott/Tubby Hayes Jazz Couriers, about which I have already written in some detail, and the Quintet led by drummer Tony Kinsey at that time, which was completed by Bill LeSage (piano and visbraphone), Les Condon (trumpet), Bob. Efford (tenor saxophone) and Dave Willis (bass). By this time, incidentally, the Heath orchestra had already made three tours of the States and were described in publicity blurbs as “Britain’s Ambassadors of Swing”. The orchestra certainly made an enormous impression upon its American audiences, who were quick to realise that everything to date, so far as jazz or swing music was involved, had not been happening only on their side of the Atlantic.

All this added up to a healthy stimulation of interest in jazz as interpreted by large and small bands as well as soloists but, during the two months following Sarah Vaughan’s British tour, there was another and extensive tour by what was described as a “Festival of Rock”, also presented by the Grade brothers. This covered thirty–seven dates at theatres and cinemas throughout the United Kingdom, many of which are no longer in existence. The tour, which starred  Jerry Lee Lewis and The Treniers, featuring such vocalistic horrors as “Great Balls Of Fire”, like the earlier tour of Bill Haley’s Comets about which I have already written, did much to lure the younger audiences away from jazz but, as we know, far worse things were to come!

For me, the most important musical event in 1958 was the return to Britain of the great Negro bass Paul Robeson. An American, his passport had been withdrawn and withheld for some eight years because of his defiance of the notorious Un–American Activities Committee. The passport was restored after a long and bitter battle by his friends and admirers throughout the world, and many of the great musicians of jazz, to their lasting credit, had given Paul both moral and practical help during the years of persecution.

Although not a jazz musician, Paul’s interest in this music form was considerable and, in my association with him, I learned that he had made a close study of the work of Ellington, Basie, Parker, Hawkins, Armstrong, Gillespie and Waller. It was also as the result of Paul’s introduction that I became a close friend of Edmond Hall during the latter years of his life. A man of considerable modesty and dignity, Ed was born in Louisiana in 1901, of a musical family. He first played guitar but, during the first World War, when his family moved to New Orleans, he studied both clarinet and saxophone. After working in New Orleans and Florida he moved to New York in 1927 with a band led by Alonzo Ross. In the years that followed he worked with the bands of Claude Hopkins. Lucky Millinder, Billy Hicks, Zutty Singleton, Joe Sullivan, Red Allen and Teddy Wilson before leading several groups of his own.

For the first half of the ‘fifties he was with Eddie Condon’s ‘band and then, when he joined Armstrong’s All–Stars, his brother Herb replaced him with Condon. One of the great clarinettists of jazz, Ed, like Barney Bigard, stayed with the Albert system throughout his life, preferring its bigger tone and, despite his unassuming manner, he could play with a fierce attack without losing for one moment his fine tone which, together with a fluent technique, enabled him to add many compositions to the jazz repertoire. After leaving Armstrong, he played a number of British tours, usually as a soloist.