Thursday, August 10, 2017

Potted History of Moldy Figs : Trad Jazz

Traditional jazz encompasses the music of New Orleans and includes Ragtime, Dixieland, Stride Piano, Boogie Woogie and Swing. The original musical genre developed between 1899 to 1945 but there was a revival of New Orleans Jazz and Dixieland in the late '40s outside the US. The Trad Jazz Boom took place in post war UK and parts of Europe. Part of the revival was for the love of the music but also many traditionalists (moldy figs) were uncomfortable with Bebop Jazz. Whilst virtuoso musicians, led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were searching new sounds through improvisation there was a ground swell to rediscover the roots of original jazz music. To the critics bebop jazz had become too technical and demanded virtuoso players and the full attention of the listener. The moldy figs like George Webb (piano) were determined to play dance music again and in 1941 he formed George Webb’s Dixielanders. The group all worked in an armaments factory in Kent, UK and were all traditional jazz enthusiasts who had taught themselves to play by listening to rare 78 recordings.

As more people heard them their music caught on. They had pressed vinyl before trumpeter Humphrey ‘Humph‘ Lyttelton joined them but he had worked with Sidney Bechet (soprano saxophone) in the studio in 1949, and recorded many sessions for Parlophone Records so Humph took over the band and The Humphrey Lyttelton Band landed a top twenty hit in the UK with Bad Penny Blues (produced by Joe Meek).

Humph had taught himself to play trumpet whilst at Eton. He came from an upper class background and loved the jazz of Louis Armstrong and Nat Gonella, He formed his first band at school in 1936 with Ludovic Kennedy (TV journalist married to Norma Shearer) on drums. The Humphrey Lyttelton Band was Humphrey Lyttelton (trumpet, leader); Johnny Parker (piano); Jim Bray (bass); Stan Greig (drums). Unfortunately the trombone and clarinet players did not turn up for the recording. As a piece of trivia the piano work by Johnny Parker inspired Paul McCartney who used something similar in Lady Madonna.

Humphrey Lyttelton rode the popularity of Trad Jazz before slipping into main stream jazz where he remained musically. The Humphrey Lyttelton band became a nursery for several prominent jazz musicians, including saxophonists, Tony Coe (Count Basie, & Johnny Dankworth) and Alan Barnes (Brian Ferry Band). Prior to Humphries death in 2008 The Humphrey Lyttelton band continued to have a busy schedule, performing (frequently sell-out) shows across the UK. Performances have in the past included guest singers, such as Helen Shapiro and Elkie Brooks, or collaboration with other bands.

Another stalwart Moldy Fig was Ken Colyer (1928 – 1988) who taught himself to play trumpet and guitar. He was founding member of the Crane River Jazz Band which was a New Orleans-styled band. Musically he was a bit like Eric Clapton, restless to improve his art and soon left the band in 1951 to become a merchant marine with a mission, he was bound for New Orleans and the source of the music he loved. When he came back to Blighty in 1953, he was full of music and joined up with Monty Sunshine, Ron Bowden, Lonnie Donegan, Jim Bray and Chris Barber to form the Ken Colyer's Jazzmen.

He played trumpet for jazz and guitar for skiffle and when Chris Barber left the band in 1954 to start his own, Ken and Chris’s bands became rival acts. The Ken Colyer Band underwent many personnel changes and included at one time a clarinetist called Acker Bilk, who then went on to solo success.

Other notable band members were Ian Wheeler (now clarinetist with Chris Barber), and Mac Duncan (trombone). Although Ken Colyer was a cult figure in Trad Jazz he failed to achieve much commercial success.

Chris Barber’s Band played Dixieland Jazz, Ragtime, Swing, Blues and R&B and toured the States many times. Chris was also personally involved in bringing many US acts such as Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters back to the UK. Some of the Trad Jazz performers like Acker Bilk dressed accordingly in the garb of the New Orleans greats with bowler hat and colourful waistcoats but perhaps the best dressed tag should go to the Temperance Seven.

They were formed whilst still at the Royal College of Art and the band had nine members (one over the eight). Their love of traditional 1920s jazz and music hall comedy meant they dressed in costume of the period and the singer used a megaphone. The Seven were led by a chain of flamboyant singers including Paul McDowell (worked as a straight man with Spike Milligan and Dave Allen), Alexander Hitchcock Galloway, and Allan Moody Mitchell. The Temperance Seven enjoyed chart success with ‘You’re driving me crazy’ and ‘Pasadena’ (1961); both records were produced by Sir George Martin.

The most enduring of the Traddies was a trumpeter called Kenny Ball (1930 – 2013). Much of his success was his ability to choose the right material to record. Whilst he never abandoned Trad Jazz entirely he seemed to keep abreast of musical tastes better than his contemporaries. Kenny started when he was 15 and gained experience playing in the bands of Charlie Galbraith, Eric Delaney, and Sid Phillips. In 1958, he formed his own group and quickly became a leader in Britain's trad jazz movement. "I Love You Samantha" was his first hit, and after "Midnight in Moscow" and "So Do I," Kenny Ball was set.

No review of Trad Jazz would be complete however without a mention of the two Georges. George Melly and George Chisholm.

George Melly (1926 – 2007) had a childhood sweetheart in the form of Bessie Smith and he did his best to emulate her singing style as front man for John Chilton’s Feetwarmers. The group toured theatres, colleges and pubs all over Britain, and their Christmas performances at Ronnie Scott’s in London, became a legend. George Melly dressed on an off stage in the clothing of an American gangster.

George Chisholm (1915 – 1997) is probably best known as the comic trombone player in the Black and White Minstrel Show but was a very serious jazz musician who recorded with Fats Waller and was a member of The Squadronaires, during the War.

Popularity of Trad Jazz faded by the end of the 50s as Skiffle, Rock ’n roll and then the Mersey Sound and groups took over . Trad Jazz is kept alive and well bringing joy and delight to millions of fans with many of the original moldy figs still around. Younger musician like Wynton Marsalis continue to play Trad Jazz.

Worth a listen

Humphrey Littleton Band
Bad Penny Blues (1956)
Backroon Joys (with Lazy Ades Late Night Boys)

Helen Shapiro
Fever (1964)

Johnny Dankworth Seven (with Cleo Lane)
Honeysuckle Rose

Sydney Bechet
Marche Du Colonel Bogey

Acker Bilk
Strange on the shore (1962)

Temperance Seven
The Shake (1961)

Sid Phillips and his Band
Pete Kelly’s Blues

Crane River Jazz Band
Lily of the valley (Polka)

Chris Barber’s Jazz Band
Shout ’en Aunt Tilly

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee
Down by the river side

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