JJ 04/59: Metamorphosis – Humphrey Lyttelton talks to Sinclair Traill

First published Jazz Journal, April 1959


“When you ask me if my band has decreased in popularity, I must answer yes, our popularity has to some extent decreased. But it was to be expected – it was in fact almost courted. We realised when we decided to change our style that if we weren’t going to be nagged by certain followers of the old band who were not prepared to come along with us, we would have to make the change of direction, so to speak, very, very clear. And so I did wittingly and knowingly throw off some of the followers of the old band.

“I think the thing at the present time is that we are lucky in a way, for we had built up a considerable following for the previous band, and we still have a comfortable following now. If we were starting afresh with this new band, it would be very difficult indeed, but a number of people have stayed with us. In fact a number of other bands have tried to start from scratch using a broad sort of policy, a sort of what you’d call a mainstream policy, but none of them have ever got a foothold at all – they just didn’t get going.

‘…a performance which you know is bad and the critical reception to which is bad is yet accepted as good by the public’

“The thing is that there has been so much propaganda, and I don’t use that word in an aggressive sense, for the two extremes, traditional and modern, over the past ten years that it takes time to break it down – in other words, a band changing its style is apt for a while to fall between two stools. There isn’t a ready made public for mainstream music as such. To a large extent the barriers have broken down over the past three or four years, and no doubt the process will continue, but I don’t think the jazz public is quite ready yet for a complete change.

“Let’s put it this way: I believe that we (the band) have now as large a following as we originally had – and also we now have an even larger following, and certainly more support, from the critics, who now show more enthusiasm for our work.

“It’s a most ironic fact, however, that the most popular LP the band ever made, at a concert at the Festival Hall, is in retrospect a record that I simply cannot play. I can play a lot of my old records with a certain amount of satisfaction and pride, going right back to 1949, but not that one! It was the worst band and the worst stage I ever had with a band, but that record keeps chugging along, selling in thousands every quarter. Mind you, its got “The Saints” and “Les Oignons” on it, and “High Society”, but. . . .

“However, that is one of the things one has to learn to accept – a performance which you know is bad and the critical reception to which is bad is yet accepted as good by the public. This particular record I believe you reviewed yourself and gave it a good old hammering — and quite rightly too. It was hammered all round by the critics, and we were very unhappy about the record. It was made just before the band was overhauled completely and we were all very disatisfied with it, and yet it is one of our best sellers.

“To get back to jazz appreciation, you are right in saying that Basie has broken down the feeling here against progress, to a certain extent. Of course for such bands as Basie’s and Ellington’s you get a concentrated following. They are only in the country for a comparatively short period and so you get a following for mainstream jazz from these American visits which gives a false impression; for it is only a concentrated interest; a passing fancy, so to speak.

“I don’t know if mainstream jazz or modern jazz will ever have the following of traditional jazz in volume and general popularity, because our old following consisted of an enormous number of people who probably didn’t even know the names of any other jazz bands or musicians – and who were certainly totally ignorant of any American bands whatsoever. Traditional jazz does have that huge popular appeal.

‘I notice it every time I talk to that girl behind the tea bar at the ballroom at Bognor Regis. Ten to one she’ll say “. . . that’s too deep for me, that stuff you’re playing. I like some jazz, but your music is too complicated”‘

“I notice it every time I talk to that girl behind the tea bar at the ballroom at Bognor Regis or some such place. You go for cup of tea at the end of a session and ten to one she’ll say ” . . . that’s too deep for me, that stuff you’re playing. I like some jazz, but your music is too complicated.” I wouldn’t use that as an argument against traditional jazz, but it is a fact that it does seem to tickle the fancy of those who may have heard of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, but no one else. We had a free choice of what type of jazz we were going to play, and I have no grumbles. We go along very comfortably, and now have a large following of people whose opinions we value.

“Shall we in time get irked by the limitations of mainstream music? Well, to that question I would answer that mainstream is never so limited as traditional music. Its not really the instrumentation, for even when we were a trad-band we always junketed around with different instrumentations and so forth and so on. But really the style is too prescribed now – traditional jazz is so set, has become so established that you can’t alter the pattern.

“The thing that bothers me about it all is that whereas Louis and Bechet and to some extent Jimmy Noone and perhaps to a larger extent Jelly Roll Morton did actually break away from that set style, our traditionalists now have got back to that old groove. Thirty years ago the people I mentioned had that huge talent which burst out and imposed new patterns and a fresh approach on what had gone before.

“Louis of course does, in a way, play in the same old style, but back in the days of the Hot Five he did alter the pattern. As far as one knows of the music that went before, it did pretty well strain the limits of the old New Orleans collective improvisation, and what he did emerged from that. But what we have now is the revival established with all the old conventions, and it is going to take another Armstrong or a Bechet to emerge from it again. The possibility of history throwing up another set of giants out of that particular type of jazz is very unlikely – the old lightning doesn’t strike twice!

“To return to that question of limitations once again – exchanging one set of limitations for another. Unless you have a thing about the 1930s, and I haven’t, and if you were doing it as another sort of revival and played say nothing else but “Christopher Columbus” or old Basie tunes, well then there would be a danger of limitations. But in fact that doesn’t happen with my band because we have such an assortment of personalities; of people who came up from all sorts of differing schools.

“I don’t impose any sort of limitations upon them; they play the way they want. I’ll just sit back for a couple of months and listen to them – might not even like what I hear much, to begin with. And they on their part listen to the way we play, or I play; and so I don’t lay down any laws as to how they should play. There is never any question of saying ‘Don’t play like that, it’s too modern’.

‘Stan [Greig] was one of the best drummers in the country but he had that dictatorial style that emphasises the beat – like Zutty Singleton’

My own style of playing has changed, I know. You say I play like Buck Clayton – if I do then it’s not a conscious thing. All trumpet players in the early stages of development get a kick from seeing how near they can get to the Louis sound – it’s a natural thing to do. It is a conscious thing, but if I play like anyone now I am not aware of it.

“My own style of playing changed when Eddie Taylor joined the band on drums – I felt it happening. Eddie came up through the modern school of drumming, and he plays with a far less dictatorial style than any of the traditional drummers I have played with. There is, for instance, a marked difference between his playing and that of his forerunner, Stan Greig. Stan was one of the best drummers in the country but he had that dictatorial style that emphasises the beat – like Zutty Singleton – and that actual way of stressing the beat is in striking contrast to Eddie’s drumming, which is much more fluid – with more implication than emphasis.

“Eddie, along with Ian and Brian, strongly affected my playing. There was this definite change away from the emphasised four beats to the bar, which was a hangover from my old trad days. I was getting to a stage when I found myself playing very much on the beat – it is an easy thing to get into.

“Of course it takes time for a band to settle down – in two or three years I think, and hope, we shall establish an absolutely cohesive style. It’s coming now, but it does mean that you have to listen carefully to the players you have with you. I couldn’t make head or tail of Joe Temperley when he first joined us, and I am sure he didn’t understand what I was doing. But now we both pick up ideas from each other – ideas that work their way into my playing and vice versa. You must find out how to use to the fullest extent the musicians you have with you.

“It’s really a sort of Chinese frame of mind. We don’t expect to produce a finished product straight away – it is just a matter of going quietly along. And then suddenly you may reach a peak and then just as quickly it all begins to fall apart. But that is music, that is the way it works”.