Bangers and clankers /1

    Part one of a two-part survey of the revivalist jazz of the 1950s, not shrinking from discussion of the horror of the banjo and other malign influences

    George Webb (left) and Beryl Bryden at the 100 Club, London, probably early 1980s. Photo by Peter Symes

    Apart from Beryl Bryden, the banjo is the most unmusical thing in jazz.

    The Merseysippi Jazz Band was playing at the Sacramento Jazz Festival when Ms Bryden, who was possessed of a determined eye for the main chance rather than of a mellifluous voice, arrived at their bandstand. The regular vocalist, Jan Sutherland, generously suggested that Beryl should sing a number with the band. Not needing to be asked once, Beryl took over the stage and remained there for the rest of the evening, shutting Jan out from any singing and from her chance to impress an eminent and influential audience with her voice.

    Sinclair Traill’s successor as editor was the very likeable Eddie Cook: ‘My all-time favourite band is Bob Crosby’s Bobcats because they’re always so smartly dressed’

    In the 40s, before “Trad” began, the Melody Maker established a numbered list of British Rhythm Clubs (we’d have called them jazz clubs). The Bexley Heath And District Rhythm Club was number 130. It operated happily on a diet of “swing” trumpet, saxophone, piano, guitar, bass and drums. But it was infiltrated by a pianist called George Webb and his group of friends, all of whom had ideas about recreating the music of the King Oliver band. It was here that George Webb’s Dixielanders were formed. Far from being Dixieland, this music became the root and legend of “Traditional Jazz” and standardised the replacement of the guitar by the banjo and, whenever possible, the string bass by the tuba. The music was proletarian, except in the playing of Wally Fawkes, the band’s clarinettist and a musician whose soaring eloquence already stood out from its heavy-handed surroundings. Trad arrived with a large bump.

    Let’s consider the opinions of two former editors of this magazine.

    Our founder, the much-lamented Sinclair Traill, rumbled Trad pretty quickly, noting “…incompetent musicianship, a thumping rhythm which can’t even hold the beat, and some of the most awful vocals imaginable”.

    Sinclair Traill’s successor as editor was the very likeable Eddie Cook. “My all-time favourite band is Bob Crosby’s Bobcats because they’re always so smartly dressed”, he told me.

    There is much to like and appreciate in the music of the revival, with, in my case, the love and admiration of the music of Humphrey Lyttelton, Wally Fawkes and the Alex Welsh band as its apex. At the other extreme, perhaps typified by the group led by banjoist Eric Silk, the bands were mechanical, ponderous and uninspired, designed to take advantage of energetic audiences who found Trad ideal for their dancing. The fine trombonist and arranger Pete Strange was a multi-hued goldfish trapped in Eric Silk’s bowl, and is typical of the many embryo great musicians who were to emerge belatedly from their prisons.

    In between the two extremes was the undoubtedly sincere, emotional but articulately limited music of such primitives as the Crane River Jazz Band and the fractious Ken Colyer.

    Revival? What on earth was the deadly hand of the British rhythm section reviving? The stultifying sound of the banjo had gone clanking downhill since its glory days with the Washboard Rhythm Kings and so had the string bass since the propelling time of Pops Foster. British Trad drummers weren’t reviving anything. They were merely thumping a well-dead corpse.

    How could revival jazz claim family ties to Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden? How could it hope to claim the values of the genius of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie?

    It couldn’t.

    Bunk Johnson was dragged to the recording studios in the early 40s when it was discovered that, because he couldn’t afford false teeth, he wasn’t able to play. The absence of teeth was ascribed by his new benefactors to racial prejudice

    The roots of the music first leant upon and then engulfed the romanticism with which the devotees of New Orleans music had forged their philosophy. One of the essential roots was a mawkish sympathy for the perceived treading down and exploitation of the black American by his white cousins. This was epitomised by the case of the American trumpeter Bunk Johnson, first found in New Orleans by enthusiasts in 1937. He was dragged to the recording studios in the early 40s when it was discovered that, because he couldn’t afford false teeth, he wasn’t able to play. The absence of teeth was ascribed by his new benefactors to racial prejudice, a vital stimulant in their armoury for battle. Bunk, who was at least as interested in the flock of ladies who came into view as a result of his new eminence as he was in the music, spent on booze the money that the benefactors eagerly collected for him so that he could buy teeth. He solved the tooth problem, at least to his own satisfaction, by tying a string across the gap between his two canines, and allowing the string to support his mouthpiece under his lip when he played.

    Nevertheless, this gifted freeloader of limited dexterity but lots of tradition came to be the first and guiding beacon of Trad jazz. He drew in a huge crowd of young white disciples, but, interestingly, not one young black musician. Bunk Johnson and George Lewis recorded with their band in New Orleans in 1942, and the resulting records not only drove the tide of white youngsters, but facilitated the move of classic New Orleans musicians from menial non-musical jobs to the resurrection of their jazz careers. Mutt Carey had been a railway porter, Kid Ory had run a chicken farm, and Albert Nicholas had been a guard on the New York subway.

    In San Francisco the epitome of the white revival bands came together under trumpeter Lu Watters, and the Watters lot, with a personnel that emulated that of the famous King Oliver band, became an object of worship for its growing army of followers. The fact that they routinely used two banjos at once would surely have seen even Dracula off.

    At its standard level, revival music had to be regarded as an aberrant and ersatz music with its own limited set of values. It was Third Division North to the Premiership, and it was only comparatively late in its existence that Humph and Wally came within shouting distance of Armstrong and Bechet, and Alex and Archie to the Condon mob.

    Yet such a generalisation throws into relief the difference between, say, Cy Laurie and Acker Bilk, two of the revival’s most interesting clarinet players, both of whom had huge followings.

    Cy Laurie, a nice and gentle person, must be regarded as a nutter. He genuinely believed that he was the reincarnation of Johnny Dodds

    Cy, a nice and gentle person, must be regarded as a nutter. He genuinely believed that he was the reincarnation of Johnny Dodds, and devoted his playing entirely to the little compartment erected by this belief. Acker, who was certainly gifted when it came to the emotional content of his jazz, and whose music improved later as his technical abilities did, had the right carefree attitude and produced soaring, swinging and happy music. Oddly, the huge following for his traditional style brought on his metamorphosis as a mainstream player, where he established an admirable rapport with the by now emancipated Lyttelton. And the chrysalis became a butterfly, gaining Acker new fans and not losing any of the old ones.

    Somewhere in the early 50s, between the Lyttelton band and the Chris Barber band arose Mick Mulligan And His Magnolia Jazz Band. Their romantic name helped to deaden their audience’s awareness of their low levels of musical ability. Mick was a modest and magically attractive man who regarded himself as a lousy trumpeter (“all the noise and vulgarity of Freddie Randall and none of the technique” is how he summed up his playing – why did musicians like Mick and Humph have such a low opinion of Randall, whose technique was better than theirs and who played relentlessly exciting stuff?). Mick had worked in the family grocery business, and his relatives were relieved to be able to give him money to enable him to transfer his energies from the business to music. He refused to let that music get in the way of his ultimate occupation, boozing. His partner George Melly was more gifted in drama and humour than at singing, but enjoyed a massive career as a singer/entertainer and his brilliant wit and fine style as a writer confirmed his career as an author and broadcaster, whilst his repertoire of filthy songs and gestures ensured him an immediate and devoted audience.

    I was still a schoolboy when I regularly saw all these bands at Liverpool’s Picton Hall. Because Mulligan’s what-the-hell philosophy was the most honest, his concerts were dynamic, with George’s prima-donna opulence providing the melodrama. The result was that, with no visible effort on his part. Mick ran both Humph’s and Chris’s bands close in popularity.

    The first Barber band that we saw was, given the time, outstanding in its inventiveness and daring. The fine trumpet/cornet pairing of Dickie Hawdon and Ben Cohen might originally have been intended to regenerate King Oliver’s sound, but it was used imaginatively by Chris to investigate the realms of Ellington, Luis Russell, Condon’s Chicagoans and others, and gave this band a wider and more musically based appeal than most. It’s foundation reflected the fact that Chris was a classically trained trombonist, and gave him the huge but rare advantage of playing in tune.

    That band is long forgotten now by all except those who heard it live. But it’s caught on one of the 73 tracks of the three-CD set British Traditional Jazz – A Potted History 1936-1963 (Lake LACD300). Most of the bands mentioned here are to be heard on this monumental 73-track collection, chosen with good taste by Paul Adams. The Barber track, Camp Meeting Blues (whence Duke Ellington derived Creole Love Call), has good trombone and declamatory work from the trumpet and cornet, but already the dead hand of the British rhythm section. There’s a surprise with the very next track, Get Out Of Here, by the Crane River Jazz Band, for the rhythm is springy and spritely, possibly because of the guiding hand of pianist Pat Hawes. The band used the trumpet/cornet partnership, the horns this time wielded by Ken Colyer and Sonny Morris. There’s an introduction here to Monty Sunshine, the clarinettist who shared with the cup-muted Colyer a predilection for too much vibrato – a quavering style which made them both sound very old. Not on this CD, but recorded by the Crane River Jazz Band at the ubiquitous Festival Hall multi-band concert, is the relaxed blues I’m Travellin’, a satisfying example of Colyer-primitive at its most effective. Four tracks later on the Potted History album is Carolina Moon with Colyer’s relaunched band that included Sunshine and Barber, both Colyer disciples until, in a fit of temper when he felt that they veered from the New Orleans shibboleth as determined by Colyer, Ken fired them and the rest of the band. Having thrown everything into a journey to that holy city, Colyer was eventually thrown into gaol there. It was generally believed, particularly by Ken, that his saint-like ordeal had made him a jazz immortal. He had indeed become He Who Must Be Obeyed.

    The band turned the tables and fired him, keeping the group together as it went on to become the Chris Barber Band of long-lived fame and great prosperity. It retained its clank.

    See part two of Bangers and Clankers