JJ 02/62: William ‘Diz’ Disley – In My Opinion

Sixty years ago the plain-speaking guitarist and artist bemoaned the ignorance and bad music that attended the trad boom of the early 60s. First published in Jazz Journal February 1962

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This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. William ‘Diz’ Disley has for some time now been recognised as one of the real characters attached to the British jazz scene. A man of intense opinions, and the proud possessor of a store of rich profanity ripe enough to bring a blush to the cheek of an Elizabethan sea-dog and with which to back his beliefs, Diz would never refer to a spade without a qualifying adjective. His opinions however are graced by a deep sincerity, for he believes in jazz and will do anything in his power to further its interests in the way he thinks right and proper. In addition to his undoubted prowess on guitar (and banjo when necessary), Disley is an extremely talented artist with a pretty turn of wit. His drawings have adorned these pages from time to time. You may now read on—this tape has been edited. – Sinclair Traill

“Rack ‘Em Back Jack”. Memphis Slim (Just Blues). Prestige BVLP 1018
Well, I like the way men like Memphis Slim go on. He has a great big voice and is not afraid to use it – he just belts it out at you. The guitar I thought was poor; it was like the guitar that Muddy Waters played when he was over here. Loud, vulgar and over-amplified, with the odd string out of tune – a thing funnily enough this type of player doesn’t seem to worry about. Pity, for to my ear it spoils the whole record. It was a good tune incidentally, with catchy words. Basic, you know, basic blues. But that’s what Memphis Slim is, a basic blues man.

“I’m Gonna Move”. Ray Charles (Genius + Soul =Jazz). HMV CSD 1384
Well, I prefer Charles when he does those things with a mighty string backing – those lovely Ralph Burns arrangements. I think he sings better with a big accompaniment than to a jazz backing. And his voice doesn’t really suit a number like that – Memphis could sing it much better! But you listen to Charles doing things like Am I Blue with strings, and it’s a gas. But I thought that whole track was a bit of a hodge­podge. He just flogged that organ for no reason at all, and the arrangement was a mess. You see I don’t think Charles has it in him to be a basic blues singer. On the smooth stuff he is wonderful, but a blues song such as this doesn’t suit him – he can’t cope with it. I think much of this soul business is put on with him, and that’s one thing you can’t manufacture to order. I do realise that Charles is a great artist, but I don’t think he should sing blues – basic blues that is. Incident­ally I didn’t miss that trumpet behind him – marvellous! Phillip Guilbeau, never heard of him, but what a lovely player.

‘No one seems to bother about trying to produce a beautiful tone here these days . . . Anything gets by, in these terrible trad days’

“Pagan Love Song”. Joe Capraro’s Dixieland Band (New Orleans by Night). Storyville SLP III
A good roarer that, in the white New Orleans tradition. Raymond Burke’s clarinet was just lovely – smooth, soft, yet full of swing. They all play that way down there, nobbled the style from the Creoles. I love that fluid, liquid playing. It’s a beautiful style, and Burke must be one of the best men playing that way today. There are a few musicians here who have tried to copy the style; but not many. Pity. Com­pare the style with the third-rate George Lewis impersona­tions one hears – that nasty, gritty Terry Lightfoot type of playing – and this is absolutely wonderful. But no one seems to bother about trying to produce a beautiful tone here these days. Alan Cooper and Ian Christie can play like that, but not many of them take the trouble. Anything gets by, in these terrible trad days.

“Nature Boy”. Bob Wallis (Traveliin’ Blues). Pye NJL 30
Well, they don’t do much with that tune do they? The usual vastly over-recorded banjo – terrible! Actually, Hugh Rainey is one of our better banjo players. He at least knows some chords, which is a lot more than most of the others. It is a pity that Bob Wallis can’t, or doesn’t, improvise at all. He merely plays the tune in a flat kind of way and leaves it at that. Also a pity the pianist isn’t featured, as Pete Gresham is one of the best piano players we have around. It was a nice little introduction to the tune, led one to expect more – more use of imagination – but it fails to come up to expectations. Of course it is a non-jazz tune, in fact it is more an anti-jazz tune. Bob Wallis gets kind of stuck; he’s never one to improvise, and when he gets a tune like that with one or two dodgy chords, all he can do is plug away at the melody and hope for the best, leaving any improvising to the others in the band. I don’t agree anyway with this trend of picking outrageous tunes, so that people will say, “Well, fancy a jazz band playing that!”. It’s a stupid gimmick! I know pro­grammes should be varied, but how often these days does one hear a band playing Original Dixieland Onestep or Smokey Mokes – both excellent tunes. Eccentric, is another – not an easy tune, but easier to play jazz on than one of this nature, which is completely anti-improvisational. You have to take it at this tempo, and the tune itself messes up any jazz ideas anyone could possibly have. Of course, I suppose it is better to play a tune like this, rather than Rock Island Line, for instance. Drives me right up the wall to hear that tune these days, for it was done to death by Lonnie Donegan, who with his mediocre talent and wailing voice made a real mess of it. He did it to death. Like the pound in 1940, which was worth a pound then, and is now only worth fourpence halfpenny, so was Rock Island Line a worthy jazz tune until Donegan did it to death and brought its value down to nothing at all. With this pop-trad stuff being churned out on the radio these days, and everyone trying to jump on the band-wagon, it is conceivable that one could hear Syd Millward and his Nitwits making a hit record of, say, Panama. Which if they did, would mess up that great tune forever. You can’t escape. Of course the material they play doesn’t in any way make them, whoever they are, into a good band. There are people around today, people like Alexis Korner, for instance, who is genuinely interested in blues singing. So he gets a guitar, learns a couple of phrases which he plays very badly, having picked them off a Muddy Waters record or somewhere; then he tries to sing, and the results are just drastic because there is no natural musical ability there. Humph used to say let’s have mass jazz, this kind of do-it-yourself kitchen music. Let everyone play jazz. And what happened? Well, skiffle for one thing. Remember? And what’s happened to skiffle? It’s dead; the very name stinks. Because it was never like real skiffle in the first place, and so it died. It was phoney. And so today what is known as trad has exactly nothing to do with tradi­tional jazz music. It has become devalued and bogus.

“Bluin’ The Blues”. Eddie Condon (And All That Jazz). Vogue LAE 12249
That was fine. Good jazz with no false values. The rhythm was excellent. Condon himself is a very good rhythm player, a point not truly appreciated by many people. Actually it is all wrong, as he tunes his guitar like a banjo. Eddie Smith also does it, but it doesn’t work with him. With Condon it does because he is a natural born rhythm player – very competent. The actual record itself is quite the best thing you’ve played me today. Imagination, dynamics, full of good jazz. The group are wonderfully cohesive, and they fully understand what they are doing. Even Rex Stewart, the funny man of jazz, doesn’t sound too bad. He leads well and they all play a good jazz tune as it should be played. They dig that type of music and accordingly play with sympathy and a keen ear for dynamics.

‘Chris Barber is now playing guitar. He plays the instrument very badly and yet what is likely to happen is that people are going to say: “You don’t play guitar well, because you don’t play it like Chris Barber” – see what I mean? Everybody’s gone mad’

“Hot & Bothered”. Duke Ellington (Jungle Jamboree). Parlophone PMC 1154
More of that fantastic liquid clarinet playing, from the greatest clarinet player who ever lived, Barney Bigard. Lovely guitar solo from Lonnie Johnson. He was always able to get that lovely ringing tone from his instrument. A wonderful player with a unique style of his own. Which is another thing I have against this trad. The guitar is an important part of jazz, yet as far as trad is concerned the instrument might as well not exist. But it is really a more traditional instrument than the banjo. Of course Chris Barber is now playing guitar, but I am terribly apprehensive about the outcome of what he is doing. He plays the instrument very badly and yet what is likely to happen is that people are going to say: “You don’t play guitar well, because you don’t play it like Chris Barber” – see what I mean? Everybody’s gone mad.

“Rosetta”. Al Casey (Buck Jumpin’). Prestige SVLP 2007
Well, that is the kind of guitar playing I just love. Non-frantic, easy and warm. You see, Al Casey was about before anyone ever heard of Charlie Christian. All this nonsense that people like Leonard Feather write saying that along came Charlie Christian and liberated the guitar, it’s all a lot of baloney! It was actually the electrician who invented amplifi­cation who liberated the guitar, but people like Casey and Teddy Bunn were playing wonderful jazz on unamplified in­struments before Christian ever hit the jazz scene. I am not trying to put Christian down, for he was a wonderful player, but it is exaggerated statements like the one I mentioned that annoy me so. Anyone not knowing would naturally think that before Christian there was exactly nothing – no guitarists at all! You remember those first Oriole records that Django made in France? Well, I think there was fifty times more jazz on those than anything Christian ever did. Christian didn’t ever invent a new system of chords, he invented no new tech­nique. He just happened to be around at the time when the amplified guitar came into being. Without amplification no one would have taken any notice of him. The same with Wes Montgomery – the claims made for him are all exaggerated. A good player, yes. But a new genius of the guitar, no! He has a somewhat different way of playing the instrument, but that doesn’t make better guitar playing. Playing as he does only with his thumb and limiting himself to down strokes, he can’t play any real fast passages, even if he thought of them. I believe he uses a plectrum at times, but the only record I heard was finger-style. I have nothing against ampli­fied guitar as such, but it’s the kind of amplified guitar that Muddy Waters played that annoys me. Horrible! He is a good player too, but he over amplifies everything until the whole instrument is out of tune and even drowns his own singing. A good guitar-blues man was of course Big Bill, who obtained a lovely soft tone from his instrument. On that record, inci­dentally, after Casey finished his solo, he plays some lovely rhythm guitar. I used to like those chord solos he played with Fats Waller. Nearly a forgotten art today – more’s the pity.

“Tin Roof Blues”. Herb Ellis (Nothing But The Blues). Columbia 33CX 10139
That was lovely, but I’m not too sure it was as the record says it is, “blues guitar playing”. Fine guitar playing, but hardly blues playing. A good band altogether that. The bass playing was superb. I heard Ellis once in Copenhagen do a semi-classical guitar solo, and it was absolutely wonderful. He’s tremendous, a great rhythm player, yet you get no idea from this record what a tremendous single-string player he can be when he wants. It is such a shame that, apart from the unique Freddie Green, Al Casey and Ellis, and I am told Barney Kessel, rhythm guitar as such has died out. Of course amplified guitar rhythm can also be exciting. Christian did it a lot, and so does Herb Ellis. When played as well as these two men can it is better than piano rhythm – gives a closer backing to the soloist. To watch Freddie Green always gives me the greatest pleasure. I don’t care what the band does, I can just sit and watch Greene. The fantastic chord progres­sions he plays on the bottom four strings – moving chords on the bottom four which are really difficult. And swing! I have heard him play solo; he had a go on my guitar the last time he was here. It was fantastic; he was all over the instrument, a thing he never does with the band. Of course, I don’t suppose it would be possible for him to play solos with the way his instrument is set up for rhythm playing. He uses a very high action, strings a long way from the instrument. Must have it that way for the instrument to cut through the band. The way Freddie plays it would be almost impossible for the normal man to play at all. It needs a tremendous grip, great strength. The higher you can get the strings, the more penetrating sound you can get, but at the same time it makes it much more difficult to play.