Jazz Development in Britain 1924—1974

Part 1 - The wartime bands


  The History of British Jazz

It is a grim fact that, alongside the bitter agony of war, there is an immense scientific and social advance—a fact that was never more apparent than during the course of World War II.

We are not here particularly concerned about the rapid war–time advance in aeronautics, transport by land and sea, the development of plastics (parachute nylon being a typical example), and many other fields in which progress was made; through recognition of urgent necessity, although the advance in recording techniques comes a little nearer home. We do, however, have to take into account the recognition by those who controlled the war effort, that the morale of the various Services and civilian population could not be boosted by the singing of a few jingoistic popular songs, such as we suffered during World War I. It is true that such items of unmitigated rubbish were published during the early months of the war, but their sentiments were already sounding pretty hollow as the disaster of Dunkirk approached. As the result of the new governmental approach to morale boosting, the establishment and development of dance bands within the Armed Forces were encouraged, quite independently of the conventional military bands and light orchestras that had long been in existence, and it therefore followed that many of these “new look” Service bands would inevitably contain musicians who knew what jazz and Swing was all about. I have already referred to the Dance Orchestra of HM Royal Air Force (the Squadronaires), the No. 1 Balloon Centre Dance Orchestra (the Skyrockets) and the Royal Army Ordnance Corps Dance Orchestra (the Blue Rockets), led by Jimmv Miller. Paul Fenhoulet and Eric Tann respectively, and a glance through their various personnel will underline my point.

The instrumental personnel, in the early stages, of the Squadronaires comprised Tommy Bradbury. Harry Lewis, Andy McDevitt and Jimmy Durrant (reeds), Tommy McQuater, Archie Craig, George Chisholm and Eric Breeze (brass), Sid Colin (guitar), Ronnie Aldrich (piano), Arthur Maden (bass) and Jock Cummings (drums). Later, the brass section was augmented by trumpeter Clinton Ffrench, and the reeds by Cliff Townshend on baritone saxophone and clarinet, whilst Monty Levy succeeded Harry Lewis on second alto. At one point, Kenny Baker was among the trumpets and, later still, Jimmy Watson came in to make the same section up to four.

In 1941, the line–up of the Skyrockets gave us Issy Duman, Billy Apps, Cliff Timms and Basil Skinner (reeds); Chick Smith, Les Lambert, Ted Allaby, Paul Fenhoulet and George Thorne (brass), Jack Cooper (guitar), Pat Dodd (piano), Jock Reid (bass) and Jock Jacobsen (drums). Other players who worked with the band at various stages were Harry Roche, Don McCaffer and Joe Cordell (trombones), Cyril Bass and George Fierstone (drums), and Joe Young (guitar).

Around the same period, the Blue Rockets comprised Eric Robinson and Eric Harrington (strings), George Clouston, Victor Knight, Benny Daniels and Shirley Waldron (reeds), George Hawkins, Tommy Keith, Harry Cocker, Eric Tann and Ronnie Rand (brass) , Sam Gelsley (guitar), Jack Baverstock (piano), Eric Whitley (bass) and Lew Stevenson (drums), but later George Wilder came in to augment the trombone section.

Donald Cope succeeded Shirley Waldron among the reeds and Eric Robinson left to serve as Assistant Conductor with the British Army Radio Orchestra, which was directed by George Melachrino and included, within its personnel of some forty–odd, such fine players of jazz as Laurie Gold (tenor), Laurie “Nobby” Clarke (trombone), Jack Coles and Billy Smith (trumpets), Freddy Phillips (guitar) and Ronnie Selby (piano). I believe that I am right in recalling that at a later stage Clarke, Coles and Selby all worked with the “Rockets”, as did trombonist Jack Jones, trumpeter Tommy Keith, tenor saxophonist Douglas Bainbridge, bassist Bob Roberts and alto saxophonist Jimmy Goss.

All these orchestras enjoyed the work of some of the best British arrangers, including some to be found within their own personnel, and all favoured a Swing policy, the Squadronaires in particular featuring many arrangements in the two–beat style of the Bob Crosby Orchestra.

… I have listed what I regarded as milestones in the development of jazz in Britain, and this included the influence through radio, when playing jazz items, of the Savoy Orpheans and Havana bands and, a little later, Fred Elizalde’s Savoy Music. Then came the joint and consistent trend–setting of the orchestras of Bert Ambrose and Lew Stone, and the development in the recording field of small jazz groups. Next, I think, came the freedom to develop big band jazz–oriented Swing and small jazz groups, within the framework of the war–time “Service dance band” policy.

The other, perhaps best–known, of the larger British war–time Service bands was the London Fire Forces Dance Orchestra, in which I occupied the drum stool and which, as already mentioned, was not formed until late in 1941. It was never an official Service band but one given facilities to rehearse and to broadcast whilst on duty, but there was an additional and important reason for its existence. During the air raids upon London and elsewhere of 1940 and 1941 we ,had lost many hundreds of comrades: a high percentage of our total personnel having been killed, with the result that there were many widows and orphans for whom official compensation was inadequate. The orchestra was therefore formed on the basis that it would give performances, without fee, to raise money for the Fire Service Benevolent Fund, Fronted by Eddie Franklyn, the instrumental personnel comprised George Hurley, Sidney Bowman and Harry Miller (strings), Sten Falke, Bob Winnette, Percy Winnick and Frank Langan (reeds), Paddy Harlow, Jack Harris, Frank Cousins and George Maxted (brass), Jack Marshall (piano), Ralph Phillips (bass) and myself. Later, when Frank Langan was transferred to the army, Harry Miller moved over to second tenor. Our library contained the work of some of Britain’s finest arrangers of those years, such as George Evans, Phil Cardew and Sid Phillips who, of course, was Ralph’s brother.

A war–time journalist once described us as being “easily our second–best National Service band” and added that this was the equivalent to saying “second–best in the whole country” but, although this was certainly meant as a compliment, I think that, like myself, few members of the orchestra agreed with him. Restricting the matter to Service bands, I think I would have put the Squadronaires first, with the Skyrockets and Blue Rockets in second and third places in either order and our orchestra running fourth—provided we are referring only to the larger bands.

But there were a number of important small jazz groups within the various services and, of course, if we extend our league to civilian bands, as our journalist friend did, there were still some first–rate bands of all sizes in existence, despite the call–up.

 Among the smaller wartime jazz–orientated Service bands, the first that comes to mind was H.M. Royal Navy Dance Band, the Blue Mariners, led by pianist/arranger George Crow. Although limited from the ensemble point of view, the band had the advantage of some excellent soloists, such as Freddy Gardner and Reg Pink, both of whom played tenor saxophone. The remaining members were Hugh Radcliffe (trumpet), Reg Clitheroe (trombone), Al Jennings (bass) and Fred Latham (drums).

The best of all small jazz groups were, in most cases, to be found in the ranks of the R.A.F. One of these, described as H.M. Station Dance Band, was led by former Ambrosian Billy Amstell on tenor and clarinet, ably supported by Arthur Mouncey (trumpet), Bobby McGee (piano), Tiny Winters (bass) and Sid Heiger (drums). Another such band I recall was led by Alfie Kahn, also a tenor saxophonist doubling clarinet, who had been a member of Fats Waller’s British recording group. Among its members were his brother Dave on trumpet, Charles Barlow on alto and clarinet, “Butch” Rome on bass and Max Lewin on drums. I regret that I cannot recall the names of other members.

Perhaps the most significant small R.A.F. group of those years, in the light of later developments, was that led by yet another of our best tenor saxophonists, Buddy Featherstonehaugh, a former member of the Spike Hughes Orchestra. He also doubled clarinet and was supported by Don McCaffer on trombone and Harry Raynor on piano. The group introduced for the first time to a wider audience, three newcomers in the persons of Jack Parnell, Vic Lewis and Charlie Short on drums, guitar and bass respectively.

Within a year or so, however, the group split up and a new group, known as Vic Lewis–Jack Parnell and their Jazzmen, was formed. The rhythm section was completed by Dick Katz on piano and Bob Howard on bass, and the new front line consisted of Cliff Townshend (clarinet), Ronnie Chamberlain (alto and soprano saxophones) and Billy Riddick (trumpet), at least some of whom were civilians. The style of this group was decidedly Dixieland–influenced, and the performance impeccable.

With the end of hostilities, Parnell moved over to the drum stool of the new Ted Heath Orchestra of 1946,whilst 1945 had seen the formation of Vic Lewis’ Jazzmen, which included Riddick, ChamberIain and Howard, plus Jimmy Wilson (trombone), Jimmy Skidmore (tenor), Ken Thorne (piano) and Harry Singer (drums).

The employment of civilian musicians in Service bands for broadcasting or recording purposes happened quite frequently, the Lewis–Parnell Group being an example, and we often saw drummer George Fierstone making his contribution to the magnificent drive of the Skyrockets’ rhythm section of which, in post–war years. he became a permanent member. In the London Fire Forces Orchestra, where we always had to bring in a second trombonist and perhaps a guitarist for broadcasting, we frequently enjoyed the help of some civilians, as well as musicians from other services. Trombonists I recall were Tony Thorpe, Harry Roche, Sam Elliott, Eric Breeze and Fred Mercer, whilst on guitar at different times were Archie Slavin and Joe Deniz.

Having listed the instrumental personnels of various Service bands, it would perhaps be appropriate to list the vocalists so far as I can remember them for, although their contribution in most cases could hardly be described as developing jazz, they made an important contribution to the popularising of Service bands when they appeared in the theatre or concert hall. With the Squadronaires the vocals were looked after by Billy Nicholls, Jimmy Miller and guitarist Sid Colin; with the Skyrockets there were Leslie Douglas, Denny Dennis and Doreen Lundy. Singing at various times with the Blue Rockets were bassist Eric Whitley and Glenn Martin, whilst with the Fire Forces Orchestra there were Stella Ramon, Audrey Laurie (better known in the profession today as Mrs. Brian Fahey), saxophonist Bob Winnette and trumpeter Jack Harris.

Drummer Fred Latham, who in pre–war days had sung with Jack Jackson’s Orchestra, looked after the vocals for the Blue Mariners, and Vic Lewis did the same for groups I have described in which he was involved.

There were, of course, dozens of Service bands, especially perhaps in the R.A.F., but I can write with knowledge only of those with which I came into personal contact. This sometimes came when public performances or broadcasts took place in which several such bands were involved. In October 1942, for example, the Squadronaires, the Skyrockets, the Blue Rockets, the Blue Mariners, the London Fire Forces Orchestra. and Billy Amstell’s group all took part in the Jazz Jamboree, along with a band from the United States Army Engineers and the orchestras of Ivy Benson, Jack Payne, Geraldo and Edmundo Ros, Stephane Grappelli’s Swingtette, the Victor Feldman Trio and a novelty group in which E. 0. “Poggy” Pogson demonstrated his ability to play with full command a seemingly unlimited number of instruments.

Jamboree took place at the old Stoll Theatre in London’s Kingsway, as did the next one in 1943, for which the only Service bands available were the three R.A.F. from the previous year, plus Buddy Featherstonehaugh’s Sextet, the London Fire Forces, and another from the States described as the U.S. Army Band of Headquarters Etousa. Civilian contributions again came from the orchestras of Ivy Benson and Edmundo Ros, but also taking part was Phil Green and His Basin Street Band, which included both civilian and Service personnel combined for the occasion, Carl Barriteau and his Orchestra. Roy Marsh and his Swingtette and Harry Parry and his Radio Sextet.

By the Jazz Jamboree of 1944, however, the London Fire Forces Orchestra had gone out of existence due to more pressing service demands, and I was in process of being patched up after getting too close to a flying bomb; so, for the third time. I missed this important annual event. Apparently the Mariners, the Blue Rockets and the Amstell group were also missing, but the R.A.F. were very much to the fore as, in addition to contributions by the Squadronaires and Skyrockets, the Melody Maker All Star Band was positively dominated by R.A.F. personnel, the line–up being Kenny Baker, Tommy McQuater, Chick Smith and Arthur Mouncey (trumpets), George Chisholm, who also led the band, Woolf Phillips, Eric Breeze and Don McCaffer (trombones), Harry Hayes, Dougie Robinson, Aubrey Franks, Buddy Featherstonehaugh and Jimmy Durrant (saxophones), George Shearing (piano), Jack Parnell (drums), Ivor Mairants (guitar) and Tommy Bromley (bass).

It was at the 1944 Jamboree that the American Band of the A.E.F.––the Glenn Miller Band–made a distinguished appearance. But this was certainly not my only reason for regretting that I had to miss the show for, also taking part was one of the early Ted Heath Orchestras, Frank Weir—with a super orchestra organised for the occasion, Geraldo, not with his usual large orchestra but with fifteen of our finest sessioneers of the day, Phil Green, this time with his Dixieland Band, a smaller group than his Basin Street outfit of the previous year, the Vic Lewis–Jack Parnell group, the Feldman Trio, Frank Deniz and his Spirits of Rhythm, and Lou Preager’s Orchestra, which was one of those that demonstrated most effectively the point I have already made about the high standard achieved by the Palais bands of the period.