The History of British Jazz


  Jazz Development in Britain

Harry Francis worked as a musician during the 1930s but played less after that; instead he gave a lot of time and energy to the rebuilding of the British Musicians’ Union after the war, eventually becoming its Assistant General Secretary, in which post he remained until his retirement in 1973. He was highly regarded on the British dance band scene.The development of jazz in Britain since the year 1924. Opinions based upon personal recollections and experiences during a period of fifty years.

Sound radio in Britain was then just a few years old and television still a long way off; so the principal media for hearing jazz for most enthusiasts was either the gramophone record or when played by some bands in certain ballrooms. On occasion too, jazz found its way on to the theatre stage, either in variety or within the context of a musical show. And it was, of course, played in many night-clubs which, incidentally, to conform to the licensing laws were re-named "bottle parties", but these establishments catered for a comparatively limited though affluent public.

In the very early 'twenties there were many good ballrooms to be found in the suburbs of London in addition to the still famous Hammersmith Palais, where the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had worked just after the first world war. There were, for example, the Tottenham Palais, now Mecca's Tottenham Royal, the Stanley Hall, later to the renamed the Tufnell Park Palais, the Cricklewood Palais, which I believe is today an Irish Club, the Kew Palais, the Finsbury Park Palais, where I first recollect hearing the one and only Max Bacon at work, a few years before he was recruited by Ambrose to replace American drummer Harry Raderman, Harringay Salon Bal, Wimbledon Palais, now unhappily a Bingo Hall, Clapham Palais, Brixton Palais, the Holloway Athenaeum, the Highbury Athenaeum and the Alexander Palace Ballroom.

The bands varied in size according to the size of the hall, but the largest rarely exceeded ten or eleven players. These usually consisted of three brass, three saxophones, four rhythm and a leader who often played the violin. When I entered the profession in 1926, good saxophone players were still in short supply outside the West End of London, and in many of the suburban dance halls the instrument was often played as a double by players of other instruments, particularly violinists, who brought their saxophones into use only for numbers they had been practising! Nevertheless, such players would often get booked merely because they owned this fashionable instrument! The fashionable bass instrument was then the sousaphone, another instrument of which there were not too many good players available. I can remember deputising with a band at the previously mentioned Stanley Hall, called I think the Delphians, which was considered to be really something, consisting as it did of four rhythm, including sousaphone, trumpet, trombone, alto saxophone doubling clarinet and tenor saxophone doubling violin. All were excellent players and the alto player I recall could whip off an occasional "hot" chorus that was better than many to be heard at the time! Incidentally, during those years we never talked of "jazz." Dance music was either "hot" or "straight"! In Britain we than had little knowledge of jazz history.

True, some of us had heard and seen the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and others at work during the few years following the first world war, but we had then tended to think of it as a new development in popular music. The fact that such American jazz bands as those of Jack Laine, Jelly Roll Morton, Papa Celestin, Kid Ory and Tom Brown, as well as the Olympia Band (which had featured Freddie Keppard and Alphonse Picou), the Original Creole Band (which also featured Keppard) and the Eagle Band (which had featured Bunk Johnson) had played much driving sometimes crude jazz, during the years between 1910 and 1915, was completely unknown to us.

British musicians had nevertheless heard enough jazz played for it to have established a deep- rooted interest. Perhaps fascination would be a better word, and we sought to hear as many jazz records as possible, although in those days they were far from plentiful. We therefore listened to some of the early Victor records of King Oliver and His Miners, issued here on the old HMV label, without any knowledge of the man's significance in jazz history or that he had a second trumpeter named Louis Armstrong— another musician of whom we had not yet heard. East week we listened enthusiastically to the performance of "hot" numbers with which the late- night broadcasts of dance music by the Savoy Hotel bands, Orpheans and Havana, were sprinkled, as well as the programmes of less frequently broadcast bands. The Savoy bands had first- class British and American musicians in their personnel. Among the latter, over the period 1923/ 28, were to be heard the trumpets of Frank Guarente, Vernon Ferry, Sylvester Ahola and Charles Rocco, the trombone of George Chaffin, and the saxophones of Herb Ralton, Rudy Vallee, Al and Ray Starita, Van Phillips, Howard Jacobs, Herbert Finney, Ray Whetstein and Al Notorage.

Although probably no more than a couple of these could be highly rated as jazz soloists, at least, not when compared to those who followed, they nevertheless stimulated our interest and, through their own enthusiasm, encouraged many British players to explore the jazz field. The Starita brothers stayed on in Britain for some years after leaving the Savoy, both working as bandleaders for the Jack Hylton organisation. Van Phillips, who decided to stay in Britain, is happily still among us and for many years made an important contribution to the British profession both as a musician and as a leading member of the Musicians' Union during its most active years.

At the Savoy, Van Phillips had actually taken over the first saxophone chair with the Havana Band from Rudy Vallee, who went back to the States to become probably the first world- famous crooner/ film star, a position he held for a number of years before having to move over for Bing Crosby. Vallee nevertheless maintained a good position as an actor, and it has been most pleasant during the past year or so to see him, now a rather distinguished looking senior citizen, playing some important supporting role in television films.

From the point of view of the student of jazz, the most important aspect of the work of the Savoy bands was the inclusion in their programmes, as already mentioned, of items from the jazz repertoire such as "Copenhagen", "Eccentric", "Farewell Blues", "Everybody Stomp", "Hen Pecked Blues" and "Blue Evening Blues" among the various popular dance tunes of the day.

The Orpheans with its three brass, three saxophones and five rhythm line- up, and the Havana with two brass, two saxophones and four rhythm, could not, in the accepted sense based upon the knowledge we have since acquired, be regarded as jazz bands, but they were playing jazz numbers that had emanated from the jazz bands and thus whetting our appetites for more. Consequently, when the records of the Chicago groups began to come across to Britain, around 1926 onwards, we proceeded to wear them out in our enthusiasm for the work of Beiderbecke, Nicholls, Mole, the Dorseys, Lang, Venuti, Rollini and the rest. In seeking to list important contributions to the development of jazz in Britain during the fifty years under review, I would certainly choose the Savoy bands, perhaps coupled with broadcasting, as the first milestone. Although better jazz was undoubtedly to be heard elsewhere, it was not easily accessible, whereas the sound of the Savoy bands went into many thousands of homes each week.

It was towards the end of 1927 that a shuffling around of bands in the Savoy group, which also included Claridges and the Berkeley, introduced into the Savoy a band led by a Spanish/ American millionaire pianist named Fred Elizalde, and also saw the demise of the Havana Band. The Orpheans, too, were reorganised, and retitled the New Savoy Orpheans, under the direction of violinist Reg Batten, who had previously worked as a member of the earlier Orpheans and also as one of the several leaders of the Havana Band. It was at this point that Silvester Ahola, one of the American trumpet players mentioned earlier, joined the Orpheans. He was a magnificent musician, who had previously played in Britain with Paul Specht's Orchestra. In addition to being a great jazz stylist, he was capable of taking his place in any type of orchestra to play any kind of music.

He was still playing professionally up to a few years ago and probably still is today. Another American to join the Orpheans at this stage was Irving Brodsky, a fine pianist/ arranger from the famous recording group known as the California Ramblers. There was also an increase in the number of musicians with the introduction of a fourth saxophonist but, good as the New Orpheans were, they were overshadowed by the glamorous and no doubt expensive publicity enjoyed by Elizalde's band and by the end of September 1928 the New Orpheans Savoy Hotel contract had expired.

Ahola, incidentally, then joined Ambrose Orchestra at the May Fair Hotel about which I shall be writing in some detail later in this series, but first I shall be dealing with the activities and jazz influence of Fred Elizalde and his Savoy Music, as the band was called. This, I think, could be regarded as our next milestone, even though its main physical influence, like the earlier Orpheans and Havana bands, resulted from relay broadcasts from the Savoy Hotel.