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A JAZZ JOURNEY - 1925-1994


Ken Rattenbury
Parts 1 2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/13/14/Conclusion

PART I: 1925 - 1935


BERTIE WHO? You may well ask, because Bertie Barwiss, I know for a fact, during his brief, hazy-crazy life on this planet, hardly ever travelled further afield than the outermost ring of bucolic pubs which encircled a sleepy little market town in Lincolnshire - about ten miles west of Skegness - where I was born some seventy years ago. Bertie played piano - ragtime, I now know it to have been - and he played nightly from opening time to towels-up at one or the other of the aforementioned hostelries, the while sinking copious draughts of the heady local brew (lethal, in comparison with today's near and imitation beers); so dedicated was he to the foaming nectar that more often than not, he had to be literally poured out of the lounge bar to be decanted, gently, in the approximate direction of Chez Barwiss; a very happy, totally disorientated, but nonetheless affectionately-regarded member of that close, comfortably conservative country community. And he packed 'em in; those pubs seethed with devotees to the raggy, craggy music hammered out by this rough, tough character who knew all of the rags by Joplin, Lamb, Carey Morgan and co.: fast, slow, in any old key, at any old tempo indeed, his enormous hands flickered in a blur of velocity over the keyboard, generating sheets of sound forty-odd years before John Coltrane tumbled to the same notion. But Bertie died in 1929, of alcoholism and hectic indulgences of salacious persuasions, at the early age of thirty-five and, according to my old Dad, it had been a miracle that he had survived that long! Which brings me to the whole point behind this covertly cautionary, introductory tale.

In the mid-twenties, our family acquired a piano (fretted front, candlesticks 'n' all, not a brilliant instrument), it turned out to be exactly a whole tone flat - uniformly so - which, fourteen years later obliged me to re-learn my trumpet fingering on account of the piano being that far out; when, therefore, I played from old piano copies without the need (or indeed awareness of the need!) to transpose, so I felt major shocks when I met up with proper concert pitch. But good enough, action wise, to start me off belting my own versions of some of those cheery, choppy pieces I'd heard over our radio (headphones, crystal sets, crackles, fades - all manner of exotic obstacles to a straight listen!) or floating over from Bertie Barwiss' cottage, which was only a pebble's bounce from our place. Similarly attractive in those days were the plangent, surging, urgent syncopations of the radio banjo bands (very popular then - and I recall one leader of such an aggregation - Joe Young - as being top of the heap in my pecking order).

In our family, music, in those days, was a somewhat muted force - Mum was tone deaf, Dad only played "O, Star of Eve " in G - and with two fingers; but, one generation before, my paternal grandfather had been a professional cornet soloist, given to touring the world with various brass bands at the turn of the century. I remember him, this well after his globetrotting, barnstorming days, leading the local silver prize band, conducting with his left hand, the while blowing pieces like "Carnival of Venice", "The Flight of the Bumblebee" (yes, indeed!), with no pressure, face in total repose, with a staggering command which impressed me then and which I still envy. When I brought him my first horn - late thirties - to show it off, he was by then eighty-nine; his old eyes sparkled, he grabbed it eagerly and blew an effortless scale of C, right up to top C and held it, clear and bell-like as Bix and this after a couple of decades since he last played competitively. I was verdant green with envy and possessed by wonderment. The only lesson I ever had on the trumpet happened there and then. Oh, frustration, I couldn't even get above the stave at that stage and then only with a sound so searing and paint-blistering that I couldn't stand it myself for long. Happily, it mellowed as the long notes and scales smoothed things over.

But to resume. Bertie Barwiss died and I stepped into his wellies, so to speak, to play piano in a little local band which specialised (you have to believe this) in Bessie Smith performances copied or adapted, as abilities allowed, from treasured 78's (our wind-up portable gramophone more used to the lenitive strains of Clara Butt, Dame Nellie Melba and sometimes John Philip Sousa was rarely silent). Heaven knows what we sounded like (lady vocalist - somewhat mature and big with it, as I recall - alto sax, violin, tuba, drums, plus me doing a sort of Clarence Williams on piano.) We didn't get much work - I don't suppose the local ears were quite ready for us - and I don't ever remember us getting a re-booking, but it was fun, such wonderful fun. I was hooked. Swallowed the bait right down to my toes. The blues had got me, as the songwriters put it, many years further on. Today, I still maintain that unless a guy can make a good fist of playing the blues, he's no real chance of making an indelible mark as a jazzman. Duke reckoned so too and you can recognise the sounds and idiosyncrasies of the blues in pretty well every bar he, his orchestra and soloists ever set down. As I said, Bertie died and so a great void opened up in my private, blues-tinted fantasy world of rag, jazz and Bessie. I was then in my early teens.

Still the jobs kept coming in from all sides: during one year, I played piano for a ballet school, accompanied a local concert-party (anything from Marie Lloyd ditties, tap dancing or keeping droves of Peter Dawson clones on key), played for dancing every Saturday night for about three years, all this on solo piano, but occasionally on dance nights, when the fee had been upped to five bob (old money), with drums. This was what I called my Big Band. Not much real harm done really, except that the headmaster of my old Grammar School wrote to Dad after having had to wake me up during his French class - several times during one session - this having taken place after a particularly gruelling round of ballet, Marie Lloyd and breakneck, two-fisted skirmishes with "Tiger Rag", my speciality of the time. This is when he admonished, with some emphasis and fatherly concern: "I'M WARNING YOU - LOOK WHAT HAPPENED TO BERTIE BARWISS!"

A fat lot of notice, I'm ashamed to admit, I took, to be sure (the arrogance and knowingness of tender years!). Now, fifty-five years on, I'm still chancing my arm, putting my lip, wind and endurance on the line. Granted, I've been spared to do a whole lot more jazzing and ragging than Bertie, but then, have never had to assuage such a burning thirst as his - only the thirst for uninterrupted absorption of shimmering sharps and flats.

That was the start of it all. Perhaps, soon, I might be moved to set down further recollections of later, more competitive years. It's been a heck of a good life so far, has this mad scramble after ringing, swinging notes and notions
Wasn't that the 'phone? Where to now, I wonder

Copyright Ken Rattenbury © 1994