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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 VI: (1951 - 1956)


BUT FIRST: referring back to Part V of this collection of recollections, you may well have pindered - hinestly cinfused and smickraffled - as ti whi was the guy HILGES amingst such halliwed persinalities as Liuis, Bix and Lester Yiung ! Si sirry abiut that - a typographical false fingering which originated in my original manuscript to remain unsullied through to this stage - yes, it was the incomparable JOHNNY-with-an-O-HODGES, of course!

NAMES have always been the spice in specialised anecdote and there are many in this present discourse, ranging back over quite a time and I recall them all with warmth and respectful regard - some of the best colleagues I ever rubbed musical shoulders with. Memories . . . . .

But, as I have already said, 1951 stands out in my box of pleasures as assembling a considerable crescendo of chances, good fortunes, fortuitous meetings and of ambitions realised. Hard going, true, unremittingly so, but, as it says in the by-line above . . . .

To begin early on in that year, the local Musician's Union organised a charity concert at the old Birmingham Hippodrome and approached me to put together a sextet of kindred, compatible sounds to this Midlands Jazz Jamboree. And I knew exactly who I wanted; we had all worked the gig and session scene for years - as members of this group, that orchestra, this studio stint, that dance date. But never before as an organised unit.

Who played on the concert, then, in support of the trusty horn: Frank Beech (clarinet and alto sax - his work on the sax was so close to Johnny Hodges as to be uncanny - tone, phrasing, invention - the lot - and I've always felt deprived and depressed that this fine jazzman had not seen his way clear to stick with such divinely-inspired talent); the rhythm section of George Young (piano), Stan Upcott (rhythm guitar); Dickie Mann (drums) and Ted Rowley (bass - and he and I still play together to this day).

This section was just great (and isn't a jazzband only ever as good as its rhythm section?); Frank and I, with our sort of updated Dixieland and urban blues, simply floated above it, no need for excessive decibels, nor, indeed, for frantic tempi (someone once said that British Jazz is quite frequently too fast and too loud - and I'm inclined to agree on this!). We always sorted out a unanimity of chords (for rehearsal purposes they were always written out and circulated amongst us) and used 'em, so that all the inversions, accidentals and modulations slotted in with complete agreement. Essential groundwork, quintessential detail, this.

Steve Race had compered the concert and the outcome was that he invited me to play with an octet of his own choosing on a BBC JAZZ CLUB broadcast from London. I have to admit a chronic attack of the hyperactive butterflies on this occasion, but I figure it all went off reasonably well since my own group followed with satisfying alacrity into the same prestigious spot, setting a pattern which was to survive for years to come. We then did the first, full-length Midlands radio jazz show and garnered some recognition in the national jazz press.

One personnel change - Ted's brother, the late Reub Rowley - a fine pianoman - came in for George Young and we also had one addition; a blues singer, the late Neva Raphaello, a stylish Bessie Smith disciple. So the package was broadened and enhanced to some good effect. Now, ever since swapping battledress for black and white penguin attire in 1946, I had been toying with the notion of one day writing an extended jazz work (ever since being completely bowled over by Ellington's famed suite, "Black, Brown and Beige ", premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1943) and, by 1951, this had been composed and scored: a piano concerto, classical in format.

Three movements. The first, in strict sonata form - Exposition, Development, Recapitulation and Coda; the second - adagio - slow, sombre, exploratively dissonant; the third, presto - what can only be described, I guess, in present-day vernacular, as a thrash-notes-aplenty, huge dynamic range and a blistering Coda. The musicians? All I did was to co-opt the original six, (but taking the solo piano spot myself) then add several more jazzmen whom I knew, had worked alongside and respected: Harry Smart (trumpet), George Watts (alto sax), John Clarke (tenor), Don Georgeson (baritone), Horace Jones (trombone). And Reub Rowley conducted.

What a splendid, warm sound to be in the middle of, for sure! Harmonically, the whole piece was built on and around the classic twelve-bar blues succession of cadences (with a few nips and tucks here and there) and - what else? I called it the New Orleans Concerto - inspirationally so, but, stylistically, nearer the Duke's concepts - and what better yardstick to grasp, I reckon? The Concerto went well - and survives in a somewhat 104 acetate - and paved the way for more experimental scoring; a satisfying connection, which, I am happy to say, remains intact to this day, in spite of a little eye trouble . . . too much close proximity to hot score paper, perhaps?

And now, just forty years on, I am delighted to know that several of my colleagues from those heady days are still in music, either blowing, bowing or beating with undiminished skill, conviction and dedication.

So the die was cast to endure over the next few years. We broadcast regularly and, in 1956, landed a session for Dennis Preston's Lansdowne Records, producing a four-title E.P. (Sequence - our signature tune and one of mine; I'm Putting all my Eggs in One Basket; All Z Do is Dream of You and J&la). By this time, however, the personnel had changed, as is its wont in our business - and we fielded Joe Lees (clarinet and tenor, still blowing alongside from time to time even now!), Colin Bicknell (drums), Hubert Jones (bass), Joe Penny (guitar - with also a nice line in slightly salty blues lyrics) and the late Johnny Hocken (piano) and Barrie Lee (trombone) - two fine players, much missed.

So, we were busy, happily engaged in blowing our beloved jazz. In point of fact, I really had a bit of a tug o' war between blowing the horn and composing over the next year or so. I stockpiled dozens of jazz pieces, wrote an original suite for classic trumpet, clarinet, trombone, four rhythm lineup (of which more in later recollections) and took on arranging chores for umpteen other bands between times, so much so that my dear wife created one of the most viscous and strongest black coffee concoctions ever known to man, to sustain those countless early-hours battles with pencil, electric sharpener and eraser which could culminate, with any luck, in one more saleable score - or one more composition. But compulsive, rewarding, satisfying and an ever-present challenge. There is really no end to the riches you can find in jazz and steady involvement in this fine music renders everything, but everything, so well worthwhile. NO, Just can't stop!

Copyright Ken Rattenbury © 1994