Memoire – jazz days in Soho and beyond……..
Originally for Just Jazz magazine
I was reminiscing with friends in my Welsh retirement refuge recently and they suggested that some of the more printable ones – what to me were the exciting events with the Dobell record shop (see photo above) crowd and similar ones whilst working for the National Jazz Federation – deserved sharing.
It all developed an additional element when the NJF, aided by Chris Barber, (see image above of Chris with the late Pat Halcox – borrowed from Chris’ excellent web site) later hired me away from the shop to work on their fledgling newspaper Jazz News. There I eventually became Editor and also worked on biographical programme notes for the programmes of touring American jazz and blues artists and occasionally even at the Marquee club where I got to know Johnny Dankworth’s pianist Dudley Moore, Humphrey Lyttelton, Ronnie Scott, Joe Harriott and many more.
I suppose that the crowd associated with Dobells can only in hindsight be described as “Jazz Groupies”. This loosely knit group of enthusiasts had its ears firmly to the ground and was well wired into the jazz jungle telegraph. Through these various sources we would learn which musicians from overseas were visiting the UK, when they’d arrive and where and then what their programme was. It was through this espionage system that a huge marching brass Jazzband met Louis Armstrong when he first arrived at Waterloo station on the boat train from Southampton. He loved it as did the George Lewis Ragtime from New Orleans when they arrived. What a welcome we gave them.
This same underground espionage system let us into many secrets. Like where the Eddie Condon band from New York was landing and how we could evade security long enough to greet them. We did and in style. This band, some of whose members were better known for their alcohol consumption than their music, was met with bottles of their favourite brew Jack Daniels Tennessee bourbon. The national press – the tabloids that is – recorded the event on their front pages the following morning with shots of Condon upending a bottle of JD into his throat. His wife was furious – what we hadn’t known – couldn’t have known – was that after forty years of trying she’d just about managed to get the famous frequently inebriated guitar player onto the wagon. We apparently undid almost all of that good work in ten minutes at London Airport. One outcome of this meeting was that during the band’s tour I got to spend time with one of my idols the legendary trumpet player “Wild” Bill Davison and years later wrote many articles about him which he loved.
We – and I use the term adviseadly because one of the main activists in this spy system was Dobell stalwart John Jack – used to use the spying system to find out where musicians were likely to go after concerts because the opportunity for hearing them play outside of their usual comfort zones couldn’t be missed.
One night for example we learned that after the Count Basie band’s Royal Festival Hall concert that evening several of the band’s stars had been invited to Ronnie Scott’s club for an informal after-hours private session with local (British) musicians. Somehow several of us got in and were treated to a an amazing session of free blowing modern jazz far removed from anything the guys could play within the confines of the Basie band even though that band did allow its members more freedom than most. I know that tenor sax man Frank Foster was one of those involved as was I think trumpet man Thad Jones. Wonderful guys letting it all hang out in styles we had never heard live before in the UK – this was New York current (early 1960s) modern jazz as its cutting edge best. This was the music that we sold daily on record and to hear it live from the originators was both a dream and an education as was the attitude of the men themselves who were charm and cooperation itself. They seemed pleased to meet us and were also pleased to talk about their music. And all this of course helped to fulfil my aim of gaining a better understanding of the music and in particular this new-ish music as it was being formed and created.
Another lesson learned from the Basie band came when they played a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall. I was backstage wandering along the corridor off which were the artist’s dressing rooms. Bustling towards me was the diminutive but stout character of Marshall Royal the band’s “straw boss” shouting “Show Time”, “Show Time”. In that moment my jazz education came almost full circle. I’d always believed it to have originated in the blues from the cotton fields of Mississippi and the docks of New Orleans – to me it was a folk based music. Suddenly now I appreciated that for many jazz musicians and singers it was something else altogether – it had become show business together with the baggage that the words imply. This wasn’t amateur music created by the children of freed slaves although it may have partially started that way – this was the big time – show business indeed and on a sometime royal stage in London.
Contrast that with another wonderful experience I had. Frequent visitor to our shop was the folksinger – guitarist Alexis Korner. I’d heard him play and we decided to make an LP of his guitar work on our new label “77”. This all proceeded well but I was unable to attend the session. To my horror when I heard the test tapes, Alex had sung on almost every track and I hated his singing. What I’d wanted was just his superbly delicate guitar work.
When the American blues singer Big Bill Broonzy was in the UK for a tour of jazz and folk clubs I found myself one night in Alex’s house sitting on his lounge floor until two or three in the morning listening to Big Bill singing and reminiscing about this life. What a magic time we had that night – all our jazz dreams had come true. Here we had the genuine article – a full blooded American bluesman apparently unspoiled by the commercial world and willing to tell us about his life and music. It’s an odd coincidence my recalling this wonderful evening on this day in December 2013 because this latter weekend BBC television screened a programme about Big Bill which brought to mind the time I’d spent in his company. I should add that he was a gentle giant of a man, courteous to a fault.
A footnote about Alexis Korner. In later years that gravelly voice that I’d objected to us recording was spotted by a casting agency who began to use him as a “voice over” artist in TV and radio commercials. It was said of him that he was the man you hired if you wanted to make eating a chocolate bar sound like an orgy.
A contrast to the character of Big Bill Broonzy was another Mississippi blues singer we brought in to tour. This was another giant of a man by the name of Sonny boy Williamson. He played good guitar and harmonica and had a grizzled fierce demeanour enhanced by a goatee beard and a mouth full of broken stained teeth. He didn’t endear himself to us when within minutes of coming into our offices (the NJF that is) to be welcomed and interviewed he’d cornered one of the ladies present and was all set on what amounted to rape before he was stopped. His guitar case attracted my attention. It was much larger – taller than most and the reason for this was revealed when he opened it up to reveal not just a guitar but a full size bottle of scotch in the neck section of the case. There’s nothing like being prepared I suppose.
And did I tell you about Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee? These were two more deep southern blues artists that we brought into the UK to tour with Chris Barber. They were unique and brought a completely new aspect of the blues to us. Guitarist – singer Brownie McGhee had polio as a child which crippled one leg and consequently he had some difficulty with mobility whilst his partner the harmonica player and fellow singer Sonny Terry was blind. Sonny became world famous for his wolf chase calls in which he imitated the hounds and the huntsman’s calls and equally famous for his train sounds in which he captured not only the unique moaning whistles of those giant American steam train whistles but also the rhythms of the wheels. Meeting and hearing these two was a unique insight into a part of American folk blues we’d only briefly heard of with very little of their unique work having been recorded. The two had a great partnership. Courteous to a fault British audiences loved them and gradually their fame spread to the extent that eventually back in the USA they were able to earn a living playing in folk clubs and on concert stages.
Meeting and trying to get to know members of the fabulous George Lewis Ragtime Band from New Orleans, Louisiana was yet another not only very exciting but also a highly educational experience. I’d loved the band’s records for years. They played some of the hottest and most exciting music I’d ever heard and several members had been active in the first years of our music. Months before they arrived I was asked to write some of the programme notes for the forthcoming tour and that in itself was a great honour. The band arrived in the UK and my first contact with them was when they walked into the Soho Square offices where I was by then working. Deciding that I should try to get to know some of these living legends to whom jazz was nothing special – it was just the music they’d played since they were children – the music of their city – I introduced myself to “Slow Drag” Pavageau the bass player. This tall dignified old guy with a wicked twinkle in his eye earned his nickname of “Slow Drag” for winning competitions for the dance of that name in the early 1920s. Sadly I couldn’t understand a word he said and had to cut our interview short whilst he was in full flood. I told the band’s trumpet player Avery “Kid” Howard about my problem and his laughing reply was “we’ve never understand much that he says – he talks mainly in Creole patois”. Howard on the other hand was a lovely gentle man easy to talk to – in recent years I’ve written his biography and the book was published by the Jazzology Press in New Orleans. It’s now out of print and copies sell for quite a premium.
We heard that the Woody Herman Band – an exciting American swing and jazz band was coming to the UK to tour – it was only natural that we should hear as I was by then editing a jazz newspaper and concert tours thankfully needed our support. I thought no more about it until I heard that the band when they arrived would be using “our” Marquee Club to rehearse. Why an existing band should need to rehearse we were yet to learn. I was told that on no circumstances was I to try to attend any of the rehearsals. But – of course I did. Creeping in the back fire door of the club which in those days was housed in the basement ballroom of the Academy arts cinema in Oxford street, I was able to see the band stretched out across the ballroom floor reading from manuscripts on Woody Herman labelled music stands. The sound was fantastic – just like the band sounded on record – powerful and very exciting. Then I noticed something both fascinating and intriguing. Many of the musicians were well-known to me and they were not American as I’d expected – hoped even. Indeed several were members of small leading modern jazz groups that I knew well – some even played regularly at the Marquee.
The explanation of how the American Herman band was almost 80% English came sometime later and was quite a lesson into then current big band affairs. What Woody had brought to the UK was his section leaders like his lead trumpet, lead saxophone and some members of the rhythm section. So – they needed to rehearse but with them all being absolutely top level professionals they sounded just like the real thing within minutes. The truth of the whole situation with big bands in America I learned later. Many didn’t actually have a day-to-day entity during economic slumps because there was insufficient work to maintain them on a full-time basis. Instead bandleaders – not all but some – would pay their section leaders and maybe also solo stars a retainer so that they had first call on their services. I believe this was the case with many of the best known bands.
An additional plus factor to being part of the Dobells crew was that we were able to persuade AmerIcan musicians visiting the UK to come into the shop for “meet and greet autograph sessions”. Those we got to know in this way included Count Basie, Eddie Condon, Mezz Mezzrow and Albert Nicholas. There may be more but my memory is not what is was….
Life at Dobells, at the NJF, at Jazz News and the Marquee was a great education and I look back on it and on the jazz family that we became part of at that time very fondly.