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Member of the Whytebridge Jazz Band, who were resident at the Cellar Club, Ilford. Also a member of Frog Island Jazz Band.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
So what’s your beginnings in the Jazz world?
When I was about 15 I was in the Scouts and there were obviously quite a group of us there in the Scouts and it was when, I think it was just before Skiffle became popular, but in the Scouts we heard this popular music, as you do as boys.
We’re talking about late ‘50s are we here, with Skiffle?
Yes.’54, round about ’53, ’54, and we decided we didn't want to mess about playing Skiffle, it was alright but it wasn't the music we wanted to play, the real music, using real instruments.
I forgot to ask you whereabouts was this?
In Romford. So we started to listen to the music and bought…this might have come first actually, there was a Penguin book about Jazz, Rex Harris’s book and we got a couple of copies of this between us and read it and started getting interested in the music through that, then we decided we wanted to play it, and it must have been dreadful! Terrible! Because nobody had any music lessons or any idea how to do it or whatever, and gradually acquired instruments and started doing it in the Scout Hall, and it just grew from there really. One day there we had the usual line up to play for a band, but with two banjos which was a bit overwhelming since neither of them knew any chords or anything like that, but then a chap came along one time and said “You could do with a bass player”, and we said yeah we could. He said “I’ll make one”…oh no, the blokes gonna come back with a tea-chest bass, the last thing in the world we’d want. But in fact he made one and it was a wonderful bass and it’s still being used now by a professional bass player! He got rid of it after a while because although it was a terrific bass and it looked and sounded like a real one he was never convinced it was because he’d made it himself. Anyway he went on to play it with Ken Colyer.
What was his name?
Arthur Bird. He’s alive still, he’s blind now, poor chap. But he lives in Kent now.
Amazing to have played with Ken Colyer though.
I've played with Ken Colyer but not on a very regular basis, except while he was very ill and I played for him regularly then for him for a while but it didn't last long because he got too ill to continue. He then had several months when he didn't play at all and when he reformed again after that he started again without me. What I was talking about, the Boy Scouts, that was the Whytebridge Jazz Band and we played in the Romford area for a while.
What kind of venues?
The British Legion Hall on Collier Row and we played in the Golden Lion, in the middle, right on the crossroads in Romford, and various other Scout huts and church halls and things like that. Then we got a job playing in Ilford in a Jazz club, the Cellar Jazz Club in Ilford which was just starting.
Whereabouts was that?
In Ilford Lane. It was underground, it was a cellar, and it got absolutely heaving with people, I could touch the ceiling standing up, it was that low. It only had a trapdoor entrance, they used to open a trapdoor in the pavement and go down a ladder to get into it.
You wouldn't do that now would you, health and safety!
The fire regulations were completely flouted, they must have been, and to play the bass the neck of the bass had to be out through the trap because it was too tall to stand!
And that was Arthur Bird was it?
Yes, with his home made bass. But we played there and we were very, very popular. Now while we were doing this there was another band there and the other band was called George Perry’s Jazz Band, or Jazz Men I think they called themselves although they were all 17 or 18.
Same as you, you were that age I suppose?
Yes. And between us there was two bands and about another four or five other musicians, associated musicians, that weren't in any of the regular bands. But we played there every night except Mondays between us, so there was one band one night, then the other band, then a mixture of the two bands playing another night and then another mixture of the other two bands, or all sorts of permutations, all sorts of people. We had this all sewn up.
So this was Essex as well?
Well mostly, North London and Essex, those people. That was the band that went on to become a pop group afterwards. Another chap you may have encountered in your research was a chap who used to run the Southend Jazz Club, Gary Gleed. Did you come across him?
No, blimey, no, that's the first time that one’s come up.
He’s just recently died unfortunately, he was their bass player. Les Muscutt was the banjo player, Mike Cotton on trumpet, trombone player John Beecham went on to play with The Kinks. Their clarinet player, chap called Alan Fibbins, became a classical flautist, I met up with him about 6 months ago and he said he was fed up with the classical world because there was no social side of playing, you turned up, you did your bit and you went home again, and he said he missed the friendliness and the social atmosphere that goes with playing Jazz, so he was gonna take it up again. I don't know whether he ever did.
It must be a very isolated world the classical world.
So that was what the two bands that had this scene at the Cellar Jazz Club in Ilford was.
So who was in your band though?
In the Whytebridge Band there was, trumpet player’s name was Kirk, his real name was Ian Kirkcaldy but everybody just called him Kirk, he was one of the Scouts. Brian Peters the clarinet player, he's alive still, he lives at Benfleet. Ian Holmes the trombone player, he’s dead, he died of cancer about 10 years I think, Kirk’s died as well. So two of them have died. Ian Holmes went on to play for Hugh Rainey for a long time and Kirk went on to play for the Washboard Syncopators. You’ve heard of them?
He was their musical leader. Then Fred Etherton on banjo, for a while, well most of the time for the Whytebridge band it was Fred, then when Fred found that his day job was too demanding and he had to leave Owen Diplock was the banjo player. And Arthur Bird on bass, and that was the Whytebridge Band.
So Arthur did both bands did he?
No, just the Whytebridge Band. Gary Gleed was the bass player for the George Perry Band. Now the George Perry Band had Mike Cotton on trumpet, John Beecham trombone, Alan Fibbins clarinet, Les Muscott banjo, George Perry piano. The drummer’s name, everyone called him Jaygo , I don't know what his real name was at all, lived at Chapel Heath. I mean he must have had a real name but nobody called him anything except Jaygo.
So you were doing all these gigs with different permutations.
Yes, and it was such a self-contained unit that we never got out to hear other bands, very, very rarely, it was all a bit incestuous really, we were all doing our own thing but we got to play – both bands did – got to play the all-night sessions in the Ken Colyer Club but that was purely on reputation for being so popular in the Ilford area that the word obviously spread to those places and we got invited to do the all-night sessions. At one time several of us were playing 9 times a week, which was a bit much, and doing a day job!
Probably Saturday lunchtime and Sunday lunchtime were the extra?
Well, no, no, Saturday evening and then the all-night session, then Sunday lunchtime so we didn't get a lot of sleep over those weekends!
So you were in the Romford area and now we're talking about Ilford as well.
Mostly playing, by then almost all the stuff was in the Ilford area, and mostly in this Cellar Jazz Club.
I suppose if you'd played outside of that in Ilford you'd have been competing with your own venue as such.
Well we did…there were other places in Ilford that we played in, and when we were playing somewhere else in Ilford someone else was playing in the Cellar Club.
I see. So how many nights a week was there Jazz at the Cellar Club?
Six. On Monday nights they had a Modern Jazz trio but they weren’t very popular.
Do you remember what they were called?
Ron Saints Jazz Trio or something, I can't remember. He was a drummer but I don’t know anything about him at all. The only thing I do remember about him was I was fascinated by the fact that he had chains on all his cymbals so they all tizzed all the time. I thought “That’s weird”!
Yes you don't hear that so much now do you?
That can cover up a multitude of sins as well can’t it!
Perhaps it made a cheap cymbal sound more expensive, I don't know.
How long did the Cellar at Ilford last?
Well it's difficult to be sure on this but I think it went on for 4 or 5 years and it was very intense.
Yes, it’s incredible. What year would it have been that you would have started there?
I think it was ’57 but it might have been ’58.
What style of Jazz were you playing? Would it have been under the umbrella of Trad?
Oh yes, yes. Well Trad is a term that's grown up afterwards. It did exist then but nobody called the music we were playing New Orleans Jazz, it was Traditional Jazz and we used to – when we started off – we used to try and copy Bunk Johnson and George Lewis records, that was what we tried to do, and we did copy them – we even copied the mistakes sometimes, you know, we didn't know they were mistakes! And then obviously as you develop you move away from copying but your style is still based on who you used to copy. We found that the music was…well both bands really, the George Perry and the Whytebridge Band were both playing music based on the New Orleans musicians Bunk Johnson, George Lewis and people like that.
Yes, would you say you were purist about it?
Oh yes, yes.
So the Chicago side of things was verboten?
Yes. We didn't dislike it but it nothing that we felt we wanted to do, we knew of other bands that played more in that style of music and we thought they missed the point, they didn't really understand what it was all supposed to be about you know.
You said you didn’t get out much of your own circle, do you recall any other bands from around your area from that period?
Well the original Eastside Stompers was another one, and they've only just packed up, like about 6 months ago and they were going from the middle 50’s.
Yes that’s right, I'm gonna be seeing someone from there, I can't see his name at the moment. And they were from around that area as well were they?
Yeah, they used to play several places in the Ilford area, one was a great big church hall I think it was, on the corner of Green Lane and Ilford Broadway, by the traffic lights there was a big hall there. We used to play there…that was I think a Saturday nights only place and we used to play there sometimes, they used to play there sometimes. They were more general-jolly-Jazz rather than strictly New Orleans style.
What they were termed as mainstream or whatever?
No not really mainstream but when the Chris Barber Band made a record they would copy that and when Kenny Ball made a record they would copy that and we didn't do anything like that. We would copy the Bunk Johnson and George Lewis and that sort of thing, but we wouldn't copy anything that wasn’t New Orleans.
Was there any…you know, with the spirit of youth and everything, was there any kind of resentment of Kenny Ball’s success, the fact that he might be – at that time – oh you know that’s not be proper Jazz or blah blah… or he’s selling out, you know the usual thing you have when you're that age.
A little bit of that but mostly it was more a question that that was a different kind of music, that wasn't what we were doing, we were doing the real stuff.
I suppose to the untrained ear they would lump people in together though wouldn't they. Also, I suppose the popularity of Chris Barber and Kenny Ball was surely going to attract more younger people as well because that was all the rage wasn’t it.
Oh yes, that's right, it was a very popular music all round and I have no doubt whatever that contributed a great deal to why we were so popular in Ilford. We did play other places, I've said that we only played in that area, we only played regularly in those areas but we used to play in Birmingham, Exeter and take days to get there!
It would have done in those days, yeah!
Blimey yeah, no M4 or M5.
Playing in Birmingham when your transport was a Morris 8 and an Austin 7 took an awful long time to get there.
Was the New Orleans that you were playing not that early enough that it would have been a tuba on bass if you had a stand up bass?
No. The tuba bass business I suppose relates to an earlier era of original Jazz and what we were – at that time we were playing.
Is Bunk Johnson more 30's?
Well no, Bunk Johnson had been playing since, I would say the teens, the 19-teens, then he stopped playing professionally and moved out of New Orleans and he wasn’t recorded until 1943 I think it was, his first recordings. So the music we were copying was from the 1943 up to the time we were playing ourselves.
So it was kind of contemporary in a way for that style of music.
That’s interesting, I wasn't aware of that really. Because there’s very much a revivalist element to that scene isn’t there?
Yes that’s right, a chap who was into this sort of music was doing what you were doing now, going round interviewing people about the old time Jazz because at the time, in the 1940’s, people still knew about the old style Jazz but it was hardly being played at all it was swing music and big band music and dreadfully slushy pop but then a fellow, several people, but one particular chap, Bill Russell his name was, started interviewing the old time New Orleans musicians that were left and the one that Louis Armstrong recommended particularly was Bunk Johnson so they got him out of retirement and set him up playing again and that was the music that we cottoned on to.
So George Perry’s Band eventually ended up as The Mike Cotton Sound which were a pop band?
How did it affect you around that period, you’re almost post-rock & roll, pre-Beatles around that time aren’t you?
Well…the Cellar Jazz Club closed, I think it probably closed because of the safety regulations and things like that, I don't know really, but we had other places to play at so we played at a pub just down the bottom end of Ilford Lane and various other places in the Ilford area, but once it left the Cellar itself…. The people went with us when we played in this pub and then we played in a hall, I think it was probably a British Legion hall or something, and then we had another place at Redbridge but none of them were as popular as the Cellar had been.
It was a ‘home’ for it wasn't it?
Yes. And it gradually died out, and the band, the Whytebridge Jazz Band, gradually disintegrated because none of us were business minded enough to hassle up work and we’d been so many years, 3 or 4 years, without ever having to look for anything, all the work we could cope with came to us, nobody had to go and hassle for jobs and so the band just kind of disintegrated and… Every now and again we'd get together and do it again and we did that right up until the 80's, all the same blokes still doing it, but only very occasionally.
Do you know if any of the others, other than your good self, do you know if any of the others from Whytebridge went on to play with any other people?
I told you about Arthur Bird and Ken Colyer.
What period of Ken Colyer was that that he was playing?
I don't know. It would have been in the late ‘70s I should think. Yes in the ‘70s he played for Ken Colyer. Kirk played for the Washboard Syncopators. Ian the trombone player played for Hugh Rainey. Fred gave up because of his day job but the banjo player that followed him, Owen Diplock, and I both joined the Frog Island Band which was a different style of music. Although it is different but it is very similar but it’s where the other music came from!
Yes, it’s a very early form of it wasn't it. Probably the original form. Did you remain with the Frog Island Jazz Band from then on?
Yes, well for a while my brother was one of the original Frog Island Band, playing drums, and he had to give up – once again because of his day job.
What’s your brother’s name?
Peter. He had to give up because of his day job and another chap, Jim Finch, took over and played as the Frog Island drummer. Then Jim Finch went off to New Orleans for a holiday and he didn't come back! In fact he got a job there, in New Orleans, and he stayed there until they came after him to join the Army and then he scooted and came back here quickly before they caught him. In the meantime I'd been playing for the Frog Island Band, not as a member of the band but just keeping them going whilst Jim was in New Orleans. And it went on and on and on and on and before, well I say before….it was quite a long time, it must have been getting on for a year, when it became obvious he wasn’t coming back! And I've been with the band every since which is now about almost 50 years. So I was in the Frog Island Band and the Whytebridge Band at that time and in fact we used to play alternate Fridays in the Essex Arms in Brentwood at that stage so I played every Friday at the Essex Arms at Brentwood because it was one band one week and the other band the other week.
Oh right! How long did that last for, the Essex Arms, do you know?
I would think probably not more than about a year.
Was that a function room there or something?
Yes, at the back. Right by the station at Brentwood, you know?
Yes. So you must have gone on the New Orleans trips as well then with Frog Island?
Oh yes, well I was instrumental along with our original trombone player, we went there on holiday and while we were there we were introduced to and met, and became very good friends with, the manager of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. When I say the manager, George Wein was and is still the owner of the business but she worked as the sort of business manager and she invited the band over, so it was as a result of our original visit over there and just sort of being introduced to her that we got to go over there in the first place, as a band.
That’s quite incredible isn't it. Outside of Frog Island were you playing with any other bands or have been playing with any other bands over the years?
Yes, I played – as I'm sure you understand – sickness and holiday relief, I've been depping for all sorts of bands all over the place, but I played regularly with some bands, one band was called the Going Home Band which was really a recreation of the Ken Colyer Band after Ken Colyer was no longer playing, after he died. Because everybody in the band – apart from the trumpet player obviously – had been part of the Ken Colyer outfit at some stage or another.
That was an honour to be in that band.
Well it was a good band, yes. Then I…really there were comers and goers band, I mean now I play on a fairly regular basis with Brian Giles’s band, have you come across him?
The Mahogany Hall Stompers, a Southend band.
Have they been going for any length of time?
Well Brian Giles has, but the Mahogany Hall Stompers I would say probably going about 5 or 6 years.
What does Brian play?
He’s a trumpet player. His band is based at Southend, with George Tidiman used to play quite often in the early days of that band but he doesn't now. I can't remember all the names of the blokes in that band. Tim Huskisson used to play clarinet, do you know Tim?
I know Tim very well.
Well he's the clarinet player. Rex O’Dell on trombone. Brian on trumpet. Southend Bob on banjo. And Eddie Johnson on bass, do you know Eddie?
Yes. Eddie plays Modern Jazz as well. He’s a real institution, he goes right back to the ‘50s.
As Brian says, his blood group’s discontinued even!