Tag Archives: British jazz

THEY WERE BOILING WITH MUSIC: “AN UNHOLY ROW: JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960,” by DAVE GELLY

I enjoyed reading writer / musician Dave Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW: JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960 (published by Equinox) all the way through. I am a difficult audience for most books of jazz history that propose to cover a period of the music in a larger context (as opposed to a biography or autobiography).  Most times I find such books engaging chronological collages at best that never capture a larger world. Gelly’s quick-moving book has many good stories in it, covering those intense years in 167 pages, but his tales are all wisely connected.

His writing is also a pleasure: the book is not a series of quotations knitted together. One hears his voice: witty but not cruel, stylish but not self-absorbed. Here is part of the book’s opening chapter, an autobiographical fragment from which the book’s title comes:

I think there were five of us, all aged about fourteen, gathered in the ‘games room’ of a substantial family villa on the leafy southern fringes of London. We were equipped with musical instruments — battered cornet, decrepit clarinet, miscellaneous bits of a drum kit — and were doing out best to emulate our heroes, Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band. We had been at it for some time when the door burst open to reveal our unwitting host, the cornetist’s father. ‘Will you kindly stop making that unholy row?’ he demanded, in a voice more weary than irate, and withdrew.

The 1950s, as we are often reminded, was an age of deference. Accordingly, we shut up at once, abashed but not entirely surprised. By any standards, ‘an unholy row’ was a pretty fair description of our efforts, but even if we had been competent musicians, even if we had been Humph and his Band themselves, I wouldn’t mind betting that, as far as the cornetist’s father was concerned, it would still have been an unholy row. The whole thing was offensive to ears attuned to the BBC Midland Light Orchestra or the swing-and-water piano of Charlie Kunz. 

I could have gone on reproducing Gelly’s prose happily, but this brief bit (and he is rarely so autobiographical as the book proceeds) will do to convey his accuracy, charm, and subtlety.

I began taking notes on my reading early on, and find that I have too many of them to even hint at here. Gelly is understandably fascinated by the great individualists in British jazz of the period — famous (Humphrey Lyttelton, Sandy Brown, John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott) and less so (my new hero Spike Mackintosh, George Siprac) but the book is not simply a series of portraits.

Gelly, a fine cultural historian, is curious about artistic movements, not necessarily those as defined by the journalists of the time, but as manifested in groups, recordings, and seismic shifts of taste and commerce. Sometimes these movements are given names: “trad,” “skiffle,” “blues,” “rock,” other times they are only apparent in hindsight.  Much of this might be familiar, even subliminally, to listeners and collectors who know the period, but where Gelly is invaluable is in his awareness of redefinitions within audiences.

What happens to an art form that is — of necessity — enacted in public in front of audiences — when those audiences change, develop, grow older? That, I think, is Gelly’s larger question, one which transcends the names of the music, the players, the clubs, the measures of popularity.  Even if you weren’t deeply involved in British jazz of the period, the question not easily answered.  His thoughtful inquiry makes this book well worth reading, with no hint of the classroom, no pages of statistics, no Authorities beyond the musicians and listeners who were there on the scene.

But I must backtrack and write that when I was only a few pages in, I suddenly had a small stammer of anxiety: “What if the only reason I am enjoying this book so is because of my essential US ignorance of the UK scene? What would an UK reader who knew this as native culture and experience think?” And a few days later (as I was happily reading) the answer appeared in the shape of Peter Vacher’s enthusiastic review for thejazzbreakfast. Here is an excerpt:

gelly cover[Gelly] is, and has been for many years, the jazz correspondent of the Observer newspaper, has written perceptive biographies of his heroes, Stan Getz and Lester Young (the latter also published by Equinox) and of even greater moment plays jazz tenor saxophone professionally and well. Born in 1938, Gelly embraced jazz and began to play during the very period which the book covers. So his is a commentary informed as much by first-hand knowledge as it is by his extensive research.

The subtitle suggests something more than a strictly chronological account of jazz in Britain during the cited decade and a half and that is what Gelly delivers here. He’s good at capturing the mores of the times, as Britain moved from a war-time economy to the first awakening of the ‘never-had-it-so-good 1960s’.

This was when jazz found an audience among the young, newly-liberated from the stifling conventions that had marked their parents’ lives, sometimes to their seniors’ despair, hence the title of the book. He’s even-handed about styles, understanding the sincerity of the early revivalists and tracing the rise and rise of traditional jazz and skiffle before moving over to consider the passionate espousal of the modern style promoted by the collective known as Club Eleven and the more aware dance band players of the day.

He rightly emphasises the role played by the open-minded Humphrey Lyttelton and John Dankworth, two men who largely shook off their early American influences as they sought to produce distinctive music of their own. There’s social history here but it’s British jazz history too, neatly caught and clearly expressed. No fuss, no over-elaboration, all appropriate quotations included . . . . 

Peter is typically correct; it was a relief to know that I book I was so enjoying had much to offer readers who knew the terrain by heart.

Early on in the book, Gelly chronicles a number of what he calls “the Armstrong moment” — that instantaneous conversion to jazz experienced by listeners and players.  (The late US pianist Larry Eanet wrote of the moment when some records by Louis and Earl Hines “hit” him “like Cupid’s arrow.”)

AN UNHOLY ROW gave me a literary version of “the Armstrong moment.”  I am now a Gelly convert, and want to read his other books.  I predict you will, too.

May your happiness increase!

“A LOVELY MAN”: PORTRAITS OF SPIKE MACKINTOSH

Thanks to Dave Gelly and his book AN UNHOLY ROW, I found out about the magnificently subtle musician, trumpeter Ian Robert “Spike” Mackintosh, and wrote this in his honor.

Ian Cuthbert, attentive and generous, pointed me to one volume of the British singer George Melly’s autobiography, OWNING-UP, where there was a brief but memorable “pen portrait” of my elusive hero.  Here it is — and I am pleased that Spike in person is as singular as his trumpet playing.

. . . there was a whole generation of jazz musicians in England who predated the revival [which Melly dates as beginning in 1951] and yet played swinging music in the Harlem style of the late thirties. Some were professionals . . . . Others were amateurs, and the most remarkable of these was a timber merchant called Ian “Spike” Mackintosh who played trumpet in the style of mid-period Louis Armstrong. Small and neat, a little mustache and horn-rimmed spectacles, he looked exactly what he was, two sons down at Public School and a house at Cuffley. But inside him was a wild man in chains. He played with extreme modesty, his back to the audience, and a green beret full of holes hanging over the bell of his trumpet. In conversation he was both courteous and restrained, but he could become very aggressive if anyone suggested that there was any other trumpet player except his hero.

At parties there was a psychological moment when he would lurch towards the gramophone and take off whatever record was playing if it hadn’t got a Louis on it, and substitute one that had. Another anti-social habit was his reaction when his host turned down the volume. He’d just wait until he wasn’t looking and turn it up again.

He once offered Mick [Mulligan] and me a lift home from a suburban jazz club in his car, and when we were safely inside, drove all the way out to Cuffley despite our protests. His wife was away, and he wanted us to sit up all night listening to Louis and drinking whisky. It was an enjoyable night, and it didn’t finish until three p.m. the following day when the local closed. It was just that we hadn’t planned on it. Mackintosh’s friends were another hazard: huge city men in waistcoats, and pre-war musicians with patent leather hair. . . . despite Mac’s party tricks and city mates, we all liked him very much. He was kind, loyal, and generous, and he could, when on form, play absolutely beautifully.

This comes from pages 100-1 of my paperback copy of OWNING-UP — a book whose spine was nearly broken at those pages.  Was its previous owner also looking for Spike?

And this reminiscence (in August 2014) by the very gracious Ralph Laing:

Spike was a well-off London timber merchant with a passion for jazz and Louis in particular. To my knowledge the only sides he cut commercially were the feature on Sandy Brown’s ‘Sandy’s Sidemen’ and the Wally Fawkes sides you have on Lake. Like Wally he was never a professional, and in his early days was an inveterate sitter-in. Sandy featured him usually on the 100 Club alfresco Thursday night. He had three loves – his sons (all well positioned, especially billionaire Cameron), Louis Armstrong and booze. As he got older the latter dominated and it was hard to get him to play, although he often carted his trumpet around. I persuaded him to do a few numbers with my band at a Edinburgh Festival sometime in the late 1980’s, and that was unusual. Stan Greig and I, though, did spend many hours with him at my flat in Edinburgh (he always attended the Festival), listening to Louis, Jabbo Smith and Jack Purvis.  He loved to talk about and listen to jazz, and was a founder member of the Codgers, a group of London musicians and ex-musicians who cared about music (and a drink) – Wally, Stan, Ian Christie and Jack Hutton (ex-Melody Maker editor) among them. When he died his sons mounted the greatest jazz wake in British history at the ‘Pizza On The Park’ taking over the downstairs supper/night club and dispensing endless refreshment to most of the jazz fraternity. Those present and still alive remember it with awe. The surviving Codgers still host an annual Xmas dinner in his memory. He was a lovely man, unlike most, endearing and funny in his cups. I miss him.

Leader of the Classic Jazz Orchestra Ken Mathieson came up with these anecdotes, “in the book THE BEST OF JAZZ SCORE, which consists of selected excerpts from the BBC radio programme of the same name”:

George Melly:
Spike McIntosh played trumpet with the Wally Fawkes Band in the late 1950s. He was a great fan of Messrs Gordon’s and Louis Armstrong. In fact I suspect his real reason for playing the trumpet was to capture other musicians and take them home with him in order to drink the product of one and listen to the product of the other.

Humphrey Lyttelton:
There is a lovely story about Spike McIntosh being at a party at Wally Fawkes’ house. In those days Wally had a large divider in his main room which was covered in pottery, glassware, bowls of fruit and that sort of thing. Typically, Spike was among the last to leave and, as he got himself out of an armchair, he stumbled into this divider which crashed to the floor with Spike sprawled across the wreckage.

The crash woke up Wally’s daughter, then about nine years old. She came out on to the landing in some distress. Prostrate in the middle of the wreckage, Spike saw her at the top of stairs and, with as much dignity as he could muster, he said “Shouldn’t that child be in bed?”

Although his famous son, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, has been acerbic when mentioning his father in interviews, he was more affectionate in his extended sketch for the book, DADS: A CELEBRATION OF FATHERHOOD BY BRITAIN’S FINEST AND FUNNIEST, ed. Sarah Brown and Gil McNeil (Random House, 2008). This excerpt begins with Spike in the Second World War:

. . . . he was blown up . . .in the Egyptian desert during Montgomery’s rout of Rommel, at the Battle of El Alamein, and was rescued by some passing Bedouins who took him back to Cairo where he lay unconscious for three months. While recuperating, he was summoned to play for King Farouk, whose son loved jazz. Throughout his adventures, Dad’s trusted trumpet never left his side or his hospital bed.

Jazz was his life and he played with a veritable Who’s Who of British jazz (Humphrey Lyttelton, Wally Fawkes, Sandy Brown to name but a few). He even played with his hero Louis Armstrong whose style he closely mirrored, and, at one impromptu gig, Louis borrowed Dad’s treasured Selmer trumpet so he could join in. However, Dad had to make a living as a timber merchant to feed and educate three hungry boys — especially me — as jazz simply didn’t pay that much. The fact that Dad couldn’t make music his sole profession had one silver lining for myself and my two brothers, Nicky and Robert, as he always encouraged us to do anything we wanted as a career. His other great example was that he always went through life thinking the best of people — ‘jolly good chap’ — and was genuinely disappointed if they turned out to be ‘a rotter.’  This was counterbalanced by our mother’s far more beady approach to life.

Having met my mother Diana in Naples towards the end of the war, when they were both working for E.N.S.A., the Army’s entertainment division, he was no stranger to the flamboyance of show business, so I had no opposition to my dreams of being a theatre producer, nor did my youngest brother, Nicky, in becoming a chef or my middle brother Robert, in going into the music business, as both a writer and a record producer. Dad still managed to play regularly throughout his life and made several terrific recordings with his colleagues.

In retrospect, one of his other great gifts to us was taking us to see many of the jazz greats in their prime and sometimes introducing us to them after the show. Who could forget the dazzling concerts of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong? The brilliant trombone playing of Jack Teagarden, the haunting saxophone of Johnny Hodges, the dazzling piano playing of Art Tatum and Earl Hines, and going to an intimate Ronnie Scott’s to see Ella Fitzgerald.

Every time I hear these great artists on the radio, I go, ‘Thanks Dad,’ and hear him ‘Zaba Doo Zatz’ in his inimitable musical ‘Satchmo’ growl, as he gratefully sips another pint.  

Two more visual portraits: the front and back cover of the vinyl issue of SANDY’S SIDEMEN, devoted to compositions by trumpeter Al Fairweather:

SANDY'S SIDEMEN lp cover

Spike, caricatured, at the top.

SANDY'S SIDEMEN lp backand a few words by Sandy Brown about Spike and his work on the “straight ballad,” HIGH TIME.

But the most affecting portrait of Spike Mackintosh I can offer is his music. Here is my homemade video of HIGH TIME, where his playing is both delicate and powerful. (The volume level is low, but you can always repair that.):

I need to know more about the reticent creator of such beauty.

May your happiness increase!

HENRY “RED” ALLEN, 1964

The deservedly famous version of ROSETTA by trumpeter Red Allen comes from the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ — this version is far less well-known and pairs the ebullient Red, singing as well, with the Alex Welsh band in 1964.  Welsh was a fine trumpeter, joined by trombonist Roy Crimmins, tenorist Al Gay, pianist Fred Hunt, guitarist Jim Douglas, bassist Ron Mathiewson, and drummer Lennie Hastings.  I especially enjoy the quiet, moaning tones with which Red begins his second solo . . . .before the performance starts up again with even greater vehemence.