Bert Ambrose


  Jazz Development in Britain

Throughout the period with which I have already dealt— in fact, from four years prior to its commencement— a British- based band that had set a consistently high standard of performance, one accepted by the profession as an example to be emulated, was that of Bert Ambrose. Commencing his professional career as a most competent violinist, Ambrose worked for long spells in both America— to which country he had emigrated as a teenager— and Britain. He first put his own orchestra into the famous Embassy Club in London's New Bond Street in 1920. It had an excellent Anglo- American personnel but, because the public who could afford to patronise the club was limited, and broadcasting was then still in its infancy, all too few people were given an opportunity for enjoying the orchestra's performances.

Ambrose left the Embassy Club in 1922 to again work in America, but was persuaded to return to the club after a comparatively short period. He remained there until transferring to the Mayfair Hotel, when it was opened in March 1927, for which engagement he formed a new orchestra. Saxophonist Joe Crossman transferred with him to the Mayfair, but the remainder of the orchestra continued working at the 'Embassy Club under the leadership of one of its Americans, the pianist, Max Raderman.

The transfer of Ambrose's activities was an important development in not only his own career but also in the widening of the influence of his policy of maintaining a high standard of perfection, which included many jazz- orientated arrangements, upon the music profession at large. The transfer also resulted in the orchestra's performance reaching a far wider public, due to fairly frequent outside broadcasts, gramophone recordings and a few stage appearances. By early 1928 the American members of the orchestra were saxophonist Perley Breed, trumpeter Sylvester Ahola, pianist Leo Kahn and guitarist Joe Brannelly, to all of whom I have previously referred, but it also included some af Britain's finest players in the persons of trombonist Ted Heath, drummer Max Bacon, trumpeter Dennis Ratcliffe, bassist Dick Escott and saxophonist Joe Jeannette. A few months later, however, Breed was replaced by Arthur Lally and Kahn by Bert Read and, although Ahola remained until 1930, he ultimately decided to go home and was replaced by Max Goldberg. In 1929 a dispute arose between the management of the Mayfair Hotel and the BBC, which resulted in British radio listeners being deprived of broadcasts by the Ambrose Orchestra, but by 1930 it was back on the air in augmented form.

Joe Crossman had moved off to join Jack Hylton and Arthur Lally had taken over the leadership of another Ambrose group, the Blue Lyres, at the then new Dorchester Hotel. Their places had been taken by American Danny Polo and Billy Amstell both great jazz players, and Sid Phillips had been added to the reeds on baritone and clarinet. Trumpeter Arthur Niblo had been brought in to augment the brass and Don Stuteley had taken over the bass chair from Dick Escott.

Later in 1933, Ambrose returned for the last time to the Embassy Club and, between then and September 1936, when he again took the orchestra back to the Mayfair Hotel, there were further augmentations resulting in just about the perfect ensemble. Last month, however, I promised that I should this month be dealing with the period 1931/ 35; so I shall draw my line at 1935, during which year, amongst many well-arranged commercial tunes, impeccably played, the Ambrose library contained arrangements of "Embassy Stomp", an original by Bert Barnes who, by then, had taken over the piano chair from Bert Read, "Copenhagen", the old Davis and Melrose stomp, arranged by Sid Phillips, "Tiger Rag" and others, all of which represented really driving big band jazz that still stands up nearly forty years later.

These numbers were all recorded and the personnel on the sessions consisted of the musicians already listed for 1930 plus Lew Davis and Tony Thorpe on trombones, but with only two trumpets, those of Goldberg and Ratcliffe. There had also been a change of bass, Dick Ball having taken over from Don Stuteley. Meantime, another great orchestra had been operating since 1932, which I shall bracket with the Ambrose Orchestra as the material for my third important milestone. I refer to the orchestra of Lew Stone.

First we must return to the autumn of 1930 when Roy Fox, billed as "The Whispering Cornetist", had brought his Californian Band to London's Cafe De Paris. The band made little impression upon the British music scene but, when it returned to the States after eight weeks, Fox elected to stay in Britain and obtained permission from the then Ministry of Labour to form an all-British orchestra. In 1931 he also became music adviser to the then new Decca Record Company. He also took his orchestra into the Monseigneur Restaurant in Piccadilly, London, in the same year, with a line-up of musicians chosen from among Britain's best, including Lew Stone as pianist-arranger, Bill Harty on drums, Don Stuteley on bass and, as guitar/ vocalist, A1 Bowlly, who had previously succeeded Dickie Maxwell with Fred Elizalde's Music.

Fox had found himself a ready-made brass section when Sid Buckman, Nat Gonella and Joe Ferrie had left Billy Cotton en bloc to join him, whilst the reeds were handled by Ernie Ritte, Billy Amstell (who was later succeeded by Jim Easton) and Harry Berly, the latter also playing viola. Buckman, Ferrie, Stone and Gonella also contributed vocals in a variety of styles.

The orchestra turned in a truly stylish and entertaining performance, broadcasting and recording regularly, but, in the winter of 1931, Fox fell ill and had to leave the orchestra in the capable hands of Lew Stone. Returning to activity in the following year, Fox fairly soon found himself at difference with the Monseigneur management and, in the September, announced his intention of leaving. The orchestra, however, with the exception of Sid Buckman, elected to stay on at the restaurant under Lew Stone's direction, and the new orchestra commenced its engagement in the following month.

Joe Crossman had been brought in on first alto, Lew Davis, who was later to move over to the Ambrose Orchestra came in on first trombone, whilst Alfie Noakes came in to replace Sid Buckman.

Don Stuteley had decided to move on so Tiny Winters came in on bass and, to leave Stone free to direct the orchestra from out front, Eddie Carroll took over the piano chair. Lew Stone, of course, had already contributed much to the British music scene for, prior to joining Roy Fox, he had been a prolific free- lance arranger for many important orchestras, including, as will be remembered from my concluding statement last month, that of Bert Ambrose.

We were in 1931 just about entering what became generally known as the Swing era, which had then been inspired by the great orchestras of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, the Dorsey brothers, some though by no means all of the bands backing Louis Armstrong, and a number of others. But, I think, the one that was probably most influential in the style at that time was the Casa Loma Orchestra, the music director of which was Glen Gray. So although, like Ambrose, Stone had to include many commercial tunes appropriately arranged, in the orchestra s repertoire, he made sure that it contained many numbers arranged in the Swing style, into which he threw himself with enormous enthusiasm.

It was in the Summer of 1932 that Louis Armstrong made his first visit to London, to lead a West Indian band in variety at the Palladium where his reception was decidedly mixed. The band was criticised within the profession, mainly, I think, because they were not Americans, but Armstrong himself was also criticised by some musicians, who had admired his work on records for several years but who now found his physical presentation, in their judgement, to be crude. There was also criticism from among the lay public, who hardly knew what it was all about. And, of course, he was inevitably a victim of the racists of the day.

When I saw the show there was an interruption by racists, but it was quickly dealt with and a vast majority of the audience appeared to enjoy the performance, as I certainly did. I have always held the opinion that, although the band, which included several musicians who some years later worked with Ken "Snakehips" Johnson's Band, were given little opportunity to shine, they gave Armstrong a better backing that we had heard him receive from bands playing behind him in some of his recordings. I met him between shows as I recall, an exuberant young man of some 32 years, who seemed quite happy about the way things were going, and I could not then know that I should next meet him, in my later capacity as an official of the Musicians' Union, some 24 years on! Armstrong's influence, however, was substantially and naturally among our trumpet players, and Nat Gonella, of course, had been a disciple since his days with Billy Cotton. But, although one heard Armstrong- like sounds emanating from within the Lew Stone brass section, the overall orchestral sound was much nearer that of the Casa Loma Orchestra which, incidentally, although a Swing orchestra had been responsible for re- introducing the description "Jazz" into the music vocabulary with their "White Jazz", "Blue Jazz", "Black Jazz", "Yellow Jazz" and "Jazznochracy".

There were also grand arrangements of "Alexander's Ragtime Band", "Bugle Call Rag", "Royal Garden Blues", "San Sue Strut", "Casa Loma Stomp" and a host of other "swingers", along with an equal number of well-scored commercial numbers. For, like the orchestras of Ambrose and Stone, the Casa Loma, who recorded hundreds of titles, also had to cater for hotel audiences, who were not usually very discerning from a musical point of view. The Lew Stone Orchestra featured a number of the Casa Loma jazz or Swing arrangements, as did many other lesser British orchestras. And many arrangers too, whilst not actually cribbing from the Casa Loma arrangements, were certainly influenced by their type of scoring, which demanded an almost clockwork precision from the ensemble and highly technical solo and, from the reed section, unison work. An outstanding example of the latter is to be heard in "White Jazz". From 1933 onwards, up to the second world war, the orchestras of Stone and Ambrose were rivals for the position of Britain's top style-setting ensemble, and within the profession opinions were about equally divided.

There were other important contenders for the title, including the orchestras of Ray Noble, Roy. Fox, who had launched a new group, and Patrick "Spike" Hughes, but later I shall attempt to explain why I do not consider their contributions to jazz development, important as they undoubtedly were, to have rated so highly as those of Ambrose and Stone.