Jazz Orientated Groups


  Jazz Development in Britain

I have referred to a number of small jazz- orientated groups of the period because I think the contribution of such groups— and there were many others— to the development of jazz most important. Indeed, collectively, I would regard them as the fourth of my milestones although, I think, those that got to a wider public through the media of broadcasting, the variety stage or ballrooms probably made a greater contribution than those who were heard mainly by the well- to- do but more limited clientele of London's West End hotels, restaurants and clubs.

There were, of course, groups the activities of which were restricted to the gramophone recording studios, such as those of George Scott- Wood and Phil Green but, before dealing with these, perhaps the two most successful in this medium, I would first refer to the larger recording orchestra of Ray Noble.

For many years, I believe from days prior to World War I, there had been at the HMV studios a "house" orchestra carrying the title of The New Mayfair Orchestra. There had been many music directors, but I think it is of interest to us here to review the orchestra from around the 1928 period when Carroll Gibbons, of Savoy Hotel fame, took over the direction and a little later Ray Noble was appointed his assistant.

The orchestra in those days included the finest musicians of the period, borrowed, of course, from other orchestras normally employed by other band- leaders in various West End establishments. In 1930, when Gibbons accepted a contract from MGM which took him to America, the country of his birth, for a period, he recommended Noble as his successor. The personnel of the orchestra was a varied one, but at that time generally included players like Max Goldberg and Bill Shakespeare (trumpets), Tony Thorpe (trombone), Laurie Payne, Bob Wise, Ernie Ritte and George Smith (reeds), Eric Siday, Jean Pougnet and Reg Pursglove (violins), Bert Thomas (guitar), Jack Evetts (bass), Harry Jacobson (piano) and Bill Harty (drums), with Al Bowlly handling most of the vocals.

A great deal of the orchestra's output was decidedly commercial dance music, impeccably arranged by Ray Noble himself who, of course, was also one of the top composers of popular music of the day and was responsible for such numbers as "The Very Thought Of You”, "Goodnight, Sweetheart", “Love Is The Sweetest Thing", "Cherokee" and "By The Fireside". But when required to play Swing or jazz- orientated numbers they always gave, as would be expected from such a personnel, a first- class account of themselves. Their recording of "Tiger Rag" was a typical example of this, recorded in 1933 by which time Nat Gonella had been added to the trumpeters, Lew Davis had replaced Tony Thorpe, "Poggy" Pogson, Freddy Gardner and Harry Berly had replaced Laurie Payne, Ernie Ritte and George Smith in the reed section. Tiny Winters had replaced Jack Evetts, and Cecil Norman, I think, had replaced Harry Jacobson.

Because, in my opinion, it was taken at too fast a tempo, it was not the best performance of the "Rag" that I have heard, but it was nevertheless played with great precision and there were fine solos from Gardner on alto saxophone, one of the truly, great players, Lew Davis and Nat Gonella; the latter as usual in the style of his idol— Louis Armstrong.

Here incidentally there is an interesting point of comparison to be made in relation to my earlier remarks about Gonella's style, for his solo in this recording and the one he played only three months later in the Lew Stone recording were completely dissimilar. Both were in the Armstrong style, but by no means exactly like any solo he ever played in various performances of the number. After a while, the orchestra became known as Ray Noble's Orchestra, the title which then appeared on its record labels but, of course, it remained only a studio orchestra. Indeed, if anyone had offered Noble a hotel engagement he could not have provided the same personnel without the permission of the leaders of about five of the principal orchestras of the time.

In 1934, however, Noble decided to accept an American contract, taking both Bill Harty and A1 Bowlly with him to the States, and it is interesting to recall that his first orchestra there included Glenn Miller, Sylvester Ahola and, on piano Claude Thornhill, a brilliant musician and musical director in his own right, who it was my privilege to meet some years later, not long prior to his premature death, when he came to see me about plans he had for directing a British orchestra.

Bowlly, of course, ultimately returned to Britain and was a victim of the Nazi "blitz" on London in April 1941, and Harty, who had been succeeded in the Lew Stone Orchestra by Jock Jacobson, died in the States many years ago. The Ray Noble Orchestra was undoubtedly one of Britain's finest, and made an important though limited contribution to big band jazz but, like that of Spike Hughes, its existence was only possible because other first- class orchestras existed, working in regular West End engagements.

Those, for instance, of Ambrose, Lew Stone and Carroll Gibbons— the latter having returned to Britain before the end of 1931 to form yet another Savoy Orpheans. After Noble's departure for the States the "house" bookings at HMV were handled by George Scott- Wood and Phil Green and were for much smaller groups, the former having at least two and the latter several. It is with their jazz groups, however, that we are here concerned, Wood's being known as The Six Swingers and Green's as the Ballyhooligans.

They won a substantial following among record buyers, who became fans of their extremely well- played and straight- forward jazz, but in those days recording artists did not receive the publicity boosting that their modern counterparts enjoy and their circulation was inevitably limited. The Swingers instrumentation consisted of trumpet, trombone, alto saxophone/ clarinet and four rhythm It included from time to time such players as Max Goldberg, Harry Owen, Ted Heath, Freddy Gardner, Joe Crossman, guitarist Harry Thorne and, I think from one of their 78s still in my library, bassist Dick Ball, borrowed, like some of the others, from the Ambrose Orchestra. Scott- Wood was the pianist. Green's line- up consisted of clarinet, two pianos, guitar, bass and drums, the leader playing first piano and Jack Phillips usually playing the second. The clarinet was played by Harry Smith, succeeded later I recall by Frank Weir, the guitar by either George Elliott or Joe Young, and the bass by either Wally Morris or George Senior.

The drummer was Max Lewin, one of the finest all- round percussionists with whom it was my pleasure to work, whose solos on the Ballyhooligan tracks were in my opinion five years ahead of their time for, at that period, most British drummers were still playing in the styles of either Stan King or Gene Krupa, or perhaps a little of each. Max based his solos upon the twelve- quavers- to- the- bar, open roll, technique which "arrived" on the British scene around 1938 or 1939, when we heard records of the immediately pre- war Glenn Miller Orchestra, in which it was featured by Maurice Purtill.