My Musical Training


  Jazz Development in Britain

It is inevitable that, at a time when the BBC is celebrating its Fiftieth Anniversary, the thoughts of those of us in the music profession who lived before the old British Broadcasting Company came into existence, should cast our minds back to the years prior to 1922, and the vast changes that occurred in the social life of the people with the arrival of the first public broadcasting service.

Young people find it difficult to imagine living in a society without radio or television, and with phonograph records in cylinder form- later superseded by discs- to be found in comparatively few homes and with a repertoire consisting largely of performances by the bands of H. M. Brigade of Guards and rather weighty baritone or contralto singers! My own musical training commenced in 1915, with the piano, but musical experiences for me were limited to visits to the cinema (silent films with orchestra), the variety theatre, the cafe or restaurant where an orchestra might be employed, and the park bandstand concert I first heard the C Sharp Minor Prelude of Rachmaninov played by a small salon orchestra in the restaurant at Madame Tussauds' Waxworks Show when I was around six years old, and the first movement of Schubert's B Minor Symphony used as the theme music for the first silent film of Tarzan Of The Apes at our local cinema when I was about nine. This I thought to be a wonderful sound, but never discovered its title until many years later when, as a teenaged timpanist, I found myself actually playing the work.

Introduction to the ballet came for me somewhere around 1917, when the great Karsavina's Company appeared in what was basically a variety show at the London Coliseum. I liked what I saw and heard, but could not understand why nobody said anything! I was, in fact, hearing the music of Tchaikovsky and the other Russian masters for the fir; time. In the years that immediately followed jazz bands were imported into or formed in Britain. I saw and heard a number of them, usually in road shows presented our local variety theatre, the Bedford in Camden Town, now unhappily demolished. So, with such scant opportunity for hearing music in any of its forms, it is obvious that the arrival of broadcasting in 1922, through which music in all its forms became available to every owner of a crystal or primitive valve set, represented something of a artistic revolution- despite the inconvenience in use of the equipment then available.

In those early years of broadcasting there were studio broadcasts of various types of orchestra, as well as relays opera from Britain's one and only maji opera house, and also of dance music and restaurant or Palm Court- type music from hotels and restaurants situated within the areas of the various transmitters of the BBC. Notable among the dance band relays via the old London 2L0 transmitter were those that emanated from the Savoy Hotel. Each week on one or two nights one could he performances by the Orpheans Orchestra the Havana Band, the Selma Four and, little later, the Boston Orchestra and the Sylvians. The music. was substantial commercial in content, but there we many good tunes written at that tin that ultimately became musicians' music— used for jazz extemporisation.

While amongst the repertoire of the Orpheans and Havana units could be found a good sprinkling of jazz items, including: "Copenhagen", "Eccentric", "Farewell Blues", "Hen Pecked Blues" and "Everybody Stomp". Also relayed from the Savoy Hotel were the Varaldi Tango Band and later the Fillipotto and Arriotto Tango Orchestra, both imported and very authentic. From the old Hotel Cecil, which stood where the Shell Mex Building now stands, there were broadcasts by John Birmingham's Band, which was succeeded by Jack Payne's Band and, later, by his Cecilians. From the old Hotel Metropole, in Northumberland Avenue, now used as Government offices, there were broadcasts by the band of Jay Whidden, an American violinist and personality vocalist, who employed a British personnel, and the light orchestra of Emilio Colombo.

One also heard broadcasts from the New Princes Restaurant in Piccadilly by Hal Swain's Toronto Band and Alfredo's Band; from the Cafe de Paris by Syd Roy's Lyricals (including brother Harry) and Teddy Brown's Band; from the Kit Kat Club, in the Haymarket, by the American band of Isham Jones and Jack Hylton's Kit Kat Band, led by the American saxophonist, A1 Starita, who had previously played with the Savoy Orpheans, and, from Kettner's Restaurant in Soho, by Geoffrey Gelder's Band.

There were many others, too numerous to detail here, .but the perhaps most important effect of these broadcasts was the stimulating of public interest in music and of their desire to see the bands and orchestras in the flesh, with the result that many of them found employment on stage and topped the bill in variety or appeared in musical shows. At the old Alhambra Theatre in Charing Cross Road, which stood where the Odeon Cinema now stands, but facing Leicester Square, Jack Hylton topped the variety bill with his band for forty- eight consecutive weeks.

The broadcasting period to which I have referred covered the years 1922 to 1926, although broadcast relays occurred for many more years, but the content of these will have to await a future article. In conclusion, it is right to acknowledge that, whatever we may nave thought about some of the BBC's later output, the formative years of sound broadcasting really put live music before the masses and thus made a far greater contribution to the art than television has ever managed to achieve.