HARRY FRANCIS

Smaller Groups

Index

  Jazz Development in Britain

Between 1923 and 1935 a number of smaller groups operated with a decided jazz policy, despite the general tendency of the time to frown upon jazz as being crude; I would list several, merely as examples who were successful in influencing the trend of others.

There was Arthur Rosebery, a stylish and much respected pianist, whose band at the Kit Kat Club in 1929 included such players as Paul Fenoulhet on trombone, Doug Bastin on both trumpet and alto, Reg Pink on tenor and bass saxophones, Bob Wise on alto and clarinet and Len Lee on drums. Much of the music they played was pure jazz and I think it not unfair to suggest that they were influenced to at least some extent by the Elizalde band, which concluded its engagement at the Savoy Hotel in the same year.

The Rosebery band was regarded at the time, within London professional circles, as being of considerable significance, and as it also undertook a number of broadcasting and recording commitments it did help to present jazz to a wider public. I also recollect that this bard played at another establishment called the Wunderbar, a rather obvious play on the German word, which was situated somewhere in London's Strand. 1n 1932 there was something of an attempt by the management. of the Cafe de Paris to revive interest in jazz. For some weeks they presented the New Dixieland Band. consisting of Dave Frost (leader, piano), Frankie Morgan (drums, Harry Owen (trumpet) Jack Collins (trombone) and Sid Millward (clarinet).

The latter, of course, many years later became famous with his comedy Nitwits band, a fine musician whose death a few years ago was a great loss to the music profession. The attempt to stimulate interest in jazz proved to be something of a flash in the pan, but was not entirely unsuccessful as at that time general standards were already improving rapidly; such experiments encouraged other bandleaders to introduce more jazz items in their programmes and, of course their musicians responded accordingly.

When I joined Dave Frost a couple of years later in a small band he took into Odone's Restaurant in London's Victoria area (now a small cinema specialising in erotic films) there was no trace of Dixieland about Dave's music policy, but the band, consisting of Harry Goodman (baritone clarinet) Harry Balen (alto violin) Jack Ambrose (tenor, clarinet), Wally Morris (bass), Dave and yours truly, proved to be both stylish and versatile enough to make the job really enjoyable.

There was plenty of mid- thirties- type jazz in our repertoire. Around the time that the New Dixieland Band was at the Cafe de Paris, I spent about seven months at the Tricity Restaurant, which was then on the corner of Savoy Hill and the Strand, with a band known as Eddie Norris and his Ambassadors. To the best of my recollection the Tricity had opened around 1928 with a band under the direction of Jay Wilbur, a South African, who was a little later to establish himself as one of the leading recording music directors employing many of the finest players of the period.

Wilbur's Tricity band was, I think, followed by that of American eccentric dancer/ comedian, Ben BlueŚ a British group that had been organised for Blue by another American then domiciled in Britain in the person of drummer Eddie Grossbart. Its instrumentation consisted of trumpet, trombone, alto, tenor, banjo, piano and drums, and in addition to working at the Tricity it also fulfilled some dates in Variety. I recollect seeing the band at the old Alhambra Theatre in Charing Cross Road, but regret that I cannot remember details of the personnel except Grossbart. I do, however. recollect a number they worked called "The Brown Bowler", in which Ben Blue, who incidentally was one of the great dancers and has throughout the decades since been a highly successful Hollywood comedian and character actor, danced from musician to musician in turn transferring a brown bowler hat from head to head, whereupon the wearer played a jazz solo.

The solos were good and the presentation snappy, and again the effect was to take jazz to a wider public. A point perhaps of special interest to drummers is that in those days foot cymbal pedals were not generally in use, although they already existed. Eddie Grossbart, like many other drummers, was then using the old fixed after- beat cymbal clamped bottom upwards on to the left- hand side of his snare- drum stand. The technique required was considerable, and reminiscent of that of the earlier "double" drummers. Ben Blue's band was followed into the Tricity by, I think, that of Joe Kosky about which I remember little except that I think it included a young violinist named Oscar Grasso, who was destined to become one of the pillars of the Victor Silvester organisation.

The Ambasadors followed Kosky's band and, although not intended to be a jazz band, nevertheless included a considerable amount of jazz in its repertoireŚ much to the annoyance of the manager! It was in this band that I first met and became close friends with Andy Hodgkiss, whose terribly premature death just a few years later robbed the profession of one who would I think, have become a really significant figure in British jazz development. As it was he made a most important contribution and, in the Summer of 1932, was already arranging for the Roy Fox Orchestra when Fox was till at the Monseigneur.

An arrangement of the old number "Chicago" by Andy brought about its first revival in Britain, long before the names of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett were known to us. It was, in fact, Andy who first introduced me to Louis Armstrong an experience about which I have already written when we attended the Palladium first house one evening before dashing down to the Tricity for our usual nine p. m. start, It was on that occasion that Andy very nearly blew us out of the job for nothing could induce him not to blow the Armstrong way throughout the evening, including an attempt to emulate Armstrong's then "medley"- type version of "Tiger Rag". in which he played snatches from "Pagliacci", "National Emblem March". "Singing In The Rain" and "The Irish Washerwoman." Our rather stolid and humourless German restaurant manager nearly had apoplexy.

I have previously given some indication of the problems with which Armstrong was faced in that year due to the, in my opinion, unjustified criticism of his West Indian band. Before his season was completed he was, in fact, persuaded by his advisors (ill- advisors would perhaps be a better description) to replace the West Indians by a band of British white stars of the time. The result was disastrous and in a couple of weeks his agents were searching for personnel for yet another band. I was quite overwhelmed to find myself among those so approached but incredible as it may seem, I did not accept because despite the obvious temptation to join the great man, I could not afford to give up a regular West- End job which was to last seven months, to take on a few weeks' engagement in the starry environment of the Armstrong band.

The temptation was nevertheless very strong but, the economic situation in 1932 being what it was, my will- power simply had to be stronger! When Armstrong returned to Britain in 1933, however, he made no mistake of accepting the advice of those whose enthusiasm was greater than their experience. He formed an excellent band composed mainly of West Indians, with the assistance I seem to recall of Leslie Thompson, mentioned earlier as a member of the Spike Hughes Orchestra, a first- class musician with whom it was my privilege to work a great deal in later years.