Spike Hughes


  Jazz Development in Britain

Like many other enthusiasts, "Spike" Hughes soon switched his allegiance to the work of Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, whose recordings, along with those of others, including his own, he now (in 1932/ 3) reviewed for a musical journal under the nom de plume of "Mike". He also contributed articles on arranging and generally made an important contribution to the popularising of jazz— especially as interpreted by the big bands.

It must also be recorded, lest those who, like me, were around at the time think I am overlooking or hiding the obvious, that through the medium of his record reviews as "Mike" he was able to do much to publicise the work of his recording orchestra which, by 1932 when this was all happening, had grown to thirteen or fourteen players. But I would hasten to add that the orchestra was well worthy of such favourable publicity— even when promoted in this way by its own leader.

I still own a record of a couple of sides cut, I think in 1932, of two traditional Negro spirituals, "Joshua Fought The Battle Of Jericho" and "Roll Jordan", which were arranged by Hughes, in which Lew Davis and Bill Mulraney were featured in trombone duets, the former playing tightly- muted jazz obbligati to the open-toned straight melody of the latter; similar to the duets played by Jack Teagarden and Glenn Miller with the Red Nichols Orchestra a year or so earlier.

Also to be heard to good effect is the tenor saxophone of Buddy Featherstonhaugh and the alto of Harry Hayes, whilst Bill Harty drives things along with his unmistakable "Stan King"-type drumming. Hughes, of course, is to be heard on bass but, listening to the disc after all these years, I could not now be certain about who else was on the session, although the combination consisted of five brass; three reeds and four rhythm. Bill Harty, incidentally, was by then normally working with the Roy Fox Orchestra at the Monseigneur Restaurant.

A little later, however, when the orchestra recorded "Six Bells Stampede"—a joint composition by Hughes and Billy Munn inspired by the rush that occurred during the "take ten" break between Decca's old Chelsea studio and the nearby Six Bells pub—Hughes had switched from Harty to Ronnie Gubertini for his percussion, Alan Ferguson was again on guitar, Billy Munn, who was currently with the Hylton Orchestra, was on piano, the four trumpeters were Jimmy McCaffer, Billy Higgs, Chick Smith and Leslie Thompson, the latter also playing trombone along with Davis and Mulraney, whilst Billy Amstell had joined Hayes and Featherstonhaugh in the reed section.

All that seemed to be missing was a fourth saxophone, but the orchestra was great! I recall "Mike" writing about how he had advised "Spike" to make the percussion switch and virtually congratulating him upon having taken the advice In fact both Harty and Gubertini were grand drummers in quite different styles, and it is indeed sad that both have been dead for far too many years. It was perhaps Hughes's admiration for Duke Ellington that inspired him to compose works for his own orchestra, plus the fact, of course, that he had a talent for composition.

Although his output was hardly prolific it certainly bore the unmistakable stamp of quality and good taste. By 1933 it included such titles as "Nocturne", `"Donegal Cradle Song", "Arabesque", "Sirocco", "Pastoral", "Air In D Flat" and "Harlem Symphony", the latter being actually dedicated to the Duke. But it became clear from the writings of "Mike" that Hughes was developing ambitions for getting recorded performances by an American Negro orchestra of at least some of his compositions. `" Mike" had been writing a great deal about the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, which had existed from around 1922 but had come to the fore in Britain through its recordings around 1931, and over the years had featured in its ranks such great artists as Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry on tenor saxophones— it was in this orchestra that Hawkins brought the tenor to the forefront of jazz— Russell Procope, Don Redman and Buster Bailey on altos, Louis Armstrong, Henry "Red" Allen and Rex Stewart on trumpets, J. C. Higginbotham, Jimmy Harrison and Dickie Wells on trombones and John Kirby on bass.

Henderson's normal line- up consisted of five brass three reeds and four rhythm, and much of its fire and precision was due to his pen- work for although never a composer of Ellington's standard he was one of the more influential arrangers and years later played an important part in the success of the Benny Goodman Orchestra in its heyday, when he became its principal arranger. We were not therefore surprised when, in the Spring of 1933, Hughes went to New York to organise three recording sessions with a Negro orchestra, that there were to be found among its personnel many of those who had worked with Henderson.

In the Autumn of the same year, there was also a recording made of "Six Bells Stampede" by the orchestra of Benny Carter— another of the American leaders who was to exert much influence upon the development of jazz in Britain. After his return from the States, Spike Hughes, who had clearly lost his enthusiasm for the British jazz scene, continued writing as "Mike" for some time and informed his readers in some detail about his New York sessions and the musicians who played on them. Ultimately, however, he transferred his energies to wider journalistic fields (which were nevertheless substantially in reference to musical subjects) and also continued his activities as a critic. From that time he ceased to be an influence upon the development of jazz in Britain.

Nevertheless, without going so far as to describe Hughes' contribution to British jazz as a milestone in its development, it was undoubtedly an important one, not to be under-estimated, hence my reason for referring to it over forty years later.

Despite the fact that its life span amounted to three sessions his American orchestra was a formidable ensemble, and served to draw our attention to the great players it contained, some of whom had previously been virtually unknown to us. There has been over the years some confusion or disagreement among discographers about who actually took part in the sessions, several variations in the line-ups having been published. Therefore, so many decades having since passed. I shall make no attempt here to give any of the complete groupings which varied to some extent from session to session. I will, however, draw upon my memory to quote several important names mentioned at the time by Mike" in his articles, such as the two great tenor saxophone artists, Coleman Hawkins, who was shortly to join us in Britain and Chu Berry who, sad to relate, died a young man at the age of 31 as the result of a road accident in 1941.

There was also to be heard the then astonishing trombone playing of Dickie Wells the less spectacular but equally fine work of Wilbur De Paris, the magnificent trumpet work of players like Red Allen, Bill Dillard and Shad Collins, the alto saxophones of Benny Carter, another who was soon to come to Britain, and Wayman Carver, who was just about the first of the saxophonists to also play good jazz on the flute. Then there was the fine drumming of Sidney Catlett, the greatest of them all, and Kaiser Marshall the piano work of both Luis Russell and Nicholas Rodriguez, the bass of Ernest Hill (Hughes played only on one track) and the guitar of Lawrence Lucie. The brass sections ranged from two to six in number, the reed sections from three to five and there were four- man rhythm sections in all cases.