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Louis Forever

Twenty years ago I celebrated Louis Armstrong’s influence with some of my favourite musicians for The Herald Magazine, in advance of a centenary concert at that year’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. It all still holds true – on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the great man’s birth.

Jazz anniversaries come and go, but there is none as significant or as worthy of celebration as that of Louis Armstrong. He was jazz. No other jazz musician has had the impact or the profile that Armstrong had. While the general public remembers him primarily as a much-loved entertainer who came from a jazz background, the jazz world regards him as the single most important figure in 20th Century American music. Armstrong invented jazz as an art form, and he revolutionised popular singing. His influence was universal and enduring.

Genius springs from unlikely sources – and Louis Armstrong was no exception. He was born on August 4, 1901, in the seedy Storyville section of New Orleans. Just 21 years later, the waif who learned to play trumpet while in a home for wayward boys had musicians queuing up to hear him, and all of Chicago buzzing with talk of his brilliant on the bandstand with his mentor King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. His impact on jazz was immediate. His dynamic, driving playing revitalised the Fletcher Henderson band in New York in the mid-1920s. What he played one night would be copied all over town the next day. And when he first got into a studio with his own bands, specially created for recording sessions, the results turned the jazz community upside down.

The 64 sides Armstrong recorded between 1925 and 1929 with his Hot Five, Hot Seven and Savoy Ballroom Five line-ups shaped the course of jazz and are now regarded as the single most important body of work in jazz history. These were the records on which his genius burst out in all its glory for the first time. His fantastic playing – dazzling lyricism and originality, innate swing and daring stop-time solos – threw down the gauntlet to musicians everywhere. The late guitarist Danny Barker once said: “The Okeh record company released a record by Louis about every six weeks, and everybody waited for the records because each one of them was a lesson in something new; in things to come.”

Armstrong had already inspired other musicians who came to hear him, but the Hot Five records had an even greater impact. They are the DNA of jazz.

Trumpeter Max Kaminsky wrote: “Above the electrifying tone, the magnificence of his ideas and the rightness of his harmonic sense, his superb technique, his power and ease, his hotness and intensity, his complete mastery of the horn – above all this he had swing. No-one knew what swing was until Louis came along. It’s more than just the beat, it’s conceiving the phrases in the very feeling of the beat, moulding and building them so that they’re an integral, indivisible part of the tempo. The others had the idea of it, but Louis could do it; he was the heir of all that had gone before and the father of all that was to come.”

Had Armstrong never made a record after 1929, he would still be the most important figure in jazz. Critic Gary Giddens has said: “In those [Hot Five] recordings, Armstrong proves for the first time that an improvisation cane be just as coherent, imaginative, emotionally satisfying, and durable as a writer piece of music.”

As he played, Armstrong wrote the language of jazz, transforming an ensemble music into a soloist’s art. One of his contemporaries, trumpeter Mutt Carey, later remembered: “He tried to make a picture out of every number he was playing to show just what it meant. He had ideas, enough technique to bring out what he wanted to say. He made you feel the number and that’s what counts.”

Miles Davis, the trumpeter who himself broke plenty of new ground, said: “You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played – I mean, even modern.”

Not only did Armstrong influence his contemporaries; he has continued to influence generations of jazz musicians. Cornettist Warren Vaché says: “He was the 20th Century Beethoven as far as I’m concerned. Nobody every swung before Louis. He taught us all how to play in 4/4 time and swing like mad. He also invented the language of the trumpet and pretty much the language of improvisation, too. It just doesn’t get any better than him.”

Marty Grosz, the guitarist and singer, echoes the sentiment. “Let’s put it this way, Louis Armstrong was to jazz, or is still to jazz, what Shakespeare was to English literature. He somehow, innately, just knew what to do and when to do it. He was the bell-wether of everything that followed. He pointed the way. That’s not to say that there weren’t many other talented people, but somehow Louis rhythmically freed up the whole thing.”

Tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton says: “There is no other single person who has had the kind of impact on how we play the music than Louis Armstrong had, and his Hot Five recordings were pioneer examples. He continued the rest of his life to influence people, and he continued to make influential recordings, but those ones from the 1920s were the ones which first showed the way.”

It’s also important to note that Armstrong showed the way, not only to trumpeters, but to players of every instrument – a rare legacy, as clarinettist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski points out. “There are a few people who have come through the jazz pantheon who do that: Charlie Parker’s one, but Armstrong was certainly the first.”

Armstrong’s phenomenal achievements as a pioneer don’t end with his trumpet playing. He was also, as Gary Giddens said in Ken Burns’ series Jazz, “the single most important singer that American music has produced.” His first big hit, Heebie Jeebies, introduced the world to his gravelly style of scat singing, and his way of improvising with his voice as freely as if it were an instrument was enormously influential.

Danny Barker said: “That’s when the song stylist came in. People began to buy records because they liked a certain personality – Louis Armstrong was responsible for that.” Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra are among those who were inspired by his looser style of singing, his way of personalising songs.

Ken Peplowski is one of a huge number of musicians – including clarinettist Artie Shaw and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins – who have credited Armstrong with inspiring him to create his own music. Shaw said that Armstrong taught him “that you should do something that was your own,” something that expresses who you are. Peplowski says: “He was a great entertainer and a great artist. He didn’t compromise either of these aspects – and almost refused to. He was one of the first people who presented himself in a very natural state – take it or leave it; this is what I do.”

But the last word goes to the late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who memorably summed up the feelings of thousands of jazz musicians the world over when he said of Louis Armstrong: “Without him – no me.”

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Jim Petrie obituary

Jim Petrie, who has died at the age of 83, was a highly regarded stalwart of the Scottish jazz scene, a gifted cornettist and the leader of the Diplomats of Jazz, a much-loved classic jazz band which was something of an Edinburgh institution. His height gave him an imposing appearance, but although he towered over many other musicians musically as well as physically, he was an extremely modest and quietly spoken character who was taken aback by his own popularity and his reputation as a cornettist with a hot sound and lyrical, swinging style. 

He was born James Petrie in Edinburgh in 1937. The youngest of three boys, he was the son of a train driver and a housemaid/factory worker. It was during his last year at Tynecastle Secondary School that he – along with his pal Jack Weddell – took up playing music. He told the Scottish Jazz Archive last year: “We went to the room and all the instruments were on the floor – there was a choice. I saw the smallest one – the cornet – and Jack took the trombone.” Petrie was already interested in jazz, thanks to his brother John, who had begun to assemble a record collection of traditional jazz which, when they were teenagers, was enjoying a revival. 

For a while, he took lessons with Jock Miller, a trumpeter who played in the pit band at the King’s Theatre. “I got a cuff of the ear for mistakes from him – I was 15. That’s why I stopped going to him. Jack and I practised together instead.” Initially, Petrie was particularly influenced by the playing of the early New Orleans jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson, a forerunner of Louis Armstrong who was first recorded in the early 1940s, towards the end of his life.

Petrie, who served an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator when he left school, soon began going to gigs. During this period, the city was bursting with bands representing all the variations of classic and traditional jazz. He and Weddell became regulars at the India Buildings, on Victoria Street, where two now-legendary local bands, one led by clarinettist Sandy Brown and one by trumpeter Alex Welsh, packed the place out every week.

“They would do an hour each, and it cost us sixpence to get in; a shilling for non-members,” recalled Petrie last year. “Brown’s band was out of this world.” At a farewell party at the Crown Bar for Brown before he left for London, Petrie and Weddell were approached by Mike Hart, the young banjo player who would eventually go on to establish the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. This meeting ultimately led to the formation of the Climax Jazz Band which existed in various forms – Petrie was out of the line-up during his two years’ National Service in Germany in the late 1950s – for several decades. 

The 1950s were colourful times in Edinburgh’s thriving young jazz scene. Trad jazz was hugely popular amongst teenagers and twentysomethings; to the extent that there was an annual Scottish Jazz Band Championship at the St Andrews Hall in Glasgow to which jazz bands, including the Climax, came from all over Scotland to participate. In Edinburgh, the Climax Jazz Band’s regular gigs became moveable feasts because they would run foul of disapproving residents.

“Our bass player, Jim Young, had a house with a cellar in St Peters Place– so we’d play there. We had police climbing over the gardens at the back with their binoculars trying to see what was happening. They thought there must be drugs and sex going on – but there was none of either! We ended up playing in the cellar below Dofos Pet Shop on London Road; it was a shambles. The police closed us down. Then the jazz club moved to York Place – The Stud Club. It was for students, not for studs! Then we moved to the Golden Eagle Lodge on the top of Castle Terrace.”

It was at a local jazz club that Petrie met his future wife, Margaret, and he followed her down to London when she took a job there. They married in 1961, and returned to Edinburgh to start a family. James Jr said: “In addition to jazz, classical music was a great love for my dad – Sundays were spent listening to it all day until the TV went on at 7.30. The other great love of his life was football and the Hibs football team in particular. He followed the team religiously.”

In the late 1960s, Petrie – who worked by day as a self-employed painter-decorator – joined Old Bailey’s Jazz Advocates and quit the Climax Jazz Band – though he returned to it later in his career. His elder son James Petrie Jr says: “Jazz was just part of our family life. We often went as a family to listen to him playing ….the Maybury Hotel on a Sunday afternoon, especially. One of the other children that used to go with their jazz playing parents recently described us as being ‘jazz orphans’. It was quite exciting as a child to be in bars drinking bottles of juice with the smells of a smoky pub, and all the colourful characters around us. It was a scene and a lifestyle for all those involved and we were part of it by default. As we got older we would often drink with dad at some of his many residencies, taking our friends as well.”

It was in the 1980s that he founded the Diplomats of Jazz, a four-piece outfit comprising cornet, clarinet, sousaphone and banjo – with occasional vocals by Petrie. As the band evolved, it reflected his love of the playing of such trumpet greats as Jabbo Smith and Louis Armstrong. A class act, it always stood out amongst the other bands on the scene, partly because the four musicians were often decked out in their dinner suits at festival gigs in Edinburgh and Leith, partly because of its unusual – in this century – combination of instruments and also because it performed hot, swinging, seldom-played numbers from the repertoires of such top-notch black ensembles of the 1920s and 1930s as McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and the bands led by Clarence Williams, and avoided the hackneyed staples favoured by trad outfits. 

“He worked in jazz because he loved it,” says James Jr. “He loved to play it and he grew into the musician he was because of that. He kind of blossomed as a professional player despite a non-professional approach to it. I recall the pride he had when Humphrey Lyttelton played him on the radio – it was almost as if even he was taken by surprise by where playing had taken him.”

Margaret Petrie died last year; Jim Petrie is survived by his sons James and Martyn, and by his grandchildren William, Victoria and Aimee.

Jim Petrie, born April 14, 1937; died August 1, 2020.

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Annie Ross Obituary

Stars in Scotland 090Annie Ross, who died last week in New York, crammed several careers – and lifetimes – in to her 89 years. A restless, energetic and driven performer, she had showbusiness in her blood, and a need to entertain which lasted her entire life, from her childhood debut with her parents in music hall to the intimate weekly jazz concerts she gave in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room up until recently.

Ross was accomplished in many areas: as an actress, a lyricist and, of course, as a singer. Had her career ended in the mid 1950s, she would still have earned her place as a jazz pioneer because by the age of 22, she had introduced a new style of singing: vocalese, which involved using her voice to mimic an instrument, and set lyrics to existing instrumental solos. Her big hit, Twisted, a song with music based on a tenor sax solo to which she set droll lyrics, put her – and vocalese – on the map, and ensured her place in jazz history.

Born Annabelle Short in Surrey, in 1930, Ross became part of the family act as soon as she could toddle. May and Jack Short were already an established team, billed as Short & Dalziel, which played on the music hall circuit.

At the age of four, Ross’s talent as a singer and mimic inspired her parents to take her to New York where May’s sister, Ella Logan, was already working as a singer. There, Ross – whose family hoped she would be the next Shirley Temple – won a radio talent show; the prize being a movie contract with MGM. After accompanying her to Hollywood, Ross’s mother returned to Scotland, leaving her daughter in her sister’s care.

The early movie career only comprised two films – one of the Our Gang series of shorts (in which she sang a swinging version of Loch Lomond) and the Judy Garland movie Presenting Lily Mars (1943). As she hit her teens, her relationship with her aunt – who described her as “a handful” – became acrimonious and Ross, determined to make a career in music, began to dream of escape.

Aged 14, she won a songwriting competition with Let’s Fly, which was subsequently recorded by the great American songwriter Johnny Mercer and which demonstrated her witty way with lyrics. Three years later, Ross returned to Glasgow for what proved to be an unhappy reunion with a family she no longer knew. She later admitted that she only felt any kind of love for her brothers Bertie and Jim.

After briefly treading the boards as part of The Logan Family in Scotland, Ross made her London stage debut in the musical Burlesque. Shortly afterwards, in Paris, she appeared in cabaret and began to hang out with jazz musicians. She made her first recording, Le Vent Vert there, in 1949. A relationship with the African-American bebop drummer Kenny Clarke produced a son, Kenny Clarke Jr. (He died in 2018.)

In New York in the 1950s, following the success of Twisted, which was released in 1952, Ross was a fixture on the jazz scene, performing at the legendary clubs on 52nd Street and even subbing at the famous Apollo Theatre for the great Billie Holiday, the troubled singer who went on to become a close friend.

She made notable recordings with such luminaries as Chet Baker, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan but her most important recording was the1958 album Sing a Song of Basie, on which she joined fellow singers Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert to perform a collection of Count Basie big band arrangements to which Hendricks had written words. Apart from a rhythm section (led by Nat Pierce), this landmark album featured no instruments; the three singers – collectively known as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross – recorded their voices four times each to simulate the entire Basie band. Over the next four years they recorded a total of seven albums.

Ross, meanwhile, began a double love affair – with the doomed stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce and with drugs. By the early 1960s, after an overdose, she quit New York and came to Scotland where she kicked her habit with the help of her brother, Jimmy.

For a very brief period in London in the mid-1960s, she ran a popular Covent Garden nightclub called Annie’s Room with the actor Sean Lynch, whom she had married in 1963. They divorced in 1977 by which time she had declared bankruptcy and lost her home. Lynch died soon afterwards in a car accident.

After appearing in a string of British films and TV series during her marriage, Ross returned to the States, where, in the 1980s and early 1990s, she appeared in a semi-steady stream of films, among them Superman III (1983). Her most important role, however, was in Short Cuts (1993): director Robert Altman created a character – of a jazz singer – specially for her. She spent the rest of her life in the US, and became an American citizen in 2001. In 2010, she was named a “Jazz Master” when she was honoured by the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts body.

Throughout her career, Ross made sporadic appearances on the musical theatre stage, notably the 1956 hit show Cranks (which Princess Margaret loved so much that she attended more than once), The Threepenny Opera (1972) with Vanessa Redgrave and Barbara Windsor, and The Pirates of Penzance (1982) with Tim Curry.

She starred in Dave Anderson and David MacLennan’s musical The Celtic Story (2002) during one of her many visits back to Glasgow, and took part in a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 2005.

However, it was as a daring jazz singer with a swinging, sassy style that she will be best remembered, certainly by audiences who saw her at the Glasgow Jazz Festival in 1994 and 2007, or at either of her two concerts at Oran Mor in 2012, when she returned to Glasgow for the premiere of No One But Me, a documentary about her life.

She mesmerised the audience with her still deep and powerful voice, her sense of swing and the way she turned every ballad into a gripping mini-drama, investing the lyrics with raw emotion and prompting listeners to hang on her every word.

Annie Ross, born July 25, 1930; died July 21, 2020

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Hot Antic Jazz Band on YouTube

Appropriately, I stumbled across a recently posted video of my all-time fave French jazz band on YouTube yesterday – Bastille Day. There are quite a few videos of them already available, but this one was only uploaded to YouTube in April – so it was a delightful discovery for me.
It seems especially apt to post it now as the Hot Antic Jazz Band was one of the best-loved bands of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in the 1980s & 1990s – and, in the normal course of things, I would be spending this week in Edinburgh, reminiscing about them and thinking how lucky I was to hear them back in the heyday of the festival, when it had classic jazz at its heart and attracted some of the best groups from across the world.
Back then, these groups would play on the famous McEwans Pub Trail as well as in the mix-and-match, three-set concerts that were a hallmark of the festival, so you could hear them for free, and follow them from one gig to another, often managing to notch up several HAJB sets in one day if you were so inclined. Nowadays, if they were still playing together (sadly, the band retired in 2018), the jazz festival would probably book them for one or two gigs, at £20 a ticket, and that would be your lot.
The Antics weren’t full-time professional musicians (they were all professionals with full-time day jobs) but their commitment to the lesser-played music of the 1920s and 1930s (notably by Jabbo Smith and Clarence Williams), plus their joie-de-vivre and Gallic charm made them beloved by aficionados and jazz newcomers alike, including – in 1986 – the 14-year-old me. (By this time they had already been officially named the best band at the jazz festival – by BBC Radio Scotland.) They returned to the festival many times, with slight variations in personnel over the years, and remained favourites of the core audience which welcomed them back like old friends.
This video is from before my time as an Antic admirer – the early period that could be called the Dungaree Era!

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George Masso Obituary

It was only when George Masso, who died in October at the age of 92, happened to hear a solo by the trombonist Lou McGarity on the Benny Goodman band’s version of Yours that he finally settled on the instrument that he would make his own.

Initially, Masso had tried to follow in his dad’s footsteps and had taken up the trumpet, but he didn’t warm to it. After hearing Yours, he announced his intention to switch to trombone – and he never looked back, establishing himself as an elegant and lyrical exponent of the instrument.

Dan Barrett was one, younger, trombonist who was influenced by Masso. He says: “George’s very personal approach could go from swinging and ‘gutsy’ to soft, sweet, and sensitive.”  In addition to his prowess on the trombone, Masso was an accomplished pianist, vibraphonist, composer, bandleader and arranger.

Born in the town of Cranston in Providence, Rhode Island in 1926, Masso was the second of four children in a musical home. Not only was his bank clerk father Thomas a trumpeter who went on to lead his own band, but his mother, Helen, gave piano lessons.

Masso studied trombone with Walter St Pierre, the trombonist in his father’s band lessons (St Pierre’s son, meanwhile, took trumpet lessons from Thomas Masso), and taught himself the solo that had initially hooked him, along with every other McGarity recording he could lay his hands on.

But McGarity wasn’t the only trombonist who inspired him – listening to Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young also helped him find his own sound, and he cited such other important instrumentalists as the saxophonist Lester Young and the pianist Teddy Wilson as key influences, along with leading vocalists, notably Peggy Lee.

Having made his professional debut in his father’s band while he was still at high school, Masso was well established in Providence when he was drafted into the US Army in 1945. By the time he finished basic training, the war had ended so he was assigned to the 314th Army Special Services Band stationed in Weisbaden, Germany, serving as first trombonist and arranger.

He later said: “It was a marvellous experience. ‘A band,’ they called it, but it was an orchestra. I became the staff arranger in that band with a full string section and all that, and that was my laboratory. No pressure, just write.”

Singer Tony Bennett, who served alongside him in the 314th Army Special Services Band in Europe during the Second World War and remained a lifelong friend and collaborator, wrote in one of his memoirs: “George is one of the great orchestrators of all time. Whenever we played one of his arrangements, the whole orchestra applauded. His pieces were simple to play, and it just felt great to perform them.”

Masso then spent two years with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra on an extended tour which culminated in a residency at the New York club The Latin Quarter. After his marriage, in 1950, to Louise Levesque, he stopped touring, started a family and went into education.

In 1973, Masso quit teaching to hit the road with the Benny Goodman Sextet. He became a regular member of The World’s Greatest Jazz Band and by the time swinging jazz was beginning to enjoy a revival in the late 1970s, he was in constant demand for gigging, touring and recording with the new wave of likeminded jazz musicians.

During the 1990s, Masso regularly visited the UK, and among his notable recordings is the 1992 album Spike Robinson and George Masso Play Arlen, which features a British rhythm section, for Edinburgh’s Hep label. Another of his other highly-rated albums was recorded for the American label Arbors with fellow trombonist Dan Barrett.

Barrett recalls: “I was happy to get to record Let’s Be Buddies, an engaging album title that George himself suggested. He also contributed the attractive arrangement of that title tune. Late in the day of the final session, George suggested we have some fun. I switched to a cornet I’d brought with me, and George seated himself at the piano. We recorded a favourite song of mine: an oldie called Linger In My Arms a Little Longer, Baby. Of course, George knew it by heart. He knew literally thousands of songs, and knew them correctly.”

Suffering a Sunday morning hangover during a weekend jazz event back during his partying days, Barrett went to find the hair of the dog at the hotel bar – only to find it closed. Masso took him to the backstage area where he had left his trombone case the night before, and produced a bottle of whisky from it. He told Barrett: “I keep that bottle in my case but I try not to abuse it.” Pointing towards the stage, he added: “Still, you know how it is – sometimes you just don’t want to go out there ALONE!”

George Masso, jazz trombonist, pianist, arranger and classical composer, born November 17, 1926; died October 22, 2019, aged 92

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Luca Manning: Rising Star

Luca Manning - When the sun comes out (front cover)

Luca Manning may only have left school two years ago, but the young jazz singer with the soulful, gentle voice already has an award on his mantelpiece (Rising Star at the 2018 Scottish Jazz Awards), a debut CD to sell, a CV that many older singers would kill for, a star-studded roster of admirers, and a dedicated entourage which includes a well-kent face from TV.

Manning, you see, is the grandson of Anita – the colourful Glasgow antiques expert on Bargain Hunt – and over the last few years, she and her daughter, Luca’s mother, have become regulars at jazz concerts in Glasgow. Indeed, from being what she described as a “rock ‘n’ roll gal,” Anita Manning now has an impressive jazz collection (“she has loads of Ella Fitzgerald records”) and has helped her grandson by offering him tips on performance, dealing with nerves and keeping energy levels up. “ ‘Eat bananas’ is her top tip for an energy boost,” laughs Manning.

It was always obvious to Luca Manning that his future lay in music – but he only discovered jazz relatively recently. Born in Glasgow’s west end, he attended Hillhead High School where, initially, he dreamt of becoming a rock star – not that he was very keen on practising his guitar.

“I was in a pop/rock band playing ukulele and writing sad songs with four chords,” he says. “I was in a choir in first year – I had a high voice and had to sing with the sopranos. The school had a fantastic, dedicated music department and there was always an outlet for music.”

At home, Manning’s listening tastes were much influenced by his mother who raised him and his older sister by herself. “Mum, who of course is now into jazz, always liked amazing voices – Sinead O’Connor, Jimmy Sommerville, people like that. Great singers with big voices. I went through a lot of phases but the constants were Amy Winehouse (who I think Anita liked first!), Stevie Wonder and soul music. I bought my first album with my mum in Fopp on Byres Road. It was Bjork – Debut and my mum said: ‘If you don’t get it, I’ll get it!’ I think I was 14 at the time.”

Meanwhile, Manning was taking piano lessons, having given up on guitar, and was encouraged by his piano teacher to sing. “I was actually champing at the bit to get singing lessons but I didn’t get any until my voice had broken”.

When Manning was 16 years old, his school suggested he sign up for the weekly jazz workshops run by the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra. One of his tutors there was the pianist Alan Benzie, and when the course ended, Manning was desperate to continue learning, so Benzie took him on as a student. It was he who helped the youngster with auditions and prescribed listening material for him. “Until I did the SYJO classes, I knew very little about jazz and didn’t really know what I was getting into,” says Manning. “But the more I immersed myself in the music – the more I loved it.”

Among Manning’s early favourites was the iconic Chet Baker, whose eponymous 1959 album he will be celebrating at The Blue Arrow in Glasgow next month, as part of the club’s 59:60 series of homages to classic albums from that pivotal year in jazz.

“I instantly fell in love with Chet, both his singing and his trumpet playing,” explains Manning. I love that melancholy fragility and vulnerability; I have an emotional connection to Chet. Crooners never resonated as much with me as much. Mark Murphy’s later records are in the same vein as Chet’s – it’s a different style but he’s not afraid to stick his neck out, be himself, take risks. I also love Amy Winehouse – in fact, I think I got into her because my gran Anita was always playing her records.”

The summer school run by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland proved another invaluable experience for Manning. “I just loved learning. Jazz was like a new musical language, and I remember that it was after that summer school that I came back and told my mum I want to be a jazz musician.” Manning returned to the summer school a further two times, and one of those occasions it led to him appearing at the Proms as part of a choir of students from the course.

Along with Alan Benzie, the much-loved English singer Liane Carroll played a huge part in Manning’s development. Not only did she point him in the direction of the vocal jazz workshops run in Scotland by fellow singer Sophie Bancroft – with tutors including herself, Sara Colman and Fionna Duncan – but she also invited him to sing with her at her Christmas show at Ronnie Scott’s in 2017. She is, as Manning says, “a very generous person and musician”.

Carroll has also been a significant influence on the young vocalist. “Her singing is so honest; every word is so true and she just makes you feel something. No matter which genre she’s singing in, you are guaranteed to be told a story and she has so much fun onstage doing it. It’s infectious. She’s a very natural improviser which I love as well.”

It was during a particular listening phase around 18 months ago, that Manning – who is currently midway through the four-year jazz course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London – had the surreal experience of being invited to support the singer in question at a jazz festival gig.

He explains: “I was really getting into Georgie Fame – I love his Portrait of Chet album; he’s an amazing singer – and was listening to him a lot early in 2018. I sang one of his vocalese numbers at the launch of The Blue Arrow club and Jill Rodger, the director of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, heard me and said: ‘Georgie Fame is playing at the jazz festival this year. How would you like to open for him?’”

And so it was that Manning and the similarly youthful pianist Fergus McCreadie came to be the support act for Fame last year, and then Ruby Turner this summer. (The pair have now, separately, been nominated in the Newcomer category of the prestigious Parliementary Awards, taking place in London in December.) Understandably, this was a pretty daunting experience, but Manning took his cue from his more experienced, then 20-year-old, musical partner. “We decided not to tailor the music to the person we were supporting. Fergus reminded me never to compromise as a musician. He said: ‘Let’s just do our thing unapologetically’.”

It’s little wonder, given the trust he has in McCreadie, that Manning chose to record his debut CD, When the Sun Comes Out, with him earlier this year. The original idea was not to record an album, but just to make some recordings together. “Sara Colman, my mentor and tutor at Guildhall, and I had spoken a lot and she suggested we go in and record enough material so I could make a CD if I wanted. We recorded at the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland’s HQ – a room that we were already familiar with – and that was a great way of minimising stress, by being in familiar surroundings. Sara sat in on the recording and helped produce which also helped me feel more comfortable and confident.”

His confidence was further boosted by the involvement of leading alto saxophonist Laura Macdonald, who had given him sax lessons at school before he took up singing. “I love her energy and her playing. We’ve always stayed in touch, and she has been a really good mentor to me. I wanted to have a duo on the CD – but then I thought it would be nice to have a guest and Laura was the first person to come into my head. And it was the idea of having her, rather than the idea of a sax. It turned out just as I envisaged: she came in on the second day and completely changed the energy. I was almost pinching myself. Everyone in the room loved it. Fergus hadn’t played with her before. We had a quick run-through. It was very much of the moment.”

The bottom line for Manning was that this debut CD was an accurate reflection of what he does in a gig. “All I wanted was honesty. I didn’t want multi-tracking or mixing, and I wanted a maximum of two or three takes. Some of the songs were new to us; some we’ve done before. There is no theme to the album but the songs are connected in a way because there are themes of home, identity and love. I was thinking about how there is pressure to release ALL new music that’s innovative and new, but I didn’t want to write ten new tunes – I wanted to do what I’d do on a gig.

“At the end of the day, it’s an honest snapshot of who I am. And I just love great songs.”

*When the Sun Comes Out is available now; Luca Manning – Chet Baker: Chet is at The Blue Arrow, Glasgow on Thursday October 24; www.thebluearrow.co.ukLuca 2 solo pic.jpg

Text (c) Alison Kerr, 2019; album cover artwork by Irenie Blaze-Cameron; portrait by Delilah Niel

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Lady (Doesn’t) Sing the Blues – Again

Lady Sings the Blues concert poster.pngOne of the strangest nights in the history of New York’s illustrious Carnegie Hall took place in November 1956 when Billie Holiday, the jazz singer now regarded as the greatest of them all, headlined a show entitled Lady Sings the Blues. What made it so unusual was not so much that a jazz star, and a black one at that, was going to perform at this most prestigious of venues – jazz musicians, including Holiday herself, had played on that stage before.

The difference was that this show was inspired by Holiday’s recently published, brutally frank and fairly controversial autobiography, excerpts of which would be read out during the evening – by a male journalist – in between performances by Holiday and an all-star band.

The publication of Lady Sings the Blues a few months earlier had been a big deal. To ensure maximum publicity, a new album with the same title was released simultaneously (an LP of the Carnegie Hall show would follow as well). It was made up mostly of songs associated with the singer earlier in her two-decade career plus the title track – a new song comprising a melody already written by pianist Herbie Nichols with words by Holiday. It had been the publishers, Doubleday, who insisted on the title – Holiday preferred “Bitter Crop” which comes from her powerful protest song Strange Fruit – despite her argument that she had never been a blues singer.

The book was co-written with respected journalist William Dufty, who was a close friend. Holiday needed to get the book out fast since she was in dire financial straits in the mid-1950s: she was in debt but she was unable to work in the nightclubs of New York having had her cabaret card (which permitted performers to work in licensed premises) revoked following her drugs conviction in the late 1940s.

Dufty drew on previously published interviews plus conversations between him and Holiday, and the result was a confessional style of autobiography which dealt frankly with Holiday’s drug addiction and her experiences of rape, prostitution and domestic abuse. The New York Herald Tribune said it was a “hard, bitter and unsentimental book, written with brutal honesty and having much to say not only about Billie Holiday, the person, but about what it means to be poor and black in America”.

Some jazz critics were appalled by the book, which made little reference to Holiday’s art and which – they knew – was an attempt to make some money to support her drug habit and pay off her debts, while giving the impression that she was now clean so that she could get back her cabaret card. One jazz writer who did review it positively was Down Beat’s Nat Hentoff who said that it would “help those who want to understand how her voice became what it was – the most hurt and hurting singer in jazz”.

For a long time, the received jazz wisdom was that Lady Sings the Blues was a sensationalist memoir packed with fiction. Holes were picked in it and once doubt was cast over some mistakes, the reliability of everything else was called into question. It didn’t help that there’s an inaccuracy in the very first line – one of the most shocking and attention-grabbing openers you’re likely to come across. It became a book that you would read but knew you should take with a hefty pinch of salt – and the Lady Sings the Blues movie, starring Diana Ross and not even bearing much resemblance to the book on which it purports to be based, didn’t help matters.

In recent times, the book, which sold well upon publication and has never been out of print, has been re-evaluated within the jazz world, and there’s an appreciation of the authenticity of Holiday’s voice – her streetwise language and her sassy attitude – even if her memories played tricks on her, or if she did have an agenda.

Similarly, the Lady Sings the Blues concert proved to be a big success. Reviews talked about how the audience was spellbound, and you can certainly hear from the live LP how warm the reaction was. Nat Hentoff wrote: “The audience was hers before she sang, greeting and saying goodbye with heavy applause, and at one time the musicians, too, applauded. It was a night when Billie was on top, the best jazz singer alive.”

****

For the opening night of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, David McAlmont – the versatile London-based singer whose group McAlmont and Butler topped the charts with the song Yes in the mid 1990s – is staging his show “David McAlmont Presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall” in which he pays homage to his favourite jazz singer and that strange yet triumphant night in 1956.

Although McAlmont, who is 52, has been a fan of Holiday for most of his adult life, he didn’t get off to a great start with her. “The first time I heard her, I thought she sounded horrible – it wasn’t even one of her very last recordings. I’d seen a picture of this gorgeous woman and wanted to know what she sounded like. It wasn’t until I saw an Arena documentary, The Long Night of Lady Day, that I understood where that voice came from – and that was when I became obsessed.”

Initially, McAlmont reckons, he was put off Holiday because he didn’t understand what singing is. “You could say that my first singing teacher was Julie Andrews – there’s a purity and clarity and pitch perfect melodiousness. That was the period when a voice like Billie Holiday’s, Bob Dylan’s or Van Morrison’s just didn’t make any sense to me. I hadn’t lived. I hadn’t fallen in love or felt hurt. I was just a kid.”

While many vocalists gravitate towards late-era Holiday when the voice had deteriorated due to her lifestyle but she still managed to put a song across with terrific style and sensitivity, McAlmont has always been more drawn to her early output.

“I love the 1930s recordings,” he says. “It’s still my favourite period – she’s having fun, she’s hip, she’s updating Bessie Smith and Satchmo and having fun with the boys. My go-to album, the one I drilled a hole into, was A Fine Romance with Lester Young. I still can’t face Lady in Satin.”

As a singer himself, McAlmont was keen to pay musical tribute to his idol. “I tried to get myself on Billie Holiday bills and tribute shows – but I kept being told ‘no’ – because I’m a man. After a few years of not being allowed to take part in anybody else’s Billie Holiday events, at the Barbican, at the Chichester Jazz Festival etc, I was lucky to meet Alex Webb [pianist and musical director] and when he asked me if I’d like to do something together, I suggested doing something on Billie. And he came up with this idea.”

For his show, McAlmont uses the material from Carnegie Hall night and broadens it out, adding some extra songs – “I wasn’t going to let this opportunity go by without singing some of my favourite Billie songs that she didn’t do at Carnegie Hall!” – and highlighting different passages from the book, although he retains the shock opening.

He also includes passages that were deleted from the book for legal reasons. The actor Charles Laughton was one of Holiday’s famous friends whose lawyer had demanded that all reference to him be removed. “Well, I like those stories,” explains McAlmont, who has clearly immersed himself in Holiday research in preparation for the show.

“In my research, I consulted everything I could find. I had a bee in my bonnet about jazz being hostile to men singing Billie Holiday and also about the way that Billie is often just thought of as a tragic figure. I’ll never forget, I met this young girl years ago and when we talked about Billie Holiday, she said ‘I love the tragedy’. I’m responding to that. The show is not a wake. There are plenty of people who do that. The show is about that night in 1956 and the book.”

So how does he approach the songs in the show; most of which were so strongly associated with Holiday that her recordings are regarded as the definitive versions? Whereas many singers paying homage to a hero tend to make a point of avoiding imitation, McAlmont – whose heroine often reinvented songs on the spot as she sang – has a different take on this.

He says: “The composition exists but when Billie Holiday takes it it’s a new composition. So in this show, I adhere to the notes she chose – if I sang them my way it would be more cabaret. The integrity of the performance is in remembering how she did it. I’m celebrating her – the show is about her and my love for her, and what she achieved.

“By writing Lady Sings the Blues, she told an American story that people hadn’t heard before and because of her talent, they listened. It’s a valuable document.

“Not only that, but by staging this show at the Carnegie Hall – because she had been banned from singing in clubs – Billie Holiday elevated jazz into an art form. Jazz was brought into a major arts base. That’s another reason why I can’t stand the Billie Holiday industry which sees her only as a tragic heroine. I won’t have it!”

* David McAlmont Presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall is at the Drygate on Wednesday June 19. For tickets, visit www.jazzfest.co.uk

First published in The Herald on Saturday, June 15

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Review: Leith Jazz & Blues Festival

Leith Jazz & Blues Festival ***

Leith Jazz Festival trio

The Scottish jazz festival season kicked off on Friday in Leith, where pubs, bars and eateries (oh, and even a hair salon) in the area played host to a huge number of free jazz and blues gigs.

Even a cursory glance at the flyer or website for this year’s event couldn’t fail to give the impression that the festival has ballooned in size and become significantly more blues oriented since it was launched, in its current incarnation, back in 2012.

Back then, and for the first few years, a large part of the joy for jazz lovers was getting to hear world-class Scottish names for free while discovering often unfamiliar corners of the Leith’s liquid landscape. It felt like the legendary Edinburgh Jazz Festival Pub Trail of the 1980s come back to life.

This year, there was still a smattering of world-class jazz but there were none of the established classic or trad jazz bands that appeared in previous years, and it was more of a challenge to find familiar names amongst the astonishing 62-strong list of gigs shoehorned into the three days. (Some sort of brief description of each band would have been a big help for punters when perusing the programme.)

On the jazz side of things, unfamiliar names turned out to be unfamiliar for a reason. Thankfully, Friday night offered a series of safe bets, however: trumpeter Colin Steele was on terrific form leading an ace group at the Lioness of Leith pub. Steele’s inner Chet Baker was much to the fore; his pared-back, swinging and eloquent style beautifully offset by Kevin Mackenzie on guitar and Kenny Ellis on bass.

One of the highlights of Steele’s set, the haunting bossa Manha de Carnaval, was reprised a couple of hours later when he unexpectedly sat in on the only available mid-evening jazz session on Friday’s programme – pianist Fraser Urquhart’s knock-out trio gig at the atmospheric Shore Bar (one of the most conducive venues on the Leith circuit).

Manha de Carnaval – The Sequel was an entirely separate entity from the original, featuring as it did some delightful exchanges between pianist Fraser Urquhart and his guitarist dad Dougie, and a dramatic Sketches of Spain-esque ending.

Earlier, Fraser Urquhart had been a member of John Burgess’s trio in the wine bar/eatery Toast. This was a fabulous set of classy, swinging jazz that showed off Burgess’s mighty, soulful tenor sax sound.

Quantity rather than quality was to the fore on Saturday afternoon’s programme – which is why some of the jazz-following contingent launched their jazz trail outwith the festival, at Broughton Street’s Barony Bar where Burgess could be heard in an impressive line-up led by guitarist John Russell.

In the spirit of “you can’t improve on perfection”, there was really no point in going anywhere other than home after hearing the superb duo of West Coast-style altoist Martin Kershaw and ace bass Ed Kelly, a duo which was a highlight of the first Leith Jazz Festival and which is always worth cramming into Sofi’s Bar to hear.

First published in The Scotsman on Monday, June 10th

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Leon Redbone Obituary

Leon Redbone, who has died at the age of 69, was an enigmatic and eccentric figure on the music scene best remembered in this country for providing the wistful songs which played a key part in the success of a series of much-loved British Rail InterCity adverts which ran from 1988 into the early 1990s.

In the United States, he was regarded as a national treasure, having made regular appearances on TV since the first series of Saturday Night Live in 1976 when his debut album, On the Track, was attracting attention. He became such an icon that he was immortalised in both the 2003 Will Ferrell movie Elf (he voiced Leon the Snowman) and one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. He was also a regular on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion live radio show.

Usually dressed in a suit and tie, and panama hat and always wearing shades, Redbone cut a distinctive dash. His throwback look and the air of mystery around him were almost as intriguing and appealing as his unique musical sound – a simple, folksy melange of jazz and Delta blues with a hint of western swing. He sang in a laconic Louisiana accent, and played acoustic guitar. Sometimes he broke into a bit of yodelling, and he often whistled melodies or played harmonica along with his guitar.

The songs he chose were invariably little-remembered Tin Pan Alley gems from the 1910s and 1920s, though he also wrote some numbers – including So Relax, the song featured in the InterCity adverts. Many of his 16 albums featured top jazz musicians who were no strangers to jazz audiences in Scotland – Ken Peplowski, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dan Barrett.

His rise to fame in the mid-1970s coincided with the sudden popular interest in ragtime – thanks to the use of Scott Joplin’s rags on the soundtrack of The Sting – and he enjoyed early endorsement from Bob Dylan, who was impressed and intrigued by this Groucho Marx lookalike whose age, he said, could be “anywhere from 25 to 60”.

Throughout his career – which came to an end in 2015, when he retired for health reasons – Redbone’s disinclination to talk seriously about himself or engage in routine publicity simply added to his mystique.

During his four-night run at the 1991 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Radio Tay broadcaster (and festival compere) Alan Steadman’s delight at managing to persuade Redbone to be interviewed turned to slightly frustrated bemusement when every question was answered with just “yes” or “no”. (Steadman also recalls that one of Redbone’s quirks was to take a photo of the audience before every show.) All he did reveal, beyond his gentle and whimsical style of music, was a wry sense of humour. Quick wit quietly delivered in a slow southern drawl was in evidence both onstage and off.

That same festival, American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton was appearing on a BBC radio show featuring an all-star line-up. He remembers: “I was desperate for a drink and there were only minutes to go before the start, so I ran downstairs and bumped into Leon, whom I’d never met before. ‘Is there a bar or a restaurant down here anywhere?’ I asked, out of breath. He looked at me funny and said: ‘A bar or a restroom? Buddy, you better make up your mind ..’ !”

At the 2002 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, it was difficult to tell whether the stage persona was his natural personality or a cultivated one (indeed, there had been speculation that Redbone was an alter ego for another performer). Redbone – wearing his signature sunglasses – complained about the lights being too strong but was admirably unruffled, and characteristically droll, when dealing with the other issues of what turned out to be a pretty tense evening for those of us who wanted to listen to him.

First there were the problems with the microphone – “Was I singing the same song I was playing?” asked the deadpan musician – then there was the one-man campaign for audience participation which went on for most of the concert.

Redbone ended up playing referee as his attentive audience turned on the heckler, and demanded his removal (after he had sung along through a staggering seven numbers and even been given a personal warning from the jazz festival director himself). “Some enchanted evening …” sang Redbone, by way of commenting on the incident.

Asked, late in his career, about his reluctance to chat or to talk about himself, Redbone said: “I don’t do anything mysterious on purpose. I’m less than forthcoming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m mysterious. It just means I’m not inclined to go there.” He claimed that he preferred the emphasis to be on his songs, and that he was simply a vehicle for the music. Even the announcement of his death last week – in a notice posted on his official website – referred to his age as 127.

What is known is that Redbone – who is believed to have been born Dickran Gobalian in Cyrpus to Armenian parents – moved to Toronto in the 1960s where he developed a cult following thanks to his performances in coffee houses and folk clubs. But it was in the mid-1970s that he came to the attention of a larger audience when he was name-checked in a Rolling Stone article by Bob Dylan, who had heard him at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario and talked about producing his first album. Other notable admirers have included Loudon Wainwright III, Jack White and Bonnie Raitt.

He is survived by his wife (and manager) Beryl Handler, his two daughters and three grandchildren.

*Leon Redbone, singer and guitarist, born August 26, 1949; died May 30, 2019.

First published in The Herald, June 6, 2019

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Mike Hart Obituary

Mike HartMike Hart, who has died at the age of 84, founded the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – Scotland’s first such event – and, in so doing, consolidated the city’s status as an epicentre of classic, traditional and mainstream jazz. The jazz festival he created may have evolved and mutated over the four decades since it began, but it has kept Hart’s kind of jazz at its core.

An only child born in Inverness, Hart moved to Edinburgh when his father (a former engineer) set up an antiques business later run by his mother. After a brief, unhappy spell in boarding school in England, Hart was educated at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, a breeding ground for trad jazz musicians in the late 1940s when that genre of jazz was enjoying huge popularity. The teenage Hart took up drums and by 1949, was playing in a local band, Gavin’s Gloryland Jazz Band, led by trumpeter Jimmy Gavin.

One night, around the same time, in the West End Café, Hart was invited to sit in with the band led by clarinettist Sandy Brown, a maverick and now legendary figure. As Hart told Graham Blamire, the author of Edinburgh Jazz Enlightenment – The Story of Edinburgh Traditional Jazz, “I nearly fell over but immediately accepted”.

So began Hart’s association with Brown, and the trumpeter Al Fairweather and the pianist Stan Greig who also played in the band. With them, Hart went to London in 1952 where their gigs include the Big Jazz Show at the Royal Albert Hall.

After completing his National Service in the RAF, Hart returned to Edinburgh in 1954 and played banjo in trumpeter Charlie McNair’s band. Before long, he had established his own outfit, Mike Hart’s Blue Blowers, and in 1956 he co-founded what would become one of Edinburgh’s longest-running bands, the Climax Jazz Band which featured Jim Petrie on cornet and which would take Hart into the recording studio for the first time. The late 1950s saw the birth of two more popular bands which he co-led, Old Bailey and his Jazz Advocates and the Society Syncopators.

While his jazz career was bubbling away, Hart – who married his first wife, Moira, in 1960 – supported himself and his family via a number of jobs, including agricultural feed advisor, sail boat skipper in France, variety club producer and tour manager (for the likes of Jimmy Shand and Andy Stewart) and, ultimately, from the mid-1970s, running a successful antiques business with his mother, to whom he was very close.

By this time, he had re-formed and re-launched the Society Syncopators as Mike Hart’s Society Syncopators – and it was this band which Hart took on foreign tours on many occasions, notably to the Dunkirk Jazz Festival, where it was named European Amateur Jazz Champions 1979, and to California’s Sacramento Jazz Jubilee which it visited ten times.

Keen to stage something similar in Scotland, Hart spent a great deal of time with the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee’s director, Bill Borcher. Fionna Duncan, who sang with Hart’s band, recalls: “Bill had a sort of ‘war room’ in his house where he plotted out the programme, moving bands and audiences from one venue to the next using models!” This type of planning manifested itself in the way the Edinburgh Jazz Festival was structured during Hart’s tenure.

Hart brought together a number of local bands plus a couple of well-respected soloists from England and staged a mini festival in a ballroom in the capital in 1978.Its success inspired him to seek sponsorship for the first Edinburgh Jazz Festival which took place in 1979, and featured a variety of semi-professional bands from here and abroad.

But it was in 1980 that Hart began to operate the policy which helped define the festival (re-named the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival): he began to hire individual jazz stars, many of them veterans of the great American bands of the 1930s onwards, who had been sidemen in their youth but were now happy to be more in the spotlight. Such now-legendary players as Teddy Wilson, Doc Cheatham, Harry Edison and Milt Hinton all visited the Edinburgh Jazz Festival during its first decade.

Into the mix, Mike Hart added younger players who were part of the mainstream revival. All these musicians would stay for several days, if not a whole festival, at a time and would be mixed and matched in different line-ups, often featuring Scottish talent in the rhythm sections. Many of today’s leading Scottish players – among them pianist Brian Kellock and bassist Roy Percy – cut their teeth at the EIJF, invariably alongside big name Americans.

When the jazz festival became a limited company, Hart assumed the role of Artistic Director, and later Founding Director. In 1995, he was awarded an MBE for his services to jazz, and he also received a citation from the City of Sacramento in recognition for his work.

Always a figure who cut a dash and who had something of the old-fashioned adventurer and bon viveur about him, Hart threw himself into other passions beyond jazz. He was an accomplished deep sea fisher (a photo of him and the 180lb Blue Fin Tuna which he caught during a trip to Madeira with author and deep sea fisherman Trevor Housby is featured in Housby’s best-selling book). He also enjoyed sailing and racing his wooden keelboat, then he got hooked on flying, learning to fly a single engine Cessna aircraft and gaining his private pilot’s licence in 1985. That passion gave way to driving and owning a Triking wheeler sports car and attending events for enthusiasts. Jazz remained the constant while other interests came and went.

Graham Blamire says: “Mike would never have claimed to be an innovative or particularly original jazz musician but he was a fine player, both as a member of the rhythm section and in his solo work. He could be a volatile and demanding individual with whom to work, but he had vision, energy and determination and, when he wanted, a great deal of charm. He was a major influence on Edinburgh Jazz for a very long time, a leading figure in some of Edinburgh’s best bands, and he left his mark on jazz at an international level through his creation of the EIJF, which will be his enduring memorial.”

Hart, who was twice married and divorced, is survived by his children Susan and Michael, and three grandchildren.

* Michael Warner Hart, founder and original director of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, jazz musician; born Inverness March 23, 1934; died Edinburgh December 11, 2018.

This obituary was first published in The Herald on Wednesday, December 26 2018

Mike Hart, banjo, 1965 at the Manhattan Club

Old Bailey & the Jazz Advocates, 1965, at the Manhattan Club. Thanks to Hamish McGregor (clarinet) for the photo.

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