Edinburgh Jazz Fest Memories: Alison Kerr

Edinburgh Jazz Festival - Hot Antic Jazz Band, (and Alison), Drones, 1987.jpg smaller

Alison Kerr (in black, at piano), listening to the Hot Antic Jazz Band, Drones, 1987

If it hadn’t been for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, I wouldn’t be writing about jazz now…

It was August 21, 1986, and I was 14 years old when I first accompanied my dad on one of his annual week’s worth of jaunts to Edinburgh during the jazz festival. By this time, he had evolved a jazz festival routine – he booked a week off work, bought a festival rail pass (this was back when the jazz festival coincided with the other Ediburgh festivals), resumed a smoking habit that hadn’t been indulged since the previous festival, and met up with different pals (with varying degrees of interest in jazz but an equally strong interest in beer), at the many licensed premises that doubled as venues.

This was the now long-gone era of the famous jazz festival Pub Trail, when brewers sponsored the jazz festival, the packed programme resembled a paperback novel, and you could hear local and international bands – some semi-professional, some wholly; all enthusiastic purveyors of classic and trad jazz – in pubs all over the city. On my first day at the jazz festival I heard the French band who quickly became lifelong favourites – the Hot Antic Jazz Band. And my fate was sealed ..

That was one strand of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. The other was the one with ticketed gigs, usually an afternoon or evening long session with two or three sets featuring different line-ups. When the festival introduced their now-fabled Gold Star Badges (in 1986), you could dip in and out of three or more gigs in a night, and follow your favourite bands or soloists around town.

In our case, this invariably meant legging it from somewhere like the Festival Club on Chambers Street over to the Spiegeltent in Charlotte Square and then to the Royal Overseas League on Princes Street – where, that first year, I saw the pianist whose Edinburgh Jazz Festival - Dick Hyman, Royal Overseas League, 1986.jpgappearance in Edinburgh was the reason for mine, the nimble-fingered Dick Hyman – before the inevitable mad dash for the last train back to Glasgow.

Of course, there was no guarantee that you would get into a gig which you hadn’t been at from its kick-off, which is why – in 1991 – there were nearly tears when we ended up standing OUTSIDE the Tartan Club at Fountainbridge (that year’s incarnation of Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club) listening as best we could to an eight-piece all-star band featuring Yank Lawson, Scott Hamilton, Marty Grosz and Kenny Davern (I vividly recall being blown away as Scott Hamilton brilliantly evoked Lester Young’s iconic solo on Back in Your Own Backyward), when we had left perfectly good seats at the Spiegeltent and would have heard Leon Redbone if we had stayed on after the Dry Throat Fellows, another favourite quirky European group. Needless to say, the atmosphere on the train home that night was not the best …

Those early years at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – me in my mid-teens; my dad in his early 40s – undoubtedly ruined me for everything that came later. I revelled in the camaraderie, rejoiced in observing the characters onstage and off (there was a motley crew of eccentrics – the “Coke Can Kid” and “Monsieur Hulot” were two of our favourites – who would turn up every year and usually be in competition for the front row seats), and delighted in the lack of segregation between audience and musicians which meant that when I emerged from my front-row seat at the end of a gig, my father would tell me he had just had a pint with one of the musicians we’d admired earlier in the day.

Probably the greatest gift the jazz festival gave me – apart from these unique opportunities to spend time with my dad – was the chance to hear some of the greats from the heyday of jazz. The veteran jazz musicians I was privileged to hear during my teens reads like the personnel listings of favourite records from the golden age of jazz – Doc Cheatham, Harry Edison, Buddy Tate, Al Casey, Al Grey, Milt Hinton etc.

Thanks to the jazz festival, I held the door open for Milt Hinton. I heard Art Hodes, who had played piano for Al Capone. I heard Al Casey, who had been in Fats Waller’s bands. And later, as a young journalist, I received annual invitations to his New York jazz festival from Dick Hyman.

Then there are musicians we got to hear for the first time in Edinburgh – and went on to enjoy at successive festivals. If it hadn’t been for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, I would not have come across the wonderful guitarist, singer and raconteur Marty Grosz as early as IEJF 1991 (5) - Marty Grosz did, and for bringing him into our lives, I’ll be forever grateful to the festival. Few other musicians lift the spirits as he can, and his duo gigs with clarinettist/saxophonist and fellow wise-cracker Ken Peplowski at Edinburgh in the late 1990s, early 2000s were the main highlights of those festivals for many of us.

By the late 1990s, the pub trail was gone, and the informality that we had loved was a thing of the past as the musicians we wanted to hear were usually scheduled to play in the sobering (and non-smoking) Hub venue and being kept well away from the audience.  Our favourite musicians might still be coming to the festival, but if they did it was usually just for one or two concerts. My father no longer needed to book a week off work.

The festival had rolled on to a new era. But what luck to have lived through those early days and to have had just about enough nous to appreciate that what I was witnessing was special.

In the run-up to this year’s jazz festival, I’m publishing a series sharing memories of the jazz festival from across its 40-year history, and from the perspectives of punters and performers alike. If you would like to share your stories and photos, please email me on girlfriday71@yahoo.com

Next: Roy Percy

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Edinburgh Jazz Fest Memories: Forrie Cairns

Edinburgh Jazz Festival archive - Recordbreaker photo

Forrie Cairns (third from left in front row), with Jim Galloway (centre, on soprano sax) playing When the Saints Go Marching In at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival’s Guinness Book of Records attempt at biggest ever jazz band. This was just, says Forrie, one section of the band!

One-time member of the Clyde Valley Stompers and a fixture on the Scottish jazz scene from the 1950s onwards, Glasgow-born clarinettist Forrie Cairns enjoyed the Edinburgh Jazz Festival as both a player and a listener. He says:

“I was working virtually non-stop in Switzerland for the first 30 years of the jazz festival. But on the odd occasion when I took part in it (I think four altogether), what always excited me was the way Mike Hart (before it became more of committee-run event) managed to arrange those great afternoon Pub Trail gigs and the ones in the Festival Club with all the unusual line-ups comprising the musicians from the various visiting bands.

“For example, in the mid- 1980’s I came over for week with Bob Wallis and although I worked each night with Bob at various venues, I found myself one afternoon duetting with John Crocker, the sax/ clarinet player from the Chris Barber Band. It was great fun.

“That same year gave me the unique opportunity one other afternoon of listening for one hour to the two wonderful horns of Warren Vaché and Spanky Davis, the resident horn man at Jimmy Ryan’s Club in New York. Two quite different styles and two musicians at their peak, not attempting to blow each other off the stand, but rather complementing each other in quite superb fashion. Those musicians who crowded into the Festival Club that day were so lucky. That was the Edinburgh Festival at its best.”

Warren Vache & Spanky Davis, 1985 2

Warren Vache & Spanky Davis with Kenny Ellis (bass), Festival Club, 1985

Next: Alison Kerr

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40 Years of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival

Edinburgh Jazz Festival my covers collageScotland’s first jazz festival was born out of an experiment, 40 years ago, when local antiques-dealer and banjo-player Mike 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.

Its success, plus a visit to the Sacramento Jazz Festival, inspired him to seek sponsorship for the first Edinburgh International 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 the EIJF began to operate a policy which helped define it: it 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.

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.

The jazz festival continued in this manner until the mid-1990s, by which point the blues festival had been added, the dates no longer fell within the main Edinburgh festival period, and the pub trail had come to an end.

In 1997, the festival was produced, for the first time, with Assembly Direct (now Jazz Scotland), ushering in a new era in which even more sub-genres of jazz were represented at the festival, and new collaborations and projects were championed, but always with a basic respect for classic and trad jazz and the keepers of the jazz flame ..

The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival (July 13-22) celebrates its 40th anniversary with a gala concert on the opening night and various other events – visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com for details. 

In the run-up, I’ll be publishing a series sharing memories of the jazz festival from across its 40-year history, and from the perspectives of punters and performers alike. If you would like to share your stories and photos, please email me on girlfriday71@yahoo.com

 

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Fionna Duncan: Still Stompin’

Fionna Duncan by Sean Purser

Fionna Duncan, June 2018, by Sean Purser

When singer Fionna Duncan received the call telling her that she was to be the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Scottish Jazz Awards, she took the night off cooking – heading instead for a celebratory dinner at the local Chinese restaurant with her partner, veteran bass player (and winner of the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award) Ronnie Rae. And she also began a trip down memory lane which pretty much lasted until Sunday evening’s ceremony.

“I realised when I put the phone down that it’s nearly 60 years since I won my first award,” laughs Duncan. “It was at the JazzBeat 1960 awards at the St Andrew’s Halls in Glasgow, when I was with the Clyde Valley Stompers. I don’t actually remember anything about the night at all!”

Piecing together when things happened and in what order has been something of a challenge for Duncan, but then she is looking back over a life that’s had more twists and turns, ups and downs than most. “My life seems to have been a series of mishaps,” she chuckles, “but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Which is entirely understandable when you consider that one of her proudest moments was meeting and being admired by the greatest jazz legend of them all, Louis Armstrong, when she was the singer with the band, Forrie Cairns’ Clansmen, that was supporting him on the bill in Bridlington in 1962. But it’s maybe less understandable when you consider such setbacks as having to spend a full year in hospital in her early thirties, or having to make her debut at Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow the same day as having every single tooth taken out at the dentist’s.

However, it’s perhaps not surprising that Duncan – who, at 78, is as ebullient as ever – has such a “no regrets” perspective on her own life: she is known for her optimistic outlook and ability to find and focus on the positive, a trait that has made her a sort of fairy godmother to younger musicians and enabled her to add teaching to her list of accomplishments relatively late on in her singing career.

That singing career swung into action before Duncan had even left Rutherglen Academy, where one of her teachers – Norman Buchan – got her involved in the folk music scene. Duncan, who had been taught to play guitar by her engineer father, began to take part in competitions, singing and accompanying herself on the ukulele. One of the most memorable was a talent contest organised by Hoover in Kilmarnock.

“My friend’s dad was the managing director of Hoover and they asked me to take part – though I didn’t really want to. I went along and reluctantly sang two songs – and won. The prize was a Hoover iron, an electric kettle, the chance to make a recording and an audition for TV.” Around this stage, the talented teen spent a lot of time trying to dodge small-time impresarios who wanted to put her on the bill of local theatres on the west coast. “I’d have had my name up in coloured chalk! That was the level of the Clyde circuit,” she recalls with a shudder.

A much more tempting offer came during Duncan’s ten-month visit to the States, with her parents, in 1957. “I became friends with this girl, Ann White, who had cerebral palsy, and whose dad was a millionaire. She was a talented songwriter and she told her father that she wanted me to record some of her songs so we went to New York and traipsed around the record companies there.”

At Riverside, the label whose roster of stars at that time included Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk, Duncan was offered the contract of a lifetime. But she turned it down since it required moving permanently to the States. Still, the trip did provide her with a first-hand experience of the biggest singer of the day, if not of all time – and triggered her ongoing fear of meeting her heroes.

“We were at a reception with people from the recording company, and I saw this man fawning over Frank Sinatra. He put his hand on Sinatra’s shoulder, and Sinatra snapped at him: ‘Get your hand off the material, creep!’ I saw this and thought: ‘Oh f**k, I’m not going to try to speak to him!”

Luckily, other big name stars proved much more approachable. Through a “Rasputin-like” boyfriend in the business, Duncan met Lena Horne in London in the 1960s and confirms that she was every bit as elegant and beguiling in real life as she appears on film.

“She looked amazing – so composed and elegant in a white tailored suit – and she sounded amazing. She did this song The Eagle and Me, just voice and bass, and it made a big impression on me.” So much so that Duncan slips into song, and proves that her memory for good lyrics – in this case those of a protest song – is better than her memory for dates and chronology.

Indeed, there’s some dispute between them over when exactly Duncan met Forrie Cairns, the Glasgow-born clarinettist with whom she worked in various trad bands over the years – but what they do agree on is that it was during the auditions for Stars in Your Eyes, the TV show which she went on to win, and that the first song he heard her perform was Jimmie Rodgers’s hit, Honeycomb – which, of course, Duncan pauses her story to sing.

“It suited my ukulele playing because, like many of these tunes, it only had three chords – and that was about my stretch,” she laughs. “When I got on the TV show Stars in Your Eyes, they put me with Geraldo’s orchestra. They said to me: ‘Do you want to leave the ukulele?’ And I said ‘no, I need it!’ I was singing Pennies From Heaven while this stagehand was dropping great clumps of coins onto the stage from above – like missiles.”

Cairns recalls: “When I heard her for the first time, I immediately asked her if she would be interested in joining my group. She said she would have to ask her mother! Fortunately, her mum said yes and we appeared the following Saturday night at Whitecraigs Tennis Club.”

From the Forrie Cairns All Stars, Duncan and Cairns were recruited into the hugely popular Clyde Valley Stompers, led by Ian Menzies, and it was with the Stompers in 1959 that the gravelly, bluesy, Americanised Duncan vocals were first recorded – on the LP Have Tartan Will Trad. The JazzBeat award for Top Singer followed soon afterwards.

It’s little wonder Duncan doesn’t remember details as she was on such a gruelling treadmill at the time – this was, after all, the age of the trad jazz revival, when jazz bands regularly topped the pop charts and filled dance halls.

“I never got time off,” she explains. “I sang in Dundee with the mumps because Ian Menzies said it was just swollen glands. It was awful. I thought my face would never go back to normal.” When Duncan, Forrie Cairns and his pianist brother John were all injured in a late night car crash in September 1959, it was front page news in Scotland. Two days later, Menzies assured Evening Times readers that the trio would be out of hospital and on the stage that night “at a Woodend tennis club hop”.

In 1971, following an accident abroad which left her with five slipped discs and resulted in a year in hospital, Duncan decided to jack in the singing game altogether. “All I could think about was the pain – the idea of sitting in vans all day put me off returning. I decided to train as a hairdresser and really liked it – it was the first time I had had any female friends; in the bands it was all men.”

However, it turned out that hairdressing was not Duncan’s calling and she gradually returned to full-time singing, a transition that ushered in a chapter of her life which included setting up home with her partner, bass player extraordinaire Ronnie Rae, and forming her own trio – Rae, plus two up-and-coming talents, Brian Kellock (piano) and John Rae (drums) – in the mid-1980s.

It also included a broadening of her repertoire and development of her style through working with younger musicians and through participation in workshops in the States; a format which she brought back to Scotland with her fondly remembered Fionna Duncan Vocal Jazz Workshops which ran during the Glasgow Jazz Festival for more than a decade.

These days, Duncan performs less frequently – though she notched up both Edinburgh Jazz Festival and Fringe appearances last summer – but is regularly called upon for her teaching skills at jazz singing workshops, the next of which takes place in August. Until then, expect her to be busy rearranging the mantelpiece in her Garelochhead home so that the household’s latest Lifetime Achievement Award is centre stage ….

* Fionna Duncan is one of the tutors on the Pathhead Vocal Jazz Workshop which runs August 18-19. For more information, visit www.sophiebancroft.co.uk/teaching/workshops

First published in The Herald, June 9

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Jamie Cullum: Grown-Up Boy Wonder

Me & Jamie Cullum, 2009

Jamie Callum and me, 2009

What a difference a decade makes … The last time I interviewed the phenomenally successful British jazz-pop star Jamie Cullum he was newly engaged to supermodel and writer Sophie Dahl and was promoting his fifth album, The Pursuit. Now, as a father of two young daughters, he has found a new rhythm to his life – and, as he approaches the big 4-0, he is rushing around less and spending more time standing still and taking stock. Not that you would know it from his stage performances – which feature little in the way of standing still, and are as energetic as ever.

The subject of age – and the changes in outlook that can come with it – is a recurring theme in our chat. Cullum, who will bring his quartet to BBC Music’s The Biggest Weekend event in Perth on Friday May 25, is currently working on his eighth album and was last widely seen by the general public playing for the Queen at her televised 92nd birthday bash at the Royal Albert Hall.

It wasn’t the first time Cullum had performed for the Queen, but it was – he laughs – the first that he can clearly remember. The previous occasions are foggier memories glimpsed through a haze of youthful high living, though he does recall the late Alan Rickman reading poetry and the Queen requesting that he sing In the Wee Small Hours Of The Morning. He says: “These opportunities, as she gets older and as I get older, I appreciate them more – you appreciate consistency in people because it’s very easy to be inconsistent.”

That doesn’t seem to be a description that can be applied to Cullum, who is as chattily eloquent, down-to-earth and friendly as he was right back in the early 2000s – when he was a regular visitor to such lost venues as Henry’s Jazz Cellar in Edinburgh – before a 2003 appearance on the Parkinson show catapulted him into the public consciousness and he went, almost overnight, from playing in that much-loved basement jazz club to performing at the Usher Hall when he came to Scotland.

Not only does the mop-haired superstar rail against inconsistency; he has also begun, recently, to filter out the more superficial and throwaway aspects of modern culture – in a quest for self-improvement. Rattling off a huge list of his favourite poets – “Rilke, Carol Ann Duffy, Charles Bukowski, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes” – he explains that his love of poetry has been creeping into his work of late as he puts together his first album of entirely original material, which is scheduled for release later this year.

“I’m thinking that if you overdose on garbage then garbage comes out. I’ve been trying to fill my brain with wisdom, in the hope that even 1% comes out. It’s so easy these days to input surface stuff when you’re rushing about. I think for me it’s about remembering what you really value. When you rush around, you grab for the nearest thing. Now I have kids, you think about what has value, what enriches life – reading, family, friendships, food, wisdom … I hope it comes out in my work.”

With his 40th birthday looming next year, the always self-aware Cullum is particularly contemplative these days. “I’ve started to look back more, wresting out some of the wisdom I might have accrued and maybe missed. That’s bit of a theme just now. I’m trying to take stock.”

While some get their kicks from cocaine – as Jamie Cullum didn’t sing when he performed a typically funky version of the classic Cole Porter number at the Queen’s birthday party last month and used Porter’s alternative, less risqué, line – others, including the singer himself, get their kicks from reading. Literature has played a huge part in Cullum’s life – from his days at Reading University, where he studied English, to his relationship with Dahl which was born from the shared love of books (“and eating and dancing”).

“We definitely connected over that,” he says, “and we do live in a house of books.” The title of the album he was promoting when we last spoke came from the title of Dahl’s favourite book, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.

Of course, the afore-mentioned Cole Porter, a particularly elegant and sophisticated songwriter, has been a consistent favourite source of material since Cullum first started out (there are no fewer than three Porter songs on his 1999 debut album, Heard It All Before) and if you’ve ever attended one of his gigs, you will probably have heard his take on Just One of Those Things or I Get A Kick Out Of You.

“I love Porter’s dry acerbic wit, and his combination of happy and sad, tragic and comic. He expresses the general struggles we all face. …” Breaking into song at his piano, Cullum continues: “This one, What Is This Thing Called Love, is just great. It shows that understanding of the tragic nature of all things. Porter has very much inspired my writing. In fact, up until a few years ago, my influences were musical – but now they are much more literary. I’ve been looking at composers writing from a lyrical place – a lot of the great writers were lyricists: Johnny Mercer, Stephen Sondheim. They come from a lyrical place. I’m hoping their influence will show in my songs.”

Commenting on a quote he gave another interviewer a few years ago about aspiring to play George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the piano one day, he says: “I’ve actually just started learning to read music – and getting into theory with a view to expanding my horizons. I want to get better. I didn’t read music at all until recently. Now it’s a bit like reverse engineering – I look at my fingers and I understand what I’m doing and why things work.

“I’m thinking seriously of going to uni to study music – for selfish reasons. Yes, Rhapsody is still very much an ambition – but right now, I’d be happy with getting through Grade 2 for Beginners – that would be a joy! That comes from the children – seeing their sense of accomplishment. I’m drawn to these moments.”

* Jamie Cullum plays at BBC Music’s The Biggest Weekend, at Scone Palace in Perth on the afternoon of Friday, May 25. For more details and to buy tickets (£18 + £4.50 booking fee), visit the website http://www.bbc.co.uk/biggestweekend

First published in The Herald, Saturday May 12th

 

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Parky’s Kind of Music

Michael Parkinson 001Sir Michael Parkinson is a man on a mission. The broadcasting icon is currently touring the country to spread the word about the music he loves – the music written on the pages of the Great American Songbook and its sequels; the songs composed by such greats as the Gershwins, Cole Porter Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and the Beatles and performed by the stars of jazz and popular music. After decades celebrating this music on TV and radio and in print, the 83-year-old is sharing his enthusiasm through a show, Our Kind of Music, which arrives in Scotland this weekend.

Our Kind of Music, which was preceded by a compilation CD launched last autumn, finds the tables being turned very gently on the chat show king as he is the interviewee rather than the interviewer; his son, Mike Parkinson, asks the questions which guide Parky through the music that has shaped his life and career.

Clips of favourite singers and musicians – from Duke Ellington to Elton John, via his number ones Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra – pepper this production, and the dazzlingly inventive pianist and singer Joe Stilgoe provides live examples of some of Parky’s favourite tunes, as well as introducing a specially commissioned new number.

When we speak – first thing on Monday morning – Parkinson is exhilarated by the success of the show’s London debut, last weekend at the Palladium. “We got a five minute standing ovation! You forget the significance this music has for a huge swathe of the population.”

It has certainly been one of the most significant aspects of Sir Michael Parkinson’s life. Born in a Yorkshire mining community in 1935 – the year, he points out, that Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway – he was sung standards instead of lullabies by his movie-mad mum who momentarily entertained the idea of naming him Gershwin after her favourite composer, and who must have been thrilled, decades later, when the original singer of many of these songs – a certain Fred Astaire – turned up to perform them on her son’s TV show with music annotated by George himself.

Parkinson’s mother might have introduced him to the original film versions of the great standards, but he found his favourite versions by himself – when he fell in love with jazz.

“The big discovery for me was the Armed Forces Network broadcasting from Germany,” he recalls. “When I was about 13, I was fiddling with the buttons on my radio when I heard this man singing and playing the trumpet. It was Louis Armstrong playing On the Sunny Side of the Street – and it was wonderful. I’d never heard anything like it.”

This was the era when bebop was starting to blossom and before long, thanks to the AFN, Parkinson was also falling under the spell of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. “There was great competition between the trad and modern jazz fans and I stood in both camps. A bunch of us who liked the modern stuff used to meet every week at the bandstand in Barnsley.

“We had a record player in the middle of the bandstand and we would play records. A friend who was in the Merchant Navy would bring back the latest records from New York. We’d sit and listen in a trance, all of us dressed in duffel coats and silly shoes. I may have been hanging out with the modernists but I had to accept that Louis Armstrong was the greatest genius that there ever was.”

Unfortunately, Armstrong died less than a month before Parky launched his BBC talk show a couple of decades later, but it was two musicians heavily associated with him (including the trombonist from that first jazz record that Parkinson heard) who provided the young Yorkshire Evening Post reporter with his first celebrity interview – a particularly surreal one even by the standards of a man who would go on to interview John Lennon while sporting a bag over his head.

“I was walking down Doncaster High Street, going for a coffee, when Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines walked past me. I was probably the only person in Yorkshire to recognise them – Teagarden, the trombonist, had been in films I had seen. I did a double take, then introduced myself. They looked at me as if I was a martian. They hadn’t heard of Doncaster, they hadn’t heard of Yorkshire. They didn’t know where they were but their bus had broken down – it was en route to Bradford. I reckon whoever else was on the bus stayed on it for fear of being eaten by cannibals!”

Parkinson took these two giants of jazz for a coffee, and interviewed them before rushing back to share his scoop with the rest of the office – only to find that nobody was impressed. It wasn’t the first time his enthusiasm for jazz had been met with indifference – and it wouldn’t be the last. However, it helped instill in him the feeling that he is a “crusader” for the music and a voice for the people who love it as much as he does.

Years later when he was offered his radio show, he agreed to do it as long as he didn’t have to play the BBC’s playlist; he wanted to play only music he, personally, liked – which led to his becoming known as a major taste-maker in the jazz and easy listening scene through the 1990s and 2000s when he helped launch the careers of Michael Buble, Jamie Cullum and Diana Krall. “I believe it’s part of the job to keep my eyes and ears open to new talent – and to help them get a break,” he says.

The Teagarden-Hines encounter on Doncaster High Street may have been “the greatest moment of my life” for jazz-mad Parky in the 1950s, but it was just the first of many close encounters with his heroes – some of which were born out of similarly surreal circumstances.

One of his very favourite contributors to the Great American Songbook was the songwriter Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics for many of the 20th Century’s greatest hits – among them Moon River, Skylark and That Old Black Magic. (Indeed, the last public show Parkinson presented in Scotland was an all-star centenary tribute to Mercer organised by Scots crooner Todd Gordon.)

“Johnny Mercer was one of my great heroes – and we pay tribute to him in Our Kind of Music,” says Parky. “He was a great poet, but he was an awful drunk; one of the worst. He would insult everyone in the room – then the next day, he’d send them wine and roses, a bit like the lyrics of the song he wrote with Henry Mancini. Anyway, one night I had just got home at about 11pm and was getting into bed when I got a call from Laurie Holloway [Parky’s friend and the musical director on his TV show], who lived down the road.

“He asked me what I was doing, and I told him ‘I’m in my jammas – what did you think I’d be doing?’ … He invited me down to his house and told me Johnny Mercer was there, waiting to meet me. I got dressed in record time and arrived to find Mercer sitting on the piano stool with Laurie’s wife, the wonderful singer Marion Montgomery, and for two hours she sang all his hits.”

Breaking into the song I’m an Old Cow Hand (From the Rio Grande), Parkinson chortles: “That was one of the great moments in my life.” In his Our Kind of Music show, he proudly shares clips of himself with Mercer and Bing Crosby, for whom that number was originally written.

Parkinson is keen to point out that he has been “lucky to live through two great periods in popular music,” and he pinpoints the early 1960s, when the Beatles emerged, as the start of that second great period. Through his TV show, Scene at 6.30, which he presented at Granada, he got to know the Fab Four before they hit the bigtime.

“They were the house band,” he laughs. “When I first knew them, Paul McCartney asked for my autograph – for his mum! I wasn’t surprised that they made it big as they wrote lovely songs – you can trace the lineage back to the old songs I loved – but nobody expected the sort of world domination, the Beatlemania.”

Always one for whom work and pleasure are intertwined, Parkinson shows no sign of putting his feet up and just listening to his beloved music in the comfort of his sitting room. Indeed, this knight’s crusade continues – as his packed touring schedule demonstrates.

“The Great American Songbook is my great passion,” he explains. “It’s the greatest collection of pop tunes there has ever been and it will last forever – provided we look after it.”

* Sir Michael Parkinson: Our Kind of Music is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh (0131 228 1155; www.assemblyroomsedinburgh.co.uk) on Saturday 21 at 7.30pm, and at the City Halls, Glasgow (0141 353 8000; www.tickets.glasgowconcerthalls.com) on Sunday 22 at 7pm.

  • First published in The Herald, Thursday April 19

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Happy 90th, Bob Wilber!

Bob Wilber, Ed Jazz Fest 1992It’s soprano saxophonist extraordinaire Bob Wilber’s 90th birthday today. I’ve been lucky enough to hear him playing on quite a few occasions over the years – the first time was in August 1992 (when the above photo was taken), when I interrupted my year in Paris to come back for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, largely because I couldn’t bear to miss hearing him and clarinettist Kenny Davern together – the first chance I had ever had to hear these two titans of classic jazz playing together live.

Three years later, as a fledgling freelance journalist writing for The Herald, I sent myself up north to review concerts by Davern and Wilber, on consecutive nights in neighbouring towns. The night after Davern played his gig at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, Wilber performed at – of all places – the Parkdean Holiday Park in Nairn. (This turned out to be a suitably surreal introduction for me to Nairn Jazz and the wonderful world of the much-missed jazz promoter Ken Ramage.)

Never without my clunky Sony Professional tape recorder in those days, I interviewed both Davern and Wilber about the event that would become the most eagerly anticipated gig in my calendar for that summer – a reunion of the full Soprano Summit line-up (living members anyway!), to take place at that year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival.

Soprano Summit was a hugely successful band in the 1970s which, despite – or possibly because of – its lamentably short lifetime (six years), became legendary. Its albums became collectors’ items almost as soon as they were issued. Its conception – at a “jazz party” – organised by enthusiast Dick Gibson over a holiday weekend in September 1972 – became a tale that clarinettist Davern and fellow founding father, saxophonist and clarinettist Wilber, enjoyed telling. Here’s how it was told to me, in the summer of 1995 …

By day three of the party, audiences were suffering from ear fatigue and Gibson decided that he needed something to wake everyone up. According to Davern, Gibson turned to Wilber and said, in his Alabama drawl, “Now, I wan’ you and Kinny to get together and play a duet.”

The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

“We got a rhythm section together,” explained Wilber, “by a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number.” Davern continued: “We finished it off on two high notes in thirds, and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”

In December 1972, the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album; the only difference in personnel being that the busy bassist Milt Hinton was replaced by George Duvivier.

Then, after a second LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born. The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go.

Rhythm guitarist and singer Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work. Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love of tunes which were off the beaten standard track. Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic ground plan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. In Grosz, they also had “a marvellous player who lent the band an entertainment factor with his singing and clowning.”

Davern added: “That was the basic sound of the group – two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue.”

The guitar was the icing on an already rather tasty cake, because the essence of Soprano Summit was the relationship between its two frontmen. Davern put it down to the fact that they grew up on the same music, but both have their own views on how it should be played.

“Our differences lie in how to approach the godhead, so to speak. We’re all descendants of classic jazz. Bob has his idea of how it should be interpreted and I have mine. But together, it works.”

In a typical Soprano Summit number they bounced the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, though one sensed that much of the arranging was going on as they played.

As Wilber said: “A lot of it is intuitive. We find out what works by trying it, and then incorporate it into our repertoire.”

Their intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing. Davern observed: “Sometimes when the two of us play two notes, you can hear a third note present – a harmonic that suddenly appears, a richness.”

That Edinburgh Jazz Festival reunion turned out to be the only time I ever heard Soprano Summit live, but thankfully there were many more opportunities to hear both Wilber and Davern over the next couple of decades. Davern died in 2006, but Wilber remains active – I last heard him at the Norwich Jazz Party in 2014 when he was on terrific form, serving up deliciously unexpected harmonies and swinging with as much joie-de-vivre as those first times I heard him, more than 20 years earlier.BW 2

 

 

 

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