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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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