- 9. More Changes
Towards the end of my Grammar School career, Johnny Muir was called-up into the RAF as a National Serviceman. To learn a trade, he signed on for twenty-two years, and became an electrician.
Since being hit between the ears by Louis Armstrong’s music, Johnny and I had shared a deep fanship for Jazz. Through this mutual interest, I had my first experience of going into a pub.
Neither Mom nor Dad frequented pubs. I don’t think it was any aversion to the demon drink, but that they were happy in each other’s company and enjoyed quiet times together at home. Of course, it could have been that they never had the money to spend on evenings down the pub.
There was a time, though, when Dad was working oodles of overtime at Goodyear’s and there was a tiny amount of money to spend on luxuries. About once a month, the three of us would walk from Dunstall Road, right up into town and across to somewhere on Snow Hill. There was a little café (which called itself a restaurant) and we always had the same sit-down meal there: fish, chips and peas.
The fish was fried in a very orange-coloured, very thin bread-crumb batter. The chips were thick cut and delicious. The peas were out of a post-war tin. And I swamped the lot with vinegar.
Those slightly-better-off times lasted a year, perhaps, then our evenings out just stopped. For a long time afterwards I would recall those evenings and remind Mom and Dad of them. They knew that I did so not to pressure them to take me back again, but just to show that I had enjoyed those times. Mom and Dad were pleased that they’d made me happy, and were never embarrassed – at least that I noticed – that they could no longer afford to do it again. I knew that we had little money, but that was how things were.
That lack of cash made Mom keep urging me to “get on” at school. She didn’t want me to struggle through as she and Dad and both their families had done all their lives. But I still hated and dreaded school.
Anyway, somehow, when I was about fourteen, Johnny asked my Mom if he could take me to a jazz-club. Knowing how I felt about the music, Mom agreed, and Johnny treated me to my evenings out.
The jazz-club was in the Bluebell Inn on the Bilston Road, Wolverhampton. All jazz-clubs were in pubs in those days. The club had a resident band: Pete Young’s Wolverines. With a name like that, they could only have played White Chicago-style music. And, in that small, smoke-filled back-room, it felt so authentic.
I can even remember the band’s line-up after – what? – nearly sixty years! Each one seemed to be a real character and only Pete himself seemed to have a proper job, the others being students (I think). Years later, the name Murray Smith came up on many telly credits. I wonder if it was the Murray Smith who played trumpet for the Wolverines.
Sometimes, a trumpet-player called Eric would bring some of his mates to the club and they would be the interval band. His big hit – among the club members – was a tune called ‘Bluebell Blues’.
The chap who seemed to run the club was a young man called Berris Green who dressed in a Teddy Boy – not the ideal image for a jazzer! And there was Bill Bickerton from Codsall, whose family my Mom knew, who played wild improvised piano solos, after which someone would back-announce with “That was Bill Bickerton with ‘Up The Creek Blues’!”
I just absorbed the atmosphere and the jazz sound.
Then I was fifteen and, for no reason that I can understand other than love unfeigned, my Dad took me to The Band Box up on Snow Hill and bought me a battered, second- or third- or umpteenth-hand silver trumpet. It cost him a whole week’s wages, that I know.
The shop offered lessons, but I told Dad I’d teach myself just as my hero Louis did. And so I did. It must have been Hell as I practiced in that tiny terraced house for both Mom, Dad and the neighbours for miles around!
I tried – how I tried! – all the while to sound more and more like Louis in his Hot Five days. After a couple of months, I was a competent busker. But not quite like King Louis.
At school, a few lads suggested to the Masters that we should have a School jazz-band. It would have been composed of members of the School orchestra who seemed to think that jazz was an easy music to play. The Beak and his Masters turned the idea down flat. Jazz was common, obviously.
Then I was approached by Mickey Foulkes, a boy I’d know since our Remove days together. He knew I had a trumpet and that I was keen on jazz. Though not a musician in any way, he told me that Jimmy Skillbeck was learning drums, and that we should ask around and start a band. So we did.
There was me on trumpet (and Mickey said I was the leader, too); Jimmy on drums (he was just beyond the learner stage); Woggy Williams (a nickname which had been given to him by Mousey Holmes, the Latin Master) on clarinet (an absolute beginner who wanted to play Modern Jazz); and Johnny Moreton who would never be able to either play the trombone or understand jazz. These were Grammar School boys. And we needed a slightly bigger rhythm section!
So Mickey found Bob, who had left school and managed to get out of National Service on medical grounds, to play piano. He was more into Oscar Peterson than Lil Armstrong, and was very much a soloist. Sometimes, a younger lad called Tony Eden stood in for Bob, but Tony was another who didn’t have the least idea about jazz.
One day, a chap came into the All Souls Church Hall, by the West Park, in which Mom had arranged for us to practice. He was eighteen, and we were all fifteen. In those days, society was such that we didn’t know whether to call him Mr. Smith or Ron! He put us right, joined us, and was a really good banjo-player.
That gave us three reasonably competent jazz musicians: Jimmy, Ron and me. Pianist Bob (whose surname I should remember but can’t) sort of soloed in the background on each number, tinkling away as best he could. The rest tried to keep up. And we had the temerity to get a few bookings – non-musician Mickey appointing himself as Manager. Our audiences were very polite and nobody actually booed in those early days.
But our music improved, especially when Johnny Moreton left to start a Modern Jazz group with Terry Martin (who pretended to play tenor-sax). We’d dubbed Johnny “Sausage-Roll Moreton”, of course, and were glad to see him go. Our band (“The Stomping Stevedores”) started to play in tune after his departure. We began to make a few toes tap among our audiences. We stomped on down for about two years in all.
During that time, I started to go to jazz concerts. Usually, it was with members of “The Stevedores”, and once or twice with Johnny Muir. I heard many, many well-known jazz and blues performers at those concerts.
Big Bill Broonzy, a blues-player from the Delta, was one of the first Americans to tour Britain after our Musicians’ Union lifted the ban. He just stood on the stage at Wolverhampton Civic Hall and let it rip. We knew his work from 78s and from AFN radio from Germany. His “Guitar Shuffle” recording had been sent to the London School of Music, where students claimed that there were two guitarists, a bass-player and a drummer on the track. It was Big Bill all on his own.
During the performance, Bill wailed a high note. A bloke in the audience – goodness why he’d paid for a ticket – made a high-pitched yell mocking the bluesman. Jimmy Skillbeck yelled out “Shut up, you ignorant bastard!” – a very nasty thing to shout at someone in those days, so you could tell the level of our reverent enthusiasm.
After the show, fans went backstage to meet the great man. He was well into a bottle of Southern Comfort by the time we met him, but was perfectly polite. Bill Broonzy took a while to come to terms with the lack of colour-bar inEngland. I thanked him for his music and shook him by the hand. I imagined that handshake would give me some real credibility among my peers. Very few people have heard of Big Bill these days.
We went to a Gospel concert featuring Brother John Sellers and SisterRosetta Tharpe. It was very loud, but you could hear the influence which their blues-based Gospelling had had on our beloved traditional jazz.
Chris Barber’s Band, with Lonnie Donegan on banjo and guitar, often visited the Civic Hall. Donegan, of course, came to be an enormous hit-parade star with his Skiffle Group in the 50s. Elvis supplanted him with the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll.
Lonnie’s place, when he went solo in the skiffle boom, was taken by Johnny Duncan, who gained some sort of fame later with his “Blue-Grass Boys”. His big – and, I think, only – hit was ‘Last Train To San-Fernando’. Dickie Bishop joined Chris’s band after Duncan departed.
So jazz in all its glory made my schooldays tolerable, but did not encourage me to study and become a lawyer, doctor, or any of the middle-class jobs which Mom hoped I would. And there was more jazz to come . . .
completed Saturday, 2nd May, 2009.
* * * * *