Starting out

Published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, Winter 2007, and Just Jazz, February 2009

For young jazz fanatics the years around 1958 to 1961 were halcyon in abundance with hundreds, or maybe thousands, of local bands being booked by promoters who wanted emulators of the three Bs: Chris Barber, Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball who were topping the hit parade before being elbowed out by the Beatles.

With friends from King George V School in Southport I travelled to the Cavern in Liverpool and many other venues to hear this old, but new, music. After a while, as new bands seemed to arrive almost weekly, we had a serious discussion: "it's fine listening to jazz, but why don't we play it?" Then, as if the mere wishing would make it so, we shared out the as yet mythical instruments. I fancied the trombone but my closest friend, Neil Freeman, got in first. "OK - I'll play the clarinet," I said. My various neighbours over forty-seven years should give thanks to Neil's speedy intervention.

I bought a Boosey and Hawkes "Regent" on the "never-never" - aka hire purchase - via the Melody Maker and managed to afford ten lessons to learn how to finger the notes. It was then time to launch the Bienville Jazz Band, a name plucked from a New Orleans street map. A friend had a temporarily empty house and we duly commenced rehearsals there. In retrospect the sound must have been excruciating but we were much encouraged when we heard that a nearby resident had commented that "there's a jazz band practising in our street".

We still lacked a trumpeter but one soon arrived. Hugh was very different to us. For a start he came from very posh Hightown, half way down the railway line to Liverpool, and he possessed a shiny brand new Conn trumpet. His initial repertoire was very limited; to be precise, and for some totally inexplicable reason, it consisted of "The Old Grey Mare she ain't what she used to be". After two weeks of doing the old nag to death Hugh announced that we had a gig! His masonic father was having a reception at his house and we were booked to provide the music. It was six weeks ahead and we would have plenty of time to learn more tunes!

Out of our anticipated fees we bought plaid band shirts and set to with the entertainment. Thus I became a seventeen year old band leader! Astonishingly the punters seemed to like the music. Maybe it was the plentiful supply of alcohol that dulled their critical faculties - I recall that an occasional jiver would slide dramatically into the adjacent pool during fast numbers and have to be hauled out. Another far gone guest kept asking us to play "Jealousy", adding rather uselessly for us New Orleans purists, "it starts 'Twas all'."

Bookings flowed in, including a regular Saturday night gig at the vast Birkdale Palace Hotel as the supporting band to the Merseysippi Jazz Band. This was hotel so vast that it had its own railway station on the old Cheshire Lines railway. Being on first, and being also a keen cricketer, there was occasionally the odd sight of cyclist pedalling furiously towards this monster hotel with a cricket bag over one handlebar and a clarinet case over the other.

Another gig was at the South Liverpool Football Club. Uncommunicated to us in advance was the fact that we were expected to provide the music for the whole evening, including waltzes and backing the "turn." The former was a considerable literary challenge. Jazz groups famously only count in fours and can even manage to play Edelweiss as a jive number. Terry Burstall on piano was the only band member able to play other styles and valiantly kept the rest of us just about on track.

The "turn" was another matter. He was a typical club tenor: all microphone and no ear. We barely knew his repertoire but with the arrogance of youth we launched into his songs with gusto. Unfortunately the public address system was exceptionally wonky and would cut out from time to time, whereupon the "turn" no longer turned. Even worse, not being able to hear himself, he'd shifted into a different key. Forty odd years later I still have a vivid mental picture of Terry Burstall hunched over the piano, muttering, "Where the hell's he gone to now", as he searched for the lost chord.

A 1961 photograph of the band can be guaranteed as authentic by the sight of that innovative relic of the period, the tea chest bass. It kept the show on the road but also provided a vital receptacle for the stock of beer regarded as indispensable for the lubrication of such rising stars of the jazz world.