Auntie Beeb’s Other Orchestras

I’m crestfallen by the news that Radio 2 have decided to cut the output of the BBC Big Band by 80%. Without the BBC Big Band, I probably wouldn’t be as much of a jazz nut as I am today, and even among giants of the genre whom I adore, such as Count Basie, the BBC Big Band remain among my all time favourite ensembles – certainly one of the finest big bands Britain has produced since Ted Heath’s. The Daily Telegraph has published an article on the decision, and you can read it here.

The BBC Big Band with guest soloist Jiggs Whigham

It was the BBC that fostered and nurtured my love of jazz, through the band, the Radio Orchestras, and shows by Humphrey Littleton, Michael Parkinson, Alan Dell and Benny Green to name just a few. I am privileged to continue that lineage on my own show, the Jazz House. Given that position however, I shall restrict my comment on the band to a piece that I wrote some time ago, for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra‘s Club Newsletter. Its quite lengthy, but I think it makes my feelings on the subject quite clear. Enjoy

Auntie’s Other Orchestras

On a large set of shelves on the 3rd floor of the BBC’s Scottish headquarters are leather bound volumes containing every single edition of the Radio Times. A veritable history of the BBC, a glance through some of issues of the mid 20th Century show that the entertainment provided was quite different from the radio of today.

The most obvious difference is the amount of orchestral music that was broadcast by the BBC, and nearly all of it played live. When the BBC came into being, there was little in the way of a recorded music industry, and the Musicians Union hold over the corporation was such that a “Needle Tax” prevented it from playing more than a fixed amount of commercially recorded music per day. Subsequently, the BBC required its own staff musicians to supply this seemingly insatiable demand for music, and it became rich in its own orchestras; the symphonic orchestras that still exist today, but also ‘light orchestras’ that populated the myriad music and entertainment shows – the BBC Dance Orchestra (which became the BBC Big Band) the  BBC Theatre Orchestra (which eventually became the BBC Concert Orchestra), the Variety Orchestra, the Revue Orchestra, the Northern Variety Orchestra (which became the Northern Dance Orchestra), the Northern Ireland Orchestra, the Midlands Light Orchestra and in Glasgow, the Scottish Variety Orchestra (which became the BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra).

These were magnificent ensembles populated with top players and great arrangers, playing everything from light classical music, popular melodies and songs, marches and dance music, swing and jazz, and the all important “Music while you Work”.

I’m just old enough to have been weaned on a steady diet of the now defunct BBC Radio Orchestra, whose daily broadcasts on Radio 2 opened up a world of orchestral and big band sounds to me. Their very existence seemed to prove that Auntie Beeb wasn’t the stern Mistress she appeared to be, and the demands placed upon these ensembles in the studio help to raise the bar of orchestral playing to a standard where British studio and session players are now the envy of the world. As a broadcaster who specialises in jazz, I’ve developed a keen interest in the history of the BBC’s light music and dance orchestras. But whilst the BBC’s surviving symphonic orchestras are all undergoing a renaissance, the BBC’s light orchestras have almost all been swept away, and are virtually a footnote in the BBC’s grand musical history.

The ball started rolling in 1928 with the with the formation of the BBC Dance Orchestra, a group intended to provide music for devotees of the quickstep and the foxtrot, and through the new-fangled wireless the band, and its conductors Henry Hall and Jack Payne, became national celebrities.

But by the late 1940’s, the rather quaint British dance bands had long been eclipsed by the bold and brassy sounds of American big bands such as Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie, and in the UK the mighty Ted Heath. Accordingly, in 1950, the BBC Dance Orchestra upped its game and was refashioned into the BBC Showband, a top-flight American sounding big band complete with a string section. The band began to be used widely in the new medium of television in the company of home-grown talent including a then unknown Matt Monro and with international stars such as Frank Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole.

By 1964, the Showband, along with the Variety and Revue Orchestras were amalgamated into a new, all-purpose ensemble, the BBC Radio Orchestra. This was the BBC’s flagship light orchestra, and could provide accompaniment for all kinds of popular genres and occasions, from light classics to variety and swing. The Radio Orchestra was a grand affair, a symphonic sized orchestra built around a big band along the lines of the American studio orchestras of Nelson Riddle or Herny Mancini, and at its core was the new BBC Radio Big Band.

The BBC Big Band and its MD since 1977, Barry Forgie42745_2

The band was the orchestra’s jazz wing, but was required to play pop and whatever other non-classical fare the network wanted. However in 1979, the band got a chance to show what it could really do when it began Big Band Special on Radio 2. Over 30 years later, this Monday night slot remains the BBC Big Band’s flagship outing, even surviving the untimely and shortsighted demise of the BBC Radio Orchestra in 1991, which led to the creation of the BBC Big Band as a dedicated, but now sadly freelance, jazz orchestra.

However London didn’t have the monopoly within the BBC on big swingin’ bands. In 1956, the BBC Northern Variety Orchestra in Manchester staged a quiet revolution, axing its strings to become the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra, a now legendary aggregation which would rival the Ted Heath Orchestra for the title of best big band in the land.

The BBC Scottish Variety Orchestra, which shared the studios in Glasgow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, had been a mainstay of Scotland’s cultural landscape since 1937, performing a steady diet of light classics, popular songs and Scottish Dance Music for the Scottish Home Service as well as the BBC Light Programme (the forerunners of Radio Scotland and Radio 2), and subsequently television work accompanying the likes of Kenneth McKeller, Moira Anderson and Stanley Baxter.

In 1965, the BBC changed the name and subsequently the format of the SVO to match its counterparts in London and Manchester, and it became the BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra. Now with a full saxophone section, the orchestra was a classy, if often socially boisterous group, and many of its broadcasts featured just its big band section.

The BBC Scottish Radio Radio Orchestrabbcsc_fahey2

But with changes in musical taste, musical technology and the ever-increasing air-time being given to commercial pop music, there was less and less time given over to the light orchestras, the costs of which were becoming disproportionate to their use. So in 1980 the BBC announced its intention to disband most of its light orchestras, including the NDO, and also the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The story of the protracted strike action that followed and disrupted the Proms is beyond the remit of this article, but the compromise that ended the strike saved the BBC SSO, but at the expense of the Scottish Radio Orchestra, which had previously not even been considered for disbandment. Other than the valiant contributions of the wonderful BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC Big Band and the extraordinarily popular and wonderfully virtuosic John Wilson Orchestra, little remains of the grand tradition of light music and orchestral jazz on the radio.

It would be a huge mistake to think of the jazz, dance and light music orchestras of the past as a function of nostalgia. One of the crucial functions of the BBC Big Band, like its siblings the BBC’s symphony orchestras, is to be at home in the now AND the past, which is what gives its performances such impact; the jazz of the past becomes present, because its being played at this moment by top-class jazz musicians for a contemporary audience.  Bringing that tradition to life every time they broadcast is one of the key contributions that the BBC Big Band makes to musical culture. I heard the band live in concert recently, and hearing it roar with immediacy and vitality was a joy. Its come a long way since 1928, but the former BBC Dance Orchestra is still a vitally important medium for conveying important music of enduring value, and remains one of our most important cultural institutions.