I wish I’d met Billy Strayhorn. I wish I’d been able to tell him what a profound effect he, his life, and more importantly his music has had on me. I was 16 or 17 when I first heard Nat King Cole perform Billy’s song Lush Life. It knocked the stuffing out of me then, and knocks it out of me still. Its a hymn to broken hearts, broken lives and the truth of the human condition. I’ve never met a singer who wasn’t simultaneously won over by it and terrified by it.
I’ve performed it occasionally over the years and at the age of 43 I’m only beginning to do it justice, because now I’ve lived at least some of what he wrote about. I only really started to “get” Lush Life when I was in my late 30’s. When my younger vocal students express an interest in performing it I put them off. Yet Billy Strayhorn wrote it when he was only 17 years old.
The wonderful Scottish jazz vocalist Annie Ross knew and liked Billy. Now in her 80’s, and having lived the words of this song, her time-served performance of it filmed in Glasgow captures its very essence.
Billy Strayhorn’s body of work is huge, and he shares the credit on hundreds of works with his mentor, boss, collaborator and friend Duke Ellington. Here was a young, shy, urbane, highly intelegent African American man working in one of the highest profile entertainment organisations in the United States, but who was also unashamedly and openly gay in a very intolerant age. He was everything that America told him he was not allowed to be.
Though the Duke Ellington band was always chock full of creative talent, Billy is arguably its most important alumus. He was employed initially to be Ellington’s staff arranger, orchestrating Ellington’s compositions and those of his own that Ellington requried. But he ultimately became Ellington’s collaborator, each of them working together on the same work. They were so in sync musically, that its sometimes hard to know where Ellington stopped, and where Strayhorn began.
In 1940, the American Society of Composers and Publishers went on strike, and society members, including Ellington, were banned from recording their work for broadcast. However Billy wasn’t a member and came up with a huge pile of new tunes for broadcast. Within this pile was a score that he’d written as his audition piece for the Ellington band, its title the simple direction Ellington had given him to get to there: Take the A Train.
Though he lived his professional life in Ellington’s shadow, Billy could and did exercise his right to compose music of incredible sophistication for himself. Lush Life, Chelsea Bridge, Upper Manhattan Medical Group, Blood Count, Isfahan, Johnny Come Lately and Satin Doll – a song often incorrectly credited to Ellington. I don’t think there was any malice in Ellington blagging the credit for one of Billy’s tunes, but Ellington had a colossal ego and for all that Billy was his closest friend, never shied away from exerting his own artistic influence: Ellington knew a hit when he heard it and Ellington was the boss. Always.
Ellington and Strayhorn had been a team for 28 years until Billy died from cancer in 1967. Ellington’s wry response to those who called Billy his alter ego was “Billy is only my right arm, left foot, eyes, stomach, ears and soul – not my ego”. Ellington had ego enough for both of them. Billy Strayhorn’s legacy doesn’t need an ego to back to it up.
One of the best things to have come into my life in the last couple of years is the wonderful, swinging aggregation known as the London Gay Big Band. Led by trombonist Peter Jay and managed by trombonist and marketing whizz Stefan Doering, this accomplished bunch of musicians have enriched my musical life in a way I never thought posible. As a singer, a pianist and an arranger I’m a dyed-in-the wool, self confessed big band nut, and along the way I’ve performed with some of the best bands in the business. So any chance to sing with a good, well drilled and hard swinging band is one that I jump at. The minute I met the London Gay Big Band, it was love! They swing, they groove, they roar – all the attributes that I love in a big band, and they liked my singing and my not-to-subtle approach to banter with adult audiences. Besides, they are the best natured bunch of musicians its ever been my privilege to work with. It’s a match made in heaven. Aside from which its great to be an on-stage advocate for the LGBT community.
As an ensemble they’ve come a long way since that impressive first gig: we’ve toured to Germany with the marvellous Drag artiste La Voix, who then took the band to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent. We’ve also worked extensively right across the country with Swing Patrol, the joyous bunch of swing dance teachers who so impressed the Dragon’s Den team that Deborah Meaden gave them a huge wad of cash to help them jive their way to success. Being on stage with the London Gay Big Band in front of 800 swing dancers (few over the age of 40!) is like stepping into a technicolour movie from the early 1950’s and being transported to an age where people really knew how to dance, and dancing was an art practised before a swinging 20 piece band. I’ve documented all of our encounters and you can see photos of us doing our Swing Thing in this gallery, and indeed in the videos below.
But one question pops up again and again, from the community at large and indeed from within the gay community; why does the world need a Gay Big Band?
One of the musicians in the band, saxophonist and multi-wind player Peter Reynolds also works with the London Gay Symphony Orchestra and the London Gay Symphonic Winds. He argues that retaining the ‘gay’ in the name of organisations like this – be they musical or otherwise – is more about respect for the forbears and creators of the gay community who have allowed contemporary gay men and women to the lives we do. And I absolutely agree with him. We expect there will be for a very long time a gay community, and so Peter suspects there will always be organisations that bear that community’s name. Further down the line, even if being gay ever becomes a non-issue, and I pray it does, he suggests that in the same way that Grimethorpe Colliery Band is not at all comprised of members of the mining community anymore and really should just be Grimethorpe Band, so too will gay community groups continue to respect their origins, no matter the mix of sexualities within them. I should point out that the London Gay Big Band is only 95% gay!
With the attention the band has brought to itself with is superb performances it has begun to play important role in becoming the face of the community and aid massively in projecting a positive image of it to the masses. We’re still in a time where much of the media portray gay men as a shady underclass, intent only in hedonism. Organisations like London Gay Big Band, the various orchestras, and the many Gay and Lesbian choirs across the country go a long way to help project a more accurate, more acceptable image of the community and aid the process of normalising it.
It is also a matter of safe space for the vulnerable. In the years I’ve been a professional musician, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of openly gay jazz musicians I’ve met, but have lost count of the number of people who have joined LGBT musical groups because they are trying to come to terms with their sexuality and don’t quite know how to do that. But what they do know is music; being able to do something you love and are happy when doing, whilst also interacting with people who know exactly what you’re struggling through has literally been a lifeline for many. In the 1990’s I was pianist for the Glasgow Gay Men’s Chorus and saw shy, retiring chaps – many in the older age bracket – suddenly flower and emerge from their shells because they had a sense of unity and pride for the first time in their adult lives. Some argue that they could create a “Straight” band. But to the people in the situation I’ve just described (and indeed most gay musicians I know), EVERY band already is the “XYZ straight band”. As I said, the London Gay Big Band is the best natured and most diverse group of musicians I’ve ever worked with. Its an honour to be part of their fabulous Swingin’ World.
When I was a wee boy in the 70’s and 80’s, you could turn on the TV and often hear and see jazz. Saturday night telly usually had one or two exponents of “Proper Grown Up Music” on a chat show; Buddy Rich, Sammy Davis Jnr, Sarah Vaughan amongst those I remember on Michael Parkinson’s show. And jazz based music never seemed to be far away from the radio thanks to the ubiquitous BBC Big Band and presenters like Humphrey Littleton and Alan Dell on Radio 2. I don’t know where I first heard Count Basie and his Orchestra, but it was at a very early age and I knew that I loved the sound this band made, and knew from his name that he must be very important. As I morphed into a jazz obsessed teenager, it was the music of Basie’s band that drew me along, and that I return to time and time again. For me, it’s a sound that’s life affirming. My favourite incarnation is the band of the 50’s and 60’s, post war big band jazz at its best. The musicians and arrangers took all that they had learned from the swing era and the birth of be-bop and took the music out of the ballroom and into concert halls and clubs. The Count Basie Orchestra was a streamlined jazz machine whose sections interlocked like gears and hit audiences with the force of a locomotive. The record executives compared it to a nuclear blast, and called it the Atomic Mr Basie. And the centre of it all is Basie’s spare, perfectly nuanced piano. What’s not to love?! This track is for music historian and author Richard Havers. Richard, lets try it one more once!
The Scottish Jazz Awards took place last Monday evening, at Le Monde in Edinburgh. To be precise they took place in the Dirty Martini, the terrific room that my chum Todd Gordon used for his British Festival of Vocal Jazz in August. Its a fab space, GREAT for jazz and yours truly hosted with my usual blend of filthy innuendo, sarcasm and by being “quite nice really”. I’ll give a full report on all the winners, suffice to say I’d forgotten Jazz House was up for a gong. We won. Huge thanks to my wonderful team for being fab, and particularly to Richard Michael for being such a rock. And my fabulous chum, and one time BBC Producer. Keith Loxam won the Services to Jazz Award. Without him I wouldnt be doing what I do today. Thanks Keith. You’re a bad cat.
Chuffed to bits, now off to hear the SNJO Swing themselves into bad health…
The late Sir John Dankworth was my “Pocket Legend” on Jazz House the other week, to commemorate his birthday. His daughter Jaquie is on radio a great deal promoting her new album, and so he and his music have been in my thoughts a lot of late.
Johnny Dankworth, as he is remembered as by the public, was a figure writ large in my early jazz life. He was one of those entertainers who was always on the radio and tv when I was a wee boy, and as such his music had a great effect on me; to me it was entertaining, exhilarating and exciting even before I new it was called jazz. I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing him and wife Dame Cleo Laine a few times; I found him to be urbane and witty, and he made a great cup of tea.
He was born in Woodford, Essex, in 1927 and fell under the spell of Jazz as a teenager. He studied the clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music, but he had to smuggle his saxophone in to the building. He took the pragmatic view that if he was going to consider something as frowned upon by the establishment as playing jazz for a living, he might as well learn enough about music to prepare him for any kind of gig. He was wise beyond his years.
By the mid 1940’s he was an established professional and under the spell of Charlie Parker and bebop – in fact he played alongside Parker at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949, and was the best known modern jazz soloist in Britain. As the 1940’s turned into the 50’s, the young Dankworth formed one of British jazz scene’s most celebrated groups, the Johnny Dankworth Seven
He was the enfant terrible of British jazz, and his seven, which included one of Scotland’s top exports trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, quickly became the top bebop band in the UK. But in 1953, amid cries of bafflement and that no good would come of it, he announced that he was disbanding the seven, and that he was going to start a big band, and so the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra was born. As well as being a fabulous soloist, John was already an accomplished arranger, and had contributed some brilliant arrangements to the library of Britain’s top big band, Ted Heath And His Music, whose polished musicianship John was taking on full square. Even though one of its main functions was to play for dancing, John’s band was from the off an out and out jazz orchestra, playing adventurous and hard-swinging music.
He was Britain’s first internationally renowned jazz soloist, and an arranger and composer of real quality and originality. Here’s a wonderful example of his playing and arranging, and get a load of that wonderfully unique brass section!
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 Forgie
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 Orchestra
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.
Once upon a time a good pop singer was expected to swing, sing in tune and know every standard in the book. When Eydie Gorme auditioned for the new Steve Allen Show in 1953, she was asked how many songs she knew. “Oh, about 2,000”. She was hired to sing for 4 weeks and stayed for 5 years, as the programme evolved into the legendary “Tonight” show, meeting her husband and singing partner Steve Lawrence into the bargain.
For my money, Eydie had one of the greatest post war voices. Ella Fitzgerald adored it, Sinatra loved it. Her records and TV appearances are a real masterclass in singing standards, in selling a lyric and in subtle swing. I can’t help but wonder if she hadn’t stepped out of the limelight to have children, if she’d have been a much bigger star. She wasn’t a jazz singer per say, but she occupied that swinging high ground in classy, grown-up pop music, and boy could she belt out a song…
Eydie was my pocket legend on this week’s edition of Jazz House on BBC Radio Scotland. You can listen to it again here.
What a time in which to reintroduce myself into web-society.. so many jazz greats have passed away; pianists George Duke and Cedar Walton, singer Eydie Gorme have all passed away within the last two weeks. And today, I’ve just learned of the passing of the glorious pianist and radio host Marian McPartland.
Never a real household name in the UK, despite being British by Birth, she was real jazz giant – one of only three women to feature in the legendary photo “A Great Day in Harlem.” She’s standing next to one of her female contemporaries, and another of the great pianists of the age, Mary Lou Williams.
For 40 years she was the host of NPR’s Piano Jazz Show. Marian McPartland had a great knack for making guests feel totally at ease, wether they came from the jazz world or not.
She was one of the people who inspired me to be whatever the heck I am now.
The link below will take you to some of her great interviews and duets. Hearing her laugh and chat with Sarah Vaughan, then accompany her so beautifuly and so swingingly is a joy. Go listen. Go Marian.
I’ll pay respect to all of the musicians mentioned in my opening paragraph over the next few days.