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Who’s Who of British Jazz by John Chilton

When I was first asked to review this book, written by a friend of over 30 years, my first inclination was to decline as I felt I couldn’t be entirely objective. But when I learned the subject matter my fears vanished. After all, a book on British jazz has about the same importance as a pictorial history of the Swiss navy, or an in-depth study of Irish erotic art.

But reading through the entries set off a chain reaction of memories. The British were exposed to jazz very early, starting with an extended visit by the ODJB in 1919, closely followed by Benny Peyton and Sidney Bechet. The 1920s saw visits by Paul Specht (with Arthur Schutt on piano); Adrian Rollini, Chelsea Quealey and Fud Livingston at the Savoy with Fred Elizalde; and the 1930s began with Jimmy Dorsey and Muggsy Spanier with Ted Lewis; tours by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway; and continued with Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, until the reactionary Musicians’ Union banned American orchestras well into the 1950s.

Thanks to the Parlophone Rhythm Style series, jazz also flourished in the British provinces, particularly in university cities, and many a future jazzman got his first taste at the local record store. Although I don’t believe Britain has produced a true jazz original, there are people listed here who could hold their own in any American band of any era: trumpeter Norman Payne who, in the late ’20s, was offered a job in New York, only to be forbidden to go by his mother because he was under age; Nat Gonella; Tubby Hayes; Cleo Laine; Ted Heath; George Chisholm; Vic Feldman; Spike Hughes; Tony Crombie, who toured with Duke Ellington in 1948; Johnny Dankworth, and on and on. I was also struck by the number of excellent musicians of Scottish origin, although they’ve never been able to produce a jazz bagpiper of any note.

Originally Published