22 August 2015


I owe so much to the late Kenny Ball.

I went to hear his band at the King's Lynn Festival (in 1985, I think) and I recorded the entire performance on a little Tandy machine. He inspired me! I immediately decided I wanted to become a traditional jazz trumpet player.

So I set about learning. And thus began a hobby which has become the greatest passion of my old age.

The following year Kenny Ball's band returned to the King's Lynn Festival. The amazing thing was that they played a programme almost identical to that of the previous year. I knew it so well by heart, having spent twelve months with the recording. The tunes and arrangements were exactly the same, as were even some of the 'improvised' solos (and most of the jokes!).

I think this is why some 'purists' have been inclined to say that Kenny Ball was too 'commercial' and didn't play 'proper' New Orleans jazz.

However, Kenny and his entire band were brilliant musicians - technically of the highest standard. And whatever you thought of his programme, there can be no denying that he was one of the few trad jazz musicians to be commercially very successful even in the difficult final decades of the Twentieth Century. He played a narrow range of tunes the public quickly grew to like; and he went on playing them in the same way for years because he knew that was what the public wanted. It was a clever formula.

I'm telling you all this because I received an email from Richard, an English jazz trumpeter, recently in which he wrote:

I used to love going to see Kenny Ball in concert. What an inspiration! Great trumpet player, fun band, always a good performance. But I noticed that the band would have a concert repertoire that they would repeat at each gig that year, in much the same order, with pretty much the same solos. Perhaps it was because he had famous recordings that people expected to hear – but some (not me) would argue that perhaps this wasn’t “proper” jazz because it wasn’t on-the-spot improvisation. Then again, once you’ve learnt the tune, is it ever spontaneous again?

Good point. And I suppose many of us play pretty well the same solos over and over again - particularly with tunes with which we are over-familiar.

But the whole topic raises this question in my mind:

Is it better to play a small number of tunes (concert after concert) really well; or should we be seeking constantly to widen our repertoire?

My trumpet-playing correspondent wrote:

In my bands there are two schools of thought: one is that it is better to have a couple of dozen tunes that we can pitch up with and play on auto-pilot – reasonably well; the other is that we should always tailor the playlist to the venue and introduce new tunes as deemed appropriate.

tend to hold with the former as I would always prefer to turn in a passable performance – after all, we are just part-time players, not professionals.

It is also the case that in my band I will sometimes throw in a new tune at a rehearsal and the guys are quite happy to play along if the melody is clear and the chords follow a reasonably standard pattern. If it seems difficult we drop it quickly but also if it seems just plain boring! Have you found that sometimes you hear a tune on the radio, a CD or YouTube and think it would be great to play – but then when you try it, it just doesn’t seem to work? That is quite common for us. I think in most cases it is because they need a good vocalist. Some tunes just don’t work as instrumental numbers.

We’ve got a repertoire of about 85 numbers but still end up playing the same hard core of a dozen or so.
Reader Sam Wood has sent me this comment:

Hello Ivan,

Good to see your piece on Kenny Ball.  He was a regular at Buxton Opera House which is where I got to know and love his band and its music over the last twenty years.

I don't take the purist view that this wasn't jazz.  It was a jazz band playing a lot of pop music and show tunes in their own style, but so what?  The musicianship was faultless, and it was entertainment that pulled in an audience.  You could excuse the bad jokes because they were delivered so well, it was all part of the show.

The purists also criticise Chris Barber who plays some superb Blues and Ellington.  Makes me think the "purists" don't know what they are listening to.

I do miss Kenny Ball, I always regard the classic line-up as Kenny, John Bennett, Andy Cooper, Hugh Ledigo, John Benson and Nick Millward.

The band were always immaculately dressed and always stuck around after the show, signing CD's and so happy to talk to the crowd, who of course pay their wages!

I last saw Kenny about five years ago at a "Three B's" night at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.  He was playing Cornet, an easier blow than Trumpet I believe, and had another player alongside him but the show was as good as ever, including the jokes.



PS. Regarding pop and show tunes, a lot of cinema/theatre organists still make a living playing contemporary popular music on their 1930's-style instruments, so why shouldn't we?