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28 December 2016


Looking randomly for traditional jazz on YouTube, you can make some surprising discoveries. For example, I recently came across an interesting band called Frank Johnson's Fabulous Dixielanders. This group flourished in Australia (Melbourne, specifically, I think) right in the middle of the Twentieth Century.

I have not been able to discover much about the band and I hope there may be a reader or two in Australia who will be able to supply me with more information or reminiscences. (See below for information gratefully received.)

Of course, I knew of the Graeme Bell Band from Australia that played such great music and had a big influence when it visited the U.K. in the 1950s. I recall buying Graeme Bell 78s at that time.

But Frank Johnson? No. He's new to me.
We have to be grateful to video-makers who give their names as gramophoneshane, Rodaroda, and BassetHoundTrio, and Nicholas Ribush, for it is they who have put up the recordings on YouTube. It seems that Nicholas Ribush himself was a pianist who played with the Melbourne University Jazz Band in 1960.

The members of Frank Johnson's Fabulous Dixielanders  (circa 1950) seem to have been Frank Johnson (cornet), Ken Evans (cornet), Warwick Dyer (trombone), Geoff Kitchen (clarinet), Geoff Bland (piano), Bill Tope (banjo), Jack Connelly (tuba) and Wes Brown (drums). On some recordings the pianist was Ian Burns.

The band played in a lusty, energetic, thoroughly competent manner, reminiscent of the great recordings made by King Oliver for Gennett in 1923. You can also hear strong echoes of the Lu Watters band from San Francisco.

But why not try it for yourself?

Have a listen to Royal Terminus Rag, recorded in Sydney on 6 December 1949. I wondered how I had never come across this very good rag before. The answer is that it was a new one, composed by Warwick Dyer, the band's very own trombone player, (who sadly was killed six years later). Could the tune have been named after a hotel where the band played? Built into it are 'ingredients' that we find in rags from Scott Joplin onwards:-
It starts with a bouncy 16-bar theme in Eb.
Then comes a 16-bar theme (played twice) allowing for 'breaks' (including two Snake Rag-type dual cornet breaks).
Then without a bridge, we go straight into a 32-bar theme, in the related key of Ab. It's a typical final theme (dating right back to the Trio of eighteenth-century classical music), structured 16 bars + 16 bars, and with a break on the chord of Eb7 on bars 15 and 16.
Finally, there is a perfect 1920s-style two-bar Coda to round the thing off.

Probably the sheet music was never published. One consequence is that - sadly - nobody plays Royal Terminus Rag these days.

Have a listen to the stirring recording: CLICK HERE.

It  appears that Frank Johnson's band recorded about 60 tunes between 1949 and 1963. Among them were Tiger Rag, Dill Pickles, Silver BellSensation Rag, Wolverine Blues, Come Back Sweet Papa and I Got What It Takes But It Breaks My Heart To Give It Away. There is even a CD of a concert in Melbourne recorded in 1978 - possibly some sort of reunion event?

I would be very interested to hear from anyone who can tell me more. Already, David Withers in Christchurch, New Zealand, has sent me this information:-
I first heard this band a few years ago as a result of listening to a series of podcasts from Peter Cowden of Jazzology Australia. Peter Cowden is at www.jazzology.cam.auOver a series of 100 plus podcasts Peter included the following numbers from a CD called 'Frank Johnson's Fabulous Dixielanders 1949 - 1962 BAC22'. I have discovered that BAC22 is a CD produced by a Bill Armstrong in Australia. His CD's are distributed by Eos Music in Australia: http://www.eosmusic.com.au/  There is a 6-page catalogue of his recordings.
 The tracks I have MP3's of are:
 Over in Gloryland
Silver Bell
That's A Plenty
Bye and Bye
Darktown Strutters Ball
Sweet Patootie
Russian Lullaby
Weary Blues
 The Australian Jazz Museum seems to have some data on recordings by Frank Johnson - www.ajm.org.au