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7 April 2017

Post 494: KEN COLYER

A few years after the Second World War, here in the UK and also in some other countries, the 'Trad Boom' began. Dozens of young men formed themselves into amateur bands and quite a few went on to have professional careers.

However, only ten years later the boom was over and not many fully professional bands were able to survive.

In England, a few of the band-leaders did well by making 'commercial' hit records. Think of Acker Bilk's Stranger on the Shore. The formula was to play a good, memorable, simple melody in a well-arranged manner, without exactly giving it a New Orleans Jazz style performance. Such records made it into the Top 10. In fact Stranger on the Shore, in which Acker Bilk is backed by the Leon Young String Chorale, was a No. 1 hit even in the U.S.A. Another example was Kenny Ball with Midnight in Moscow. Kenny and his trombonist Johnny Bennet in turn pumped out the haunting, minor-key 24-bar melody. It sold over a million copies.

However, of all those British bands, the one many consider the most important in terms of its place in the history of traditional jazz was that of the trumpet and cornet player Ken Colyer.


Much has been written about Ken's character, philosophy and life, so I will not go over all that again.

What matters is that he was admired for his integrity in sticking rigidly to what he considered authentic early-style New Orleans Jazz. He was not much interested in making recordings or in using his music to generate personal wealth.

It is sometimes said that he was quite a difficult musician to work with. I believe players occasionally left him because of a clash of philosophy or because they could not deliver in the way he wanted. He had his ideals and pursued them single-mindedly. Certainly, there were regular changes of personnel in the line-ups of his band over the few years during which they toured the clubs and played to enthusiastic fans who considered that Ken's was the only 'true' jazz.

Ken had a distinctive tone and he used vibrato very skilfully. But his playing was never showy or raucous, like that of so many jazz trumpeters. He stated the melodies in the decisive but delicate, uncomplicated manner much appreciated by clarinet players and trombonists whose job it is to add the decoration. And in ensembles, Ken provided pretty colouring phrases - always harmonically accurate. He believed great jazz needed great teamwork, so the emphasis was on ensemble playing, even though he happily employed some outstanding players who were very capable and creative soloists. Among them were Sammy Rimington, Monty Sunshine, Mac Duncan, Johnny Bastable, Ian Wheeler, Lonnie Donegan and Ray Foxley.

Sadly, Ken Colyer died in 1988 at the age of only 59. He had earlier suffered from stomach cancer.

In his day, it was not yet commonplace for videos to be made of almost every performance. So surviving videos of him playing, as far as I know, are only those filmed when he was growing weak and no longer had a band of his own. One such is this of Postman's Lament, where he sings and plays, but it is still a performance of considerable beauty:

However, Ken and his musicians did leave a number of sound recordings so we can still enjoy his music at its best. Try these three.

(1) Back in 1956, playing The Old Rugged Cross:

(2) From 1960, with Sammy Rimington on clarinet, Maryland, My Maryland:

(3) My favourite. This is a model for us all in how to lead and build up the excitement - Blame it On The Blues from 1956. Ian Wheeler, Mac Duncan and Johnny Bastable are in the band and the playing  is 100% ensemble throughout:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A79yvcDRzIw
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By the way, 'Enjoying Traditional Jazz' is my book for people who like LISTENING to the music. My other book - 'Playing Traditional Jazz' - is for those who PLAY instruments.
For more information, go to the Amazon website and type 'Enjoying Traditional Jazz' or 'Playing Traditional Jazz' into the Search Bar.