For too long, British jazz artists of the 1950s have been viewed unfairly as dandified lightweights by American jazz fans. There always has been plenty of love for George Shearing, Marian McPartland, Victor Feldman and a handful of other English jazz musicians. But when it comes to the dozens of other British artists who never put in time on 52nd Street or worked in top-name American bands, some tend to look down their noses at them. If you think West Coast jazz takes a beating, English jazz and jazz musicians don't even turn up in jazz arguments let alone jazz record collections. [Photo at top of Ronnie Ross]
I'm not sure why Americans ignore the virtues of 1950s British jazz. Perhaps it's because England in general is viewed stereotypically as stiff and unhip. Or that artists there lack the American urban experience so fundamental to jazz expression. Or maybe it's because British culture is perceived to be too far removed from the jazz ethos that has forged the thinking and playing of American artists. Or perhaps it has something to do with the American Revolution. Or the British Invasion. Or both.
Whatever the reason, the rap on British jazz is terribly inaccurate and will cheat you out of exhilarating listening experiences. If you're a holdout, a new series of CD releases from the London-based Fantastic Voyage label will change your viewpoint. What the company has done is reissue a treasure-trove of English jazz recordings from the '50s, some from the Flamingo Club. All of the recordings are spectacular examples of why British jazz and jazz artists matter.
The newly released albums are Tubby Hayes—Jazz Genius: The Flamingo Era, Tony Crombie: Whole Lotta Tony, Stompin' with the Ronnie Ross Quintet, Jazz at the Flamingo and the London Jazz Quartet. All have been remastered with loving care and deliver sterling sound.
The Hayes album is a three-CD set featuring recordings made by the tenor saxophonist between 1956 and 1961. They include Hayes in different group configurations, including the Jazz Couriers and tracks with saxophonist Ronnie Scott and drummer Tony Crombie. What's astonishing about these dates is how fluidly Hayes plays and how versatile he was. In addition to the sax, Hayes chimes in on the vibes and flute with equal skill and alacrity.
Every Hayes track here is smokey, concise and crafted to knock out the listener with tight harmony and arrangements. There's a certain happy sophistication to these recordings that was a hallmark of fine British jazz from the period. It's the music of musicians who worked twice as hard to make everything they played sound hip and gorgeous. I can say without reservation that every single track on this set will knock you out.
Tony Crombie was an English jazz drummer (and pianist and vibist) with a tight, swinging touch and impeccable technique. On Whole Lotta Tony (1961), the drummer is joined by Tommy Whittle (tenor and bass clarinet), Harold McNair (alto and flute), Gordon Beck (piano and harpsichord), Malcolm Cecil (bass) and Bobby Wellins (tenor), who subs for Whittle on several tracks. The group here is a gentle bunch that swings with a pastel intensity.
Ronnie Ross was a swinging jazz baritone saxophonist along the lines of Gerry Mulligan. He also was the first british baritone player to appear in the Down Beat Reader's Poll in 1958. His quintet album from 1959 features musicians doing double duty. Ross plays the sax and composed the tracks, Eddie Harvey played trombone and piano, Bert Courtley played trumpet and mellophone. Pete Blanin was on bass and Andy White was on drums. A bit of trivia: Ross would play baritone on the Beatles' Savory Truffle (The White Album) while White would be the drummer who replaced Ringo Starr on the Beatles' Love Me Do/Please Please Me single. Sample Lucky Bean and Blue Grass.
Jazz at the Flamingo is a compilation that showcases live performances from 1953 to '61 by groups led by Hayes, Crombie and Ross as well as Derek Smith, Tony Kinsey and Eddie Thompson. Sample the British Jazz Trio's London Pride and White Cliffs of Dover. We forget that London had a Tin Pan Alley of its own known as Denmark Street.
The London Jazz Quartet (1959) was comprised of Hayes, Crombie, Alan Branscombe (tenor, alto piano, vibes) and Jack Fallon (bass). Another swinging session featuring London's best. Dig Saddie's Song and Big Ben Bounce.
When you finish with these albums, you'll realize the importance of British jazz. The lyrical quality of the original compositions, tightness of the harmonies and burning intensity of the players all combine to make you feel pretty darn good. And that's the secret of British jazz. They're having a great time, your feet are moving and all is right with the world.
JazzWax tracks: The following albums are at iTunes and Amazon. As always, the albums are linked to Amazon: Tubby Hayes—Jazz Genius: The Flamingo Era, Tony Crombie: Whole Lotta Tony, Stompin' with the Ronnie Ross Quintet, Jazz at the Flamingo: 10th Anniversary Tribute and the London Jazz Quartet.
There is some doubling up of tracks on these albums, so take a careful look before buying. I'd start with the Tubby Hayes set and go from there.
JazzWax clip: Here's Tubby Hayes and the Jazz Couriers with Ronnie Scott playing Cheek to Cheek in 1957 from the new set...