Jazzers’ Debate No 8: New Orleans & UK Traditional Jazz


Jazzers’ Debate No 8

New Orleans & UK Traditional Jazz

John Petters

I listened to the second part of the Chris Barber documentary on Radio 2 a little while ago. Both episodes were interesting. I’ve since been listening to the CD ‘King of the Blues’ by Bunk. The contrast is stunning. As I said on the Ken Colyer group last night, I always found Chris’ band rhythmically weak – as was most British Trad of the 50s. The feel of real New Orleans Jazz was so different. Ken Colyer got closest to it in my view with the band containing Colin Bowden. Listening to the CD that accompanies Mike Pointon and Ray Smith’s book, ‘Goin’ Home’, this contrast is highlighted. Ken recorded with some New Orleans musicians while over there and then came back and did the sessions with the Barber band. The front-line is very good, but the rhythm section is like a dance band with a banjo.

Episode 2 dealt with Chris’s promotion of blues and gospel singers. It was great to hear Sister Rosetta Tharpe along with Brownie McGee etc, but there were some truly awful recordings with a rock rhythm that almost had me reaching for the off switch. Nevertheless, two shows which gave an insight into the Trad boom and Chris has to be admired for his success and longevity.

Jeff Matthews Hi John I listened to that 2nd part too. Fascinating. It made me re-examine my definitions of what ‘Trad’ is or was and what is defined in the UK as New Orleans jazz. What was the latter Alex Welsh band playing along with Kenny Ball and Acker by these definitions? In the USA ‘trad’ is applied differently to here in the UK. As I found last year when I visited New Orleans, their jazz music was always a lot wider in scope than just ‘Revivalist’ jazz. So the BBC interview begs the question. What was Chris Barber playing when not promoting blues and skiffle? And why was and is ‘Trad’ so denigrated here in the UK? I hope this gets the postings going. Opinions please.

Jim McIntosh A million flies can’t be wrong…

John Petters I think that Barber, Colyer and Bilk were trying to play ‘New Orleans Revival Jazz’ a la Bunk & George Lewis. Humph, Cy Laurie, Mike Daniels etc were trying to play classic jazz a la Morton, Oliver, Armstrong. Freddy Randall, Kenny Ball and Alex Welsh were playing Condonesque Dixieland or Chicago style. Kenny always had a Louis slant.

As to what Chris was doing when not promoting Blues and Skiffle, there were the many recordings from the 50s that sound typical British trad. He did some sessions with Americans which were much better rhythmically. As the programme revealed, he was interested in doing different things and his current big band is evidence of that. Why do I denigrate Brit trad? – because it has no depth rhythmically. Rhythm is the key to jazz. It was stated in the programme that Trad jazz begat Rock. Heaven help us all.

Jeff Matthews So who did it right and who is doing it right today?

Fred Burnett I’m glad I’m not a musician. I didn’t have to analyse it back in the late 50s or early 60s, I just had to decide if I liked it or not. I liked Colyer, Barber, Bilk, Ball, Charlesworth, Lightfoot, Wallis, Ashman, T7 & Ball. Wasn’t keen on Welsh, Lyttelton, Gillespie or Condon. Such was my ignorance I once wrote to Tony Davis (JazzFM North) listing my likes and dislikes and asked the question, “Does this mean I like New Orleans Jazz rather than Dixieland Jazz?”. His reply? You like British Trad!”

Jeff Matthews I like all the good bits! I never labeled what I heard as ‘Trad’ or ‘Dixieland’ or anything else. However, when I put a band together a few years ago I found that the word ‘Trad’ was still recognised by the general public. To them it was a simple term that set our kind of jazz apart from modern jazz. Not a term for purists and musicians who understand the finer details, but for ‘Joe and Jane’ in the street it was something they still understood in a positive way. Morton, Oliver, Bechet, would not have been recognised. Trad was and is. Perhaps we should reconsider the definitions and use them more in the way the Americans do? And probably in the way the general public still seem to do. A ‘catch all’ title.

John Petters Fred, musicians will always see things differently to listeners. It is like us both, as licensed radio amateurs, viewing things differently to short wave listeners. Because of my relatively young age, I did not have the encumbrance of having Trad as part of my youth. In 1963, I was 10 and the Beatles were happening. When I really got hooked at age 15, it was the real thing I heard and I found the British version in the main, lacking depth. There are some Trad musicians who only listen to British Trad and of course they are further removed from the real thing. From a point of a desire to keep improving, my source material needs to be authentic – and I am in a learning process which will continue as long as I am a performer. I know some musos who have stopped listening. They are the ones who tend to speak less, musically.

John Petters  Jeff, I tend not to describe what I do as trad. I will say I play traditional jazz and further define it if need be. The labels are so confused these days anyway and a lot of what is called jazz, just isn’t.

Jeff Matthews John, totally agree. I missed the trad era too and was listening to small band names from the USA. I was around 13 when the Beatles came on the scene and largely swept ‘trad’ away. But later I did hear Acker, Kenny and some Barber and enjoyed the joy I heard – commercial or not.

John Petters Acker’s band was always the most interesting, especially with Ken Sims. Like the bands of Max Collie and Phil Mason later on, when Ron McKay left, their rhythm sections never recovered.

Jeff Matthews Here is a clip I have never seen before with Ron Mckay on drums. It’s when jazz was treated as fun and happy music and allowed into the cinema. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcaK_9Bzt18 Start of ‘Band Of Thieves’ – Acker Bilk

Kay Leppard I came to jazz in about 1960. At the end of the revival and in the middle of all the British ‘trad’ bands which – as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site – has always been considered a derogatory word and I always say to the unconverted when they mention trad jazz that I like traditional jazz. I always define British trad as ‘play it loud and play it fast’ – not mutes and no light and shade. First time I heard Ken I knew it sounded different, but at that stage I didn’t know why. I liked very early Barber and early Acker. In those days people were either Colyer or Barber fans and never the twain shall mix! Colyer was my man for his ‘dirty’ playing and the ‘feeling’ in the music. Barber was too ‘clean’ and too ‘rehearsed’. Didn’t like Ball, Lightfoot and although I could appreciate Alex Welsh, it wasn’t what I was looking for. A few years later I discovered George, Bunk, etc. Can only take Condon and Wild Bill in short doses although I know I will be shot down by many – especially musicians, but I’m sorry, their music doesn’t move me. These are just the ramblings of a punter, without any musical training for what it’s worth. I very much regret that, spending so much time listening to Ken who lived about 1/2 a mile from where I live now, I missed out on some terrific British NO bands of the time – Mike Casimir’s, Barry Martyn’s, Dan Pawson’s etc, etc. I could say I had a very narrow early jazz upbringing, but I have tried to make up for that – especially by listening to and appreciating our current young musicians.

John Petters A very considered view, Kay. I have to say that I’ve not heard recordings of Dan Pawson or Mike Casamir, but I have heard some 60s recordings of Barry’s band with Cuff and Cap’n John Handy. If you’ve not heard this by wild Bill & Brunies, give it a listen.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di-4yMei3Wc : THAT’S A PLENTY by Wild Bill Davison on Commodore 12″ 78 rpm record

Jeff Matthews Well, very interesting comments from Kay. As a musician, a lowly one perhaps, I enjoy listening but especially playing everything from old New Orleans through the various styles and in various band sizes and I always find something that fills me with joy. It isn’t about technique, although I admire that too. It’s about honesty in and toward the music. It’s also about personal preference and what resonates with each of us. That is the richness of music.

Fred Burnett About the same time I asked the question of Tony, Jazz FM, I asked a question on the Dixieland Jazz Mailing List, DJML, mainly subscribed to by musicians, “What’s the difference between New Orleans and Dixieland jazz?”. I think I started World War lll.

Peter Mark Butler Pete Lay (Editor of Just Jazz) posted the following comment on my Jazz&Jazz article which I felt should be repeated here: “Who are the jazz luminaries who are likely to step forward to the challenge. Probably only those who still believe jazz started with Charlie Parker or even John Coltrane. Music colleges are to blame. Their courses don’t base their instruction on anything pre-1940, except lip service to Louis Armstrong. Similarly, Johnny Boston, James Evans, Adrian Cox are playing our music despite everything else, certainly not helped by their peers.

“I have just witnessed this past weekend a band from Enkhuizen, The Revivalists, which has Jonny Boston on clarinet, tenor sax, and vocals. What exuberance from five youngish lads (if you want to include the drummer’s dad on string bass). Here was spirit personified, all played extremely well, and it was our music!!!

“Sorry, but us old farts will have to fade away in this country before the young musician decides it is time to revel in the music of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson, George Lewis etc, but please not another bunch of Colyer copyists – there was only one Ken Colyer, and as Percy Humphrey said of him: “he knows”.

Jonny Boston Thanks for the compliments. It was a great weekend, despite the weather. We all enjoyed ourselves.

Kay Leppard Have now listened to the Wild Bill/Brunies, John and very much enjoyed it. Perhaps I should get out more in that direction.

Kay Leppard Fred: To confuse it all, New Orleans jazz is often called dixieland in the States!?!

John Petters Glad you enjoyed Bill, Kay. There are a lot of good tracks with Bechet on Blue Note, mostly with Art Hodes, who would not have been out of place in a Colyer rhythm section. Art recorded with Baby Dodds and many other New Orleans legends.

Alyn Shipton Pete Lay is, if I may say so, wrong about music colleges. I have been teaching jazz history at the Royal Academy along with Keith Nichols for years and we give all our students a thorough grounding in jazz from the very dawn of the 20th century. I also teach the jazz history course at City University and among my students’ work this term is a brilliant dissertation on Nat Gonella. Which as it’s written by a guitar student whose playing embraces Pat Metheny, seems to me a good thing. Keith’s big band at the RAM has been playing early Ellington charts, and last year the excellent Tom Walsh played the Eldridge role in a series of concert pieces. Keith and I also did a concert of Jelly Roll music at the RAM (broadcast in the 2010 London Jazz Festival) which was fairly roundly criticised by many of the “old farts” mentioned above. Seems to me that to get a programme of Jelly’s music on the BBC was not a bad thing, but apparently it was. You can hear highlights here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gqqgl BBC Radio 3 – Discovering Music, Jelly Roll Morton, Jelly Roll Morton

Jim McIntosh I play banjo

Peter Mark Butler Whilst I appreciate your points and applaud the work you are doing to promote jazz from its very dawn, Alyn, there is a huge difference between the Royal Academy and City University and the schools in Brittany and Spain referred to in Trefor Stent’s post focussing on their achievements and challenging “Why not in the UK?” Such an approach is distinctly lacking amongst similar lower age groups in British schools. Take a look at: https://www.jazzandjazz.com/?p=3536 Encouraging Signs for Jazz in Europe, So Why Not in the UK? 

But I owe it to Pete Lay to repeat a paragraph from his editorial in the March, 2013, issue of Just Jazz: “I understand that Alyn Shipton and Keith Nichols are certainly doing their best to keep the history of jazz alive with their pupils, and are to be congratulated. I just wish there were a lot more like them.”


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  1. Hello John [Petters], What a wonderful page. I am pleased to note the interest in New Orleans Jazz despite some detractors who are stuck on the dreadful ‘play as fast as hell, devoid of feeling’ and ‘loud as possible’ modes. Such folk should be Rock ‘n’ Rap followers. In my years of jazz, which commenced when Greame Bell and Humphrey Lyttelton got together, I think 1948 (?) I was 11 years old. I listened to Carlo Kramer (American Jazz Man,even wrote to him and got a reply). I was twelve then. There’s many styles of jazz of course but I have always preferred the Black New Orleans Music and there are a number of British Bands who play in that style, including those mentioned by Kay Leppard, (thanks Kay) Danny Pawson’s Artesian Hall Stompers, Ken Pye’s Creole Serenaders.

    Big Fred Stead’s New Orleans Band (played at Worlds End Pub in the sixties.) Ken Colyer of course and having played with all except the Colyer Band, as a drummer myself, I always admired Sammy Penn, Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds, Joe Watkins, Colin Bowden and latterly yourself as I have only recently come across your band on the net. There are a host of others I feel have made huge contributions to jazz and, having spent ten years writing and publishing a Jazz magazine which, sadly, went into demise in the 80’s due to a major change in public taste. Having being president and Editor/writer of different Jazz organisations since 1960, I have found over the years, in Britain, New Zealand and Australia that Most Music Colleges appear to have the opinion that Jazz per se, was a product of the MJQ, John Coltrane and even Stan Kenton. The ignorance shown even today, concerning jazz was one of the reasons I decided that enough was enough, aside from the fact that it was difficult trying to get a band of like minded musicians together over the years, I was lucky in having played with some of the top guys in this New Orleans field. I even had a drum tutor who was taught a lot about timing, accents, cross overs, press rolls, he’d learnt from Zutty. Jazz is perhaps the most complex of music, and playing it without feeling is, to me, a sin. I have known personally Acker, Kenny Ball and a few other well known musicians who secretly would prefer to play the style we all so enjoy but, it’s very much a commercial world and if they are to make a living, who can blame them.

    Trawling jazz on the net, I must say how satisfying it is to witness young guys giving it all they’ve got, young Baby Jools on drums for instance. At 77, I have seen an awful lot, with the emphasis, however, on hearing the best, Now I have ‘discovered your page’ I shall attempt to keep track of things in UK.


    Terry K Offord.

  2. Peter Butler says:

    Thanks for the time you’ve taken over those very informative comments, Terry. I should point out that this isn’t John’s page as such, but an analysis I made (as Jazz&Jazz Editor and Proprietor) of the differences between New Orleans Jazz and UK Trad, based on points made by John and the other contributors mentioned above.

    Keep visiting Jazz&Jazz and adding your informative comments. You might find the YouTube below interesting.



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