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Hardly Strictly Jazz

England Swings Like A Pendulum Do

By Published: May 9, 2012
In July of 1956, "Bad Penny Blues" climbed to 19 on the British charts, which makes it one of the first British trad records to be a real live hit. Between Humph, Barber and the hugely important guitarist and singer Lonnie Donnegan, the first real British revival of American roots music took hold, and spawned a generation of heavy hitters. Young Paul McCartney's father—an amateur jazz trumpet player—probably dug "Bad Penny Blues." Paul obviously did. The opening of "Lady Madonna" is blatant homage.

Meek went on to record more jazz, including Chris Barber's evocative, international 1959 hit version of Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
1897 - 1959
sax, soprano
's "Petite Fleur." Then, in 1960, he'd set up a studio in his apartment, record a bunch of British hits, have two hits in America, go crazy, and kill his landlady in 1967. But not without doing for recording studio technology what Ernie Kovacs did for TV.

Humph was a highly educated guy from an educated family, and he could do more for jazz than just play the trumpet, something he did very very well. He hosted radio and TV shows, and was a great interviewer (look closely at Clint Eastwood's fine Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer
1909 - 1976
doc This Time The Dream's On Me, and you'll catch a 1970-something Mercer interviewed by Humph). Humph's books on jazz masters—anthologized in one volume, The Best of Jazz (1999, republished Portico, 2008)—are some of the most insightful analyses of jazz as music and method that I have read.

To contemporary Brits, Humph is best known as the host of a comedy game show, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, an ultra-witty cross between Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Groucho's You Bet Your Life. As Joe Meek becomes more and more venerated, "Bad Penny Blues" is offered up as further proof that not only was Meek a genius, but he influenced the Beatles as well.

When Humph died in 2008, at the age of 86, everyone from Radiohead (with whom he'd recorded the tune "Life In A Glasshouse") to comedian Stephen Fry spoke of Humph as one of their own. He was an individual multi-faceted enough that his non-musical efforts are actually covered at length and in depth elsewhere.

To really hear and know his individual power as a jazzman, the Humph record that I'd recommend is Yours And Mine (Jazz Colours, 2003), a duo session with Mick Pyne
Mick Pyne
, a criminally underrated pianist championed by saxophonists Stan Getz
Stan Getz
Stan Getz
1927 - 1991
sax, tenor
and Phil Woods
Phil Woods
Phil Woods
sax, alto
. He was England's Hank Jones
Hank Jones
Hank Jones
1918 - 2010

And with only the brilliant Pyne as his rhythm section, Humph holds forth in a program of standards, riff tunes and blues, his playing alternately sweet, acrid, bouncy and introspective. One can hear echoes of Armstrong, Cootie Williams
Cootie Williams
Cootie Williams
1911 - 1985
and others, but they're only echoes. His ideas are his own, and his staggering authority over everything he plays is wonderful. Humph may have started out as a revivalist, but he outlasted several eras, and brought forth a deep, developed, fully personal style. That we have Spotify, Youtube, and all kinds of streaming media means that we can finally give this guy a serious look-see. He's so worth it.

(With thanks to Richard Gardner and John Altman.)

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