In 1958 I was 20 and in my second year at Swansea University. I also played guitar in a small group with my good friend Russ John. We lived in a small village called Trallwn, four miles outside of Swansea. Swansea was a centre of heavy industry and extensive pollution, yet a few miles away was the Gower peninsular, one of the most beautiful regions of Britain. Sunday in our village was for chapel except for our family, communists and aethiests that we were we went to the beach. New Orleans style jazz, called "Trad Jazz," was enjoying a huge revival and we young musicians worshipped all the black American blues singers and musicians. Trad Jazz bands like Chris Barber
's and Skiffle groups like Lonnie Donnegan's popularized the songs of Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Joe Williams
. Britons were listening and bopping to Elvis' Jailhouse Rock.
Russ and I played wherever we could get a gig at an old age pensioners club or a local pub, usually for little more than free beer. One day my dad asked us to perform at his work's annual dinner. The gig was held in the fancy Mackworth Hotel on Swansea High Street. Big City time! This was a cut above our usual gigs, although we were still not getting paid. We played our usual repertoire, we had a few encores, and it all went down very well. As we stepped down from the stage I was enthusiastically greeted by Arnold Lowrey, an old school mate. Arnold was a city slicker if ever you saw one. Smart dresser, accomplished dancer and man about town who actually drove his own car. He confided that he played piano in an eight piece band called The Jazz Senators led by another class mate, John Evans, a drummer. As you can probably guess, John idolized Art Blakey
and had named his band after The Jazz Messengers.
Arnold invited me to bring my guitar to the next Senators rehearsal at John's house in Swansea. So that Saturday I climbed the steep road up Constitution Hill to 76 Cromwell Street, bulky guitar case in hand. Even before I got there I heard the sounds of a stomping swing band leaking through the front of the small house. The session was magical, just what I'd been looking for. These guys played real instruments and read music! It felt like I was finally on my way. Among an eclectic repertoire we played were Louis Armstrong's Basin Street Blues, Duke Ellington
's "Take the A train," and a new one for me, "Intermission Riff," a tune written by Ray Wetzel, a young trumpeter in the Stan Kenton
big band. That minor second in the tune just jumped at you! This was something new and hip. After the session I was invited to join the Senators for an upcoming gig. I was euphoric.
Every Saturday after that, at around one o'clock, I would wait for the local bus to Swansea. I would walk up Cromwell Street carrying my guitar and we'd practice all afternoon in John's front room. His parents were big jazz fans and his younger sister Jennifer was an aspiring jazz pianist. After a couple of hours jamming/rehearsing we'd take a break and in would come John's mother aided by Jennifer, carrying tea and freshly baked goodies. That house became a second home for me. With the last bus out of Swansea at 10:20 p.m., it was either walk the four miles home or accept an invite to sleep at John's house, which I often did.
John quickly became my jazz mentor. One of his early music homework assignments for me was to listen to a Shorty Rogers
LP he loaned me. If "Intermission Riff" was hip, this music was weird but hipper. It slowly grew on me and I began to appreciate modern jazz harmony and improvisation as I moved away from folk music and Trad Jazz, embracing bebop, Charlie Parker
, and Dizzy Gillespie
. I bought a guitar amplifier.
At the time there was a well known talent show called Carroll Levis Discoveries. Raised in Canada, Levis brought his radio amateur hour to Britain in 1935. By 1958, the contestants first performed before live audiences and based on audience applause, the winners would appear on his radio show. Carroll Levis's show was coming to Cardiff, John announced one day, just 30 minutes away by train. Why shouldn't we take The Senators to the Carroll Levis show? A lot of now famous pop musicians had been discovered on this show. We could be next. By now we were quite popular locally, playing mostly "head arrangements" of jazz tunes, current pop tunes and some blues riffs that featured long instrumental solos.
So one Saturday morning at about 10:00, the Jazz Senators gathered at the Swansea High Street railway station. We were augmented by Art Boxall, a tenor saxophonist older than the rest of us and serving his obligatory National Service Army training. We were ready to take Cardiff by storm. The eight of us commandeered a large open seating compartment, and were soon playing Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train," much to the amusement of our fellow passengers. In this manner we passed the journey to Cardiff.
We found the theatre and were soon backstage, warming up. Most of us small town lads were a bit overwhelmed by the presence of MC, Jackie Collins, sister to the more famous Joan. She wore a revealing sheath dress that left little to our fertile young imaginations. Of course, the worldlier Art Boxall was not intimidated.
"Can I ask you a question Miss Collins?" he said. We waited in anticipation. "How do you keep that dress up?" He smirked, ogling her well displayed bosom. She glared and turned on her heel.
Finally, after pop singers, violin players, and sundry other hopefuls we set up behind the curtain ready to knock them dead with our sophisticated jazz skills. It was great: we played "Intermission Riff." We featured solos from the tenor sax, trumpet and trombone. We finished, and waited for a tumultuous applause. We looked at each other with grins on our faces, glancing around surreptitiously for the record executive who was going to rush on stage to sign us up.
Slowly it became clear that Cardiff was not yet ready for modern jazz. We were in good company. Bebop had been greeted just as coolly by many jazz fans when the music was first unveiled a few years earlier. They were not alone. Louis Armstrong called bebop incomprehensible "Chinese music." The expression "lead balloon" just about conveys the chilly reception we got. Jackie Collins had gotten her revenge, it seems.
On the platform at Cardiff railway station, waiting for the train back to Swansea we busked "Take the A Train" and "Intermission Riff." At least this audience was hipper than the Levis crowd. We got our enthusiastic applause. What a day it was! Playing on the train and at the station, and even on the show was magical, there was no denying. We never got an invitation to appear on the show again, and we didn't get an offer of a recording contract. But it really didn't matter. We'd got what we came for.