Born 18 April, 1928 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, UK
Pete Frame's excellent book 'The Restless Generation', flagged enthusiastically by Colin over the past few weeks, pulls together all the disparate threads of the various stories that we thought we all knew so well about the birth of rock'n'roll in the UK.
The starting point for this book is Ken Colyer. The path to be trodden is via skiffle (UK-style) to blues (UK-style) and rock'n'roll (UK-style).
Chapter 1, page 1: 'If you're one of those people who like to put exact dates on seminal events, then it has to be October 1949. It was in a corrugated iron hut, round the side of the White Hart public house in Bath Road, Cranford, that Ken Colyer and his mates introduced a handful of curious punters to a primitive musical diversion, a style they had devised for themselves, based on whatever appropriate instruments were at hand, and whatever songs they felt like singing.'
Here's a précis of Ken's story:
The Colyer family were Londoners, but Ken's mother, Ruby, was staying with relatives in Great Yarmouth at the time of his birth: 18 April 1928. Home was a third floor flat in Fitzroy Square, London W1, which Ken recalls as 'that bug infested flat' where his sister Daphne died from diphtheria following a fall down the stairs.
They later moved to Broadwick Street, Soho (a short distance from the future 2Is Coffee Bar) and Ken and his older brothers, Bob and Bill, went to St. Anne's School on Dean Street. The outbreak of war in 1939 saw the family move to the leafy suburbs of Cranford, Middlesex, adjacent to what is now one of the busiest airports in the world - Heathrow.
Older brother Bill became interested in jazz and began to amass a record collection, from which Ken's introduction to the world of jazz resulted. At first Ken was not interested in Bill's music. It was not until Bill was away from home, on active service with the Hampshire Regiment during the Second World War, that Ken 'took care' of Bill's records and became intrigued and entranced with the music of Nat Gonella, Natty Dominique, Sidney Bechet, the Bob Crosby Bobcats and Duke Ellington and many others, and blues and folk singers such as Leadbelly and Sleepy John Estes. Bunk Johnson and George Lewis were to come later.
On leaving school, Ken had a number of jobs, but eventually he realised his ambition to join the Merchant Navy and was allocated a ship, the 'British Hussar,' which was to sail out of Gourock.
Ken purchased his first trumpet, a Selmer, and was able to practise regularly whilst at sea, something that was not entirely to the liking of his shipmates. Some help was forthcoming from the ship's electrician, but Ken was not a good pupil and the electrician gave up. Ken tells us 'I went on my rocky way, not knowing what key I was playing in. If I couldn't remember a tune completely, I just invented bits to fit.'
After many adventures and a number of ships, Ken reached New York, where he was able to visit Eddie Condon's club. He was overwhelmed by the playing of Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell and all the other men in the band. He also managed to hear Oscar Peterson in Montreal, considered by Ken to be 'out of this world.'
Ken came to realise that music, not the sea, was the greatest thing in his life, and knew that he would never be happy until he was leading a good jazz band. His playing ability had made steady progress and he was now ready to join the British jazz scene.
In 1949, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, Ken learned of a group of musicians living in Cranford, who were trying to form a quartet. He met Ben Marshall, Sonny Morris and Ron Bowden and the Crane River Jazz Band was born. The music of Bunk Johnson now became a major influence and intensive practice sessions in the fields by the River Crane and in Sonny's parents' house followed. John R.T. Davies (who was later to become arranger for the Temperance Seven), Julian Davies and Monty Sunshine soon joined them and later, when he left the R.A.F., Pat Hawes.
The Original Crane River Jazz Band, formed in 1949, grew in stature until its final public performance at the celebrated Royal Festival Hall concert of 14 July 1951. This was organised by the National Federation of Jazz Organisations and given in the presence of H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth. On 24 February 1952 the band was chosen to support Big Bill Broonzy at the Cambridge Theatre in London.
After a while, Ken began to realise that he was not the leader of the band and the other members did not want to play in the style he wished to. Ken was aware that many of the men who had created the music he loved and could hear on his 78's, were still playing in New Orleans. He decided, therefore, that he must go to New Orleans to learn more about its Jazz. He gave notice, left the Stompers and rejoined the Merchant Navy, determined to get to New Orleans at the earliest opportunity. Landing in Mobile, Alabama on November 24th 1952, Ken obtained a 29 day visa, jumped ship and bought a one way ticket to New Orleans. During his time in New Orleans, Ken met, talked, played and made recordings with many of the great names of the day. This was the start of a life-long friendship with George Lewis, Percy Humphrey and many others involved in the jazz scene. His visa expired on Christmas Day and, when he went to the immigration office immediately it re-opened after the holiday, he was arrested and put into the notorious Parish Prison prior to deportation. He remained there until 5th February, when he was released on bail. Ken maintained that the rap was a result of his insistence on playing on the same bandstand as black musicians - a no-no in many cities in the early 50's USA. To his dismay, he learned that George Lewis had wanted Ken to be his trumpeter on a tour of California, but, because of the deportation, George was taking Kid Howard. Ken could only reflect on what might have been. His time in the Crescent City was up, he had learned a great deal, made a lot of good friends and, as far as he knew, made no enemies. His letters to brother Bill, published in the musical press, ensured that he would arrive home a hero to his contemporaries. On his return to England, he was met at Southampton by brother Bill and Chris Barber. They had already contacted Ken and advised him that they had formed a co-operative band, originally intending to use Pat Halcox, but, at the time, he had decided not to turn professional. The first Ken Colyer Jazzmen, therefore, was formed, with Ken on trumpet, Chris Barber on trombone, Monty Sunshine on clarinet, Ron Bowden on drums, Tony (later Lonnie) Donegan on banjo and Jim Bray on bass.
It was during intervals at concerts given by this band, that Ken Colyer and Lonnie Donegan (guitars) and Chris Barber (bass) started to indulge their shared passion for folk and blues in all its combinations. At first, this interlude music had no name, until Bill Colyer, who managed the band, suggested 'skiffle'. The name was inspired by Dan Burley & His Skiffle Boys who recorded half a dozen tracks for Rudy Blesh's Circle label and a couple (including 'Skiffle Blues') for Leon Rene's Exclusive label in 1948.
As its popularity increased, posters began to advertise the band as Ken Colyer's Jazzmen and Skiffle Group. Occasionally, Bill Colyer would join the skifflers on washboard. Audience favourites became identified, none more so than 'Midnight Special' - learned from the Leadbelly recording.
[At this point, Pete Frame's narrative turns to follow the careers of Chris Barber and then Lonnie Donegan into the world of 'commercial' skiffle. Most Shakers would turn along with Pete, but it seems appropriate to complete Ken Colyer's story here]
Things seemed to be going well for Ken - but it was not to last. The break came when Ken left the band. "I had realised that Barber considered himself the leader. All they wanted from me was a little reflected glory until the novelty wore off. I tried to meet Barber halfway musically. He was more interested in arranged numbers, all nice and tidy. I intend to re-form my band as soon as I find the musicians. If necessary I'll search the countryside."
He did just that; recruiting Bernard (Acker) Bilk from Bristol on clarinet, Eddie O'Donnell on trombone and Diz Disley on banjo/guitar from Leeds, Stan Greig from Edinburgh on drums and Dick Smith from London on bass. Almost at once they went into the Decca studios to record the LP 'Back to the Delta'. The band was chosen to open the National Jazz Federation's first Festival of British Jazz at the Royal Festival Hall in October.
Vi Highland owned and ran Studio 51 in Great Newport Street, London WC1. So named because it opened as a venue for live music in 1951, Ken had played here with the Cranes and thought that it would be an ideal home for the Ken Colyer Jazzmen. After discussions with Vi, Studio 51 became the Ken Colyer Club managed by Vi.
The club soon built up, with the band playing to capacity crowds whenever it appeared at Studio 51. The band was in great demand, both in the UK and abroad, particularly in Germany. There were very few free days.
In 1957, following the lifting of a Musicians Union ban on visiting American musicians, George Lewis came to Britain for a tour with Ken's band. George was met at Manchester Airport by a New Orleans parade band, then it was off for a quick rehearsal. After a few numbers, George is reputed to have said "we don't need no rehearsal, we're musicians."
The tour was an incredible success and when, two years later, George was back with his full band, Ken's band was the obvious choice to tour with them.
A contract with Decca produced some notable records: the EP "They all Played Ragtime," LP's "Club Session With Colyer" and "Colyer Plays Standards," a 10 inch LP of Ken's parade band "Marching Back To New Orleans," several 78's and singles of Ken's distinctive skiffle group and a superb live recording made during a German tour, "Colyer In Hamburg". The parade band, The Omega, augmented by Sonny Morris, Bob Wallis and others, became a regular feature of events such as the Aldermaston March.
All was going well; plenty of work, big crowds and a successful club, which included well-attended "all-nighters." However, it was not to last, but the 50's era was almost certainly the pinnacle of Ken's career.
The worst news, however, was that Ken was found to have developed stomach cancer and needed both surgery and radiotherapy. He was forced to stop playing for a while and although he started to play just as soon as he was able, deps were needed to help him over this most difficult period.
Studio 51 and the Ken Colyer Club were no longer financially viable and closed. Nevertheless, Ken was still able to run a good band which after several personnel changes became his last full time band. The Thames Hotel near Hampton Court became a regular venue for the band and it was here that a series of recording sessions produced six LPs on the Joys label. They included one devoted entirely to ragtime numbers and two volumes of spirituals. They are still available more than 30 years later on compact discs.
The pressure of running a band and ensuring a reasonable wage for its members began to take its toll on Ken's health and, in 1971, on medical advice Ken decided to retire from being a band leader and to become a solo artist. The shock headline "Colyer Quits" appeared in the May issue of Melody Maker and, in an interview with Max Jones, Ken explained the reasons for his action and outlined his future intentions.
Invitations to guest with bands began to come in, never in great numbers, usually a few each month, some months none at all. A significant event, however, was the reunion of the Crane River Jazz Band at the Grey Horse in Kingston. As a result, the reformed CRJB - with all the original members, plus Colin Bowden on drums - were on the road again, touring not only in the UK but in Germany as well.
Things continued in this manner throughout the 70s and into the 80s; some busy months, some barren. By 1986 signs of deterioration in Ken's health began to show. He experienced problems with his lip, teeth and gums and sometimes found his cornet difficult to play. Ken planned to issue historic recordings of his band on his own K C Records label, but before the first LP appeared, his health took a turn for the worse. Although he went on to fulfil one more engagement with his own band at 100 Club, Ken made the decision to leave England in the hope that a warmer climate in the South of France would bring about an improvement in his health.
He spent much of his time around the harbour of a small nearby fishing village, Les Issambres, and it was here that he met a French couple who befriended him and took him into their home.
Ken corresponded with many of his friends, both in the UK and on the continent, and it was one of these, Bernie Thiele, who arranged for him to enter a clinic at Gifhorn in Germany. It was found that cancer was causing the stomach problems and a small operation was performed to relieve the condition. He had agreed to play at a concert organised by Max Collie and this was to be followed in 1988 by a trip with Max to Australia. The concert, which was to be Ken's last performance, took place in Hanover on Friday 11th December.
Ken was now living in the house of his French friends and, so, life was much easier for him. However, it was to be short lived: he died quietly in his sleep on 8th March 1988, possibly from a severe heart attack. Ken was cremated in France and his ashes scattered in the Channel close to the French shore.
His biography is being written by and ragtime pianist Ray Smith (who played at St Paul's Covent Garden for the Celebration Service) and is to be published by the Ken Colyer Trust - set up on Ken's death to preserve the music and publish his autobiography When Dreams are in the Dust, now on their website. Most of the above was gleaned from this site: www.kencolyertrust.org, which contains more information, plenty of photographs and various accompanying tracks of Ken's music.
Also see:: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Colyer
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