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Remembering Wild Bill

Peter Batten remembers jazz man Wild Bill

Wild Bill who? The name Wild Bill Davison probably means nothing to most readers of The Whistler. If asked to guess they would probably suggest he might be a legendary figure from the Wild West or a friend of the Lone Ranger. Bill [1906-1989] was, in fact, a very great jazz cornet player.

I first fell in love with Bill’s style of cornet playing when I was a student in the 1950s. I was playing the trumpet in a university jazz band. Although I could not hope to achieve the fierce drive and rhythmic confidence of his playing, I did learn a lot from listening to his recordings. In 1957 he came to London and I learned even more from seeing him on stage. Later in life I heard him in person many times and eventually got to meet him.

Wild Bill Davison

Wild Bill Davison

One of my memories of Bill will tell you something fundamental about him. One spring evening in the 1980s he played a festival gig in Bognor Regis with my band “Southland”. As the clock came up to midnight he left the stand to great applause and we began to sign off with “Sleepy Time Down South”. Bill was about to sit down at a table with his wife, Anne, when he recognised the tune. Immediately he was on his feet, cornet to his lips, leading us through one of his favourite songs. You can learn several things about Bill from this anecdote. First, although he was almost 80 years old, he had no intention of giving up on life or even taking things easy. Second, as a life-long showman, he just had to play to his audience. Third, behind the brash façade he sometimes adopted was a musician who just loved to play. Fourth, although many jazz fans regarded him as just a “Dixieland” player, he loved all the great songs from the “American Songbook” and would play them whenever he got the chance.

Talking to Bill that evening my mind went back to the time when I first came across his name in a jazz magazine. “Wild Bill Davison” – I imagined a huge man, built like a lumberjack, forearms bulging like Popeye’s, blowing ferociously into a very large trumpet. Bill, of course, was barely of average height, a neat dapper man, with quite small feet. His instrument was the cornet, – neat, small, shiny, a natural extension of himself. Although he could certainly play loudly, Bill always varied his volume from phrase to phrase very effectively. His power came from a strong rhythmic drive, never from relentless blasting. The peak of Bill’s career came in the 1950s. For several years he was part of the house band at Eddie Condon’s club in New York. He was in his prime. With Cutty Cutshall on trombone and Edmond Hall on clarinet he formed one of the finest front line combinations ever to play in the traditional jazz style. Bill’s playing was fundamental to this success. Always varying the melody to his own style, never rigidly tied to the beat, he led with drive and imagination. He told me several times how much he owed to his relationship with the great negro clarinettist Edmond Hall; they inspired each other with fire and excitement. In fact, Bill broke the colour bar at Condon’s club by insisting that Hall should join the house band.

One strong memory of Bill remains with me. One night in the 1970s, at the Pizza Express in Soho, I was listening to him playing with a British band. I half closed my eyes. Suddenly I saw a rather brash young man, his hair slicked straight back, playing the cornet in a very “hot”, aggressive style, pushing down the valves with vigorous, emphatic gestures, as if determined to give extra feeling to every note that he played. He could not have been more than 18 or 20 years of age. Opening my eyes it dawned on me that over all the wearisome, cynical years of clubs and bars Bill had never lost a certain youthful enthusiasm and excitement; it still fired every note that he played. Six months before he died I saw him for the last time. While he was playing I half closed my eyes again. The young man was still there, still playing with the same style and passion.

Peter Batten

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