Some readers of The Whistler may remember that in an earlier edition I wrote about my obsession with jazz, which began in the 1950s. Recently I came upon an obituary in The Guardian (24.10.2012) which took me back to those years.
As I learned more about jazz I started to visit the London clubs. At first I wanted to hear Traditional bands, so I went to sessions by Ken Colyer, Humphrey Lyttelton, Chris Barber and other musicians playing in that style. But my friends at University persuaded me that there were other styles of jazz on offer. Soon I was visiting clubs in Soho like The Flamingo and Studio 51. I discovered that these clubs were quite different. The music, the clientele, the dress, the style of dancing (if dancing was allowed) all contrasted quite markedly with the Traditional sessions. I enjoyed both styles, but there was clearly a great divide, with most fans firmly on one side or the other. I felt like a double-agent, but I am sure I was not alone.
One man who boldly crossed that divide was the trombonist / pianist Eddie Harvey, whose obituary stirred my memory. Eddie began to play jazz during World War 2. He joined a group of enthusiastic amateur musicians in the Bexleyheath area of London, led by a man called George Webb. By the end of the war, although still quite rough at the edges, the band, George Webb’s Dixielanders was gaining a national reputation. A break for National Service gave Eddie lots of time to practise. He moved on to the more sophisticated Dixieland style of traditional jazz (despite the name George Webb’s band was definitely not a Dixieland band!). But Eddie was developing fast. By the early 1950s he was studying at the Guildhall School of Music and playing with John Dankworth in bands that were at the forefront of Modern jazz in Britain. He was now a very skilful trombonist and a very capable jazz soloist. He was also an excellent arranger.
Later, he was an important member of the Humphrey Lyttelton band for several years, playing trombone in the ensembles and accompanying the soloists at the piano. He also played in some excellent small groups. I can remember hearing him play the valve trombone in a fine partnership with the Canadian saxophonist Art Ellefson. Through all these years he was extending his knowledge of jazz harmony and keeping abreast of the latest developments. He became a leading teacher of jazz piano and harmony. From the 1970s until quite recently, several generations of jazz musicians benefited from his knowledge. His first book, Teach Yourself Jazz Piano is still an excellent starting point for the beginner.
Because my interest in jazz began in the 1950s I can appreciate just how much Eddie achieved during his long career. In those days information about jazz harmony and improvisation was in short supply and there were very few teachers. Using his childhood lessons at the piano as a foundation, he moved from a very simple, almost crude, form of traditional jazz to the most sophisticated styles of arrangement and improvisation. Clearly he was born with a considerable musical gift. On his journey he used that gift to the full, both for himself and for the benefit of others.