Thursday, July 05, 2007

Remembering George Melly

Just a few months after the death of his former bandmate Mick Mulligan, another of the great jazz ravers has died - George Melly. We have mentioned here before his role in the 40s and 50s revivalist jazz scene in London, seemingly the time when people in England first used the word 'rave' for a party. There's lots more to be said about Melly - as pop culture writer, libertarian, surrealist for a start - but for now here's an extract from his 1965 book Owning Up, describing dance hall venues in the early 1950s (by the way does anyone know where Le Metro club he refers to was?).

During this period the band was rehearsing for its first public appearance... we used the upper rooms of various pubs. I suppose that most of early British revivalist jazz emerged from the same womb. Rehearsal rooms existed, of course, but we never thought of hiring one at that time. They were part of the professional world of which we knew nothing.

Many of these pub rooms were temples of 'The Ancient Order of Buffaloes', that mysterious proletarian version of the 'Freemasons', and it was under dusty horns and framed nine­teenth-century characters that we struggled through 'Sunset Cafe Stomp' or 'Miss Henny's Ball'.

Although we had not yet performed we already had a name. The fashion was for something elaborate and nostalgic. Admit­tedly Humph was satisfied with 'Humphrey Lyttelton and His Band' but he swam in deep water. Among the minnows, names like 'The Innebriated Seven', 'Denny Coffey and His Red Hot Beans', and 'Mike Daniel's Delta Jazzmen' were more typical. Mick decided on 'Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band'...

We still played a few jazz clubs, mostly in the provinces, and, due to the fact that several towns still wouldn't license Sunday cinemas, there was the odd concert. Most of our jobs, however, were in dance halls. The dance halls of Great Britain, the halls, that is, where dances are held, can be subdivided into various groups. Start­ing at the top are the great Palais, some, like Mecca, part of a nation-wide chain, others individually owned.

The Mecca Halls are standardized so that once you're inside you might be anywhere in the country. They are run like mili­tary organizations in which the musicians are privates. The band-rooms are full of printed rules: no alcohol to be brought on to the premises (we were actually frisked in some places), no women allowed behind stage except for band vocalists, no frat­ernization with the public. The decor is usually Moorish in inspiration. There are strange bulbous ashtrays on thick stems, a forest of lights sprouting from the ceiling, bouncers with cauliflower ears circling the dance floor in evening dress, revolving stages and managers with safes in their offices and 1930 moustaches.

The privately-owned halls were on the whole a great im­provement. Of course they very much depended on the character of the manager or owner. Some of these suffer from a Napoleon complex. The hall is their Europe, the visiting band­leader an ear which cannot refuse to listen to their grandiose schemes and delusions. Others are friendly and courteous men who ask you in for a drink after the dance and become, over the years, familiar faces in the endless repetitive nomadic round.

The decor of the dance halls outside the big chains was as varied as their owners. Some were luxurious, influenced by the Festival of Britain, given to a wall in a different colour, wall­papers of bamboo poles or grey stones, false ceilings and modern light fittings made of brass rods and candle-bulbs. Others were as bare as aeroplane hangars, or last decorated during the early picture palace era. Mick's inevitable comment as we staggered in with our cases and instruments into these was, 'What a shit-house!'

There was also a series of halls over branches of Montague Burtons and Co-ops. There were always a great many very steep steps to drag the drum kit up. We also played for promoters whose offices were either in London or some large provincial town, but who covered a par­ticular area and hired halls which had other day-time func­tions.

Territorial Halls where the floor was marked out with white lines and there were posters showing muscular young soldiers giving a thumb up in a jungle or diagrams of a machine gun with the parts painted different colours.

Corn exchanges, often rather beautiful nineteenth-century buildings with glass roofs and terrible acoustics. Round the circular walls were little wood-encased partitions with the names of cattle-food firms or grain merchants painted across the back in faded trompe-Foeil Victorian lettering.

Above all the town halls, massive monuments to civic pride in St Pancras Gothic, where we played on stages big enough to seat an entire chorus and orchestra for 'The Messiah', and the young bloods of Huddersfield or Barnsley staggered green-faced from the bar in a vain attempt to make the gents, and were messily sick under a statue of Queen Victoria or the portrait of some bearded mayor hanging above the marble staircase.

The jazz clubs were moments of release and pleasure from this dismal round. We didn't have to change into uniform, we could drink and smoke on the stage, above all we knew the audience would be on our side and that we would only have to play jazz. In London, too, we made a deliberate effort to go on playing jazz for kicks. At the beginning of the week, unless we were away on a long tour, we were usually in town, and every Tues­day we played in a cellar club which catered for French stu­dents and was called 'Le Metro'. The club had a curved ceiling and did look rather like a tube tunnel. Behind the bandstand was painted an unconvincing metro train. The bar had Lautrec posters in it.

1 comment:

Ed - The Music Man said...

What a wonderful musical star we lost in George. Thank you so much for bringing him to my attention again. I went and wrote about him and how I remember him at The 100 Club on Oxford Street on my blog at What a great performer. George will be sorely missed