Approximately 50 years ago, in a South East London jazz club called the "Jazzhouse", a bunch of young, mostly semi-pro, musicians got together and formed a rehearsal band. The original idea was the brainchild of Clive Burrows, the baritone sax -playing co-leader of the club's house band, together with tenorist Ian Bird. After several weeks of hard work rounding up the 15 musicians to join the band, writing arrangements and rehearsing them, Clive and the band were keen to show their progress before a live audience. Appearing as the "Bird/Burrows Big Band", they played two gigs; the debut appearance, naturally enough, had to be at the "Jazzhouse" Blackheath, where the 'home crowd' gave them a wildly enthusiastic reception. Then 4 months later, they played a fund-raising concert at the Widmore Hall, Bromley, which, though it was to a much smaller crowd, was almost as warmly received. After this promising start, there came a bit of a bombshell, when Clive announced that he had decided to accept an offer to turn 'pro' with Zoot Money's Big Roll Band. This, of course, meant that that he could no longer continue with his pet project and the band suddenly found itself leaderless (Ian Bird having dropped out earlier). At this point, there was considerable doubt that the band could even survive, but after just a few weeks, composer/arranger Neil Ardley, a self-confessed disciple of Gil Evans, was invited to be the band's musical director and, as neither 'Burrows' or 'Bird' were any longer involved, a name-change was necessary. After toying with the somewhat pretentious names like 'Neoteric', the band members democratically settled on the "New Jazz Orchestra", not so much because the music was particularly new...more that the band's existence was.
The NJO (as it became generally referred to) was to play an important role for many young British musicians of the time, as it provided an opportunity for them to gain experience of reading arrangements and ensemble playing, which would be useful in advancing their jazz careers. Indeed, several of its members did go on to a degree of fame (if not fortune), including Ian Carr, Michael Gibbs, Jon Hiseman, Barbara Thompson, Trevor Watts, Henry Lowther, John Mumford, Dave Gelly and legendary pianist/composer Mike Taylor, to name but some. There were other well-known names who played (or sang) with the NJO on and off over the ensuing years, including Jack Bruce, Norma Winstone, Don Rendell, Dick Heckstall-smith, Harry Beckett, Michael Garrick and Frank Ricotti. Being the NJO's musical director also contributed to Neil Ardley's reputation as a composer and arranger of note, which would ultimately lead to him becoming something of a cult figure in the history of British jazz.
As it turned out, the NJO's existence was relatively brief, lasting less than 10 years. It started off promisingly, with them winning the somewhat grandly named 'All England Jazz Contest' held as part of the 1964 Guildford Jazz Festival, followed by being 'runners up' the National Amateur Jazz Contest, held under the auspices of the National Jazz Federation, at Richmond the same year .
These achievements brought them to the attention of the musical press, especially Melody Maker, who gave them valuable editorial support with some great write-ups. Further 'rave' reviews from other very impressed music journalists led to more gigs at clubs like the Marquee, London...Mother's Club in Birmingham, as well as several universities and colleges up and down the country. These concerts were fairly well paid, but as the fee was shared by approximately 18 to 20 participants, nobody took home more than a couple of pounds.
For the next few years they continued playing occasional concerts until 1970, when someone had the inspired idea of pairing the orchestra in concert with Colosseum, at that time one of the premier jazz/rock groups in the UK and led by Jon Hiseman, the NJO's original drummer. The Colosseum/NJO debut concert was at the Lanchester Arts Festival, Coventry in January 1970, which sold out so quickly that a matinee concert was quickly announced by the Ents Committee, tickets for which were also rapidly snapped up.
The shows opened with the NJO playing the first half, then Colosseum came on and played their normal set, with the NJO musicians returning to join them for the final two numbers, which Neil Ardley had scored for the whole ensemble, with "Valentyne Suite" closing out the evening. Not surprisingly, both shows received wildly enthusiastic receptions, prompting thoughts of more such combined concerts and plans were soon made for another six. These took place in May of that year and included an appearance at the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall London; Fairfield Hall Croydon and an one at the Camden Arts Festival. This last concert differed from the others in that it was officially an NJO gig and, for that reason, the programme was comprised entirely of NJO music. However, as the date fell in the middle of the main tour, Neil decided to invite Colosseum members Jon Hiseman, Dave Greenslade, Dick Heckstall-Smith and Clem Clempson, as well as Tony Reeves (the NJO's original bass player and a founder-member of Colosseum) to take part. All these concerts were resoundingly successful and offers for the NJO to combine with other rock groups were received. Only one, a short tour with Eric Burdon, actually happened and that didn't really work out too well musically...prompting saxophonist Don Rendell, who was with the band at that time, to comment "I don't really want to do this kind of thing...it isn't why I joined this band".
Ironically, only one of these gigs was recorded - the Camden Arts Festival appearance and then only because Neil Ardley wanted it for his personal archive. The tapes remained there until 2008 (four years after his rather premature death at only 66), when they were 'cleaned up' and released as a CD on Dusk Fire. As seven of the tracks are from 'Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe', which has never been released on CD, it is of considerable interest to anyone unable to afford the approx. £300 required to buy the original vinyl LP. If that appeals to you, here's the link: http://www.musicsogood.com/duskfire/neil_ardley2.htm
One other, slightly unusual, event happened when Keith Emerson, who was on a break between finishing the latest ELP album and starting another tour of America with them, decided to take the opportunity to record some tracks for a solo album. He wanted a big-band sound, so asked Jon Hiseman if he could round up the NJO musicians to back him. Jon also took care of booking the recording studio (Olympic) and getting Neil Ardley and Alan Cohen to write some arrangements.
The titles recorded were: "Au Privave", a Charlie Parker tune, arranged by Neil to include an eight theme Parker medley - "Honky Tonky Train Blues", arranged by Alan Cohen, which later became a minor hit for Keith (requiring the band to appear on 'Top of the Pops'! A 'first' and a 'last'!). Finally, with a little time in hand, they laid down a blues by Gary Burton, called "Walter L". This track and "Au Privave" were eventually released as part of Keith's album "Off the Shelf" in 2006.
After this relatively busy phase, gigs became more sporadic and when Neil Ardley decided to start recording under his own name, albeit using several of the NJO musicans, things kind of fizzled out for the band.
During those ten years or so, the New Jazz Orchestra made just two albums under its own name*. The first: "Western Reunion", produced by Ray Horrocks, an experienced producer working for Decca, was recorded 'live' before an invited audience, at their West Hampstead Studios in March 1965 and released in May to considerable critical acclaim.
Melody Maker album revew.
Programme for recording album.
Some four years later, the orchestra recorded their second album, "Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" (with Jack Bruce playing bass) which was released on the Verve label. Both of these are now highly sought-after collectable (and thus incredibly valuable) LPs. "Western Reunion" was released as a CD in 2006 by Vocalion, but it must have been a limited run, as it is no longer generally available. 'Dejeuner' remains unreleased on CD for somewhat obscure (possibly legal) reasons, though the title track was included on Gilles Peterson 'Impressed 2' CD in 2004.
As previously mentioned, there were other records that featured many of the NJO's musicians, but recorded under Neil Ardley's name. The first such was "Greek Variations" released in 1970 on Columbia and re-released on CD in 2004 on Universal. Then in 1972 came "A Symphony of Amaranths" on Regal Zonophone, which featured an unusually large ensemble of 27 instruments (including a 5 piece string section led by Jack Rothstein) . One fascinating track on this album has Ivor Cutler reading "The Dong with a Luminous Nose" (an Edward Lear poem, set to music by Neil). Another is an interesting musical setting of the Lewis Carroll poem "Will you walk a little faster" (The Mock Turtle's Song), impeccably sung by Norma Winstone. Once again, these albums are desirable and highly collectable in their original vinyl format.
The NJO did get together one more time, in 1993, for a celebratory 30th anniversary concert at the Barbican Centre, London. The line-up included many of the original members and was a great success, giving rise to hopes that more such concerts would follow, but sadly nothing came of them.
So the NJO slipped slowly into the annals of British jazz history. There are still quite a few loyal fans (now probably 'senior citizens') that have fond memories of the band...especially if they saw them play live. One of the main things that made the NJO so remarkable was the unbridled enthusiasm of the young musicians who joined primarily for the pure enjoyment of playing with a big band. The NJO may not have sold as many records or become as well known as, say, the Johnny Dankworth or Harry South orchestras, but it certainly played an important part in developing the musical lives of many, now legendary, British jazz musicians.
* The Camden Arts Festival CD was released as "Neil Ardley's New Jazz Orchestra" as the Colosseum musicans appeared under their own names.
Jazz musicians are known for their somewhat off-the-wall sense of humour and the guys in the NJO were no exception. I have fond memories of a gig at Goldsmith's College, New Cross, S.E. London when some of the band whiled away the interval in the band-room (a classroom) by coming up with titles of songs for the 'Indian Hit Parade' and writing them on the blackboard. I often wonder what the students thought when they saw the list the following day.
Anyway, here are the ones I managed to recall:
"Chapati's Over", "Paperback Raita" "Dhansak in the Dark", "A Pilau to Dream On"; "The Sari with the Fringe on Top"; "My Poppadum Tol' Me"; "Livin' Dhal"; the slightly dated Scottish ballad "I love a Lhassi"; the unavoidable "Curry me back to ole Virginia"; and (a touch of class here...), the operatic aria "Nessun dorma" or "Naan shall sleep".
Of course, Balti dishes weren't around back then, or more could surely have been added to the list. ("Balti-more Oriole" for one).