Photo review: Frank Holder's 90th birthday

Brian O'Connor captured in pictures the 90th birthday gig at Pizza Express, Dean St, London of singer and percussionist Frank Holder, sometime collaborator with John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriott. He was covered in a major feature lavishly illustrated with historic photos showing Harriott, Dankworth, Kathy Stobart and others in JJ July 2010.

On Sunday 26 April a remarkable gig took place. Frank Holder, one of the few remaining stalwarts from the British jazz scene of the late 40s and 50s still active, celebrated his 90th birthday by playing two excellent one-hour sets at the Pizza Express, Dean St, London. In a series of standards and Latin tunes, he sang, played, danced and cracked jokes with the energy of a man half his age. His voice showed virtually no trace of his advanced years, his ballad singing - the most exposed of settings - being extremely accomplished. He was accompanied by five superb musicians who, by playing with him many times, have become a very tightly knit unit. At the end he received a standing ovation from a packed house which was thoroughly deserved. Long may he continue.
The musicians were Geoff Castle (piano), Shane Hill (guitar), Val Mannix (bass), Stan Robinson (saxophone) and Les Cirkel (drums).

Here's a taste of that July 2010 feature (how to see more):

Singing on the same bill as the likes of Nat Cole and Billy Eckstine, tutoring Cleo Laine on the wrinkles of vocalese, touring with Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriott, being a longstanding member of the Dankworth Seven, keeping wicket to the thunderbolt deliveries of Wes Hall. These are just a scattering of milestones in the colourful, eventful career of jazz singer and percussionist Frank Holder, who has been a vital figure on the British scene for more than 65 years.

Frank was born on 2 April 1925, in Georgetown, Guyana, South America - but a country very much part of the Caribbean crescent. He was quickly captivated by rhythms experienced at dances organised by his father. His vocal gift first shone in the church choir with his elder brother, who had a superb voice, and was polished by experience with local bands and radio broadcasts. He first heard jazz via late night band broadcasts from the USA. Frank’s father was a fairly strict disciplinarian and wasn’t overly keen on his son’s secular singing; he wanted the boy to have a steady, respectable career.

Towards the end of World War II Frank seized his chance to escape the paternal influence by volunteering for the Royal Air Force. He hoped to get into a more competitive music situation. ‘It was towards the end of the war, but many of the young men in the West Indies wanted to help Britain’s fight. You have to remember that at that time everyone out there regarded Britain as the mother country, it was a big deal; we were anxious to do our bit,’ Frank explained. ‘I also wanted to be where the musical action was, ideally America, but that wasn’t possible. Britain offered prospects and a challenge.’

A ship was despatched by the War Office to sail around the islands collecting the recruits before returning across the Atlantic to Glasgow. ‘It was a hairy crossing. A lot of U-boats were around, but we were well protected in a convoy. It was an exciting time and we were keen to get into the action, but as things turned out we were held in reserve and sat out the war in Wiltshire. As an AC2 a lot of my time was spent in the cookhouse!’

(Buy JJ 2010 for the full three-page feature.)

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