Review: Digby Fairweather biography & DVD

Veteran British mainstream trumpeter documents life in book and DVD, touching on Alex Welsh, Melly, Bilk, Peter Clayton and Cannonball Elderly

By Digby Fairweather. Northway Publications, pb, 212 pp, £14.00. ISBN 978-0-9928222-4-8

A new edition of Digby Fairweather’s reflections, updated to cover the last 13 years. The anecdotes and memories mostly represent British jazz as seen in the rear view mirror, of course, the players and characters being those professionally encountered by Digby in his jazz life. Thus, there is plenty about Alex Welsh, George Melly, Acker Bilk and even veteran alto saxophonist Roy Willox, the latter (born in 1929) described here affectionately as “Cannonball Elderly”.

Fascinating walk-on parts are included for Billy Butterfield, Dizzy Gillespie, Wild Bill Davison, the late radio presenter Peter Clayton and various BBC radio producers who specialized in jazz during Digby’s career. Some detail about the National Jazz Archive is also included.

The final chapter tells of the years after 2007, the period when Humphrey Lyttleton, John Dankworth, Kenny Ball and Terry Lightfoot all died. To counter this gloom there is a most pleasing account of Digby’s marriage to Gwen, when Digby was 67 years old.

Notes From A Jazz Life is an enjoyable read, and a revealing record of a specific period of British jazz. The honest discussion of Digby’s own trumpet-playing difficulties may well provide comfort to other unlucky instrumentalists who suffer embouchure problems.

Illustrations are by Humphrey Lyttleton and Peter Manders. The latter’s ink portraits are especially deserving of praise but, strangely, there is no information to be found on the web about Manders’ work, which was used over decades in Jazz Journal.

John Robert Brown

Celebrating 20 years of Digby Fairweather’s Half Dozen. Zoltan Films, 2004. Running time 115 minutes

Those who have followed the post-war history of British mainstream jazz will welcome this DVD. How interesting it is to see clips of Nat Gonella using exactly the same offset embouchure that later caused Digby so many problems, even to the extent that both players blew from the same (righthand) side of their embouchures. Could it be that Digby fell into this incapacitating habit after seeing Gonella play?

As would be expected, there is much footage of Digby talking to camera about trumpet lessons, his early work as a librarian, his work with Dave Shepherd, Velvet, The Midnite Follies orchestra, his efforts in establishing the National Jazz Archive (though no mention of other UK jazz archives), the founding of the Association of British Jazz Musicians, and the early years of Dave Lee’s Jazz FM.

Interviews with Humphrey Lyttelton, Don Lusher and George Melly give more of the story. One is pleased to see film of the tenor saxophonist Jonny Boston (who now has quit the British scene for life in Holland), saxophonist Danny Moss, trombonist Ray Wordsworth and the muchoverlooked Roy Willox. The latter’s economy is a lesson for other single-reed players.

Be warned that much of the camera work is shaky and poorly lit, the concert venues scruffy, and the garb of a few of the participants very much come-as-you-are. But as these film clips are in some cases all that remains of these musicians we must be grateful, and – perhaps – learn lessons for the future.

John Robert Brown

Relax with the luxurious print edition of Jazz Journal and enjoy more jazz news, reviews, features and debate.

post a comment