Ash and KleinBritish jazz, like British rock and roll, often gets a bad press, or no press at all. Rob Young’s excellent book on folk music, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, includes a chapter on the rise of the outdoor music festival, culminating in Glastonbury. These now blockbusting events evolved from early jazz meetings in the 1950s and early 1960s such as the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. Young recounts that the fifth Beaulieu Festival, held over the Bank Holiday weekend in July 1960 (on the private grounds of Lord Montagu’s Hampshire estate) was the scene of some agitation over the so-called “jazz wars”, prompting Lord Montagu to discontinue the festival and Melody Maker to accuse some audience members as being “weirdies”. He writes:

It’s hard to credit now, but the riot that gave rise to the Maker’s condemnation was a clash between fans of trad-jazz clarinetist Acker ‘Stranger on the Shore’ Bilk and adherents of the foundation-shaking new thing of …Johnny Dankworth.

Accounts differ, but it seems that the band that initially sparked off the trouble was not in fact Dankworth, but the Jazz Five, headed by tenor sax player Vic Ash and baritone player Harry Klein. Teenagers stormed the stage and tried to grab hold of Klein. Acker Bilk’s trad band was called on to play for over an hour to pacify the protestors. Two months later, the Jazz Five recorded The Five of Us in London, so we have a contemporary record of the music they were playing at Beaulieu. The group (which also included Brian Dee on piano, Malcome Cecil on bass and Tony Mann on drums), were influenced by Horace Silver, and used the interplay between Ash’s tenor sax and Klein’s surprisingly agile baritone as their distinctive calling-card. These extended, inventive sets include plenty of originals, such as “Hootin’ (from Ash), which inspired the retitling of the LP for its US release as The Hooter.

Although largely forgotten today, The Jazz Five were the most prominent jazz group in the UK after the demise of the Jazz Couriers. They lasted until 1962, playing on the UK tours of the Miles Davis Quintet in 1960 – Davis apparently commented “I dig your group” – and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Later in their careers Klein and Ash made their livings as fairly anonymous session musicians. Klein was one of the sax players on “Lady Madonna” by The Beatles, and Ash played for Frank Sinatra on his European and Middle Eastern tours from 1970 up until Sinatra’s death.

Ironically Bilk (supposedly representing the fading music of the past in the jazz wars), is still well known to this day. In January 1960, a year before Stranger brought him international fame, his more typical trad style single “Summer Set” (word play referring to his home county, Somerset – Bilk’s nickname ‘Acker’ is Somerset slang for ‘friend’), reached number five in the British charts. It was the first of a run of eleven Top 50 hit singles. Now in his eighties, Bilk continues to tour today, despite some ill health recently.

Update 1 This neglected period of British music is covered in-depth by the book Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975, by Duncan Heining. Unfortunately it’s very expensive and (one year after its original publication) there’s no indication that a paperback is on its way.

Update 2 Acker Bilk sadly died on November 2, 2014. His last concert was in August 2013.

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