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Thanks to all of the musicians who agreed
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Daniel Niles
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Welcome to the Beat Excavation – a project about Slough (UK) and its unique musical heritage…

Issue 1 - John Rolls

Issue 1 – John Rolls

Growing up


Words: Welson Creep
Edit: Pierre C

John Rolls was born on Slough’s Elliman Avenue “of all places” 19th May 1929. As a kid, all he had for entertainment were radio broadcasts of British Dance Band music, which he describes as “pretty ordinary.” During World War II however, John’s musical landscape changed forever.

John was at Slough Grammar School when the American military arrived in England. Thanks to them, he was able to tune into an early morning radio program called “Duffel Bag” with Johnny Kerr, which was broadcast on AFN (American Forces Network). This particular radio program had a major impact on John and many of his friends at the time as it exposed them to the exhilarating sounds of Big Band Swing. In fact, John was so inspired that he was driven to take up a musical instrument.

“In 1944 I bought my first Clarinet and all the Benny Goodman records I could afford at Buck’s music store, which was at the end of the High Street on the way to Slough Grammar School,” recalls John. “ I drove my mother mad trying to learn to play the Clarinet!”

John also learnt to play the alto sax, tenor sax and the flute, but the clarinet has remained his favourite. His beloved clarinet is still kept in its vintage original case.

“Well everything’s old like me! I think clarinet is the most satisfying to play. It’s the nearest to the human voice. You can play it loud, you can play it soft.”

Interestingly, John has never once had a lesson on wind instruments. He believes he developed a good ear from spending eight “thoroughly enjoyable” years in St. Paul’s Choir in Slough.

“If someone is playing now with a band and I don’t know which key they’re playing, I can listen and sense that key, pick my instrument up and start playing straight away in that key. I suppose it’s near perfect pitch, really.”

As a teenager John played in a small band called ‘The Club Men’ at Slough Youth Club. It was just after the war and John couldn’t afford a tenor saxophone, so he settled for the more affordable soprano sax.

“I wish I’d kept the soprano because I only paid seven pounds for it!”

John and his friends all started out at the youth club, as he says,

“playing for ourselves rather than the public.”

Early music experiences


In 1942 pianist Ralph Sharon ran a band called the Embassy Aces at the Royal Hotel in Slough. John cites this “marvelous” band as an early influence. Sharon went on to become Tony Bennett’s personal pianist while Aces guitarist Pete Chilver became one of the first British-born musicians to establish the electric guitar in the UK.

American military Big Bands, including The 8th Army Air Force Band, Sam Donahue’s Navy Band and Glenn Miller’s Air Force Band, were another significant influence on John’s musical development. One experience he will never forget was the time he met Miller and a number of other stellar jazz players in London:

“I went and saw Glenn Miller in 1944 at the Stoll Theatre Kingsway ‘Jazz Jamboree.’ I was fifteen at the time. That was the first time Ted Heath had ever put his band out in public. After the concert I went to Feldman’s club, which is now 100 Oxford Street, and there was a jam session going on in there. Probably shouldn’t have been in there as I was only fifteen! The house pianist was George Shearing and Carlo Krahmer was on drums – both blind people. Coleridge Goode [who was] on the bass, is still alive, over ninety, and still playing. When I went into Feldman’s, the Jam session was going on with Mel Powell on piano – he was famous for a tune he wrote called ‘My Guys Come Back’. Ray McKinley was on drums, Peanuts Hucko on Clarinet, Zeke Zarchy on Trumpet, Trigger Alpert on bass…well, it was marvelous and the place was jam-packed. Then Miller came walking down the stairs, so I dashed over and got his autograph. Yes, happy days! That was 1944, October 1944, and of course he was killed about a month after flying across the English Channel”

John had grown up with the sounds of traditional jazzmen such as Louis Armstrong, Mugsy Spanier as well as the Big Band Swing era sounds of Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Glenn Miller. During the mid 1940s a sound was starting to emerge which inspired a new generation of players in Slough. Known to John and his contemporaries as ‘the bop’, it introduced an exciting new approach to playing.

Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie wanted to break out of the fairly regimented big Swing bands and start a new sort of music which was originally called re-bop, but then became be-bop. It was an atonal sort of thing based on the most peculiar chord sequences. The music took the youngsters, as we were then, by storm. So we started playing bop!”

Bebop in Slough


John and his musician friends were the first to try and emulate ‘the bop’ sound in Slough. They set up the very first jazz club in Slough at a venue called The Barn on Salt Hill Park, but it was short lived -they were turfed out by the local government for being unruly. Undeterred, this group of young jazz fanatics then began a new night up the road at The George on Farnham road, which John describes as a “really rough pub with a nice hall at the back.” They gave the night a name dedicated to the music they loved:

“We called it ‘The Bop Inn’ and we did posters saying, “Pop into the Bop Inn!”

John played there regularly in a quintet based on the music of Lenny Tristano (a well respected jazz pianist and composer to Jazz fans in the know). The band was comprised of local musicians, including Stan Jones (piano), Mike Drake (guitar), Johnny Baldwin (alto sax), Mike Comber (drums) and John Rolls (tenor sax).

“Stan Jones used to write a lot of original numbers for us. It was very forward looking. A lot of it was virtually triple, quadruple tempo with demi, semi-quavers -Oh God!”

The quintet went on to play many clubs outside of Slough, as John recalls:

“We used to do all the clubs. Two famous clubs in those days were the White Hart in Southall and the White Hart in Acton. We also used to do one or two of the clubs in London. We were the first band, even before Kenny Graham, to add bongos and conga drums. So we used to do Afro-Cuban style Jazz.”

The 1950’s Jazz Scene


As part of his national service, John joined the RAF (Royal Air Force) where he worked as a draughtsman and voluntary musician. There was quite a clique of musicians in the Force, including members of bands in the Slough area, such as The Squadronaires, Sky Rockets and the Blue Rockets.

John returned from the RAF in 1949 to find a number of dance halls operating in Slough. The most significant of these was Slough Public Hall where John met his wife, Pat. He performed there every Saturday with The Geoff Groves Orchestra, a fourteen-piece Big Band that shared the takings at the end of the night.

“The other place was the Crown Hotel, which is now defunct, right on the corner of Windsor Road. There used to be a band there called The Pudney Brothers. Then there was the Adelphi [Cinema] which had a superb ballroom. A very good trumpet player called Freddie Coupe had a band there. He had a mad Canadian alto flute player who used to ride around Slough with a little dog in a basket on his bike!”

At around the same time John played with another Big Band in Acton Town Hall – a famous semi-pro band called the Tony Anton Orchestra. They were a twenty-piece band with five of everything – five sax, five trombone, five trumpets and five rhythm players. John smiles as he remembers one particular night:

“Coleman Hawkins was visiting this country. I think it was during the American Big Band time. He came over here, not expecting to play, but he turned up one night at Acton Town Hall… when we were doing a concert. He got his tenor out, and us two tenor players in the band got together and did a three tenor thing.”

Flicking through an old 1953 diary, John finds it very amusing,

“Yes I was out every night playing! I’d just got married too so I don’t know what Pat thought of that -ha-ha!”

Soon after his stint with the Tony Anton Orchestra John decided to “calm down” and spent the next seven years (three nights a week) at a dance hall in Uxbridge called Burtons, playing with a popular and talented group of players, many of whom were RAF band musicians. People would travel from the other side of London to see them play. John says that he is still approached by people to this day saying,

“you used to play at Burtons!”

Following his stint at Burtons, John decided to move on and joined a band called the Tony James Quintet. He attempted to play the part of the vibes on the flute (an instrument he had picked up while playing with the Tony Anton Orchestra) but it didn’t work, so he went out and bought a set of vibes instead!

Today


John has chosen to work as a part-time musician all his life and is confident that it was the right decision:

“I’ve played with professional musicians, and played to that standard all my life, but I’ve been able to walk away from it and enjoy it more. I’ve got friends who are pro musicians and they ended up hating it – even session men who are the chosen few.”

Eighty years down the line and it is clear that John still has a passion for music, his love of bebop shining through:

“We’ll play some bop numbers – ‘Anthropology’ and ‘Move’, things like that- which are the original bebop numbers from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I don’t do squeaks and shrieks and goodness knows what, or notes outside the natural range of the instrument.”

John’s vivid recollections of Slough’s jazz scene and his role within it form an important part of Slough’s musical heritage. Indeed, listening to John perform today is a history lesson unto itself.

Special thanks to John Rolls and Jonathan Rolls for sharing the stories and photo’s.

Download Issue 1 - John Rolls here...

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