George Melly owns up

Owning up cover

George Melly (1926–2007) was one of the great characters of the London trad jazz scene.

He described his early escapades frankly in

  • Owning-up (1965),
    a most delightful and perceptive memoir (cf. Lives in jazz).

Forced as he was at prep school to listen to the cricket on the radio,

even now the sentence “and we return to the studio” holds an irrational beauty.

Very often the announcer, in a suitably apologetic voice, would introduce a record by Ambrose and his Orchestra or Roy Fox and his Band. At this, the headmaster, with the hysterical violence which characterised all his movements, would push back his chair and attempt to silence the ancient set before the first note.

If, as usually happened, the switch came off in his hand, he would drown the music, as he fumbled to replace it on its axle, by shouting “Filthy jazz!” at the top of his voice.

Sitting po-faced under a sepia photography of giraffes in the East African bush, I would mentally add jazz to Bolshevism and the lower classes (“Spurni profanum vulgus”) as things I was in favour of.

At Stowe he discovered little cells of jazz lovers, and he heard Bessie Smith’s classic Gimme a pig-foot and a bottle of beer for the first time.

All over wartime Britain the same thing was happening. […] Suddenly, as if by spontaneous combustion, the music exploded in all our heads.

After Stowe he joined the Navy as an ordinary seaman, taking his gramophone and records on board ship, dreaming of New Orleans. In this same period his other interest was Surrealism, and after demob he began working for E.L.T. Mesens in his newly-opened London Gallery. Eventually he got to hear live revivalist jazz, as trad was known then. Hanging out at Humphrey Littleton’s weekly sessions, he began exploring clubs in the suburbs.

I resolved to become an executant. Too lazy to learn an instrument, I had decided to sing. *

He went to Eel Pie Island on the Thames to hear Cy Laurie’s band:

After I had drunk several pints at a bar half painted to look like the window of a Spanish Hacienda, I asked Cy if I could sing. He couldn’t think of any excuse so I did.

He soon found his groove—in John Mortimer’s words, “singing with the raucous charm of an old Negress, so easily attained by those educated at Stowe”.

Melly and Mick
George and Mick.

As he teamed up with Mick Mulligan, his work at the gallery suffered: “what had been vague inefficiency turned into inspired anti-commercial delirium”. He notes the conflicting credos of trad jazzers and beboppers (the latter being the main topic of my series on jazz):

The revivalists began with the old records, and only learned to play because they loved a vanished music, and wished to resurrect it. Depending on their purism, they drew a line at some arbitrary date and claimed that no jazz existed after it. The modernists did this in reverse. Nothing existed pre-Parker. […]

Very slowly things changed, initially on a personal level. The two schools began to meet socially to argue and listen. Eventually some of the traditionalists became modernists or mainstreamers, and others began to realise that Gillespie and Parker, Monk and Davis were not perverse iconoclasts but in the great tradition, and the modern musicians stopped imagining that bebop had sprung fully armed from the bandstand at Mintons, but had its roots in the early history of the music.

The contrasting ethos was also displayed in the two camps’ sartorial tastes, with George soon creating his own distinctive style.

He branched out from his early homosexuality, with no moral decision involved. After years of patient suffering, his landlord served him with a brilliant eviction notice:

… I have endured your drunken and dissolute ways, your wanton waste of light, gas fire, hot bath water, horse radish, beans, lavatory water, your assumption that my library was yours… I never reproached you when you made this house a doss for band boys and barrow spivs, nor when you plastered the walls of a lovely room with obscenities and childish scrawls…

As the band began making a name, they traveled to seedy suburban jazz clubs via second-hand car lots on bomb sites, and set off on tours of the provinces.

After one session George was head-butted by a young thug wielding a bottle.

I was anaesthetised by fear. I subconsciously did the only thing that might work and it did. I took out of my pocket a small book of the sound poems of the dadaist Kurt Schwitters, explained what they were, and began to read. The book was knocked out of my hand, but I bent and picked it up again, and read on:

langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
Ookar.
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
Ookar.
Rackerterpaybee
Rackerterpaybay
Ookar.
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
etc.

Slowly, muttering threats, they moved off. I can’t explain why it worked, but I suspect that it was because they needed a conventional response in order to give me a going over. If I’d pleaded or attempted to defend myself, or backed against the wall with my arm over my face, I think I’d have had it.

Leading lights on the scene included Ken Colyer, purist stalwart of the trad jazz church, and Humph, who George recalls listening to a modern jazz record and then turning away with the remark, “Back to sanity and 1926!”.  In later years on I’m sorry I haven’t a clue Humph would introduce his deadpan put-downs of the show’s long-suffering pianist Colin Sell by intoning languidly, “Listeners may be interested to know that…” 

The Mulligan band performed for the 1951 Festival of Britain (cf. Stella Gibbons), “that gay and imaginative flyleaf dividing the grey tight-lipped puritanism of the years of austerity from the greedy affluence which was to come”.

Mick had a “pathological hatred of rehearsal”. This story of a banjo player, a “kind-hearted formidable pissartist”, takes me back to our ordeal playing Handel in Göttingen:

The replacement of a broken string was a comic performance in itself. He would hold the banjo about two inches from his nose and with slow glassy-eyed deliberation fail time and time again to thread the new string onto the key. Eventually by the law of averages he succeeded, tuned his instrument with conscientious precision and then, often only a bar or two later, another one would snap.

As George lost his job at the gallery, his sexual education continued in a world of scrubbers (see below), knee-tremblers, and bunk-ups. The band turned professional (using the word loosely), playing all over Britain in dance halls, whose décor he evokes poetically. It was a relief to play in jazz clubs. He pays homage to the transport caff; while some were disgusting, “with congealed sauce around the necks of the bottles and pools of tea on the table with crusts of bread floating in them”, others had gleaming juke-boxes and pin-tables and fruit machines, clean tables, and hot, edible food. Such caffs provided

a few minutes of light and warmth in the dark cold hours between leaving the dance hall where the old caretaker and his one-eyed dog snooze over a tiny electric fire, and climbing into bed in the London dawn, grey and shivering from lack of sleep.

He evokes the cellar clubs of Soho, frequented by taxi-drivers, clip-joint hostesses, waiters, small-time criminals, and jazz musicians. In 1952 at their basement club in Gerard street, Mick and George organised all-night raves—a term which Mick apparently coined with his manager Jim Godbolt. George traces the ebb and flow of the revivalist scene, with vignettes on the motley crew of aficionados who kept the flame burning.

Soon after their coach crashed in the Lincolnshire night, Mick dismantled the band, offering to manage George as a solo singer. Changes were afoot in their corner of the jazz world. Ken Colyer came back from New Orleans “like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Law”. Humph “was in full revolt against his revivalist past”, eventually settling for mainstream, the small-band jazz of the late 30s–early 40s. Cy Laurie’s cellar club in Windmill street did well, his all-night raves more financially viable than those of Mick and George, before he went off to India on a Quest for a different kind of Truth.

George was ecstatic to hear Big Bill Broonzy at the Conway Hall, the first American jazzman to appear in England after the war (cf. Ronnie Scott and my Chinese-music mentor Ray Man getting to hang out with their American idols in the early 60s), though he found Alan Lomax’s lengthy introduction paternalistic. The visit featured memorable all-night sessions, and on Big Bill’s trip to Liverpool he stayed with George’s parents.

By 1955 Mick couldn’t resist returning to the fray, and George couldn’t resist singing with his re-formed band, staying with him for the next seven years despite other tempting offers. He relays a story from clarinettist Ian Christie:

Mick was very drunk and playing a solo. His control was minimal, his head entirely empty of any constructive ideas. His timing gone. All he could do was blow unbearably loudly, his neck swollen, his eyeballs popping with effort. Ian listened with irritation. When somebody is playing as badly as that it reflects on everybody in the band. Finally Mick finished his thirty-two bars of nothing, and waved his bell in the direction of the trombonist to tell him to take the next chorus. He turned to Ian, his face running with sweat:

“All the noise and vulgarity of Freddy Randall,” he said, “with none of the technique.”

Although jazz and WAM may seem far apart, such hooliganism, like the antics of the band on the road, reminds me of the orchestral scene in the 70s, complete with intemperate excess and practical jokes (see Deviating from behavioural norms!). With the personnel of Mick’s band constantly fluctuating, George gives affectionate portraits of its miscreants’ foibles.

By 1954 Chris Barber was taking over the mantle of Ken Colyer on the trad scene. But just then

a whole new world was in the process of being born, and we were entirely unaware of it. I can’t remember the first time I heard the word “teenager”. I don’t know at what point I began to take in the teenage thing. I doubt many other people can either.

They decided Rock around the clock was a drag, and were underwhelmed by Elvis. But what was changing was the new group identity of young fans. George became aware of the trend through meeting Tommy Steele on a transmission for the embryonic medium of television. Later, sharing a bill with him, he realised what a huge youth following Tommy had, their “orgiastic cries of worship” foretelling the death of jazz. Still, they managed to ride the storm, playing for loyal jazz club audiences. George also notes the rise of skiffle, revived yet again by Ken Colyer, making a star of Lonnie Donegan.

On a Scottish tour in 1955 George got married. He had just done a lecture at the ICA in London on the subject of “Erotic imagery in the blues” to a mixed audience of earnest ICA regulars and his own unruly mates. Generously fortified by gin, and diverging from his well-prepared script, he delivered a rather incoherent attack on the ICA itself, referring to it “with a certain lack of originality” as “Institute of Contemporary Farts” or, to relieve the tedium, “Institute of Contemporary Arseholes”. Finally, as the staff stacked up the chairs, with George insensible, his supporters unstacked them (which could surely have been billed as a work of performance art in itself). In response to outraged coverage of the event in the Melody maker, George

wrote in defence citing Dada and Rimbaud, but leaving out Messrs Gordon and Booth, which was perhaps rather unfair.

After a sympathetic account of the early breakup of his marriage, George describes the exhilaration of hearing Louis Armstrong on his first visit to London in 1956. As American jazzers began touring England more often, George found a particular affinity with bluesman Jimmy Rushing. With Mick’s band they toured with Big Bill Broonzy, as well as Sister Rosetta Tharp, who to their relief turned to be quite a raver.

As to George’s own showmanship on stage,

The general feeling in the band was that my poncing about had become a bit much.

On the road they made “an increasingly dull noise”; but his old jazzmate Wally Fawkes (whose sketch of George adorns the book cover) now asked him to write the dialogue for his popular Flook cartoon in The Daily Mail. This regular income boosted his unpredictable earnings.

Ever alert to language, he notes the transition from “mouse” to “chick” to “bird”, terms whose sexism is hardly redeemed by being well-meant (cf. Words and women). He gives an expansive sociological definition of the term “scrubber”. Whereas in the later Beat world it came to mean a prostitute, in his early days on the road it denoted a girl who slept with a jazzman for her own satisfaction as much as his. Each had their own catchment area, and they tended to specialise in men who played a particular instrument. **

Around 1960 trad jazz enjoyed another vogue, with Mr Acker Bilk rising to fame, prompting George to further unpack the changing scene and deplore the turgid banjo (cf. the rise of the bouzouki in rebetika). He recorded LPs and EPs, and appeared solo on TV as compère and performer, “looking camp as Chloe”.

In Liverpool, doing gigs at the Cavern, they find Beat groups beginning to appear—including one called the Beatles.

By 1962 Mick’s band had agreed to disband again. George, no longer dependent on singing for his supper, found a long-term partner in his wife Diana.

At the time of writing rhythm and blues is taking over from Beat.

His benign conspiratorial chuckle translating onto the page, Melly’s sensibility is so contemporary and his style so candid that it’s hard to believe the book was published as early as 1965. He pursued the musical upheavals of the time with Revolt into style (1972). In Rum, bum, and concertina (1978) he recounted his earlier days in the Navy. 

Of course, even in later years he could never resist camping it up for an audience. Here he is live with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers in 1983:

And he stars in the evocative documentary Smokey dives: jazz faces and places (2001):


* George’s speciality in singing, unsullied by instrumental skills, reminds me of my time at meetings of the Gaoluo village ritual association, with trusty liturgist Shan Yude’s constant self-deprecating lament, “I can’t play wind instruments, I can’t play percussion…” (wo you buhui chui, you buhui da 我又不会吹,又不会打), which I used to impersonate rather effectively to the amusement of his colleagues. They would have enjoyed George’s company too.

** This calls to mind an American groupie friend from my days in the opera pit in Verona, who had a fetish not just for trombonists but for bass trombonists—which one might suppose to be setting rather a high bar. Having already got nine under her belt (the mot juste), I used to tease her whether she could succeed where Beethoven and Bruckner had failed. A couple of years later, back in London I received a triumphant postcard inscribed with the single word “TEN!”

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