|Tommy Whittle in 1978...|
In 1978 Jazz Journal published an article titled "Jazz Refugee from the Mickey Mouse Bands". It covered the career of tenor saxophone player Tommy Whittle through to that year. This page includes extracts from the article...
Tommy Whittle, (born 1926), is a Scot - as are so many of Britain's finest jazz musicians - and is originally from Grangemouth where his father was a river pilot on the Forth. He dates his first interest in jazz from his early teens:
Alan Davy, who lived in the same road, was at that time an art student - he's now a very famous painter. Anyway, he heard me play clarinet. He was then a very enthusiastic jazz musician. He be-friended me and introduced me to Grangemouth Rhythm Club and I started to listen to music by the top players in jazz.
The fledgling jazzman, now playing tenor, moved to Chatham when he was 16 and became friendly with drummer Ronnie Verrell who had already started working in a palais band. Shortly after, Tommy was at work with Verrell for six nights a week in a Gillingham dance hall. Since then, he says, I've never done anything else but play music for a living.
Trumpeter Johnny Claes took Verrell and Whittle under his wing - a lovely band before the saxophonist joined bandleader Lew Stone for a theatre tour followed by bottle parties and a season or two with with altoist Harry Hayes at the Churchill Club with George Shearing on piano. Whittle was later with Carl Barriteau's band: as he puts it now - wonderful experience for a young musician
At 20 he joined Ted Heath's band - then at it's most prominent and building to a peak that few British big bands can have equalled. From the start the personnel was star packed, with Kenny Baker and Stan Roderick among the trumpets; a sax section of Leslie Gilbert, Reg Owen, Johnny Gray and Dave Shand; Norman Stenfalt on piano, guitarist Dave Goldberg and drummer Jack Parnell.
For five and a half years, Whittle toured theatres with Heath but missed out on jazz clubs and the emerging modern scene. Heath paid only nominal attention to jazz giving Tommy his head with Parnell's quartet but in the band charts expected conformity:
Ted told me in my first week "I want you to write out all your solos" and he was shattered when I didn't fall into line. If I played a genuine ad-lib solo, he turned his back and walked away. Being with Heath I had a reputation but I was keen to extend myself and after a while I felt my playing was going down. I kept trying to change - I was tuned into Charlie Parker and all that was happening then - but when I told Ted I was leaving he was very surprised and couldn't believe it.
Tommy joined the Tony Kinsey Trio in the mid-fifties as an out-and-out jazz soloist - recording regularly as he had done with quartets of his own - and these recordings have deservedly been re-issued on Esquire (1978). He later had a group of his own on the road for 18 months around 1957, and used musicians of the calibre of Eddie Thompson, bassist Brian Brocklehurst and the late drummer Jackie Dougan, with baritone saxist Harry Klein added subsequently. Whittle took one of those quartets to America in exchange for Gerry Mulligan and counts that as a tremendous experience. After that he dropped out of active jazz band leading and took a job at the Dorchester Hotel in London:
The job lasted two years, five months and three days! It was lucrative - but we soon became just like any other hotel band. Bobby Wellins was in that band, a very original player. It's not very easy to be original in this country he adds.
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Later, Whittle joined Cyril Stapleton's BBC Show Band as one of it's original members:
I ended up doing three broadcasts a week and still maintaining my jazz club work. Since then, I have always done a combination of jazz and session work. In my case, I've been lucky - the session stuff has never got in the way. Over the past ten years I must have done an average of one jazz club date per week. I don't do any hustling for jazz and maybe two or three weeks go by and then a series of personal appearances will come up.
In London Tommy will often work at the Bull's Head or take a quartet into Ronnie Scott's - mixing the jazz dates into a schedule that demands a businessman's flair for organisation.
On the face of it, Tommy must have the ideal situation in the eyes of many people - his session work with Jack Parnell's ATV orchestra is undoubtedly financially rewarding (Whittle and his singer wife Barbara Jay live comfortably by any standards) yet he's out there putting his jazz talents to the test whenever he can:
I'm more enthusiastic about jazz than ever. I'm not stale towards the music at all. Of course, I firmly believe that to express yourself in jazz you have to have a good command of the instrument. These days I play flute, alto flute, piccolo, clarinet and bass-clarinet in addition to the tenor. By the way this is nothing unusual, he emphasis.
When I asked Tommy to look back and say what he considers to be his major achievement, he thinks of those late 1960s and early 1970s days at the Hopbine and says: My greatest satisfaction is to have created a venue in which jazz can be presented.
In my book, that's only half the story: the rest is there on the records and at any live appearance where Tommy unpacks his tenor. As he says: I still want to be a progressive musician, to be more advanced tomorrow than today.
Tommy Whittle is a tenor saxophonist of stature, taste and inspiration who bears comparison with the finest performers in the idiom. He has distilled the influence of his original inspiration, Lester Young, in a manner almost identical to that achieved by Zoot Sims, a player who occupies approximately the same stylistic ground as Whittle.
Whittle's technical command and concern for technical quality is well matched - at least in my experience - with an unflagging zest for playing and capacity for swinging improvisations that have yet to be properly caught on disc. I count myself fortunate to have listened to him in a variety of live settings, both as soloist fronting his own quartet and in ensemble work, most notably at the club he ran for years at the Hopbine pub in Wembley. Here, amid a crowd who had become friends, he would stretch out, playing extended fresh sounding solos that riveted attention and invariably cut - perhaps unwittingly - the visiting celebrity instrumentalist.
Usually reticent and a little shy in demeanour, Whittle on the bandstand in compatible company is a confident improviser, well capable of taking on the finest of his contemporaries, whether British or American. There's an urbane exterior to Whittle's music but make no mistake, there's pride and a lithe muscularity at it's core as well.
Jazz Journal, 1978
Tommy Whittle discography up to 1961...
Tommy Whittle discography after 1961...
The band that Tommy Whittle played with in Gillingham in 1942/43 was the Claude Giddings Band which was appearing at the Gillingham Pavilion. In the twelve months he was with the band he was able to improve his reading because the band had a huge library. He admits the experience was invaluable, he was keen to learn and with Verrell spent hours listening to jazz and swing records, improvising and extending his fast growing repertoire. He found himself playing with such names as Pete Chilver, Johnny Claes, and Ralph Sharon all of whom guested with the band at some time.
In the mid 1950s Tommy Whittle led a successful ten piece band that he toured with for 18 months. It eventually proved too large a drain on his financial resources and he was forced to disband. The personnel had included Keith Christie, Kenny Wheeler, Joe Temperley, Eddie Taylor, Feddie Logan, Don Riddell and Ronnie Baker.|