Lots of G’s going around lately, have you noticed?
The Gentlemanly Godfather of British jazz, from Glasgow, it’s George Chisholm!
The way I understand it, older readers are more likely to have heard of Chisholm before, especially if they used to tune in to such programmes as The Black and White Minstrel Show in the 60’s, where he would be seen performing short comedy routines between acts. Also various children’s shows and even a couple of small movie cameos. He had previously been working with The Goon Show on the radio, first as a musician and then having the occasional speaking character part in Spike Milligan’s nutty sketches – does Chisholm MacChisholm the Steaming Kilt ring any bells? A little before my time but I’m told it was very popular weekly listening!
George Chisholm evidently enjoyed the humourous side of life, so much so that he practically put his career in jazz on hold for it, for a number of years at least. The problem was, some members of the jazz community at the time thought it was a crying shame that he was ‘wasting’ his talents on the light entertainment circuit, and when you hear just how good he was when given a chorus or four on which to flex his chops, you can understand where they were coming from. But his own reasoning for following his own path does make sense – he had bills to pay, family to support, and “More people want to laugh than to listen.”
In any case, it’s obvious that his sense of humour and his trombone playing were inextricably linked together. His witty style of playing was so distinctive that he is still recognised as a genius trombonist who helped shape the British jazz scene through the years.
Born in 1915, Chisholm grew up in one of the roughest areas of Glasgow, Bridgeton, right in the middle of the Old Firm (Rangers-Celtic FC) battleground. Both his parents were semi-pro musicians, so George soon found himself playing the piano, which was more thrilling to him than playing, or fighting, outside with the other youngsters. Before long he had become a good pianist and he joined a youth stage group at the local cinema, where he played comic songs and occasionally had to dance or sing. Or even dance, sing and play all at the same time. After this, still only fourteen years old, he worked in the same cinema playing music for the silent films. Add to that the gigs he was playing in a trio with his parents and it’s easy to understand how this all led him to becoming a full-time musician. He worked at two Glasgow ballrooms when he left school, and at some point got hold of a trombone, learned how to play it, and began his career in the dance bands, soon moving to London to make his name in the business.
And what a name he made for himself! Before long he was playing with the very best, and even catching the attention of some jazz royalty from the States, namely Fats Waller (who nicknamed him Brother Chisholm on the record they made at Abbey Road in 1938, Fats Waller and his Continental Rhythm, the track on the above video is from that session), Coleman Hawkins (who called him Little Teagarden, after the famously influential trombonist Jack Teagarden) and Benny Carter, who invited him for a few months work in the Netherlands.
When World War II broke out, Chisholm and several other prominent British jazz musicians joined the Royal Air Force and founded the Squadronaires, which became the most popular British military dance band and played an essential part in keeping up morale amongst the troops and their families back home.
I recently watched a fantastic documentary about the swing era and the importance of the big bands during the war, and I’m sure there was some archive footage shown of a Squadronaires performance, but Youtube doesn’t seem to have any to offer. I did find this short film (They’re stranded! Good thing they all know their parts from memory! Well, except for that trumpeter, but at least his wife is there to hold the music for him. “Might as well hold this trombone mute too while you’re at it, darling!”), but it’s from 1952, after Chisholm had left. Never mind, here’s a double whammy of two of their popular recordings. (Chisholm said in his auto-biography that he used to arrange some of their charts and write two-trombone unison solos; is that one at 4:38? It’s hard to tell but I think it is, and if so that’s extraordinary!)
After the war had ended, Chisholm stayed with the Squadronaires until 1950. Through the 50’s he played with the well-known group Kenny Baker’s Dozen, gigged with Louis Armstrong, and he also joined the BBC Show Band, who at one point did a radio broadcast with a highly impressed and complimentary Frank Sinatra. That was a relief for everyone as they knew Sinatra would call a spade a spade, and “it did emerge that he had harboured misgivings about the ability of a BBC house orchestra.”, in the words of Chisholm himself.
Working at the BBC led to his involvement with The Goons, which brings me a full circle in this very potted history of this very interesting chap. And it also leads well to my next point…
The first I heard of him was from a taxi driver in Glasgow. After wondering aloud what could be in those strange-looking guitar cases that my friend Joe and I had hauled into his cab, upon learning that they were trombones he began trying to recall the name of “that old trombone player from Glasgow, did stuff on the variety shows”. Variety shows? Sounds awful, we thought. “George Chisel, that’s him!” Of course we didn’t have a clue what he was on about, and just wished he would drive a bit faster as we were probably late for something. But later that day a bit of googling came up trumps and we were amazed by what we heard. Thank you oh wise taxi driver!
To me at least, the way George Chisholm plays the trombone sounds kind of different to anyone else. It’s a strange, fascinating thing, the way his wit shines through at every turn and nuance. It’s in his offbeat sense of phrasing and harmony, in the colours of his sound, his bouncing rhythmic energy, the slides between neighbouring tones (which became known as Chisholm intervals), and every now and again he throws a little surprise into the mix. – it feels like he’s telling funny stories all the time, and it’s simply wonderful.
He plays so well and with such a unique style that I like to think of him as the British answer to Frank Rosolino (read my previous post about him here). Bear with me, the comparison holds true in many ways! Army bands, followed by big bands and smaller groups, TV show bands, comedy, freelance studio work, plus sounding totally different to anyone else…the parallels are there. Chisholm was a great admirer of Rosolino, saying in an interview,
“my idols were people like Teagarden, Lou McGarity. And then, later, Frank Rosolino—who I think is a tremendous player. Absolutely a thing of his own; this is terribly important”
And the admiration was mutual, with Rosolino commenting in an interview about his visits to the UK,
“I liked George’s playing very much; he has a nice conception and feel, good soul, and he plays with an extremely good melodic sense.”
One British trombonist who did seem able to keep up was Roy Williams. Another brilliant highly-revered player, Roy joined George on several recordings in the 70’s, and their styles compliment each other so well. When the rhythm section drops out leaving the two of them alone to hop around each other’s lines it is amazing to listen to. The best example of this is their studio recording of It’s Alright With Me, where they do this for almost two minutes. If you happen to have Spotify I can recommend searching that one out!
When George Chisholm died in 1997, but not before being awarded an OBE and also bringing together a band of the some of the finest British jazz musicians he called the Gentlemen of Jazz, playing and touring with them until he was well into his 70s.
If there’s one thing musician’s love it’s a good anecdote. Chisholm’s autobiography is of course full of them. You can read it by following this link: http://georgechisholm.tripod.com/welcome.htm
It makes sense at this point to quickly mention the magnificent trombonist Gordon Campbell, not only because he is another inspiration whose name begins with G, but also because he himself was inspired by Chisholm (and he’s Scottish as well!). His solo CD, But Beautiful, is an album of Chisholm’s arrangements (with the same Jack Emblow of the Gentlemen of Jazz on accordion!) by way of tribute, and Campbell writes in the liner notes,
“I first heard George Chisholm play the trombone in The Black and White Minstrel Show in Edinburgh when I was 10 years old. He came on to the stage in his trademark stripy jumper and beret and played in his inimitable way. I thought he was great and he remains to this day one of the main reasons I became a trombone player.“
The late great Shiela Tracy wrote in her article/interview of Campbell,
“I well recall a concert I presented with the BBC Big Band at Warwick University when George Chisholm was the guest star. Following the recorded part of proceedings, Gordon joined George out front and accomanied by the rhythm section, put on a display I will never forget. Here were two brilliant exponents of the trombone, with completely different styles, blending together perfectly.”
Gordon Campbell has been lead trombone of the BBC Big Band for the past 30 years, and is also lead trombone of the incredible world-renowned Hollywood-heyday band the John Wilson Orchestra, as well as being very busy in the studios and shows and many other areas including teaching at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Marines School of Music. His performances in every situation are always completely stunning. He is a modern master of the sweet ballad style and is certainly a ‘gentleman of jazz’ himself. He kindly gave me a copy of But Beautiful last year, telling me George was indeed “the Guv’nor!” (yet another G!)
Here’s his take on one of my favourite tunes, The Shadow of Your Smile: