|Mike: Monty, I remember I became aware that there was an amateur jazz-band around the school. A few of the boys could be heard down in the sculpture room during the lunch-hour. It sounded terrible.
Monty: Well, really, Mike, when I look back at our audacity ...
Mike: Just a noise, an awful noise. And one day you came up with a clarinet which I presumed you had borrowed from somebody. I didn't even know you played the thing. And then you started playing and I was staggered. You sounded like a professional jazz-player. Now, how did all this happen, Monty?
Monty: Well, a crowd of us became very interested in jazz on gramophone records, so, having got a little taste of it, when someone said why not go along and hear a band that was recreating these sounds, we went. And, sure enough, there was this Dixieland band playing at the Co-op Hall in Peckham, and I remember this day because it was a sort of turning point for me. I remember the curtain opening as this band started to play, and I got a tremendous sort of rippling up the back of my spine which I've experienced when I've heard people like Kirsten Flagstad or Sidney Bechet and Louis. And the thing which captured my interest was the clarinet which was being played at that time by Wally Fawkes, who I'd not yet met. This was fantastic.
Mike: Was Humphrey playing there?
Monty: No. Humphrey wasn't playing there. So we went back to the school and no-one could work for about two or three weeks. We found this band played down in Bexleyheath, and we used to go there. It was like a pilgrimage. Then, one day a guy in the school decided he'd like to form a band. I remember he was a very wealthy guy and we were all sort of struggling and very poor, and he arrived with a clarinet which he got up the road at the pawnbroker's. He said there were some trumpets and banjos and things like that, and everyone was running out of the school — it was tremendous — tearing out and going up to this pawnbroker's and all looking into the window and bargaining with the guy inside. And some of the boys did buy instruments and they all went down into the sculpture room, and they all tried to play and couldn't. After three or four days this guy with the clarinet was still trying, though the others were getting some place. So, he passed it to me to try. I was very lucky, actually, because when I was about ten or eleven I was given a recorder and I used to be able to get tunes on it. This guy gave me this clarinet and I got a squeak out. I tried it again and the squeak became a note and, having got one note I tried to get another, and eventually, in about a quarter-of-an-hour, I managed to get a scale in the low register of the instrument. And, once I got one scale, I could play a tune. I remember it was Among My Souvenirs, with lots of bad mistakes. The guy who owned it said, "Look, you'd better borrow this," and I said, "Right. Thank you." I rushed home. Marvellous, I'd got an instrument. And I practised for about three or four weeks. Then a fellow said to me, "Look, there is a band that requires a clarinet-player." So, I phoned up this fellow who was running the band and he told me he'd invited another fellow down to play but if I cared to come along he'd see which of us he'd like to hire. So, I went along to this rehearsal, and there were some very hard-bitten musicians down there. They started to play a number and I heard this other fellow playing, but only just, which to me was all wrong. Wally Fawkes was a very powerful clarinet-player and my whole approach was in that way. This fellow was playing a very legitimate type of clarinet with no vibrato. So, I thought the only thing to do is to join in and blow hard. So, I did. No-one could hear the other clarinet-player. That was fine. I got the job.
Mike: Tell me, Monty, were you actually able to improvise by then?
Monty: I'd play a tune at home and then I'd improvise. I'd been playing only about three weeks, so all my improvisations were very limited, you see. But I knew exactly what I was going to do and what I could do.
Mike: Given a certain situation, you'd got an answer for it?
Monty: That's it, yes. If the guy wanted me to take another couple of choruses then I could revert to what I had started out to do in the beginning.
Mike: To this you were adding all the time, of course?
Monty: Yes, all the while. They were trying to play very strictly, you see. But their technique wasn't very good at times, and I wasn't really with them. Then I heard of a band that was really trying to play New Orleans music and they required a clarinet-player. So, I went along there. I hadn't got a case for my clarinet. I had it wrapped up in some brown paper and, as I went into this tin hut next door to this pub, I heard a clarinet playing and I thought, "Oh dear, here we go again — they've got a clarinet-player."
Mike: Was he as good as you?
Monty: Oh yes, that's the whole thing — they were all good. Tremendous, all of them. Very gruff voices and pints of beer, and they said, "Well, come and have a sit in."
Mike: What about the other clarinet-player?
Monty: Oh, he was in the R.A.F. He wasn't in the running for the job, as it turned out. Anyway, I joined this band. It was called The Crane River Jazz Band, and they were absolutely down-and-out purists. They decided to rehearse every night until the band was really up to the standard they'd set, then they would go to London and try to get a job in one of the clubs. Well, people in the pub next door could hear this music and they used to come round and have a listen at the window. Then it would start raining and one of them would say, "Do you mind if I come in and sit down?" And they'd sit down. Then they'd go off and tell their mates, and the next night the mates would turn up and there would probably be about ten, twelve people waiting for us to play.
Mike: So, in next to no time you'd got a clientele?
Monty: In next to no time we had to charge admission! Then it got to such gigantic proportions that people were coming from London to hear the band. London coming to us. We had people like Humphrey Lyttelton and Wally Fawkes coming, and that knocked us out. Our trumpet-player, Ken Colyer, decided he would turn professional, so I took over this Crane River Band and played with it for about eight months as a semi-pro. Next, I met up with Chris Barber, who was playing a mere sophisticated type of jazz, as opposed to this rough Negro kind of music we were trying to do down in Hounslow. Then there was this banjo-player called Lonnie Donegan. Lonnie was talking the same language I was talking. So, I left the Crane River Band to form a quartet, and Chris Barber was playing trombone. We decided to form a band and I used to spend many evenings with Chris. We used to sit there all night writing out long lists of tunes we would like to play. This was getting such a hold on me I decided to turn professional.
Mike: Then came the Ken Colyer Jazzmen period?
Monty: Yes. That's a long story, but it all came about when Ken returned from a kind of pilgrimage to New Orleans. I'd been offered an expenses-paid trip to play in Copenhagen. We eventually arrived in Denmark as the Ken Colyer Jazzmen, with Ken fronting the band. We were met by loads of people. Wonderful, wonderful people, and we stayed there for six weeks. We made records there, too. I remember one record we made in a party in a kitchen which became one of the best sellers in Denmark!
Mike: And, after that?
Monty: Somebody opened a club just off Marble Arch and said we would like you to come and play on Saturday nights. This club was a wonderful place, under a church, and we rehearsed every day, and we played Saturdays, eventually Sundays, too. It was quite unfortunate the club broke up. It was not due to rowdiness or anything like that ... it was due to services in the church. We were rehearsing this tune one weekday and some verger or somebody came down and said would we mind not playing because there was a funeral service going on upstairs, so we had to find other premises, which we did quite easily. During that time was the Coronation, which was wonderful 'cos we had the first brass band. You know, Ken coming back from New Orleans wanted to capture this New Orleans Brass Band Parade thing. We formed up and people just fell in behind us and they all danced. From Marble Arch we marched for hours, and the police let us through, and we realised we were now walking along the Coronation route. We marched right back to the club, straight downstairs, playing all the time, and all these people followed. All the turnstiles going click, click, click. Terrific! Ken left us after a year, so we decided to call it the Chris Barber Band. The first record we made as the Chris Barber Band, Lonnie Donegan made Rock Island Line on it as a fill-in number.
Mike: When did you actually form your own band? Immediately after Chris?
Monty: Yes, that was at the beginning of 1961.
Mike: You went to the States. Tell me about the jazz scene over there, Monty.
Monty: One fantastic story I can tell you. We'd met this Negro blues singer, Muddy Waters, when he was over in England and he said look him up in Chicago. This was in the south side of Chicago. Terribly sort of dilapidated. No white people about, and our taxi-driver saying he hoped we knew what we were letting ourselves in for. We all got to this place. Muddy was singing with his group and he stopped and introduced us. They were all very polite, but the atmosphere was pretty electric.
Mike: Did you have your horns with you?
No, but we did next time, and Muddy said, "I want you guys to go up and play and knock these cats out." So, up we got and we played the first thing, and when it finished you should have seen this place. It just fell apart. They'd never heard anything like it.
Mike: It must have been wonderful.
Monty: It was tremendous. They were absolutely floored that whites could play like this, and limeys, too.
Mike: The first time I heard you play, you floored me, too. You're a pretty surprising character, Monty.
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