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Kenny's still having a ball with his jazz - and a new book
IT would be odd if Kenny Ball didn’t have a few rich tales to tell. This is a man who has worked and partied with immortals, including the Beatles, Princess Diana, Frank Sinatra, and Morecambe and Wise, not to mention his idol, Louis Armstrong.
He has travelled around the world 17 times making music along the way.Above all, he has shown an astonishing ability to defy showbiz gravity.
Other legends have come and gone, Kenny has just bounced along at the top. He had his first hit, Samantha, in 1960. Over the next half century, musical tastes changed with rapidity, but the audience for Kenny’s records and concerts barely diminished.
With 14 Top 30 records, he holds the record for the most successful jazz artist in British musical history.
Along the way, he has acquired a choice crop of stories, and now, finally, he has decided the time has come to share them with the rest of the world.
A case of reminiscing in retirement? Not a bit of it. Kenny, a born and bred Essex man, now lives in Wickford.
He says: “I’m 80, and I wanted to be near my daughter, so she could keep an eye on me.”
That, though, his only concession to leisured old age.
He continues to blow his trumpet in venues around the UK and Europe, often performing several concerts a week.
This year, however, he did pause long enough to set down his reminiscences in a book, Kenny Ball’s and John Bennett’s Musical Skylarks: A Medley of Memories.
His co-author, John Bennett, is the trombonist in the band, Kenny Ball’s Jazzmen. John has played alongside Kenny, non-stop, since 1957.
Says Kenny: “John has kept this scrapbook, which goes right back to the start, and is right up to date.
“One night a few months ago, we were enjoying a beer or two after a gig, and talking about the past and all the incredible things that had happened. Then we thought, we ought to write a book together. If anyone questions our stories, we had the scrapbook to back them up.”
Kenny Ball was born in Mayesbrook Road, Dagenham, in 1930. His musical talent was obvious from the start, and encouraged by his father, who played in the Salvation Army Band.
In 1956, Kenny joined Eric Delaney’s band and became fully professional. But his talent and personality were too strong for him to remain in the back row for long, and the following year he formed the Jazzmen.
The lads set out with two aims in mind, to make music and have a ball.
Jazzmen have never been a byword for sobriety, and Kenny Ball’s Jazzmen had no intention of changing that image. “Whatever our signature tune, it was never going to be Ain’t Misbehavin’,” says Kenny.
After their initial success in Britain, the band cut a swathe through the concert halls and bars of Europe.
One night in Germany, after another heavy night’s boozing, the crew went to sleep in their shared boarding-house dormitory. Kenny was woken up in the middle of the night “by a weird sort of clapping sound”.
He recalls: “It went on and on. In the end I turned the light on to see what was happening. I found our guitarist Dickie Bishop’s underpants were glowing.
“He’d fallen asleep while smoking and the cigarette had set them alight. Being cotton, they smouldered slowly. This ring of embers was slowly moving upward and had just reached the gusset, which was fizzing. He was so p****d that he hadn’t woken up, but was dumbly slapping away at the pain in his pants!”
Also in Germany, the band stayed in lodgings presided over by a tyrannical landlady, Frau Behrens, who ran the boarding house like a one-woman dictatorship.
Kenny says: “She had a picture on the wall, which she idolised. We thought it was Adolf Hitler, which you could believe, given the way she behaved. We used to throw darts at it.
“That really upset her, which seemed to prove everything we thought about her. Only later did we discover that it wasn’t Hitler. It was a picture of her dead husband.”
The rough and ready days didn’t last long, and boarding houses were soon exchanged for luxury hotels.
The Jazzmen hit the stratosphere one day in April 1960. In what must amount to the ultimate showbiz fairy story, they landed a TV show and a major recording contract, all in the space of less than one minute.
Lonnie Donegan, one of the big stars of the era, heard them rehearsing in London , and sidled up to them.
Lonnie asked: “Do you want a television show?”
“Yes,” said Kenny.
“Then you’ve got one,” said Lonnie. “And have you got a recording contract?”
“No,” said Kenny.
“Then you’ve got one,” said Lonnie. Lonnie was as good as his word in both instances.
Only later did Kenny discover that Lonnie acted as an A&R man as well as a performer in his own right.
By May 1961, the Jazzmen were playing a two-week stint at the Palladium, then the world’s most famous live performance venue.
On the day they signed off from the London theatre, they rushed back to Kenny’s home patch and performed in Southend for the first time – at the end of the pier.
Earlier that year the Jazzmen had been playing a gig up north. During the interval, the crowd was entertained by a local amateur band.
John says: “It was a group of young lads in leather. Our first impression was a bit snotty. We felt this was not the sort of act that should accompany a well-known professional jazz band like ours. Even so, we had to admit they were pretty good.”
It was Kenny’s first encounter with the Beatles, then known as the Silver Beatles. In a later encounter with Paul McCartney, the great man declared himself a great fan of Kenny Ball’s Jazzmen.
Another fan turned out to be Kenny’s own idol, Louis Armstrong.
The pair met for the first time in 1962 when the great Satchmo presented Kenny with a golden – million-seller – disc for the band’s hit Midnight in Moscow.
In 1968, the Jazzmen provided the warm-up act for Armstrong when he performed at London’s New Victoria theatre.
Armstrong stood in the wings in his dressing gown, watching and listening. According to one witness, Armstrong suddenly declared about Kenny: “This man's a genius.”
He then rushed on to the stage in his dressing gown and embraced Kenny.
“It was the first time the public had set eyes on Louis during that visit,” says Kenny. “And here he was on stage in his white dressing gown. Everyone went bananas. What an incredible way to meet the man you idolise.”
Legions of ladies thread their way through Kenny’s reminiscences. The most memorable is an Australian, Jeannie Jund of Bondi Beach. Kenny says: “She was the jazzman’s friend all right.”
After the pair had been acquainted for a while, Jeannie showed Kenny her collection of match-boxes, each one labelled with a famous name.
Jeannie used to snip off a few locks of hair from each of her conquests and store them in a matchbox. The names included Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, every member of the Louis Armstrong All Stars, and every member of the Count Basie band.
The Kenny Ball Jazzmen were at their most prominent when they did a four-year regular stint on the Morecambe and Wise Show. Eric and Ernie used the band as a sounding board for their routines.
“If we laughed at a joke, it stayed in,” says Kenny.
The show’s guests included most of the biggest stars of the day, and the band got a front row view of them all.
The band was dropped from Morecambe and Wise when the comedians moved from the BBC to ITV, but simply moved to another popular show, Saturday Night at the Mill, where they were a regulars from 1976 to 1981. After that they headed back on the road, performing live to audiences around the world.
Their brand of cheery British jazz stayed popular everywhere – the US, Australia, even behind the Iron Curtain. It has never lost its popularity.
Perhaps the most illustrious moment of all for Kenny Ball and the Jazzmen came when they were invited to provide the music for Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding party, at Buckingham Palace.
“All I could see over my trumpet ball was bobbing tiaras,” Kenny says.
As a raconteur, Kenny proves himself a man of words as well as a man of music. On stage, he always managed to make audiences laugh as well as tap their toes.
He says: “I never thought about it until now, but I suppose I was an all-round entertainer.”
The words almost dry up, however, when he is asked the crucial question. He has pulled in the audiences for 54 years non-stop.
What gives him his staying power?
His answer tells the whole story of Kenny Ball and the Jazzmen, but consists of just one word. “Enthusiasm.”
l Kenny Ball will sign copies of his book at Waterstone’s Bookshop, Eastgate shopping centre, Basildon, on Saturday, from 1pm until 3pm. Musical Skylarks: A Medley of Memories, is published by Apex and is priced at £14.99