The ‘golden era’ of Jazz at Colston Hall
The Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival returns for it’s 6th year this week, and the final year in which we’ll present it with them in our current hall before we commence on our ambitious transformation later in June. From swing to funk, bebop to blues, Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival never fails to surprise and delight music lovers – and we’re sure 2018 will be no exception.
This year, the festival’s genre-traversing line-up is a ‘This is Your Life’ of jazz and blues – a journey through the decades from the birth of jazz to the current day. A journey that Colston Hall has been a part of since the 1950s when promoter Charles Lockier first brought jazz to Bristol’s largest concert hall. Festival artistic director Denny Ilett reminisces on the legendary stories and the jazz greats that have walked our stage ahead of today’s iconic artists walking under the lights for what will be one of the last times we present jazz in our historic 1951 hall.
Bristol’s flagship concert venue Colston Hall has a long, rich, and fascinating history when it comes to the presentation of world-class jazz. In their archives lay a treasure trove of concert flyers, posters, handbills, newspaper previews and reviews that represent a veritable who’s-who of Jazz history. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, local promoter Charles Lockier was the person largely responsible for bringing such an array of international talent into Bristol and it is thanks to his meticulous collecting of press cuttings and concert posters that Colston Hall emerges as Bristol’s equivalent to New York’s Town Hall or Carnegie Hall. Imagine a time when one could, in any given year, attend concerts by such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Count Basie, Harry James, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson or Dave Brubeck? The list goes on and on! Not only that but UK jazz musicians such as Chris Barber (who appreared at the 2013 festival in his 64th year as bandleader!), Humphrey Lyttleton, Ken Colyer and Acker Bilk all played Colston Hall regularly during the ’50’s and 60’s as the so-called Trad Boom gathered pace in pre-Beatles Britain.
There were also the package tours which were a popular way of presenting music in those days and, in a sense, was the precursor of today’s festivals. An organisation such as Jazz At The Philharmonic might feature up to ten Jazz legends on stage during a single concert. It’s easy to forget that, in the days before Rock n Roll, these bands and artists were the pop stars of their time with records high in the charts and full houses at Colston Hall every time they visited the South West. When Stan Kenton brought his big band to the hall for the first time in the late ’50’s, a Musicians’ Union ban on US groups had been in place for 20 years. Every musician within an 80-mile radius (a big distance in those days) cancelled their gigs and flocked to Colston Hall where Kenton’s orchestra played to 4,000 people over two shows. Such was the demand for tickets that Colston Hall even sold the choir stall seats which one can still see at the back of the stage. When Kenton visited again in 1961 and 1973, his performances were recorded and are now available on CD. Another great big band leader who played and recorded at Colston Hall was Duke Ellington. Duke and his fabulous band came to town in 1958, 1963, 1969 and 1971. The 1969 concert was recorded and released to coincide with his 70th birthday.
One of the most ‘controversial’ moments occurred when vibraphonist Lionel Hampton brought his band to Bristol on 29 October 1956 as part of an extensive UK tour. He fell foul of jazz and fans and journalists by daring to include some rock n’roll in his show! Johnny Dankworth famously walked out of one of the concerts, demanding his money back and the respected music weekly Melody Maker declared, “Spare us the trash, Hampton!” Charles Lockier himself also once took it upon himself to cancel a concert by Humphrey Lyttleton after the trumpeter/bandleader had publicly supported the Labour party! These were different times indeed.
‘King of Jazz’ Louis Armstrong’s first appearance in March 1959 received a thunderous ovation from a sold-out Colston Hall over two shows with Satchmo telling the crowd “you sure are a jumpin’ audience”. The Bristol Evening Post, reviewing the concert under the headline ‘The Fabulous Armstrong in Great Form” said “Jazz music is meant to be enjoyed and who better to enjoy it with than Satchmo, the man who has played more of it than any man alive.” In another article Louis is pictured beaming at the camera from Colston Hall’s dressing room having his lunch dressed in just his underwear!
The aforementioned Johnny Dankworth appearing at the Hall in Feb 1960 with his own big band to back the legendary vocalist Sarah Vaughan ‘the divine one’, and later on in Nov 1966, the aforementioned Jazz at the Philharmonic, hit town with a band featuring no less than Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, James Moody, Teddy Wilson, Louis Bellson, and blues legend T-Bone Walker – a phenomenal line-up in any era!
The great Ray Charles visited Bristol in 1964 with his concert being hailed as “a triumph” as he took to the stage with a full big band and his female backing singers the Raelets to perform two packed-out shows. The Bristol Evening Post reviewed Charles’s appearance with words such as “sincerity in his watchword” and “music just pours from his soul”
Throughout the ’60’s, Colston Hall had a jazz programme to rival any concert venue in the world: Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Eldridge, Count Basie, Errol Garner, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, and Buddy Rich all gracing the stage during this period alongside the previously mentioned Armstrong, Ellington, Kenton et al. But as the ’60’s wore on, tastes were changing, and jazz artists began competing for Colston Hall’s stage space with the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. Never again would jazz be such an accepted part of mainstream culture as it found itself forced into the shadow of the big rock and pop groups.
Despite this, into the ’70’s one could still see stellar performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, and Duke Ellington who continued to sell out each time they came to Bristol. Despite the staging of large-scale jazz events becoming less frequent in the ensuing years, Colston Hall has always been dedicated to the genre when possible, most notably when Wynton Marsalis played with the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra a few years ago. Now in its sixth year, Bristol Jazz and Blues festival endeavour to continue and revive this rich and golden history of Jazz at Colston Hall and, as the venue itself enters a new era with its imminent refurbishment and renaming, we plan to be there carrying the torch for great Jazz and Blues for many years to come.
– Denny Ilett, Artistic Director
For tickets and information for this year’s festival, click the links below.