Billy Amstell

Jazz clarinettist and saxophonist


Barnet Amstell (Billy Amstell), clarinettist and saxophonist: born London 20 August 1911; married 1938 Tessa Gee; died London 19 December 2005.

The clarinettist and saxophonist Billy Amstell was a highly respected jazz and dance-band musician, whose professional career stretched from the nascent days of British jazz in the 1920s up to the 1990s.

Like many other British jazz musicians of his era, Barnet Amstell (nicknamed Billy by his sister) grew up in London's East End Jewish community, in Stepney, and he rose to prominence in the 1930s as a sideman and soloist in the Ambrose Orchestra. His brother, Micky, also became a dance-band saxophonist. Billy Amstell's swinging tenor sax solos grace many recordings made by Bert Ambrose's band - judged by many to be one of the few British outfits that could truly rival the top American swing bands of the 1930s.

In addition to tenor sax, Amstell was also a liquid-toned clarinettist of the Benny Goodman school, and remained an ardent admirer of Goodman all his life. Even after his retirement in the mid-1990s, Amstell was never far from his clarinet. With little prompting, he would blow a few phrases to explain "how Benny did it", and then proceed to play his own tasteful interpretation of a jazz standard, à la Goodman.

Amstell played alongside many luminaries of the British dance-band and jazz scene during his long career, including George Chisholm, Freddy Gardner and Spike Hughes. Although he never played in the United States, he became friends with many visiting jazz giants, including Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and, later on, Stan Getz.

Dorsey was a pervasive influence on the young Amstell, as his first solo efforts - on alto sax - in early 1930s recordings directed by the bandleaders Roy Fox and Spike Hughes demonstrate. The Melody Maker magazine - the mouthpiece for British jazz at the time - recognised the skill of these embryonic performances, and the praise garnered ultimately brought Amstell to the attention of Ambrose, a bandleader who always ensured that his ranks contained one or two leading jazz soloists.

Amstell joined the Ambrose Orchestra in 1931 and stayed until he was enlisted into the RAF. Early on in his tenancy with the band, Amstell switched to tenor sax, a fortunate move as the instrument was in its ascendancy, thanks largely to the recordings of Coleman Hawkins.

Notable Ambrose recordings that feature Amstell's driving solo work on tenor include "B'Wanga", "Cotton Pickers' Congregation", "The Penguin" and "Caravan". The influence of the American tenorists Eddie Miller and Bud Freeman can be heard in these and many other sides, allied to Amstell's own keen creativity and modernistic edge. And his American cousins paid due respect in return - his solo on "Caravan" (an Ellington composition) topped a Down Beat magazine poll in 1939.

Called up in 1940, Amstell was posted to RAF Wittering near Stamford, Lincolnshire, where he directed a five-piece band. By now he was regularly playing clarinet, stylistically juxtaposed between Goodman and Artie Shaw.

In 1943, he suffered a mental breakdown and was declared unfit for duty and discharged back into civvy street. He returned to London and rejoined the dance-band ranks, as a member of Geraldo's band, voted Britain's top dance band in a 1944 Melody Maker poll.

Amstell was self-taught, but his skills were by no means limited to jazz extemporisation: from 1947 until 1954, he worked mainly in Stanley Black's Orchestra, providing music for BBC radio programmes including The Goon Show. In 1947, he directed his own small jazz band for a radio series, The Amstell Way, compered by a young David Jacobs. From the mid-1950s, Amstell concentrated on freelance activities. He led his own small jazz outfits into the 1990s, specialising on clarinet.

Amstell's wife, Tessa, was a former actress and model, whom he met in 1937 on the set of Kicking the Moon Around, a feature film for the Ambrose Orchestra. He published an autobiography, Don't Fuss, Mr Ambrose, in 1986.

Nick Dellow

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'