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

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