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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Full Stack Software Developer - £80k - Javascript / MEAN

£45000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Ambitious, entrepreneurial busi...

Recruitment Genius: Fitter - Plant / Tool

£20000 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Fitter is required to join a ...

Recruitment Genius: Sage 200 Consultant

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They have a unique reputation f...

Recruitment Genius: Communications and Graphic Design Officer

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This UK wide voluntary organisa...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food