Diz Disley: Jazz guitarist who played with George Melly and Acker Bilk

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The Independent Online

A talented guitarist and cartoonist, Diz Disley had a knack of avoiding commercial success.

He had an unusual gift for sleeping through appointments with editors who wanted to commission his cartoons and was adept at falling out with musicians with whom he worked. His guitar playing could be magnificent, but on a bad night nothing could make him raise his game. All this made him a loner, but again, in contradiction, he could be warm and amusing company.

George Melly had a brilliant eye for such characters. He wrote of Disley: "He became a popular compère on a BBC pop programme and then missed several editions because he was in jail for contempt of an income tax court. He is generous with his money, and unscrupulous when he hasn't any. If reproached he simply says, 'Be fair', and if this doesn't help adds, 'Tarrah then. Fuck off.'"

Born in Canada to British parents, Disley grew up in Yorkshire, where he played the banjo in early trad bands while studying at the Leeds College of Art. In 1949 he joined the Yorkshire Jazz Band, but was called into the Army for National Service the following year.

On his demob he took up his studies again but moved to London where he joined the trumpeter Mick Mulligan's band in January 1954. Mulligan was an amazing character and his band was a repository for like minds, including George Melly. Melly remembered being on tour with the band when he found himself sitting with Disley in a restaurant enjoying afternoon tea. At the next table two refined ladies were discussing animals and how cruel it was to make them learn tricks.

"My little dog," said one, referring to the warm little bundle on her knee, "taught himself all his own tricks."

"Like fucking barking," added Disley helpfully and loudly.

During this period Disley's cartoons appeared regularly in the Melody Maker and on a variety of LP covers. In the middle Fifties he played for bandleaders Ken Colyer, Cy Laurie and Sandy Brown, and led his own Soho String Quintet, a group based on the music of fellow guitarist Django Reinhart and the violinist Stephane Grappelli. He moved easily into the realms of folk clubs and skiffle music and worked in 1957 with Nancy Whiskey and Bob Cort. He worked occasionally for the BBC, presenting both jazz and pop programmes.

The turn into the Sixties saw him working with bands led by Kenny Ball, Alex Welsh and Dick Charlesworth and he became in demand in the now popular folk clubs. With trad music still thriving, he played in 1962 for Chris Barber and Acker Bilk and toured the Far East with pianist Johnny Parker and singer Beryl Bryden in 1963.

Realising in 1973 that Grappelli had little work at home, Disley brought the Frenchman over to Birmingham, where the two played at Jasper Carrott's folk club. They recorded an album, I Got Rhythm, together that year. It was the beginning of an association that lasted until 1979. They appeared together in the 1978 film King of the Gypsie. There were many difficult moments and shout-ups on their tours, for both men were temperamental and abrasive. The duo was supposed to tour in the US in 1979 but Disley broke his wrist. He called in a young guitarist called Martin Taylor to deputise for him, and this was the beginning of Taylor's long and far more productive association with Grappelli.

Disley rejoined the violinist early in 1981 and stayed with him until late 1982. In 1983 the Soho String Quintet reformed and Disley continued to work with it into the Nineties. He played and toured with the gipsy guitarist Birelli Lagrene and their 1984 concert at New York's Carnegie Hall appeared as an album. Disley had lived in Spain for part of the Seventies and Eighties and he opened a jazz club in Almeria in 1988.

Back in Britain he toured regularly with Dick Laurie's Elastic Band, toured with Johnny Silvo in 2001 and continued to lead his quintet. He free-lanced in Europe and the US. In his final years of playing he used a cheap and inferior guitar that he coupled to an amplifier left here many years ago by the American guitarist Al Casey. The BBC had paid national insurance on Disley's behalf during the comparatively brief period he had worked for it. But otherwise the guitarist had made no provision for his old age and when he became ill in his last years he was impoverished. He spent the last two years in a home for old people.

William Charles "Diz" Disley, guitarist, bandleader, cartoonist; born Winnipeg, Canada 27 May 1931; died London 21 March 2010.

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