George Webb: Pianist whose work inspired the trad-jazz boom of the 1950s
Saturday 19 June 2010
The music that the pianist George Webb played in London in 1941 with his first band, Spider Webb and His Cobs, was the first "English" New Orleans-style jazz ever played in this country.
Although an amiable man, Webb was as much a crusader as a pioneer and his struggles in the early days gave birth eventually to the trad-jazz boom of the Fifties typified by the bands of Acker Bilk and Chris Barber. In Webb's heyday, musicians and their audiences were partisan and there was much hatred in jazz between the followers of bebop, and the adherents of what came to be known as "revivalism". With the name changed to George Webb's Dixielanders, the Webb band became the citadel of jazz retrogression. Webb's piano playing, based broadly on that of Jelly Roll Morton, tended to trundle rather than to swing.
Born in the East End of London, Webb's father and his uncle had a singing harmony act in variety. At the beginning of the Second World War, Webb (and three other members of his band-to-be) worked in the machine-gun department at the local Vickers-Armstrong factory. Webb had already taught himself the piano and he organised a band from among the staff to entertain their fellow workers. His first New Orleans-style band began to play in public in 1942.
Webb's trombonist in those early days was a mild-mannered and gifted man called Eddie Harvey, who plays delicate modern jazz piano to this day. Harvey was caught fraternising with dance band and "modern" musicians and was called to a kangaroo court by the rest of the band. He was ordered to explain his aberration and instructed to desist from it and return to the true purity of the real music. Jim Godbolt, the band's manager when it became semi-professional, recalled "I was present at this meeting. George Webb led for the prosecution. I shudder in recollection of its absurdity."
Although Webb's band by now had the title George Webb's Dixielanders it followed the New Orleans party line relentlessly and benefited from another dogma when it was booked for a series of concerts in central London by the Young Communist league. "Liberals" of the day revered the music as an expression of working-class culture.
The band's regular weekly home was out of town at the less-than-glamorous but now legendary Red Barn pub at Barnehurst in Kent. By now Webb had collected two cornet players, a clarinet, a trombone, a tuba, a banjo player and a drummer.
In an attempt to get in without paying, the band entered the Melody Maker dance band competition. It didn't do well in the waltz category, but its music stood out so starkly that it was given a huge amount of publicity. "To our great surprise we were adjudged third," said Webb. "This happening was to become the curtain-raiser to the start of the jazz revival and writers have credited us with starting it from that day to the present."
The band was paid £40 for recording four titles for Decca, and several BBC broadcasts followed. In those early days the only good musicians in the Webb band were Harvey, Wally Fawkes (later the cartoonist Trog and a world-class jazz clarinettist) and, from 1947, trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton. The Dixielanders disbanded in 1948 when Lyttelton decided to form his own band. Webb and Wally Fawkes joined; it was then that the great Lyttelton-Fawkes partnership matured.
Webb, a small man best described as a Cockney sparrow, was an amiable fellow gifted with a sharp sense of humour. When the Lyttelton band arrived for a gig at a faceless town hall near George's home, Lyttelton couldn't find the way into the building.
"Where's the front?" he asked.
"Round the back," piped George.
Although he had trouble climbing on to piano stools, Webb's size proved an advantage when the Lyttelton band was in the Parlophone recording studio. Someone threw a cigarette end into a barrel of plastic swarf, refuse from a disc-cutting machine. The studio filled with flames and dense smoke. The band realised that the smoke hung about two feet off the floor, and the tiny Webb was sent in to scurry around underneath the thick black cloud and rescue the instruments.
Webb stayed with the band until 1951 when Lyttelton's music began to move forward from the New Orleans ideal. Webb gave up full-time playing and ran jazz clubs and worked as a booking agent. He appeared at festivals and jazz anniversaries, although he didn't often play.
He returned to jazz in 1972, leading another band for two years, and then continued to play intermittently at his own pubs and at Lyttelton reunions.
George Horace Webb, pianist, bandleader: born London 8 October 1917; married Minah (deceased; one son deceased, one daughter); died London 10 March 2010.
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