Harry Gold

Master of the jazz bass saxophone and leader for four decades of the Pieces of Eight
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The Independent Online

Harry Gold, bandleader and saxophonist: born Dublin 26 February 1907; twice married (four sons); died London 13 November 2005.

When he was 70, Harry Gold applied to join the Marylebone Cricket Club and was told there was a 20-year waiting list. "That's all right," he said. "I don't mind waiting." He was right to accept the delay, for he lived to be 98.

His eminence on the British jazz scene owed more to those powers of survival than to any efforts at self-promotion. He was a modest man and it was the memorable name of his band, Harry Gold and His Pieces of Eight, that stuck in the listeners' minds more than the music.

The band played a melodic brand of Dixieland, using familiar jazz standards, and featured accomplished soloists like the trombonist Geoff Love, Freddie and Ernie Tomasso on trumpet and clarinet respectively, and Harry's brother Laurie, who played the tenor saxophone. The band worked between 1945 and 1988, with its classic period in the Forties and Fifties.

Gold was unique in his mastery of the bass saxophone, an instrument stringently lacking in eloquence but which made up for it in the explosive punch of its sound. This could blot out that of all surrounding instruments.

The bass saxophone is a huge instrument, probably designed by a madman. Playing it is difficult. Carting it around is nigh impossible and, once behind it and affixed to its mouthpiece, the player is out of view until the end of hostilities. Given that Gold's physique resembled that of a garden gnome, one begins to realise how well he did to manage to play the thing, never mind to become one of the best known of British jazz musicians. A devotee of the Charles Atlas school of fitness, he played it hung around his neck without using the provided stand. In fact, he remained one of two or three of the world's leading performers on the instrument for several decades.

Understandably, since it is amongst the least glamorous of instruments, bass saxophones are rare upon the ground. Gold's fell off a lorry in 1937. Well, no, that's not quite accurate. It fell off the roof of the motor car of Adrian Rollini, then the greatest (and almost the only) exponent of the instrument, and Gold's idol. Although it was a write-off, Gold bought the remains and taught himself to play the wreckage. Eventually he spent a lot of money on having it repaired and was able to say, "Playing the bass saxophone is the delight of my life."

Gold was inspired as a child in 1920 when his father took him to hear one of the first visiting American groups, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, at the Hammersmith Palais. "It was the most electrifying experience," he recalled. "I was rigid with the excitement of the whole thing." Gold was to play the clarinet in a recreation of the American band at the Hammersmith Palais in 1950. He said,

Hearing the ODJB made me decide to have saxophone lessons. I was working in my father's tailoring workshop at the time and was saving my earnings to buy a saxophone. I attended the London College of Music and my professor insisted that I learn two instruments.

Born in Dublin where his father worked as a tailor, Gold returned to London with the family when he was three. He was proud of his Irish birth and, when primed with his favourite Irish whiskey, he spoke with the accent of the land of his birth.

"I started playing professionally on the alto saxophone," he said. "There was an advertisement in the local paper for a saxophone player willing to rehearse, signed 'J. Loss'." The advert had been placed by Joe Loss, later to come to fame leading a big band. This was 1923 and Gold was in Loss's first quartet, the Magic Dance Band. On their first job, they were each paid half a crown and a salt-beef supper.

Gold soon left to play with a variety of bands, staying for three years with the Metronomes (1926-28). Whenever he could, he played at jazz clubs in London such as the Bag of Nails and the 43 Club. He led a co-operative band with the guitarist Ivor Mairants in 1932 and that year joined a vocal trio, the Cubs, with whom he worked regularly until 1937. He had also joined Roy Fox in 1932 and stayed with him until 1937. Leaving Mantovani early in 1939, he worked for Oscar Rabin, forming a small band within the band called the Pieces of Eight. He fell out with Geraldo, having played in his band for eight months in 1943. Then Gold worked as musical director for Radio Luxembourg:

I used to write 20 arrangements a month and conduct the band. We did four programmes each session and transmissions went out every week. It was very good money and very interesting, an entirely new direction. That lasted about a year and folded.

In the meantime, I was doing broadcasts overseas to the West Indies with my band. It was a Dixieland band, but because it was the West Indies the producer gave it the name "The Dockamaniacs".

The band got its first real break as the Pieces of Eight playing small-band swing in a Jazz Jamboree at the time of the start of the Dixieland revival around 1947. We played three numbers and it was going down so well that as the curtains opened for the next band they were still shouting for more from us. That was what really got the band off and from then on the write-ups were enormous and agents started to make enquiries.

Gold toured Britain with the band playing dance halls and clubs until 1956, when he handed it over to his brother Laurie, but he returned to it often, working again at the Hammersmith Palais for a year in 1956. During the Seventies he worked in Al Wynette's band at the Café de Paris in London, but soon reformed the Pieces of Eight, working through the Eighties and Nineties. During this time he made several trips to play in the United States.

He retired from playing in 1999 and published his autobiography, Gold, Doubloons and Pieces of Eight, in 2000.

Steve Voce

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