Jack Parnell: Drummer and bandleader who became a giant of light entertainment
Wednesday 11 August 2010
Buddy Rich may have been the greatest drummer in the world, but he didn't have the charisma or the elegance of the tall and handsome Jack Parnell. As a fellow drummer Rich was Parnell's idol, and it was Jack who arranged for Rich's famous appearance in The Muppets television series. On the show Rich played an unforgettable drum battle with the puppet Animal, who was brought onstage in chains screaming "Kill! Kill! Kill!"
By that time Parnell had made his career as a conductor and producer, standing in front of his bands conducting, rather than sitting at the back playing drums. He had come to fame during his long stay in the Ted Heath band, which lasted from 1946 to 1951.
Contrary to popular conception, Ted Heath disliked jazz and had always wanted a "sweet" band. It was the momentum provided by musicians like Parnell that drove the Heath band into jazz; it was the huge audiences the band attracted that kept it there. Parnell was a spectacular drummer who took extended drum features in the band's concerts, sang and ran a small jazz group drawn from within the band. With his good looks he soon became the jazz equivalent of a matinee idol.
"I remember going to the Liverpool Empire to do a Sunday concert and the police were controlling the crowds outside the stage door," he recalled. "We looked out and there was just a sea of faces. I was very bad when it came to dealing with fans. I could never understand how people appeared to idolise you. It was beyond my comprehension and it irritated me. I would sign autographs reluctantly saying, 'I'm too busy, I've got to put the drums away.' I was unbelievably fiery and temperamental in those days and if there was any trouble it was with me. I think Ted was very pleased to see the back of me."
Parnell's self-denigration seems harsh, because he usually got on well with his musicians. He was seen as a generally amiable character with a powerful devotion to jazz. He was intelligent, though, and knew that he had to bow to the needs of dancers. "I'm going to be commercial," he said, and his most famous band, Jack Parnell's Music Makers, played jazz for about a third of the time.
His family was of the theatre, rather than musical. His father, who worked under the stage name of Russ Carr, was not the first ventriloquist in the family while his uncle, Val Parnell, was managing director of Moss Empires, the leading chain of variety theatres.
Parnell could pick out tunes on the piano when he was four and developed his passion for drums when he was six. He became a jazz record collector after his father took him to see the Duke Ellington band at the London Palladium in 1933. His mother bought a set of drums from the window cleaner for £15 and after six lessons from the drum tutor Max Abrams, Parnell began his professional career when he was 15, playing a summer season in a concert party at Scarborough.
When the Second World War began Parnell volunteered for the RAF, hoping to join a military band. He was auditioned by the tenor saxophonist Buddy Featherstonhaugh, who ran a jazz group. He was eventually posted with Featherstonhaugh to Bomber Command Headquarters at High Wycombe. Being so close to London enabled them to record and play for broadcasts as the Radio Rhythm Club Sextet. An amiable flight sergeant ignored their unauthorised trips for 10 per cent of their earnings. The guitarist Vic Lewis joined the band and eventually he and Parnell formed the Jack Parnell-Vic Lewis Jazzmen, initially a service band, but a great success in civilian life (Parnell had been invalided out of the RAF with a stomach ulcer), where they recorded Dixieland tunes for the Parlophone label.
The stay with Ted Heath came next and, using the tenor saxophonist Tommy Whittle and others from Heath's band, the Jack Parnell Quartet in 1947 became one of the first British bands to play Bebop on record. His uncle Val Parnell eased the way for the Heath band to play a regular series of Sunday "Swing Sessions" at the London Palladium and these lasted from 1945 into the 1950s.
Parnell left Heath in 1951 and formed his own band, safe in the knowledge that his uncle would intervene again, this time providing him with the job of backing band in Fancy Free, a West End show starring Tommy Trinder and Pat Kirkwood. When the show closed Parnell took the band, largely made up of jazz musician friends, on tour. By now he was used to the idea of conducting and standing in front of the band, so he took on a second drummer, Phil Seamen, who was probably the best in the country. As a speciality the two played a synchronised drum feature together.
"It wasn't anything like as difficult as it seemed," Parnell said, "but it looked terrific and very clever. It caused a sensation and made our name." The band's recording of "The Champ", played as a drum showcase, sped along at an unlikely 80 bars a minute.
The band from time to time included Ronnie Scott, Jimmy Deuchar, Tubby Hayes, Joe Temperley and the cream of modern jazz musicians. Commercial pressure forced Parnell to take on a female vocalist. However, Marian Keene would only join if Parnell hired her tenor sax-playing husband as well. He fired Pete King to make room and Scott, Deuchar and other jazz musicians left in protest.
In 1956 Parnell accompanied Louis Armstrong when he played a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in aid of the Hungarian Relief Fund following the invasion by Russia). Parnell broke up the band in 1956 when he became musical director at ATV. He stayed there for 26 years, during most of that time providing the music for Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He worked with most of the top-line entertainers in the world including singers such as Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Tom Jones and Barbra Streisand, winning an Emmy Award in 1973.
When he retired from TV production in 1983 he moved to live in the seaside village of Southwold in Essex. He wanted to work again as a drummer, but, since it had been 16 years since he had touched his kit, the sharpness had left his muscles and it took him many months to get back his proficiency.
When he did he chose his work for kicks, playing in the show Best of British Jazz with his old friend and colleague from the Heath band, the trumpeter Kenny Baker. He and Baker also appeared from time to time in the Ted Heath "graveyard" band led by trombonist Don Lusher, and he played in small groups with American musicians ranging from Ruby Braff to Gilad Atzmon.
Parnell continued to play for pleasure until well into his eighties, appearing regularly with his own quartet in a couple of local pubs. He spent the rest of his time playing golf and emerged from retirement occasionally to conduct orchestras for friends such as Robert Farnon and Laurie Johnson. Two of his sons are drummers.
John Russell Parnell, drummer, vocalist, composer, conductor: born London 6 August 1923; three times married (three sons, two daughters); died Southwold, Sussex 8 August 2010.
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