Obituary: George Chisholm

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The Independent Online
George Chisholm, trombonist, pianist, and arranger: born Glasgow 29 March 1915; OBE 1985; married (two sons, one daughter); died Milton Keynes 6 December 1997.

Can one say anything better about somebody than that he really did bring happiness wherever he went and that the sight of him was enough to make people burst out laughing? George Chisholm's career lasted more than 60 years and for most of it he was the finest jazz trombonist in Europe. As well as being the first British jazz musician to rank with the American giants, he was a spontaneous and inspired comedian. His extrovert humour and jazz playing covered a shy and extraordinarily modest personality. He was universally loved and nobody ever had any reason to say anything unkind about him.

Indeed the only time they tried to was when they thought that he shouldn't have taken the job with The Black and White Minstrel Show in the mid-Fifties. This was a BBC television extravaganza which involved the male singers (but not Chisholm) blacking up to sing Jolson-type songs. Chisholm played the trombone and clowned.

One Sunday evening I was in the dressing room of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn before an Ellington concert at the Liverpool Empire. Ellington turned on the television. Knowing what was on I felt a frisson of dismay. The minstrels appeared. The giant and bleary bags under Ellington's eyes remained immobile as he and Strayhorn watched Chisholm. Then the blacked- up singers came on and danced. Ellington watched for a minute or two. "Nicely produced show," he said as he reached across and turned off the set. It seemed a sensible assessment of what was then considered tasteless trivia.

Chisholm stayed with the show and then toured the country with it as it played to packed theatres. Pompous jazz critics deducted points.

The pinnacle of his career came in 1952 when he played jazz solos in the BBC Show Band that provided the music for The Goon Show. He stepped out of the band to take speaking roles, joining the team of Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Ray Ellington. The collector can lead you straight to The McReekie Rising, The Tay Bridge Disaster and The Great String Robberies amongst many other Goon Shows to find the McChisholm of McChisholm, as Milligan dubbed him, rolling his Rs like a true native.

"I started buying his records and listening to him when I was still at school," says Humphrey Lyttelton. "Naturally enough I've been a fan ever since, largely because of his unusually original style.

"He told me once that his playing was virtually based on eight bars of trombone that Jack Teagarden had played on his record of `Junk Man'." Although he never copied the American, Teagarden remained Chisholm's favourite player.

There was seldom a more musical family. Chisholm's father was a drummer and his mother was a pianist. His brother Ron also became a pianist while another brother, Bert, was a trumpeter. George's daughter Carol Moore is a singer, and she recorded with her father in the Seventies.

Chisholm's first professional work was as a pianist in a Glasgow cinema and he made his first broadcast in 1932. He began working on trombone in 1934 and he doubled on both instruments for the next few years. He moved to London in 1935 to play in Teddy Joyce's band and then settled on trombonein a variety of "society" bands in the West End. He was a regular at the all-night jam sessions in clubs like the Bag o' Nails and the Nest. It was then that he first played with the American saxophone players Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter.

Carter was impressed with Chisholm's playing when he heard him in London in 1937 and invited him to join him for a three-month stay in Holland. On his return Chisholm joined the band led by Bert Ambrose, then the top band in the country. He worked off and on for Ambrose during the next two years at the Cafe de Paris and at the Mayfair Hotel and also freelanced with the singer George Elrick and the dancer Ken "Snakehips" Johnson.

Fats Waller came to England in June 1939 and took part in the first ever television broadcast. It was decided that he should record while in London and Chisholm interrupted his honeymoon in Jersey to play at the session. That same year Leonard Feather organised a recording by George Chis-holm's Jive Five. Feather, who became the leading jazz critic in the United States, later described Chisholm as "one of the half-dozen most inventive and emotionally mature trombonists in jazz - regardless of country: a superlative musician with an ageless style."

In 1939 he was a founder member of a big band called the Heralds of Swing, but it didn't survive. At the outbreak of war Chisholm, along with other musicians from Ambrose's band, joined the RAF, where he played lead trombone and wrote arrangements for the Squadronaires. The band was so popular it survived long after the war. Chisholm stayed with it until 1950, when he left to freelance, working most notably for BBC radio with the trumpeter Kenny Baker's Dozen, one of the best of all British jazz groups.

In December 1956 he was chosen, along with Sid Phillips, Dill Jones, Jack Parnell and a symphony orchestra, to accompany Louis Armstrong at the Hungarian Relief concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Armstrong hadn't appeared here since the Thirties and such was the heady rarity of his visit that Humphrey Lyttelton held up a three-stone tape recorder to a backstage loudspeaker to capture the occasion. The tape shows Armstrong often out of sync with the symphony, but Chisholm's solos are suitably inspired and confident.

Chisholm toured the country with Alex Welsh's band during the Sixties and Seventies and also formed his own band, the Gentlemen of Jazz. Lyttelton joined him with the Welsh band in "Salute to Satchmo" in 1978.

After a heart bypass operation in 1982 he continued to tour the country with the trumpeter Keith Smith's band, until severe health problems forced his retirement in the early Nineties.

Chisholm's virtuosity as a brass player brought him invitations to play with leading brass bands and amongst those he played with were the Yorkshire Imperial, Grimethorpe and Royal Doulton.

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