Obituary: Malcolm Mitchell

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The Independent Online
IN 1948 Malcolm Mitchell became the first British musician to play with Duke Ellington and earn money for doing so. In 1933 the Duke of Windsor had insisted on sitting in on drums with the Ellington band when it visited Britain but he didn't get paid for it.

Mitchell's debut with Ellington was equally eccentric in its way. Throughout the Forties and into the Fifties the Musicians' Union, then a brutish and, in tandem with the Ministry of Works, all-powerful fraternity, had a rule which banned American musicians from playing in England. In 1948 the Dizzy Gillespie and Spike Jones orchestras had had to cancel projected tours and the only way Ellington was able to work there was as a variety act without his band. He played piano at the London Palladium and music halls in nine other cities with his trumpeter Ray Nance, allowed in as a dancer and thus "showbiz", and his singer Kay Davis (girl singers weren't banned - the union presumably didn't regard them as musicians).

A trio consisting of Mitchell on guitar, Jack Fallon, bass, and Tony Crombie, drums, completed the group and the American Variety reported that the visit was "an outstanding success".

While the union ban was in place the Mitchell Trio, now with Johnnie Pearson on piano and Teddy Broughton on bass, accompanied other bewildered American "variety artists" including Hoagy Carmichael and the singer Maxine Sullivan when they toured in England. In 1948 Mitchell was called on to play with Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt for an eight-week tour of Sweden. The trio's first engagement was to open a new night-club in Nice, only to find the premises boarded up and the promoter nowhere to be seen. Virtually penniless, they took to busking, and found a restaurant where they could play for meals and tips. After a few weeks they were heard by an official of the Monte Carlo Casino and played there for the rest of the winter season, even doing a session for Prince Rainier at his palace.

Mitchell was called on again by Ellington in October 1958 for an ATV broadcast. The programme, Atlantic Showboat, was produced by a company owned by the television presenter Hughie Green, and jazz enthusiasts were outraged when he insisted on presenting it himself. The trio reassembled to play at last year's Ellington '97 Conference in Leeds, and Mitchell took part in panel discussions where he gave a graphic account of his experiences with Ellington.

Although dedicated to jazz, Mitchell moved into more commercial music to earn his living, arranging the music for the famous Hovis television commercials. He fought against the tide when he formed a jazz- oriented big band in January 1955. He lost a lot of money and broke the band up in 1956 when his health deteriorated as a result of the strain. He reformed the trio in 1957, working often as accompanist to visiting stars and as a solo act in cabaret. The trio appeared in Royal Variety shows and provided the musical content for a long series of Kenneth Horne's Round the Horne radio show.

Mitchell had his own television series on BBC and Southern television and wrote the music for Bob Monkhouse's Golden Silents television series. He eventually formed a group, Mitchell Monkhouse Associates (MMA), for the production of music and jingles, with Monkhouse and Henry Howard. MMA was a pioneer in the prestige business conference field, and as the publicity firm HP:ICM designed the massive figures for the Millennium Dome.

Originally taught by the guitar virtuoso Ivor Mairaints, Mitchell had during the middle Forties played in many respected bands including those led by Felix Mendelssohn, Don Barrigo, Johnny Franks, George Evans and Dick Katz.

Malcolm Mitchell, guitarist, bandleader, composer and vocalist: born London 9 November 1926; three times married (three sons, one daughter, one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Bognor Regis, Sussex 9 March 1998.

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