Tommy McQuater: Illustrious jazz trumpeter
Tuesday 08 April 2008
The most illustrious of British trumpeters, Tommy McQuater became famous in the Thirties and remained one of the great characters of jazz into his nineties. He began playing the trumpet at school and didn't stop for 80 years.
During that time as perhaps the finest lead trumpet in the business, he backed innumerable stars including Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Vera Lynn, Nat "King" Cole, Benny Goodman and Cliff Richard. He was a strong union man, having joined the Musicians' Union in 1935. It was only in later years that he discovered that he was owed royalties for many of the recordings he had made and eventually received thousands of pounds from the performing rights organisation the PPL. Always to the left in his opinions, he was a Communist for many years.
He had a caustic wit and never pulled a punch. In the Sixties, the rehearsal for the first appearance at the London Palladium by the then inexperienced pop singer Sandie Shaw dragged on and on. When at last it ended, McQuater went over to the 17-year-old.
"Excuse me," he said. "Might I have a word?"
"Yes?" she said.
"That was bloody terrible," said McQuater, and walked off.
Similarly, as Tom Jones and his entourage arrived an hour and a half late for a rehearsal to be met by disapproving silence from Jack Parnell's television orchestra, McQuater's stentorian Scots accent rang out from the trumpets: "I suppose a bollocking's out of the question."
McQuater began playing the cornet when he was 11, in the Maybole Brass Band. "I left when the bandmaster and I realised that I knew more about brass playing than he did. From then on I was pretty much self-taught."
His professional experience opened out early when he joined the band led by Louis Freeman at the Green Playhouse in Glasgow. Freeman's band was hired to provide the music on the liner California , which sailed to the United States and South America. While on board McQuater deputised in Rudy Vallee's band when one of the American trumpeters became sick.
On their return, McQuater and the Freeman band travelled to London and auditioned successfully in 1933 to play at a couple of London clubs, but McQuater left almost immediately and joined Danny McCormick's band in Dundee. He went back to Freeman for more transatlantic cruising, but was enlisted in Jack Payne's band in 1934. He worked with Payne in London and Paris before joining the more jazz-inclined band of Lew Stone in March 1935.
After a year, he doubled with Bill Woodward's orchestra at the Cocoanut Grove and with Claude Bampton's band for the stage drama The Frog (1936). Amongst the many freelance recordings he and his close friend George Chisholm made were some with the American saxophonist Benny Carter, who came to London in 1936. McQuater joined Bert Ambrose in September 1936 and stayed for two years until the Café de Paris, where the band played, closed in 1938 because of a war scare. The Ambrose band included the American clarinettist Danny Polo, and McQuater played on some of Polo's recording sessions.
"Those were very good times, all that society stuff when we were either at the Café de Paris or the Mayfair or Ciro's," he recalled.
I remember the Prince of Wales coming in drunk and playing the drums. It's this thing that they have that they could do anything that they like, but it was rubbish really.
We played from nine o'clock till about two in the morning and then we'd go along to the Nest in Kingly Street and have a blow. A lot of the American musicians would come into the Nest and as you walked in the door you could smell the marijuana.
He remembered one great evening in 1937 when the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton hired the Café de Paris for a party for the golfer Henry Cotton:
We were playing when this great big gentleman wearing tails that were borrowed, because they were too short, walked towards Ambrose but went on past him to Bert Barnes at the piano and said "Mr Ambrose, may we have a waltz?" So Bert stood up and said "Certainly", and swung him around the floor. We were hysterical. Ambrose ran up the stairs because he thought there was going to be a fight. We couldn't play for laughing.
In the summer we went down to Cannes for six weeks. Ambrose was a terrible gambler and the week we were waiting to get paid there was no money. Ambrose had gambled the lot.
McQuater became a founder member of the short-lived Heralds of Swing in February 1939 but returned to Ambrose when the Heralds disbanded in late 1939.
In 1940 he joined the RAF and became a founder member of the hugely successful RAF band The Squadronaires, which included Chisholm and many of McQuater's friends. He stayed with The Squadronaires after the war ended, playing summer seasons at various resorts. "It felt different after the war in a way," he said. "You didn't see so many dinner suits walking around."
When he left at the end of the Forties, McQuater joined the Skyrockets at the London Palladium for 15 months. In 1952 he joined the BBC show band and also broadcast regularly with the popular Kenny Baker's Dozen. He was never short of work in freelance sessions for radio, television and films and appeared regularly throughout the Sixties with Jack Parnell's ATV Orchestra.
As well as playing lead, he was a powerful improviser and when he got the chance proved himself to be one of the better soloists on the instrument. He was heard in the signature music for Steptoe and Son, on backing tracks for Thunderbirds and on a multitude of hit records. On television he also played the featured trumpet parts in The Muppet Show, from the first show in 1976 to the last in 1981.
During the Seventies he became inseparable from another trumpeter, John McLevy, although their styles were very different, McLevy substituting a talent for middle-register ballads for McQuater's powerhouse playing. On one occasion in 1988 as McLevy reached the climax of his vocal on the song "Rocking Chair", he threw his arms out wide and accidentally hit the bell of McQuater's trumpet, forcing the instrument into McQuater's teeth. Musicians held a benefit for "Tommy's Teeth" but, despite now being able to afford the ministrations of the Queen Mother's dentist (who was also a trumpet player), McQuater was never able to regain his best form.
McQuater continued to play in jazz clubs, continuing the musical partnership with McLevy and played each year at the Ealing Jazz Festival throughout the Nineties and up until 2006. For many years he organised regular jam sessions at the Brenton Club in Ealing.
Thomas Mossie McQuater, trumpeter: born Maybole, Ayrshire 4 September 1914; married 1939 Winifred "Twinkle" Wilson (deceased; two sons); died London 20 January 2008.
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