Obituary: Aubrey Frank
Tuesday 29 June 1993
AUBREY FRANK was a prominent member of the generation of British jazz and dance-band musicians that prepared the way for the advent of bebop. Younger instrumentalists such as Ronnie Scott brought the post-war African-American innovations to the wider attention of the jazz-loving public, but the saxophonist Frank was one of the local heroes who can claim considerable responsibility too. Steeped in the professional mores of the dance-band era, he was a world- class player admired by his peers.
Born into a Jewish family in the East End of London, he was forced into a position of early responsibility by his father's death. He was 11, but his elder brother had married and left home. By the age of 14 1/2 he was playing alto saxophone with a junior band at Collins' Music Hall - a job that lasted a week. A year later, switching to tenor saxophone, he joined the Savoy Junior Band where, in the saxophone section, he met his lifelong friend Harry Conn.
For two decades Frank worked with London's 'name' bands, beginning in 1940 with Jack Harris at the London Casino. He valued the virtues of the great black American swing ensembles of Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford, and established friendships with black British musicians as well, arranging employment for them when a black face was a rare sight on bandstands. At Hammersmith Palais, where he worked with Eddie Carroll, he found work for the superlative Jamaican saxophonist Bertie King, then joined Geraldo who, as a BBC staffer, made up to nine broadcasts a week.
Gigs overlapped frequently in the early war years and he often dashed between bandstands. For over a year, while in steady employment with Ambrose, he participated in all Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson's broadcasts and recordings, often sitting in with Johnson's West Indians at their Sunday tea-dances which attracted a more 'rhythm-oriented' public and gave him a chance to improvise. When Johnson was killed in the Blitz, Frank introduced several of his musicians to Ambrose who, having lived in the segregated United States, had never visualised employing black musicians.
In November 1941, on the eve of his conscription, Frank took part in EMI's epochal First English Public Jam Session recording. He temporarily escaped his RAF duties to continue playing for, among others, the musically revolutionary bandleader Lew Stone and the Belgian trumpeter and racing driver Johnny Claes, and was also a member of the early Ted Heath Orchestra.
On demob he rejoined Ambrose then, unwilling to travel, continued to freelance and teach, his students including Tommy Whittle, later a prominent figure in modern jazz. Other 'progressive' associations continued - in the veteran Harry Hayes' bop band and with Jack Nathan, where he shared saxophone chores with Ronnie Scott and another 'modernist', Harry Klein. His playing during this period can be heard on the recent Esquire CD set Bebop in Britain.
Aubrey Frank, who continued to teach during the later part of his career, impressed all who met him with his gentle courtesy and generosity. Many researchers are in his debt. His was an unusual personality in the abrasive world of backstage. 'He was too much of a gentleman to be a professional musician,' said Harry Conn. That he earned a solid reputation was a tribute to his musicianship.
He was an active committee member of the Coda Club, the monthly social gathering of veteran musicians, but, essentially a private person, failed to inform even close friends there when he was made a Freeman of the City of London. He never married, living with his mother until her death some 20 years ago.
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