Obituary: James Blades

Graham Melville-Mason
Monday 24 May 1999 00:02 BST

JAMES BLADES was one of the best loved and most naturally talented musicians to grace the British orchestral scene over the past 60 years. He brought the skills and art of great percussion playing to a wide public not only through his performing ability but through his extraordinary talent in communication with people from all walks of life. He was kindly and encouraging to the first efforts of the smallest child and he advised composers like Igor Stravinsky. He was a close friend of Benjamin Britten, who turned to him constantly for advice on percussion techniques and special sounds such as creating the unique instruments for the church operas - "you know what I mean Jimmy"; and he did!

To children he was an educationally entertaining figure from his famous lectures, and many later brought their own children to hear him. He could captivate the rowdiest hall of comprehensive school teenagers or enthral the most erudite gathering at the Royal Society of Arts.

James Blades was born into the family of a journeyman tailor, the eldest of four brothers and one sister; all the boys became percussion players. Life was not easy, yet he recalled his early years with great warmth and vivid pictures in the first volume of his autobiography, Drum Roll, published in 1977.

Introduced to drumming by an amateur drummer uncle beating with knife and fork on a dinner plate, he graduated to watching the drummers of the local bands. However, his first taste of public performance came as a choirister in St Mary's Church, Peterborough. Taking odd jobs to help out at home, eventually he joined the Boy Scouts and at last played a real drum.

In July 1915 he left school and joined Brotherhood's engineering firm as an apprentice, chosing it above others because it had an orchestra. With the First World War he had plenty of opportunity to hear army bands and so at the age of 16 he joined up, but was quickly found out and discharged. Immediately after the Armistice he made his first trip to London.

Hearing the band in Lyon's Corner House and then the orchestra in the pit of the Alhambra Thretre, he decided that was the life for him. He bought his first pair of side drumsticks and with a home-made practice pad began long hours of practice, relegated to the pig-sty at the end of the garden.

Starting with helping his uncle, he gradually moved to small drumming roles in local amateur and semi-professional engagements. Eventually he was allowed to take up drumming as a career. Released from his apprenticeship, he obtained his first professional engagement with Ginnett's Circus at Henley-on-Thames in June 1921.

From circus band he soon progressed to small silent cinema orchestras, gradually building up his drum kit and buying his first pair of timpani. The cinema kept him employed through the 1920s until he was heard in Edinburgh and invited to London to the Crouch End Hippodrome. From there his talents were increasingly recognised and he progressed to the Holborn Empire, evenually playing under Roger Quilter and Leslie Woodgate.

Moving north to Lancashire brought him into contact with the symphonic world before he returned to the theatres and dance bands of London, where he became noted for his xylophone and marimba solos. In 1931 he was invited to join the band of Jerry Hoey at the Piccadilly Hotel, which also included the composer Benjamin Frankel.

Being so centrally placed, Jimmy Blades quickly came to wider public and musical attention. He was engaged for film music and gramophone recordings. By the end of 1932 he was a member of the London Film Symphony Orchestra under Muir Mathieson. From then on he became the friend and colleague of many of the famous solo and orchestral players of the pre-Second World War era and it was not long before his services were in demand from the symphony orchestras. Turning down an invitation to settle in America, he was invited to play with a number of broadcasting orchestras, including those of Charlie Kunz and Alfred Campoli.

With the outbreak of war, Blades found himself caught up in the orchestral touring of Ensa at home and in France, an earlier injury preventing him from later active service. At the same time he was engaged by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and came into contact with Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Malcolm Sargent, the first of many conductors whom he later came to know as friends.

Over the next six years he was associated with nearly every orchestra in London. It was during the war that he moved from the world of theatrical percussion effects to the heights of chamber music in performing the Bartok Sonata for two pianos and percussion and in 1950 Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, the first of many performances with a galaxy of distinguished soloists over the years.

In 1945 his first wife died and he entered a period of depression. However, such was his army of friends in the profession that he received wonderful support which led eventually to his introduction to the oboist Joan Goossens. They married in 1948 and he enjoyed the love and totally devoted support of her both on and off the platform to the end, she unselfishly abandoning her own orchestral career to provide the attention that his busy life required.

By now symphonic work was taking over as the post-war music activity increased and he was in demand at the BBC and with the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1953 he was invited to be in the selected Coronation Orchestra in Westminster Abbey. He then entered on a long, happy and productive association with the English Opera Group, Benjamin Britten, the Aldeburgh Festival, the English Chamber Orchestra and the Melos Ensemble, which continued to the end of his performing life. As well as creating the percussion instruments for Britten's three church parable operas, he played in the first performances of all of Britten's operas.

Although Blades chose to retire from playing in 1971 while still at the height of his powers, Britten persuaded him to return for the premiere of his last opera, Death in Venice, in 1973, where he astonished the other much younger percussionists with his ability still to negotiate with ease the difficult keyed percussion parts.

While ever ready to demonstrate his prowess on any instrument of the percussion family, he was the first to proclaim his old friend James Bradshaw the finest timpanist of any age and had great respect for William Gezink and Samuel Geldard of an earlier generation. He greatly admired the Concertgebouw Orchestra's timpanist, Jan Labordus, and had a long, long-range friendship with Karel Cemicky, timpanist of the National Theatre in Prague.

He had many fine pupils, including David Corkhill who succeeded him at the English Chamber Orchestra, Simon Rattle and Evelyn Glennie. He was professor of percussion at the Royal Academy of Music from 1964 until 1976 but remained an associate there for many more years, always showing interest in the progress and future of his students.

His popularity as a lecturer on the instruments of percussion, with his wife Joan accompanying him on the piano, led to numerous invitations from schools, music societies and learned institutions throughout Britain from the mid 1950s onwards. By chance this led him unsuspectingly to a school for severely handicapped children, stepping on to the platform to find an audience in beds and wheelchairs, many without limbs.

Such was his extraordinary ability to turn the evening into a great success, that he and his wife were encouraged to work for physically and mentally handicapped children thereafter, visiting schools and hospitals on their lecture tours without fee. At the same time he used his early engineering skills to adapt various percussion instruments for physically disabled young people, including glockenspiels for quadra-plegics to play by mouth. For this work he was appointed OBE in 1971. Benjamin Britten wrote his Timpani Piece for Jimmy Blades's lecture series, and Malcolm Arnold his Concert Piece for percussion and piano.

For someone who left school at 14, his education in life led him to be a wonderful communicator and marvellous scholar but one who wore his scholarship with disarming ease. Benjamin Britten observed that all the members of the English Opera Group except Blades could speak at least one other language yet, when touring abroad, it was always Jimmy Blades who had a crowd around him and with whom he communicated in his own inimitable way. Britten also recalled entering the orchestral pit in Moscow to conduct The Turn of the Screw and seeing the space behind his timpanist full of people he thought had been unable to get seats - only to find out later that they were most of Moscow's percussion players come to watch Jimmy Blades.

In 1970 he published Percussion Instruments and Their History, an astonishing work in its comprehensive coverage of world percussion from earliest times to today, diligently researched and written in a relaxed informative style. It will long remain the definitive study on this subject. Already in 1961 he had written a short volume, Orchestral Percussion Technique and in 1998 finished a second autobiographical book, These I Have Met.

For the wider public he will be remembered as the sound behind the J. Arthur Rank gong at the start of every film from 1935 until the end of the Rank Organisation, yet the sight of the mighty Bombardier Billy Wells striking the large cardboard model when one knew the reality of the diminuitive puck-like figure creating the sound on a Chinese tam-tam was incongrous.

More importantly, one factor towards the outcome of the Second World War was the transmission of messages by the BBC to resistance groups in occupied Europe. Blades was asked to create a signal which could not be imitated. He devised the "V for victory signal" played by himself on an African membrane drum from his private collection, struck by a timpani stick, the three short notes of the Morse Code V being damped with his handkerchief.

James Blades, musician, teacher and author: born Peterborough 9 September 1901; Professor of Percussion, Royal Academy of Music 1964-76; OBE 1971; married 1927 Olive Hewitt (died 1945; one son), 1948 Joan Goossens; died Cheam, Surrey 19 May 1999.

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