Bill Skidmore & The London Jazz Orchestra

Music Director Ralph DeLuca

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Bill Skidmore provides his brief musical biography and a short account of the beginning of the London Jazz Orchestra, together with a description of the band’s Present activities.

In about 1953 or ‘54 there was a pop song called “Cross Over the Bridge.” This tune was widely understood as an invitation to abandon the kind of music you might have been listening to, with its roots in the decaying days of swing or dance hall crooning, and tune into what sometimes was still called Rhythm and Blues, and was quickly acquiring the name Rock and Roll. I never crossed over that bridge. Although having been born in 1943, I was exactly in the channel of the demographic that was hoofing it over the bridge, in large numbers, I never related to Elvis or Buddy Holley.

I started music lessons in 1949, and I was being taught by men whose musical ideas were formed in the 1930’s and who had passed through the war as combatants and as musicians. Be-bop had been invented in some obscure ways during the war by the daring soloists and hot technicians whose main gigs were as sidemen in touring and recording bands. The teaching I got, starting in ’49, emphasized the hot, hard driving “modern jazz” of mid century, sandwiched into scale practice, technical etudes and some rudimentary music theory.

The jazz I found so delightful in the early and mid 50’s was coming out of the West Coast. The Birth of the Cool band in New York in the late 40’s had its counterpart in San Francisco in the Dave Brubeck Octet.. There were the various groups spun out of Howard Runsey’s Lighthouse. These guys were improvising multi-part inventions and warming up the composition techniques they were being taught in music schools producing things that some of the music press of the time called “Bachish.” Personally, I couldn’t get enough of the “baroque” out-choruses Brubeck and Desmond were doing, or the pianoless simultaneous improvisation of the Jerry Mulligan small groups, or the elegant and surpassingly musical Modern Jazz Quartet.  All this seemed to me to draw in the technical sizzle of really fine players, combine it with the substance of traditional art music, and package it all in complicated but logical musical forms. When I heard John Lewis’s “Sketch” played by the MJQ and the Beaux-Arts string quartet, I could hardly contain myself.

Towards the end of the 50’s I was listening to a lot of classical music, particularly the huge symphonic organizations of the day---98 musicians on stage playing a Haydn symphony.  And right along side this was the Basie band of the “Atomic Swing” days.  What a contrast! Basie was often tighter. The inner parts of the clever arrangements were brilliantly in focus---the musical values were all there. And the material was just so tasty. That band has always been the ideal big band jazz sound in my head.

From 1959 on I was gigging locally, when that was possible, but later on university and graduate school and career concerns trumped music. After all, I was not a professional musician and never would be. But music has been a life-long passion.

I’ve had a house in London since 1969, but I worked out of province all through the 70’s, and I never got a local foothold in music here until the 80’s. In Fredericton, where I worked, I helped found the Fredericton Chamber Orchestra, and I was an early member of what was then called the Fanshawe Community Orchestra here in London. The London orchestra participation and friendships made through the Amabile Youth Singers organization, in which my two children were involved, gave me a fairly wide acquaintance of local musicians by the mid-1980’s.

By the early 90’s I was writing, producing and presenting two local FM radio shows, one on Radio Fanshawe and one on Radio Western. Originally called “Talks with Musicians” and later “Music Matters,” these shows were half hour live conversations with many of the locals, or with visiting soloists or conductors, choral directors, and the like. These were the salad days of Scene magazine. I was the main music reviewer and critic for Scene during some of these years, which widened my knowledge of the local music trade. For a couple of years, I played two nights a week in The Villa Jazz Club, with my friend Angus Sinclair, with whom I have given some concerts and done some classical projects.

I have retired a couple of times from quite different careers and I now teach some woodwind students privately and follow my love for my kind of music, as well as a lifelong fascination with the history of music and musicians, early music of all kinds, renaissance and baroque music in particular---and jazz.

The London Jazz Orchestra happened pretty much by accident. I was playing in a band put together some time in the earlier 80’s to play a function having something to do with the medical profession. This band had a number of physicians or other professional people in it, and it was sometimes referred to as the Doctors’ Band. It didn’t have a name. The material was the typical dance arrangements, several “stocks” from the past and few real jazz charts. There were only four saxes in the front line, two trumpets and two trombones, plus rhythm.

The leader of this group decided he would retire from running it, and the band folded for lack of leadership---lack of someone to get a practice space and to make the phone calls needed to get people together. After a few months someone, I now have forgotten who, asked me if I would like to organize the band, based on the old Doctors’ Band book, and I agreed. This was the start. In a situation like that, if you have the band book, you are the leader. And I had the book. And I was the musical leader, too, when that was necessary, which it was in the beginning.

My intention was to fill out the horn sections and improve the book, introducing jazz charts when I could, and this was the first direction the band took. Later on, better players came along, and the position of lead alto passed into other hands, and with it, the responsibility of the musical leadership gradually passed, too. My intention was always to improve the quality of the band’s playing by recruiting the best players I could. And whenever someone quit, I tried to get a better player as a replacement, someone younger, or both.

These general policies are still in place. Today the band is under the musical leadership of Ralph DeLuca. And I want it clearly understood that while I still do a lot of the heavy lifting in the band, when it comes to musical leadership, I am just another sideman. Ralph is a wonderful musician, and one of the finest gentlemen I have ever met. No one in the band gets in Ralph’s way musically because it would be foolish to do so. I get a high quality two-hour music lesson from him every week the band rehearses.

Over the years the band has tried occasionally to be some kind of entertainment unit. We have played dances, played Bourbon Street Station when that existed, opened for the Dave Young Trio once when Dave was in town, played university events, and the like. But the growth in the band, the direction it has taken over the years, has been towards simply being a rehearsal band in which the musicians play because they like the challenge of the charts we have, and the satisfaction of working on them and playing them well.

For years we have played a three-concert series for the public library arts program offerings, since before the time of Wolf Hall, and now in Wolf Hall. In addition we play some events when we are asked, and usually there is a year-end big band party at The Wortley Roadhouse in the early summer.  But no matter what public gigs we do, the band will go on because it is full of fine musicians who respect and like each other and who all bring their talents and knowledge to the music we love to play.

By Bill Skidmore

Videos

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London Jazz Orchestra Live At The Wortley Roadhouse December 9th 2010

 

The London Jazz Orchestra plays twice a year, in December and June, at The Wortley Roadhouse. These informal shows are part concert, part social gathering. This video evokes some of the flavour of an earlier day, when a (relatively) disciplined big band could be heard in the pleasant chaos of a friendly restaurant or watering hole. 

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