HEARD IN THE BREAK
How’s work at the moment, Mal?
I have my regular gigs, with Spirit Of New Orleans, every Friday in Delph, near Oldham, and with Tuxedo, every Thursday in Wallasey, on the Wirral. I also play all over the place with Dave Donohoe’s band. Once a month , at the Carden Park Hotel, I play guitar with the Swing That Music Quartet. I also do a fair amount of depping.
Tell me about your first instruments?
When I was about 12, I was looking round my Grandma’s house and, in the attic, found the banjo that had belonged to my grandfather who had died very young. I took up this instrument , a “Zither banjo”, a few years later and didn’t replace it until I was 21. I bought my first guitar at 16, an Aristone.
And you were never tempted to go electric?
Never! (said with emphasis)
So what actually got you playing?
Difficult to say. I had no mentor or real influence, but I had two elder sisters and they had boy friends who were interested in Jazz who talked about it to me all the time. I remember one day listening to Ken Colyer’s Back To The Delta LP, the one with Acker and Ed O’Donnell. It was at that point that I felt compelled to teach myself the banjo.
Any particular record that got you hooked for life?
Gate Mouth! When I was about 17, I heard the New Orleans Wanderers’ version and it blew me away. From then on I was hooked on the originals, 20s’ stuff and 40s’ revivalist, and didn’t take that much interest in Trad.
Tell me about the music scene in Liverpool in your youth
By the time I started to go to the Cavern , Jazz was on the wane. But in the mid-1950s I attended sunday night concerts at Picton Hall and I remember Humph being there. The Pavilion Theatre also had Jazz and I saw Chris Barber there. I used to go to the Mardi Gras club where the Merseysippi Band had a residency. I remember Mick Mulligan turning up one night. I first played in the city with an off-shoot of the Panama Band – in the New Court Bar, in Victoria Street.
Tell me about how you got started in Liverpool and then became a fixture on the Manchester scene
I met Ray Hayes at a British Legion Club where The Savoy Band had a residency. It was some time in 1967 and he had just left the Harlem Hot Stompers and wanted to form a new band. He formed one and I worked in that band for some time and played all over Liverpool. Sometimes Jed Hone or Tony Smith came over from Manchester to play with us and, also, Eric Brierley. It was through them that I got exposure to the Manchester scene , where there was a greater interest in New Orleans’ music, and eventually started playing with Jed Hone’s band, somewhere in Jackson Street. That’s where I met Dave Donohoe . Once the M62 opened in 1974 it became much easier for me to play with Dave’s band.
And you’re still with Dave.
Yes, he and I recently celebrated being together for 40 years. He’s a stickler for playing the melody and to please him I had to learn to play notes in the solos not just chords. So, arguably, he had a big influence on my style of playing.
At one time you played with Butch Thompson
Yes Butch played with Dave’s bands in the 1970s and Terry Dash, who ran the New Orleans’ music magazine, and who was, of course , a big promoter, took us to the Ascona festivals. Butch chose me as part of a band he put together to mark King Oliver’s centenary. It was a great band with Butch on piano and Cuff Billet, Pete Dyer, Teddy Layton, Charlie De Vore , Dave Evans - and Alan Shypton , who now presents Jazz programmes on the BBC.
This band was, of course, around for much longer than the centenary.
Yes, we toured England a lot and went to Ascona two or three times in the mid-80s. After the wall came down we toured Germany and played in places like Frankfurt and Stuttgart, in front of huge audiences.
You also appeared on the Garrison Keillor show, I believe.
I think that would be 1988. His radio programme, which went nationwide, was a bit like Round The Horn, comedy sketches with musical interludes, including Butch’s piano playing. For one show Butch persuaded Garrison to have the whole band on. It was fantastic rehearsing in Brooklyn and playing in front of live theatre audiences. I stayed with Butch in Minneapolis and then flew down to New Orleans where I played with Sammy Rimington at George Buck’s club – so it was some trip!
Which Jazz figure do you most admire?
On the banjo , Johnny St Cyr. No one sounds remotely like him. He played a 6-string banjo which I’ve never tried. More widely , I admire Jelly Roll Morton and think it a tragedy he never lived to take part in the revival.
And who figures most prominently in your own record collection.
No one person or band. I like the whole range of classic Jazz,and the revivalist recordings from New Orleans from the 40’s to the 70’s,with Kid Ory’s band of ’46, I suppose, a particular favourite. I also go for Lonnie Johnson and female vocalists like Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. I have a very wide taste.
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