AS TIME GOES BY......
A nostalgic look back at The
By Trevor Stent & Phil Probert
Trevor and Phil
Two old friends and band colleagues recall their earlier days in
Liverpool jazz, with the Blue Magnolia Jass Orchestra. They
eventually took away to 'foreign parts" lessons that perhaps only
the Blue Mags and Liverpool could teach young musicians.
Trevor Stent and Phil Probert have been swapping memories and
stories from their work together as young musicians. They first met
on arriving in Cambridge in 1964, and joined the University trad
band in their first term there. Three years of avoiding the
displeasure of their respective college tutors, travelling with the
band in England and France, and generally having a good time, didn't
prevent them getting their degrees, before going their separate
ways into the big, wide world.
It turned out to be a small world, when both found themselves
working on Merseyside. By 1969, they were both in the Blue Magnolia
Jass Orchestra, and both agree that what they did and learned in the
Blue Mags was central to their life journeys as musicians. What
follows are the reflections of two old gits, talking jazz as they
steer their zimmer frames into the lounge bar of later life.
Trevor and Phil agree that there was something special about the
Blue Mags. It definitely had a special sound, and it also had a very
conscious approach to its audiences.
That Blue Mags Sound
Trevor Stent describes it this way:
"It was a "powerful wall of sound". The four-piece front line gave
it a very full sound. Much of the credit for this goes to the band's
first two trumpeters, Ken Sims and Les Harris. In the first line-up
of the band, Sims teamed with second cornet, Jon Critchley to form a
powerful anchor for the band sound.
Jon Critchley, who would later front the highly popular Panama Jazz
Band on the Wirral, recalls how much his early time alongside Ken
Sims taught him: it wasn't just trumpet technique - Jon was already
a highly competent player - but Ken brought a lot of stagecraft from
his Acker Bilk days.
Later, Les Harris brought his own simple direct trumpet style.
"Les always left plenty of "gaps" for the other front-line musicians
to fill. When the wonderful sax playing of Ken Duckers was added,
the band sound developed further, and its ability to provide complex
backings to soloists meant it could sound just like a big band at
times. Behind the powerful front line sound was a four piece rhythm
section with brass bass - a strong, driving team, also dedicated to
a full-on sound."
Both Trevor and Phil believe that there was a "Liverpool Effect" on
the band's sound and development. Liverpool audiences have long been
renowned for their reactivity, wit, and sometimes rowdiness. And
when Les Harris joined, the band began to play a wider variety of
venues, requiring them to satisfy demanding Liverpool audiences and,
when necessary, to match them with wit! Trevor also says that the
bands early gigs, under Ken Sims, included Dock Road pubs, working
men's clubs, and some very Scouse weddings. Phil remembers a gig at a
big Catholic social club, where a fight broke out. Instantly, two
young priests all in black waded in, and quite literally picked up
the combatants by the scruff, and banged their heads together. And,
as the old ballad hath it, "The band played on". This apprenticeship
shaped the Mags' approach, and they kept busy throughout the years
when jazz largely lost its popularity.
Here is a link to the Blue Mags' first venture into a recording
studio. We think it captures the spirit and sound of the early
line-up very well. The personnel are: Ken Sims (cornet & lead), Jon
Critchley (cornet), Alan Miller (tbn), Trevor Stent
(clt), Bob Hayward (pno), John Cochrane (traps), Geoff Walker (bjo),
Jeff Samuels (Sousa).
Phil and Trevor suggest that nowadays, the idea of a thought-out
"ensemble sound" in small bands is almost extinct. Lots of bands
have fabulous soloists but don't seem interested in the full-on rich
ensemble work of the early bands. There are relics of this past art
in some strictly New Orleans Colyer/George Lewis type bands. But the
Blue Mags put the emphasis on a lively and dynamic ensemble style
owing more to Lu Watters than to Colyer.
The Mags' approach to audiences
Phil Probert says the band's attitude was no accident:
"Just after I joined, Ken Sims took me on one side after one of my
first gigs. I suspect I had been trying to impress in a rather
obvious way. Sims said "You don't play the instrument, Nob, you play
the audience". I can still remember the feeling that if I did it
again, I'd be in detention, or worse".
Phil says that this was a particular attitude which was crucial.
Sims gave the band confidence and a "go out to reach this audience"
approach. Then the arrival of Les Harris in 1972 was even more
important. When Sims left to work in London, says Trevor Stent,
"We were bereft; no trumpet player seemed capable of replacing him
and there was a real danger that the band would collapse".
But due to persistent encouragement from Tony Davis of the Spinners,
Trevor eventually decided to ask Les Harris to join. He was as far
from Ken Sims in musical style and in personality as you could
imagine. At the time he was in a cabaret duo (with Roy Gregory),
earning good money in the social clubs of that era. Trevor says,
"Les was not over-enthusiastic about joining a group with a heavy
drinking, Art college ethos and took some persuading!"
But Les Harris was critical to pleasing audiences. With Les onside,
the band immediately became a little more "commercial". For many
bands, that would have been anathema. But even then, jazz clubs were
on the decline, and the bigger audiences were elsewhere. Les' vocals
became more of a feature of the band and the repertoire a little
"lighter" in content.
The band, by the mid-70s, was touring all over the North of England,
and sometimes beyond, while its members were successfully holding
down daytime careers.
"It's amazing what you can do when you're young!"
say Phil and Trevor in unison.
So there was a legacy from the Sims days that Les Harris picked up
and ran with:
"Our attitude always was "Let's get the audience on our side. Let's
make a show". We were not playing for ourselves, we were playing for
the people in front of us, whether it was a jazz club, a wedding
reception, a concert, or a working man's club".
Trevor Stent again:
"We tried our absolute utmost to help the audience to enjoy the
This went further than the music. Even before the gig started, we
were very good at chatting to people to get them on our side: Ken
Duckers was of course, superb at this, as were Les and Bob Hambleton.
It created a rapport even before the first note was played. We
became really quite slick, and there was none of that appalling
faffing around between numbers that is one of the many curses of UK
trad bands. Non-stop delivery of music also allowed us to "dominate"
even difficult audiences. I'd learned quickly in my teaching career
in Liverpool that by keeping the action non-stop and not allowing
any "dead time", a class could be kept under control. We even
survived a gig at Seaton Carew Working Man's Club, just outside
Hartlepool. The only time in my life I have entered a war zone!"
All these things created variety for non-jazz audiences and meant
that the band kept seriously busy despite changing musical times.
The Mags Sound and the role of its "Ninth Member"
Phil says "When first I joined the band the only sound system was a
megaphone. Yet by the mid-70s the group had a sound system that
would satisfy a large rock group!"
Trevor is convinced the investment in the sound system was a turning
"A decent system was a condition of Les Harris joining the band. We
invested in increasingly impressive kit, with 12 microphones, good
Bose speakers and very soon our very own sound engineer, Frank
Hudston, at every gig (the first nonprofessional jazz group to have
one at that time.) Frank became our ninth member.
He made a tremendous difference. True, we were criticised by the
mouldy fig brigade ("disgraceful", "unnecessary", "a forest of
microphones" etc etc) but it was the right thing to do. Too many
jazz bands at that time were left tooting pathetically in the corner
of a big room or marquee, vocals were lost entirely and, crucially,
bands lacked "presence". Also, the gigs we were doing towards the
end of the 70s demanded a big system. In 1978 we had to follow
"Slade" at Sheffield Polytechnic: imagine doing that with a
Frank, the Ninth Member
The kit was important but thanks to Frank Hudston's skill and
patience, individual instruments could still be picked out
Trevor describes the role of Frank Hudston:
"He was the unsung member of the band and, in many ways, one of the
heroes of the Blue Magnolia story. Frank lived near the Coffee
House, attended the first sessions and loved the band. But Frank is
a born organiser. He organised the band's sound system and became
its sound technician (at which he was very good). He had worked on
Liverpool docks nearly all his life, he seemed to know everybody.
And he was also a part time magician! Before long he was inviting
some of the real stars of the Liverpool cabaret scene to come and do
the interval spot at the Coffee House on Tuesday nights, for example
Tom O'Connor, Stan Boardman and the wonderful Eddie Flanagan. A
frequent visitor was Professor Codman's Punch and Judy Show, a real
The band increasingly had its own comedian, bass player Roger
Hewitt, who used his exquisite scouse wit in a ten-minute comedy
spot. The audiences loved it. All these things created variety for
non-jazz audiences and meant that the band kept seriously busy
despite changing musical times.
"Blue Mags jazz was wrapped in a package that was very entertaining
and acceptable to people who did not think of themselves as "jazz
fans". It was just a great night's entertainment. Do we regret that?
Not at all.!"
Here's the band as it had developed by 1976. The personnel on this
recording were: Trevor Stent (Clt and leader), Alan Miller (tbn),
Ken Duckers (alto sax), Les Harris (tpt & vocals), Bob Hayward
(pno), Tony Antrobus (dms), Roger Hewitt
(tuba), Phil Probert (bjo). This really is the Blue Mags at the top
of their form!
Fond memories, tall tales, and absent friends
Trevor and Phil both look back fondly on their Blue Mags days, and
like jazzers everywhere, can't help the musical discussion getting
punctuated by stories of non-musical moments with the team. Here's a
selection for you....
The band played more than once at the Festival of the Rose of Tralee
- an introduction to the art of drinking Guinness for breakfast.
Played the interval spot for the Dubliners. Drank Guinness for
lunch. Heard a fifteen-year old girl with the voice of an angel -
she became Enya. Drank Guinness for tea. Appeared on Irish
Television on the Gaye Byrne Show, no less! Drank Guinness for
supper. The first time the band played the S'Hertogenbosch festival
in Holland, one of of the chaps couldn't help noticing that in the
street next to our hotel, there were shop windows featuring
attractive ladies in alluring attire. They proved beyond his budget,
so we passed the hat round the rest of us. He never made the
necessary bargain but returned to Liverpool bearing the 1000 guilder
note to which we had subscribed. Thereafter, it became known as the
One Jump Note, with smaller change being designated in Strokes.
Photo supplied by Trevor Stent - Anybody know the occasion?
The band was invited to go on "Opportunity Knocks" in 1972. Our
sponsor was Acker Bilk who was generous and charming. The presenter,
Hughie Green was as oleaginous as we had all imagined. A rival act
consisted of three lady dancers. During their performance, the
scenery fell down on them. In the end we were beaten into 3rd place
by a herd of 15-year-old tap dancers. Not our finest hour.
A few years later the Blue Mags went on "New Faces", then a very big
Saturday night TV show. We took full advantage of the free bar at
the ATV studios in Birmingham and then went on stage. The leader of
the four-man jury was Terry Wogan. In rather shocked tones, he said,
"I think they're all drunk !", to which Alan Miller replied "Well,
at least we've fooled three of them !". We then went on to be
runners -up in the all-winners show with over 20 million viewers.
Not bad for a trad band!
On a more serious note: when we won the "Band of the Year" award at
the S'Hertogenbosch festival in 1979, we were presented with the
shield in front of three thousand people in the marketplace. The
mayor said how proud he was to present us the award because he
remembered as a young boy the town being liberated in 1944 by troops
from our town of Liverpool. It was particularly poignant as Alf, the
wonderfully crazy old "dancing barman" in The Albert, Lark Lane
(where we played at the time), had told us (just before we left for
Holland) that he had fought in S'Hertogenbosch during the
liberation. A very moving moment.
In 1983, the band appeared in its own Granada TV special
How the Blue Mags encouraged young musicians
The Blue Mags did their utmost to encourage young musicians. In the
Sean Moyses, then a ridiculously talented 15 year old banjo
player , drove with his family from Lincolnshire on several
occasions to perform with the band.
(Mitchell?), a young self-taught jazz violinist played often in the
Coffee House, later going on to be a professional musician in South
Chris Hayward was another young star of the violin who
accompanied the band on many occasions and is now a very respected
gypsy jazz violinist in the UK, Ireland and France. Local musicians
Jim Lucas, Jeff Lewis and the late Phil Yates, played some of their
first choruses on the Coffee House stage. Above all, the Blue Mags
can claim some credit for an entire band from south Liverpool that
was not only young and successful but also very good: Juvenile Jazz
who swept to great success in the mid-1980s.
Here they are on BBC TV
in 1987 where they gave some
heartfelt thanks to the Blue Mags.
It should be noted, says Trevor, with a hint of acerbity, that
"despite the band's extraordinary popularity, the TV shows, the
success in jazz festivals at home and in Europe, our encouragement
of younger musicians, we got absolutely no recognition or
encouragement from the London-based "jazz establishment". Their
stuffy, pretentious, "stuck in the 1950s" attitude is surely one of
the reasons for the decline of jazz in the UK".
50 years on..
Trevor and Phil acknowledge how much society has changed since the
70s. The audiences who came to the Coffee House to see and listen to
the band in the 70s were not "passive". They expected to be an
active part of the entertainment, to participate with heckling,
singing, dancing. whatever ! By the mid-1980s all this seemed to
have "switched off "and the audiences became just individuals rather
than participants. The phrase "no such thing as society "comes to
Phil Probert left the Mags in the early 70's to follow his career in
the real world but is very clear that the band was about as much fun
as it's possible to have with your clothes on.
"I was still in my 20's, and now in my mid-70's I can still remember
the elation one felt when the band was steaming and the swing was
intoxicating. I've played with some wonderful musicians over the
years, yet it took me until my early 60's to get into another band
team that sent me home on a high like the Mags had done. And that
was a jump jive band."
Trevor left the band in 1994 to move with his family to France. He
found the music scene there very different:
"The good things are that musicians are respected, and they are
always given excellent meals and free drinks at very venue. They are
treated as professionals and they are well paid and their conditions
tightly regulated. The standard of musicianship is generally very
high, but the problem is that top musicians hire themselves out to a
variety of bands in the region which means there is a lack of real
"esprit de corps" in each band. Also, the high wages and tight
regulations mean that there is less informal, casual jazz in bars
and restaurants than in the UK. The bands are just too expensive."
"But what is superb in France, and in Europe in general, is the open
mindedness of young people towards jazz and culture in general. They
are always prepared to listen, and their cultural mindset is not
brainwashed by commercial crap. There are a lot of fabulous young
bands in France playing traditional jazz, far more than in the UK.
The standard of musicianship is often jaw-droppingly good.. But they
still lack that ensemble magic of the Blue Mags!"
Phil Probert has played all round the UK and Europe and echoes the
thinking that was instilled in him by the Mags: "Musicianship
doesn't end at your mouthpiece or fingers, and it doesn't end with
your technical prowess. Live audiences are there to be entertained.
If you want to show off your chops, do it in the recording studio."
And the band plays on....
Trevor still lives in France, and now claims English as his second
language! Phil lives in the Malvern Hills, where the men are men,
and the sheep are nervous. Both are still very actively involved in
the music, Phil with top groups of varying styles playing in the UK
and abroad, Trevor with the French group "Good Time Jazz" and
organising the very popular "Fest Jazz" festival in Brittany.
Today the Blue Magnolia Jass Orchestra is just a memory, but who
knows what may happen after the lockdown is eventually over and
Liverpool musicians decide it's time to tune up again. We couldn't
end the discussion without saluting the memory of the fine Blue Mags
musicians who are sadly no longer with us and whose passing has been
marked by tributes on Fred Burnett's excellent jazz northwest
So very few regrets, and many happy memories, and both Phil and
Trevor regard those fabulous years in the Blue Mags as key to their
professional values and attitudes.
Trevor & Phil
You can also listen to a copy of the Blue
Mags cassette tape produced in 1991.
More on Blue Mags History
The Blue Mags on TV
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