A nostalgic look back at The Blue Mags
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. Trevor says

"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 experience.

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 point:

"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 megaphone!"

Frank, the Ninth Member

The kit was important but thanks to Frank Hudston's skill and patience, individual instruments could still be picked out perfectly.

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 Liverpool legend."

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 70s
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. Colin (Mitchell?), a young self-taught jazz violinist played often in the Coffee House, later going on to be a professional musician in South Africa. 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 mind..

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 website.

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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