Jazz Travels with Bill Hoffman
This column’s title includes the word “travels.” This installment is no different, but this time the travels weren’t mine. Neville Dickie, the renowned British stride and boogie-woogie pianist, stopped by my house one afternoon in late May for a wide-ranging conversation while he was on his annual US concert tour. Said tour always includes a concert at the Tri-State Jazz Society as well as other appearances, this year including the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival and the Bickford Theater in Morristown, New Jersey.
As customary, I sent Neville a list of questions in advance. He had written out some notes before he arrived, and those were the jumping-off points for the conversation. His comments went well beyond the original questions, but that’s what I was hoping for, as he has so much to talk about.
BH: What led you to become a pianist, and at what age?
ND: When I was seven, my mother bought a piano for myself, my older brother, and sister. She paid 10 pounds for it, the equivalent then (1944) of a week’s wages. Neither of my siblings showed much interest, and at first I was bored with the classical pieces I was learning. But I found I could play tunes I heard on the radio. At a friend’s house I heard a record of James P. Johnson’s “Roumania.” I fell in love with it. A recording of “Black and White Rag” by a ragtime pianist from Trinidad, Winifred Atwell, furthered my interest in jazz. I was able to obtain some ragtime music from America.
I started working at age 16 in a working men’s club in County Durham, where I was born. I don’t know if there was the equivalent in the States, but in these clubs they had concert parties, usually with five entertainers, which would include comedians, vocalists, plus a pianist and a guitarist. If any of the musicians failed to show up, the manager would recruit whomever he could find. That often included me, and it was my first professional job.
When I was 18 I met a clarinetist named Alan Harrison, and we decided to form a group based on the Benny Goodman Quartet. At that time there was a talent show touring England (perhaps like Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour?) that went to theaters looking for, well, talent. Our quartet won a few heats and then the finals, which got us to London, where we were on TV. I had to do two years national service in the RAF, and when I got out I went back to London, to my parents’ consternation, where I played in pubs and with a few jazz bands. Spencer’s Washboard Kings was my first true professional job, at Blackpool on the coast. Then I went to a BBC audition, which I failed the first time. I went back to pubs and bands, and when I auditioned the second time, I passed, and wound up playing in a trio for an early morning radio show. So I went from playing to fifty people in a pub, to playing for 14 million every morning! I did that for four or five years.
Occasionally, American musicians would tour in England. Dick Wellstood was one of them, and played at the club where I was working. He evidently liked my playing and invited me to come to the US to play a three-week residency at Hanratty’s—a restaurant which featured top-drawer pianists Ralph Sutton, Dick Hyman, Don Ewell, Judy Carmichael, Art Hodes, and of course Dick himself. This was a real honor for me and I returned twice every year to play there until its demise. I am a great believer in the adage “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
BH: Who were your idols in your formative years?
ND: Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, and Don Lambert.
BH: How much of a following of stride and boogie-woogie is there in England?
ND: None—no ragtime pianists, no stride. The music has a following but no players. [BH: I think Neville was being too self-effacing here, but I cannot otherwise dispute his statement.] For boogie-woogie you have to go elsewhere, like Germany. There are festivals there, unlike in England.
BH: Who are some of the jazz greats you have played with?
ND: Ralph Sutton, Don Ewell, (clarinetist) Kenny Davern. I played a few years at a large festival at Waterloo Village in New Jersey. It was run by the New Jersey Jazz Society. Ten thousand people would show up. I played there with Dick Hyman, Ray Bryant, and Louis Mazetier. For 27 years, my wife and I ran a jazz club in Sutton, Surrey, south of London. We had a lot of Americans play there—Kenny Davern, Marty Grosz, Ken Peplowski, Warren and Allan Vache—and of course Brits like Humphrey Lyttleton and Acker Bilk. I had a resident rhythm section at the club and booked a different front line for each session.
BH: Who are your favorite composers, and why?
ND: Fats Waller is just about everyone’s favorite. His tunes are very melodic, and most of them are easy to play. He just sat down and composed; it all came natural to him—writing, playing and vocalizing. He barely had to think about it. In contrast, James P. Johnson thought about everything he wrote. The result is that many of his tunes, like “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic” and “Over the Bars” are very challenging.
BH: Waller’s songs are certainly melodic and catchy. I suppose, to a professional, they are easy to play, but they seem complicated, particularly titles like “Alligator Crawl,” “Valentine Stomp,” and “Handful of Keys.” In the case of “Modernistic,” it’s very unconventional, perhaps intentionally. You don’t quite know what’s coming next.
Anything else you’d like to add?
ND: I want to mention two people in the US who are important to me, for different reasons. One is Bruce Gast, whom I met on one of my early trips here. He offered me a job at the Watchung (NJ) Arts Center. I only got paid the door, but it helped me get established. Later, he got me into the Bickford Theater. [BH: For many years, Bruce organized the jazz concerts there and at Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ.] He recommended the Orange County festival in California to me, and that’s where I first teamed up with Joe and Paul Midiri. I’ve played with them now many times. [BH: Neville and the Midiris have played annually for the past six years at the Tri-State Jazz Society, and always draw large crowds.] Many of the jobs I have in the US originated with Bruce.
The other person I’d like to call out is Vince Giordano. Anyone visiting New York City should go and hear his Nighthawks. This is a stellar band, with many stars in their own right.
BH: I can attest to that. I often see foreign visitors when I go to Iguana to see the ’Hawks, in addition to American celebrities, and not just from the trad jazz world. Mel Brooks occasionally shows up. My last time there (early May) I saw Marilyn Maye and Mark Walter, composer Cy Walter’s son. The late Lloyd Moss, a personality for over 50 years on the classical station in New York, WQXR, was a big Nighthawks fan. I saw him there several times.
ND: It’s good to see some younger pianists on the current scene like Adam Swanson and Stephanie Trick. Both of them wonderful musicians. I think I first heard Steph at Orange County when she was 16.
BH: Yes, and we’ve had both of them at Tri-State. But they’re not the only ones. I’d name others, but this is your interview, not mine.
ND: I’m lucky. I’ve had a good life playing the piano. I was recently invited to play at the 80th birthday of Princess Alexandra. She is the Queen’s first cousin. Prince Charles and Camilla were there. One of Princess Alexandra’s brothers—Prince Michael of Kent—is a jazz fan, and the first time I played for the Princess, he asked if I could play a Fats number “Honey Hush.” I think that is the first time anyone requested that tune, and I always play it for him when he is present. Now, with the demise of so many festivals and jazz clubs, there aren’t the gigs in England, and anyway, at my age I don’t want to be traveling and working like I was 20 years ago. I also write CD reviews, which I enjoy doing.
BH: We are fortunate that you’ve been able to play, and record, in the US. I found that most of your LPs and CDs on Stomp Off are still available. And as long as you’re willing and able to cross the pond, you’ll have a gig with Tri-State. Thank you for gracing my home with your presence.
Jazz Travels columnist Bill Hoffman is a retired management consultant and is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.