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Ken Colyer

Born in England, Ken Colyer was nonetheless a catalytic figure in the Traditional New Orleans Jazz Revivial which began in the late 1940s.

Ken Colyer

Kenneth Colyer was a devoted supporter of the traditional New Orleans jazz revival who fueled enthusiasm for the genre in his native England beginning in the early 1950s. Colyer helped promote a rich traditional jazz movement in England, along with a related skiffle craze, which influenced many young British musicians, including future members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In England, Colyer’s unwavering devotion to traditional New Orleans jazz earned him an iconic status reflected in the nickname “Guv’nor,” British slang for “boss.” He visited New Orleans several times and played with many of the city’s jazz greats in the 1950s.

Traditional New Orleans Jazz in England Inspires a New Generation

In the context of post–World War II British culture, the traditional jazz movement, popular in the early 1950s and again in the early 1960s, became associated with the “Angry Young Men,” a disenchanted generation no longer satisfied with inheriting a set of staid, conservative cultural values and most famously depicted in John Osborne’s mid-1950s play Look Back in Anger. The play was made into a movie, and its lead character was a traditional New Orleans jazz trumpeter played by well-known actor Richard Burton. The transplanted traditional New Orleans jazz revival also became identified with social protest movements, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which introduced to the world the circular graphic now identified as the peace symbol.

Colyer’s fans came together during the late 1980s to form the Ken Colyer Trust, which published his autobiography, When Dreams Are in the Dust,  in 1989, and a more recent oral-history biography, Goin’ Home: The Uncompromising Life and Music of Ken Colyer, in 2010. The Ken Colyer Trust also created a website to preserve Colyer’s story in great detail and helped organize an annual New Orleans pilgrimage during which impassioned fans renew their musical fascination and experience the unique culture of the city and of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast in general.

The Education of a Young Jazzman: Learning from Experience

Born into a working-class family, Colyer was first exposed to music and musical performance while his family was living in London’s Soho district, and he joined a church-school choir that paid its members a small stipend. When his older brother Bill joined the army during World War II, Colyer was put in charge of his substantial American blues and jazz record collection. The future trumpeter began listening extensively to jazzmen Edward “Duke” Ellington, Sidney Bechet, and Natty Dominique, as well as such blues musicians as Leadbelly and Sleepy John Estes. Wanting to replicate what he was hearing on record, Colyer began playing the harmonica and was, he said, “hooked by then. The bug had bitten.”

After finishing his formal education, Colyer joined the British Merchant Navy and purchased his first trumpet, practicing religiously. In New York City he found his way to bandleader Eddie Condon’s celebrated small-combo jazz club and heard cornetist Wild Bill Davison and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell; while in Montreal, Canada, he heard pianist Oscar Peterson. Colyer purchased a guitar and began making music onboard with his brother, who now also served in the Merchant Navy, and other shipmates. Becoming increasingly proficient, Colyer formed both a small jazz combo and an informal “folk” ensemble that played the rhythmic, blues-inflected music heard on the streets of Southern cities. Known in New Orleans as spasm bands, these groups were called string bands or jug bands elsewhere in the South.

Visiting the Source: The Obstacle-Filled Path of a Determined Jazz Disciple

Both Colyer brothers soon retired from the Merchant Navy and, by the late 1940s, became members of a nascent British small-combo jazz movement, with Ken standing out in two of the better-established bands, the Crane River Jazz Band and Christie Brothers Stompers. The emerging movement had already adopted a clearly delineated musical style, as described by British newspaper The Daily Telegraph: “Its members were part of a generation which rejected the slick sophistication of the earlier Swing Era, believing that ‘real jazz’ was played only by those New Orleans musicians who did not join Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet in the exodus from New Orleans in the 1920s, but stayed at home and did not record until the 1940s.”

As Ken Colyer increasingly gained prominence within this movement, he became determined to visit New Orleans and experience the source of its inspiration firsthand. Getting there, however, proved no easy task. After rejoining the Merchant Navy, he made three trips to Europe, Africa, and New Zealand, followed by a reassignment to a ship based in Mobile, Alabama, and a trip to Venezuela. In Mobile, Colyer managed to catch a Greyhound Bus to New Orleans. His stay was short but included a chance to sit with the Paul Barbarin band. After several more trips to Central and South America, Colyer returned to port in Mobile in November 1952, where he jumped ship, obtained a twenty-nine-day visa, and once again set off for New Orleans. Embraced by the traditional jazz community there, Colyer played with many bands and musicians, and established friendships with two of the most prominent traditional New Orleans jazz bandleaders, George Lewis and Percy Humphrey.

A Career Marked by Professional Transience and Musical Admiration

Due to an expired visa, shortly after Christmas, Colyer was jailed in New Orleans and in March 1953 was deported to England, where he enjoyed a hero’s welcome. An all-star jazz band soon became the first of several versions of The Ken Colyer Jazzmen. Colyer’s exacting expectations of other jazz musicians meant that he rarely played with the same group for long, and he frequently appeared as a one-off act with a skiffle band or as a soloist with a guitar accompaniment. In the end, the trumpeter’s difficult personality matched his strong and distinctive musical identity.

After his death in March 1988, the Daily Telegraph published an obituary that concisely captured Colyer’s restless nature and musical virtuosity: “A hard-drinking roustabout who never tailored his blunt—on occasions violent—manners to flatter audiences or club managements, his innate musicianship still continued to command an unwavering following. His whole approach was directed towards rhythmic and melodic variation, yet he had an instinctive harmonic sense which made the ‘shape of the tune’ crystal clear. … Despite his obduracy, it was a measure of the affection in which he was held that a benefit resulted in more than 100 musicians performing gratis, raising £3,000 for the old maestro.” Regarding his cultural legacy, musician Owen Brice stated it succinctly in the liner notes to a 1960s album: “When it is all over, and the definitive history of jazz comes to be written, I prophesy that only four jazzmen will find a place of consequence in the British section: George Webb (who gave it its start), Humphrey Lyttelton (who gave it respectability), Chris Barber (who gave it popularity) … and Ken Colyer, who almost single-handed changed its whole course and brought the word ‘dedicated’ into the cliché repertoire of every jazz critic in the country.”