It's now over 60 years since I first discovered jazz! I was in my early teens when a cousin of mine played me recordings of two of the great musicians of the golden age of jazz - Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton - on a wind-up gramophone. I was immediately bitten by the jazz bug! It was the raw excitement of the soprano sax playing of Bechet first stopped me in my tracks; but it wasn't long before I was marvelling at the music of some of the great early trumpeters like "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Red Allen. I soon discovered later recordings from the New Orleans "revival" period and the playing of "rediscovered" musicians like Bunk Johnson and Kid Howard of the George Lewis band particularly captivated me. I just could not get enough of the stuff! And I was not content with just listening - I wanted to play it too!
I was lucky enough to be able to borrow an old cornet from an uncle who had played in brass bands around my home town of Sheffield. I got started learning the scales he showed me and playing along with the 78 rpm records that I had started collecting. I remember that, on the day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, (June 2nd 1953), all our family went to the house of a relative to watch on TV, (we didn't have one). All the family except me, that was! I stayed at home and spent the day practicing my cornet and learning tunes from Bunk Johnson and Kid Ory recordings. That was a memorable day - especially as my parents usually banished me to the shed at the bottom of our (very long) garden to practice my horn - with instructions to point it away from the house!
It wasn't long before i found out where jazz could be heard "live" in and around Sheffield and although I was still well "under age" I became a regular visitor to the pubs and other venues where it was being played. Some bands even let me sit in! They were extremely encouraging and - I must say - very tolerant! At the jazz haunts I met up with other aspiring young musicians. Most were students like me and I organised my first jazz band with them.
This is an old photo of my first band, the Gloryland Jazzband, playing on a stage erected on a bomb site on The Moor, Sheffield, as a feature of the Sheffield University "Rag Day" in 1955. The unseen drummer is Dave Timmis, trombone - Cyril Preston, me on trumpet and Keith Jones on clarinet.
Sheffield University "Rag" Day, 1955. We had led the big procession through the city in the morning with the Gloryland Parade Band. I can't remember everyone but it's Mal Bramley -clarinet, Norman Jones - trombone, ? -tuba, Cyril Preston - trombone, Keith Jones - clarinet, me - trumpet, Dave Simpson - trumpet, ? - trumpet, Trevor Barnes - clarinet, Dave Timmis - snare drum, Steve Newbould - bass drum, Ian Russell - snare drum.
Jazz seemed to be taking over my life so my father tried to motivate me to study for my GCE O Level exams by promising to buy me a new trumpet as a reward if I passed in all subjects. I did: and he was as good as his word! That was well over fifty five years ago. After A Levels I got a University place in London (LSE) and lived there as a student and musician for the next 15 years.
I was able to form a band of my own and we had some success around the thriving jazz clubs of the London and Home Counties area. I also toured the UK and Europe with other popular jazz bands of the period. For some of that time my own band was resident second band at the KEN COLYER CLUB at the STUDIO 51 near Leicester Square. We played on Wednesday nights and when Ken was out of town or at other venues.
"Kid" Shillito's Ragtime Band, pictured at the Studio 51, (Ken Colyer Jazz Club) in 1959. We based our music very much on the George Lewis Band. The musicians are: Dave Cutting - trombone, John Mason - bass, Pete Ridge - drums, Roy Loscombe - banjo, Graham Patterson - piano, me - trumpet and Sammy Rimington - clarinet.
Ken Colyer was recognised as the leader and inspiration of the New Orleans movement in the UK. During my early days in London Ken was a good mentor and friend and I am grateful for the help he gave me. It was at the Studio 51 that I got my first opportunity to play with the great GEORGE LEWIS BAND from New Orleans when they first came to the UK - at a special reception held for them. The great legends from New Orleans came on stage and replaced the members of my own band one by one. There was I - playing in the George Lewis Band - what an amazing thrill! We were heavily influenced by the music of George Lewis at the time - and it still gives me special thrill - but I am very pleased to have since had the opportunity to play alongside other American jazz and blues musicians who have helped to broaden my experience and teach me a lot.
In 1970 Ken Colyer gave up leading a band on the road due to ill health. The other musicians of his Jazzmen continued under the leadership of banjoist John Bastable, who was the senior member, and the band became JOHN BASTABLE'S CHOSEN SIX. I was incredibly honoured to be asked to replace Ken in the line up. We had some great times and went on to tour Europe frequently and to make two extremely successful albums.
Johnny Bastable's Chosen Six, 1970. Ken Ames - bass, Malc Murphy - drums, Geoff Cole - trombone, Johnny Bastable - banjo, Tony Pike - clarinet and me - trumpet.
During my career I have visited to New Orleans several times and continue to do so. I feel I have absorbed something of the essence of the place and the music. It has also been my good fortune to meet and play with some historic musical personalities. Playing with bands at the famous PRESERVATION HALL - notably those led by PERCY HUMPHREY and KID THOMAS VALENTINE has been a wonderful experience. Those are moments I'll never forget and memories that always bring me a thrill. I also played at the world famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with my own MARDI GRAS JAZZ and with the NEW ORLEANS RAG PICKERS of TOKYO when their trumpet man was unavailable. We could not communicate very well verbally - but our mutual love of New Orleans music gave us a truly international language!
More recently, in New Orleans, I've had the pleasure of playing alongside some of the fine musicians who are ensuring the jazz tradition remains strong in its birthplace; including Barry Martyn, Clive Wilson, Tommy Sancton, Orange Kellin, Evan Christopher, Lars Edegran, Seva Venet and Jason Marsalis - all wonderful musicians playing wonderful music with great skill and warmth.
For reasons not connected with music in 1973 I moved away from London to settle in Devon; but it was my good fortune to be able to continue my career in jazz with some outstanding musicians down in the South West. I first joined the fabled Soloheim Mungaash Jazz Band and then worked with my own bands as well as making freelance guest appearances at traditional jazz venues and at other events in the region and beyond. I am now celebrating over 55 years of leading bands of my own. (Time flies if you enjoy yourself - they say!) I have certainly had enjoyable times with my bands over the years - MARDI GRAS JAZZ - THE RHYTHM ACES and the DIXIE RAMBLERS - and I continue to do so with my SELECT FOUR and SELECT SIX. I also played the trumpet lead in the ROGER MARK'S ARMADA JAZZ BAND and toured, broadcast and recorded extensively with him for more than 12 years.
In Devon in the mid 1970's Mardi Gras Jazz was a very active band and we went to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1975. Mac MacDonald - banjo, Ken Matthews - bass, Mike Brown - drums, Mike Mayer - clarinet, Martin Bennett - trombone and me - trumpet.
Over the years I've had the honour of featuring some outstanding American guests with my bands, including Thomas Jefferson, Bill Dillard, Butch Thompson and Orange Kellin. And, it's recently been my pleasure to have Clive Wilson from New Orleans to play with both the SELECT SIX and SELECT FOUR on his 2011 UK holiday. Superb music! Great moments!
With Clive Wilson's New Orleans Serenaders, Bourbon Street, French Quarter Festival, New Orleans, April 2011. Craig Klein - trombone, me - trumpet, Clive Wilson - trumpet, Jason Marsalis - drums, Tommy Sancton - clarinet, Tom Saunders - bass, Lars Edegran - piano.
Although the influences on my playing are fairly obviously from New Orleans, over my career I think that I have developed my own recognisable style. People also know that I deliver a good show wherever I appear. This has included many major festivals in the UK and throughout EUROPE. I have also played and sung in RUSSIA and SOUTH AFRICA as well as in NEW ORLEANS, the place where it all began. I think I have learned a lot about being a "professional" too - playing jazz and entertaining all kinds of audiences over the years - but - the bottom line is - I just love playing. I'm so happy that I still retain the same enthusiasm for my music that I had when I first started up at school in Sheffield- and I, personally, reckon I am blowing as strong as ever!
I love to share the enjoyment and pleasure jazz has brought me for over 60 years and to communicate with audiences (listeners and dancers) and I have never been happier than playing with the groups I front today - the SELECT FOUR and SELECT SIX - two first rate bands - super musicians and great guys and friends! You can hear that our music comes out of New Orleans - but we're not mimics or copyists, we play it our way - and that gives us a great deal of satisfaction, pleasure and pride. You must - please - come and hear us when you visit Devon - and - please - watch out for us at gigs near you. I am very happy to travel widely to play and sing - with any band - but I do particularly want you to hear and enjoy the SELECT FOUR and SELECT SIX.
If you like bands that enjoy playing good entertaining jazz - and looking as though they're enjoying it - you will find an evening with us is well spent.
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JOHN SHILLITO trumpet and bands for any occasion. Serious jazz with a smile on its face!