An Electric Night
by Brian Harvey

"Ken fired the band - or the band fired Ken - it depends who you listen to."

There have always been conflicting stories as to why Ken Colyer's Jazzmen broke up in May 1954, and how the band subsequently became Chris Barber's Jazz Band, with trumpeter Pat Halcox replacing Colyer. Here is a detailed view – if not from an insider then someone who was very close to the individuals involved at the time and who was on the scene as the events took place. It's an account called An Electric Night, by British journalist and radio DJ Brian Harvey, who runs the Hot Jazz Channel. We are very grateful to Brian for his kind permission to reprint the article.

You can read the original article, plus much more of the same, at, as well as another article, this time about the Big Chris Barber Band, at

It was a Friday early in May, 1954 - warm but not hot, with a hazy sky over central London. The commuters - all but the late drinking stragglers - had fled down the rat holes of tube stations, and the streets of Soho were now only populated by the over madeup, heavily lipsticked regulars awaiting business and the first evening visitors in search of thrills in London’s ‘naughty’ district.

Even though it was a fine night there was an almost thundery electricity in the air, however, and out on the pavement for a break I wondered if it might thunder. And then, back at my desk listening to the band, I began to wonder whether the almost tangible electric feeling of oppression, of tension, I was experiencing was not the weather at all but something subtly psychological that I’d sensed but not understood - a near subliminal signal I’d received from someone, or a group even, but not been conscious of at the time.

The band was playing on. They sounded great, with their climaxes echoing round the room sounding for all the world like the Bunk Johnson band in San Jacinto Hall. There was a joy about them as they went through Lord, Lord, Lord, You’ve Sure Been Good To Me, with Ken’s unique vocal twang being unmistakable, and yet the intervals between numbers were longer than usual. I went into the hall for a moment, leaving the cash desk to a helper, and there, it became obvious, was the source of the tension.

The bandstand itself and the musicians - they were arguing in whispers but with heat and waved arms. This was clearly not a disagreement about what to play next or who did what on the last number, but something more serious. I was worried, frightened even, that they would come to blows and I’d be lumbered with a club full of people and a band that didn’t play - or even couldn’t.

I’d better explain. Having dropped out of college, Harold Pendleton, a pioneer London jazz entrepreneur, had given me a junior managerial job in his attempt to create London’s first seven-days-a-week jazz club, The London Jazz Centre, at 14 Greek Street. We had different bands every night, but Ken Colyer’s Friday session was the star attraction and vital to the club because few other nights would break even financially. That night - if my memory is not now too blurred by age - I was mainly on the cash desk in the foyer.

The evening continued but the band became somewhat ragged and uninspired. The breaks between numbers became longer, and by the end of the evening the atmosphere on the stand was really bad. Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine, Lonnie Donegan, Jim Bray and Ron Bowden left, I think, together. Ken and brother Bill followed later - all looked downcast - but being junior I didn’t ask what had happened, what was going on. And then I was told the shock news - Ken had fired the band, sacked them to a man.

At that time I was more concerned with my job and keeping body and soul together than with the actual music, and my main concern was how the hell do we find a band to replace Ken on Fridays and a band which would fill the place? It was a frightening night for me because I could see my first full-time job in jazz going down the tubes, and my amateur after hours club piano bashing wasn’t going to pay the rent.

In truth I needn’t have worried. Within days, Harold Pendleton, always a man to come up trumps in a crisis, had (as far as I remember) installed the new Chris Barber band, with Pat Halcox on trumpet (Ken’s old band minus Ken) on Fridays, and Ken’s new band with Acker Bilk, Ed O’Donnell, Johnny Bastable, and Bill Colyer on washboard, came in on Sundays.

Chris’ band was brilliant, but Ken’s was abysmal. Acker was at that time the worst clarinettist I had ever heard, Ed O’Donnell was very poor, and Ken sounded dispirited. Their sound was, frankly, appalling - but life moves on and so did I - having a nervous breakdown probably caused by trying to get by on three hours sleep a night for months on end. I took a break to recover by leaving the club to join Doug Dobell’s record shop in Charing Cross Road, where Bill Colyer became a friend, as did Chris Barber and many others - but that’s another story.

The factor in all this that has bothered me over the years is this: just what did happen that night? What was it all about and were there any rights and wrongs that haven’t been explained?

Ken Colyer’s band at that time (1954) was perhaps the best known jazz band in Europe - maybe in the world. He had a recording contract with Decca, they were unprecedentedly giving him wide publicity, and through the national radio ‘plays’ every Sunday lunchtime of Isle Of Capri by former bandleader Jack Jackson, that track became an enormous ‘pop’ hit with a consequent national explosion of exposure (and work) for the band. The band sounded great to most of us. It was exciting, rhythmic, inventive and very fresh sounding. What on earth could have happened to break it up? Could it have been money - many band bust-ups have been. Or was it something far more fundamental?

A chance conversation not long ago with a musician friend who was close to the events of that time threw light on the subject. I hadn’t thought that he would be willing to discuss it or reveal what he knew, but the forty-five years since those dramatic scenes has mellowed some peoples’ feelings towards the participants. “Yes,” he told me, “I remember it well. Ken fired the band - or the band fired Ken - it depends who you listen to. But I knew it was going to happen two weeks before.”

That threw a whole new dramatic light on the happenings of May 14, 1954. My informant told me that he had been told that Pat Halcox was earmarked to take Ken’s place weeks before the actual row on stage. “It was a conspiracy,” he said, and would say no more.

Chris Barber is, however, more explicit with his side of the story. He told a BBC radio interviewer: “Ken was very, very sincere about the music - so am I - he certainly had a name for his sincerity. What he was proposing was... a certain branch of the revived archaic New Orleans jazz syndrome at a time when nobody much else was talking about it. He was very charismatic about the music - in fact his whole idea was very charismatic. I suppose he was a prophet of the thing which became important at the right moment. So he became the person who was held to be responsible for it; He loved that music but he liked loads of other things too.”

To understand where Chris is coming from when he talks about that superb first Ken Colyer band, you need to know its history. The time frame is early 1954 – “We’d planned that we were going to go to Denmark in March,” said Chris, “because I’d been to Denmark before and I knew some jazz fans there who could organise that if we got there, our keep would be taken care of and we’d play in a different jazz club every night. We’d keep playing all the time and stay in people’s homes and all that sort of stuff, so if we arrived there without money we’d go home without money but no worse off.

But Pat Halcox, our trumpet player, came to me and said, ‘I’m very sorry, but I don’t think I could do it - I’ve got a possible job as a research chemist at Glaxo - I can’t turn professional.’” “This dumbfounded us,” said Chris, “as we’d got all these plans made and then we heard that Ken Colyer was coming home from New Orleans - he was being deported because he had no visa and all that - so I wrote a letter to Ken which said that we’d got this co-operative band - it was a partnership - and we’d like to invite him to join. We’d call it Ken Colyer’s band because we’d all been around in Britain - everyone’s heard us and they’d know what we’ve been doing and you can’t say that much new about it - but you’ve been in New Orleans for however long and it would therefore be good to call it the Ken Colyer Band.

“Ken came back,” continued Chris, “and came along and joined in with us and it was great, fabulous, terrific. really, really good. ...on the Decca records of that band there are various bits that we did there which are very much what the band was. For example, we did Too Busy, which was among my collection of old jazz records - a 1920s-type piece which we were playing in this style which the classic jazz lovers said, ‘Oh that isn’t the real thing - it doesn’t sound like the 1920s’. We weren’t trying to sound like the 1920s - we thought it ought to sound like 1953 - it WAS 1953. We weren’t dismissing the Hot Five and Hot Seven just because we happened to like Bunk Johnson.”

Then, having set out his stall about how the band came into being and detailing some of its ideology, Chris explained his side of what happened that electric night at 14 Greek Street in London’s Soho - or maybe some days later… “It was very simple really. It was early in May - a Monday night - we played every Monday at the 100 Club which was called the London Jazz Club or the Humphrey Lyttleton Club at that time - and we used to go to the Blue Posts pub out at the back - the club not being licensed then for alcohol. Bill and Ken were there, but Bill always did the talking. He called Monty and me over and said, ‘Listen - Ken’s been thinking about this and... he’s going to sort this thing out. He’s going to fire the rhythm section - you two are doing all right - you can stay.’ Our jaws dropped somewhat. We asked him why? He said that bassist Jim Bray didn’t swing, drummer Ron Bowden played bebop and Ken hated Lonnie’s (Donegan) guts. Well - there were some foundations for all of that - well, sort of at the time, but it was all a bit far-fetched. We said that we thought that they were actually a good rhythm section and we’ve got the records to prove it - it sounds great, we said. But Ken wanted to abrogate the whole partnership system of the band. We said - we’re sorry, but this is a partnership and there’s five of us and one of you and we’re sacking you - you’ve got two weeks.”

On May 15 I know that Ken noted the telephone number of a well-known drummer - the drummer wondered to himself whether the Colyer band was breaking up. On the 17th of May, at a Sonny Morris 100 Club session, the word was out that the Colyer band was breaking up in two weeks time. On the 19 of May, whilst drinking with a friend, Pat Halcox admitted that he was worried about joining the band and taking Ken’s place. On June 1, 1954, Pat joined the band - he needn’t have worried - he’s been there ever since.

And Ken - he never commented to me about the break-up except to say one poignant thing years later “Mont,” he said, “l taught him everything.”

Now - reviewing all these events, I’ve gone back to the records that Ken made with Chris and the others for Decca, and also to the later Colyer bands with Wheeler, Duncan et al, to see whether I can hear and ‘feel’ what it was that Ken wasn’t happy with way back in 1954. I think that I can - it’s a lack of that almost magical inner rhythm, bounce and balance that only the very best Colyer bands ever achieved and even then not all the time. That was Ken’s genius - that music is his gift - his legacy.

I’m glad that they sacked Ken all those years ago and gave me a very frightening few days - if they hadn’t, we would have been the losers.

(Footnote - my thanks to Brian Mulligan for the loan of a tape of the BBC broadcast in which Chris Barber made the comments transcribed here.)
Copyright © 2007, by Brian Harvey. Reproduced by permission.
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