Jazz was key to post-war Edinburgh’s growth

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THEY sit slouched and exhausted, but content.

His tie loosened, trilby hat pushed back on his head, a louche cigarette hangs from the mouth of trumpeter Stu Eaton while clarinetist Sandy Brown has unbuttoned his polo shirt – testament to the sweat the pair had no doubt just worked up trying to blow the cobwebs of post-war Edinburgh into dust.

The two musicians were part of a scene more closely associated with the boozy bars of New Orleans than an uptight Presbyterian Scottish capital, yet their music had many dark and smokey cellar bars jumping with jazz during the 1950s.

They would perform the traditional jazz made famous by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, while other musicians such as Archie and John Semple and Alex Welsh would strike a more modern note with the works of Chicago’s Eddie Condon, Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden.

For a short while jazz was the pre-eminent sound of Edinburgh’s clubs and pubs, and the city’s musicians such as Brown and Eaton and Al Fairweather and were at the forefront of a UK wide fascination with the raw sound of black America.

Now an archive of material – including the photograph of Eaton and Brown along with posters, cassette and vinyl recordings – donated to Edinburgh Central Library, has nearly been catalogued after three years of painstaking work. And the curators of the unique collection are hoping that even more exists stuffed in drawers, packed in boxes in lofts, or being sold at car boot sales which could augment the unique collection.

“The whole collection was gathered by a group of Edinburgh enthusiasts who have had a lifelong interest in jazz, and it is quite diverse, from recordings, to photos to general ephemera,” says Hil Williamson Central Library development officer. “It’s taken quite some time for the whole lot to be catalogued – with the help of some of the donors such as Jim Keppie and Donald ‘Chick’ Murray, who became friends when they were young through their love of the music.”

According to the archive, says Williamson, Edinburgh became a hot spot for hot jazz after the Second World War. “It was before modern jazz and rock and roll came in. Traditional jazz was the music of choice for a lot of young people. Not the kind of big band swing which was played a lot in dance halls, but the kind of jazz being played in the States.

“Edinburgh produced many well known jazz artists such as Sandy Brown and Al Fairweather – both of whom went to the Royal High School. In fact, quite a number of the musicians attended that school, so it either had a great music department or peer influence played a huge part.”

While he may have been a Royal High pupil, Brown – who was born in Izatnagar in India where his father was working for the Indian Railways – was self-taught on the clarinet, and along with his school friends Stu Eaton, Al Fairweather and Stan Greig, they formed a band in 1943 when they were just 14-years-old. After school there was National Service and when Brown returned to study architecture at Edinburgh College of Art, in the evenings he played jazz with his re-formed band.

By 1949 his band made its first recordings and in 1952 it was supporting Big Bill Broonzy at a concert in the Usher Hall. The next year they went to London for the National Jazz Federation concert – and lost trumpeter Fairweather to the Cy Laurie Band.

However, the following year Brown was appointed acoustic architect to the BBC, went back to London and formed a new band with Fairweather. From there the pair developed their traditional jazz repetoire, adding new tunes of their own with themes from African music. And in 1957 their album of original compositions – McJazz – was named by Melody Maker as one of the 12 greatest jazz recordings of all time.

Musician Graham Blamire, who has done research into the early history of jazz in Edinburgh, has said that it was “extraordinary” that so many good musicians came out of Edinburgh in the same period, all born around the late 1920s and early 1930s.

“There was a real generation of players from that period, and I think one of the key points about the year 1950 is that the names from that scene, the ones who went on to make careers or become well known nationally and internationally, were all still around in Edinburgh. They started to melt away to London and elsewhere as the 1950s went on, but they were all here in 1950 and coming to a peak.”

As well as the Edinburgh Jazz Club in Riego Street and the West End Café in Shandwick Place, jazz was also played in India Buildings in Victoria Place, where Alex Welsh and Archie Semple were the main attractions, and in a number of dance venues such as Oddfellows Hall in Forrest Road. The bouncers there included one Tam Connery, who went on to achieve some fame after changing his name to Sean – and who was also captured in oils by Al Fairweather at a life class at the art college.

According to Mike Hart, director of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – who in the 1950s was an aspiring drummer – the jazz scene back then was split between the Royal High group and their trad jazz and the more modernist sound of the Semples and Welsh. He was in the former camp and spent much of his time at Riego Street listening to Brown’s band – before later joining it.

“Riego Street was a grotty church hall where some of us were underage and we used to have tea and biscuits at the interval while the musicians went across to the pub. There was a much younger audience at that stage – jazz was our music.

“I found Sandy very irascible. He was not an easy person to get on with. That said, it was tremendously thrilling and exciting to be in that band. Sandy was idolised, and it was like playing with God.”

With the advent of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, jazz fell out of favour, but the Edinburgh musicians continued to play. Brown played with Humphrey Lyttelton for a while and in 1974 went to America to play with members of Count Basie’s band – although he died the following year of a heart attack. Fairweather went on to play with Acker Bilk’s band and Stan Greig’s London Jazz Band. He returned to Edinburgh in 1987 but died in 1993 aged 66.

Hil Williamson adds: “We would love it if anyone who has material relevant to the Edinburgh jazz scene who’d be happy to donate got in touch.”

• For more information on Edinburgh’s jazz archive or to donate to it, please call the Central Music Library on 0131-242 8054.