Chris Daniels, The Climax Jazz Band

 

On a trip to Toronto in October 2018, one Sunday afternoon I went to Grossman’s Tavern to hear the dixieland band. As they filed in, I immediately recognized Chris Daniels, the bassist and leader of the Climax Jazz Band. I had heard them in 1989 in my hometown of Victoria BC at the TerriVic Jazz Festival. After their set, my mother, a huge fan of dixieland, introduced me to him.

At Grossman’s during our lively chat between sets, I asked Chris about his beginnings, and he mentioned that he had played skiffle as a lad in Britain. He asked me if I knew of Billy Bragg’s recent book on skiffle, and I told him yes, and that Bragg had quoted my definition of rockabilly from my book Go Cat Go ! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, and used it to compare to skiffle. In subsequent weeks, I corresponded with Chris by email. Here is our email conversation, edited.

Chris Daniels, self-described as a “troubadour, skiffler, bass player” was born November 11, 1938, in Poynton, Cheshire, England. The Climax Jazz Band, which he founded in Toronto in 1971, is still going strong. Their style is a kind of dixieland based on the British trad jazz movement of the 1950s, and their performances and recordings show them to be topflight organization with a vast repertoire, delivered with great drive and verve, excellent musicianship and ensemble cohesion - a joyful, upbeat and fun band.

At the time this interview was put online (February 2019), the Climax Jazz Band was heading to the Sounds of Mardi Gras festival in Fresno, California to perform as one of the headliners. Chris said “We’ve been part of the amazing Fresno Sounds of Mardi Gras for over thirty years. We’ll be back alongside a baker’s dozen of the finest U.S. traditional jazz and zydeco bands. Fresno is in the middle of the Central Valley, which sends us a lot of fruit and vegetables — Canada is the largest importer of California grapes. It’s also the gateway to the Sequoia National Park, home of enormous ancient trees. The festival attracts jazz fans from all over the U.S., Canada and Europe, with its fun events, including parades, swing dances and theme nights — this year it’s The Twenties.

To read the band’s blog, click here. If you wish to contact Chris Daniels, his phone number and email address can be found on the blog page.

Chris Daniels. Hi Craig ! A pleasure to meet and chat yesterday. I do remember your Mum very well from those good old days at the Victoria Jazz Festival — our sessions at Maggie’s Terminal and the [Crystal] Gardens. Sorry it had to end. Our only big festival is Fresno in February [2019] — hoping our sponsors come through again. Just re-read pages 204-206 of [Billy Bragg’s] Roots Radicals and Rockers. Seems you and Bragg are more in agreement than not over definitions. But I believe Lonnie Donegan did use echo on some of his recordings — like “Nobody’s Child” and some others.

As for the folk influence, Ken Colyer sang American songs and the British folk scene spawned an appreciation of American as well as British folk songs. I used to go to the Nottingham folk club every Thursday night — one guy came in with hobnailed boots and sang some really old songs without accompaniment — except for the boots. As an interesting footnote, one of Chris Barber’s band’s big early hits was “Bobby Shaftoe,” an early British folk song from the north east (with “The Martinique” on the other side). Also, Alan Lomax [the American folklorist] had a great BBC Sunday evening TV show in the mid-fifties which featured recordings of prison songs, work songs and blues. Those were exciting days and Billy [Bragg] brought them all back to me in the book — even though he wasn’t even born until 1957.

Craig Morrison : What music did you hear at home ?

CD : Grandfather Wilfred Daniels was musical director of Clumber Road Methodist Chapel in Poynton, like his father William (both coal miners). When we visited, the grandparents always had musical evenings (Sundays after tea) and we all had to sing or recite a poem. We went to chapel Sundays when my sister and I were kids — heard the harmonies of the good old hymns.

My mother’s family were connected to the music hall up in Sunderland, in north east England. Her Dad’s cousin was a famous music hall star — Ella Retford, who helped re-open the London Palladium in 1919. Ella visited the US and brought back “Some of These Days” and “Bill Bailey.” She played Principal Boy in many pantomimes and was very popular as a music hall act — voted the act most people would like to see at number 10 on the show list (top of the bill). You can hear Ella on youtube and see her 26 studio portraits at The National Portrait Gallery in London. So we heard a lot of music hall and popular tunes on the radio, in musical films and shows at the seaside and of course pantomimes.

Skiffle Days, Learning Guitar

CM : Tell me more about your skiffle days - what inspired you, about the TV show, what songs did you play ?

CD : Watford Grammar School’s headmaster Harry R ?e was in the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during WW2, parachuted into France to coordinate with resistance fighters. He scouted out landing sites for munitions and agents, organized sabotage and plans to disrupt German supply routes after D-Day. Harry stars in a film illustrating SOE’s operations : Now It Can Be Told. In 1953 he was asked to appear in a weekly afternoon BBC TV show designed for housewives, advising them what their families could expect when visiting France — food, travel, customs etc.
Jean Gavin played guitar and sang French songs on the show. He told Harry he’d love to come and teach the Watford boys how to play guitar — an easy instrument to learn and to accompany singing.

Watford Troubadour Club, 1954

The Troubadours

So he turned up one lunchtime with about 20 guitars and taught us to play and sing in 30 minutes – “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” [see a youtube clip of the Climax Jazz Band performing it here] We were all hooked on his folk and other songs, and eventually, with help from some teachers, we formed the Troubadour Club. We had persuaded our parents to buy us Spanish guitars (for seven pounds fifteen shillings) despite short-lived piano lessons. In those days there were few, if any guitar payers around. While cycling with my guitar on my back to a church to play a gig with Dave Cleever, I was hailed down by an RAC (Royal Automobile Club) man on his motor bike/sidecar. He was really excited : “Is that a guitar ? I play flamenco.” Soon there were about 40 Troubadours. We held concerts at lunchtime once a week, and then held highly successful evening concerts, including acts by teachers and orchestra members.

Pop Stars

Teachers wrote to the BBC, and Dave Cleever and I found ourselves at sixteen on a live young people’s TV show — ’All Your Own’ — Sunday December 12, 1954. The weekly black and white 5 to 6pm show featured kids up to 16 with interesting hobbies e.g. bee-keeping, ballet dancing, music, interviewed by Huw Weldon, eventually head of the BBC. We harmonized on “The Blue Tail Fly” and “This Old House,” which Rosemary Clooney had just recorded. Steve Race (famous jazz musician) led the house band. A few fan letters from girls arrived at the school, much to the amusement of the staff and the bemusement of me and Dave. Kids on the street shouted out, “I saw you on the telly” as I passed by, guitar slung, on my bike. Local Rotary, cricket and other clubs hired us for their annual dinners. Local heroes !

Somewhere Up North

TV set sales had soared in 1953 due to Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation but were still a bit a of a novelty. The only broadcaster, the BBC, didn’t have enough programming so cut off broadcasts Sundays 6 to 8pm. Anybody who had a television was probably having Sunday tea 5 to 6pm while watching ’All your Own.’ Monday morning in Liverpool I imagine some likely lads were saying, “’Did you see them fellers on TV last night ? Bloody marvellous ! Let’s get some guitars and start a group.”

Traditional Jazz Revival

CM : How did you learn to play the bass ?

CD : ’Toothy’ Thomas, teacher in charge of the school orchestras, congratulated Dave and me on our TV performance and then, “Do you realize the bottom four strings of the guitar have exactly the same tuning as the double bass ?” “No Sir,” we said. “You’re in the orchestra.” So we learned somewhat how to play, read music and play symphonies - faking it a lot of the time, but with great vigour. Meanwhile Britain was experiencing a revival of New Orleans music, led by trumpeter Ken Colyer, who got a job as assistant cook on a freighter, jumped ship in Baton Rouge and went to New Orleans to hear the music he loved first hand. Thrown out by US Immigration after six months, he returned to a hero’s welcome, inspiring other musicians. Bands sprang up all over Britain, including a couple in Watford. I got a call from a band looking for a bass player. I borrowed a school bass and they paid the taxi fare to a rehearsal. I had trouble reading the chords at first but managed to fit in eventually.

Rock Island Line

CD : US musicologist Alan Lomax lived in Britain and had a BBC TV show on Sunday nights, playing recordings of work and prison songs and blues made in the Southern States, which I found fascinating. Ken Colyer also sang the same kinds of songs in the intervals between his band’s sets — with his skiffle group – so named by his brother when asked what it was called. Soon there were skiffle groups all over, using guitars, banjos and washboards. All you really needed was three chords and you were away. Lonnie Donegan, banjo player with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, was also featured with Chris Barber’s Skiffle Group and with Beryl Bryden on washboard recorded Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” as a filler for an LP. To everyone’s surprise it shot up the hit parade to number four and stayed up there for a long time. Traditional jazz bands also began making a mark in popular music, helped by BBC radio request programs like ‘Housewives’ Choice’ and Saturday morning jazz club [at first, in 1957, it was called Saturday Skiffle Club, then just Saturday Club ; it ran until 1969], broadcast live from London, Manchester, Glasgow and other large towns.

CM : How did you get interested in dixieland ? By the way, do you have any problem with it being called dixieland ?

CD : The Brits were never keen on calling traditional jazz music ’Dixieland.’ It conjured up images of Black and White Minstrel Shows and white men in striped shirts and straw hats taking the mickey. There was a national skiffle contest which attracted hundreds of bands. Unfortunately, the Fullerian Feetwarmers (Watford Grammar’s entry) was eliminated in the first round, beaten in the applause meter by another group’s fans. That’s my story anyway. The Beatles began as The Quarrymen and many other future rock stars began in skiffle, including Jimmy Page, who appeared on BBC’s ’All Their Own’ in 1956 (you can see him on youtube). All of them paid tribute to Lonnie Donegan as their inspiration and some performed and recorded with him, including Van Morrison [on a CD by Van Morrison/ Lonnie Donegan/ Chris Barber : The Skiffle Sessions : Live in Belfast 1998].

Anything Goes

There was a lot of crossover between theatre, art, fashion, popular music, dance, jazz and poetry in the sixties. Beat poets like [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti performed with musicians to jazz their message up, while dance companies used jazz to complement their revolutionary moves. John Neville was Director of the old Nottingham Playhouse Repertory Theatre in the early 1960s when he and a novice stage manager sat in a double-decker bus off to see Nottingham Forest Football Club on a Saturday afternoon. They talked about the jazz and poetry happening in America and decided to put on a show in Nottingham. Two local bands backed Neville, some of the cast of ’A Man For All Seasons’ [then a theatre show, later it was made into a film] and special guest Judi Dench (by kind permission of the Royal Shakespeare Company). We rehearsed a few times and performed for a mixed crowd of jazz musicians and theatre-goers on a Sunday night in February 1962. There was such a big crowd that some had to sit on the battlements on stage. By popular demand the show had to be repeated the next Sunday. The recording made by a couple of the actors was unfortunately not useable — the bass drowned everything else out.

CM : Is it accurate to say that your specialty is walking bass ?

CD : Having had some experience in classical playing, singing in choirs and harmonizing, I like to build patterns on the chords and then play variations on them. Listening to Jim Bray, Chris Barber’s bass player, made me appreciate what relative simplicity and a steady beat can do — not interfering with the melody and natural swing of the tune. I love to see the effect I can have on dancers by repeating a catchy phrase with wide gaps between the notes, all the while not messing with the rhythm. A lot of bass players tend to show off their technique at the expense of the beat and the melody. The bass is not really a solo instrument, but the anchor of the band. While the drummer emphasizes phrases in the melody, the band relies on that steady influence to keep the band swinging. So not a walking bass, maybe a striding, pulsing bass.

CM : There’s some walking bass in Donald Peers’ "In a Shady Nook, By a Babbling Brook" [1944]. Had you heard that ?

CD : I checked out “Babbling Brook” — Donald Peers indeed ! I wouldn’t call it walking bass, but he plays the root note of the first chord and then runs up to the root note of the next chord and then up or down to the next chord. I do that too but also play the chord notes in a different order to give contrast, lift and swing to the tune.

CM : I think maybe we have differing definitions of walking bass. As I tell my students, it is "a new note on the bass every beat (or every foot tap)." I hear that a lot in your playing.

CD : Walking bass to me means more like a steady progression up or down notes in a chord (fifths or fourths) or between the chords, but you can play the same root note for whole chords (or just fifths each bar). I still think of it as a pulsing beat, like walking. Dancers like it, soloists have more room, and the drummer has to follow you (theoretically !).

Canada and the Climax Jazz Band

CM : What made you move to Canada ?

CD : I moved to Canada in 1963. My old Watford Grammar schoolmate got me a job as an economist with CNR [Canadian National Railway] in Montreal. Returned to UK in 1966, worked for BEA [British European Airways ?], Brown and Polson and Thomas De La Rue (Regent Street). Whole International Dept. was closed down so decided to move back to Toronto January 10, 1971.

CM : What made you start the Climax Jazz Band ?

CD : My old mate from Montreal, clarinet player Bob Wright, was living in Toronto and we went to Grossman’s [Tavern] on Saturday afternoons to listen to Cliff Bastien’s Camelia band. Met a lot of musicians who said they weren’t playing – “all the old places had closed down.” Told them my bass was arriving by Canadian Pacific ship in February and would they like to get together and play just for fun — I missed playing — maybe with the aim of starting a band. We started rehearsing in a print shop. So I was the catalyst. Ad in The Toronto Star in April : ’Wanted Fun Pub Band — phone Albert’ (Albert Nightingale, who with his brother Morris owned Ye Olde Brunswick House). Auditioned for Morris — he thought we were very funny ! (we were trying very hard to play well). Got the job three nights a week (Thursday to Saturday) beginning at end of May, the Irish band quit — they wanted to keep their six nights — we agreed to play six nights for a short while — ended up for three years when we left to go to open DJ’s Tavern in the new Hydro Building.

CM : What do you feel are your best albums or pieces on record ?

CD : I really like The Entertainers, made for the Canadian Talent Library in 1974. (I see library founder Lyman Potts just died at age 102). It’s very well recorded by George Semkiw at RCA, with a mixture of some great, difficult Scott Joplin tunes (“The Entertainer,” “Swipesey Cakewalk,” “Chrysanthemum Rag”) and other traditional jazz tunes (“Everybody Loves My Baby,” “East Coast Trot,” “Perdido Street Blues,” “1919 March”) and some familiar pop tunes to appeal to the radio audiences across Canada (“Let Me Be There” by Olivia Neutron Bomb [Olivia Newton-John], “You’re Sixteen” by Ringo, “Inspiration” by Paul Williams). The tunes were all short (3 minutes or less) — to fit the stations’ programming. The Canadian Talent Library helped put us on the map across Canada. Also Toronto To New Orleans (2001) and all the girls go crazy (2004), which won the Canadian Collectors’ Congress Award. Don’t Give Up The Ship (2006) has some good tunes, while Direct To Disk (1978) sounds remarkable (and sold 15,000 copies worldwide). Travelling On (1999), Konnichiwa ! Japan (1995), Yes Sir That’s My Baby (1996) and Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder (1993) are good. As you can tell, it’s difficult for me to choose — we’ve made about 35 recordings with 220 different good tunes — it’s been good.

Dixieland Revival

CM : Do you think the so-called dixieland revival is fading (or fading away) ?

CD : The so-called Dixieland revival (remember we didn’t call it Dixieland in the UK — redolent of old white guys in striped shirts and straw hats making fun of the real New Orleans music) seems to be rapidly coming to and end, at least in North America. Victim of the erosion of melody in modern pop, aging population, self-absorption in social media. There’s some hope in the large cities like Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, L.A. where there are lots of pubs and small venues - a bit like the coffee bar scene in London in the sixties. And the revival in Swing Dancing is quite remarkable — the young folk really like the old tunes and tempos. Meanwhile, as you saw at Grossman’s, there’s still room for all kinds of jazz and blues. The Rex Hotel has about 70 shows a month. Climax now has two gigs a month while I get to perform twice on Sundays as well.

CM : What is your opinion of Bunk Johnson ?

CD : I’m no expert but I love the old recordings with Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, ’Kid’ Thomas Valentine, Kid Ory — fresh as a daisy still, rockin’ and rollin’, sweet happy songs and of course Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and the other blues singers. I still hark back to my memories of Alan Lomax’s Sunday night BBC TV show, with the prison and work songs and old ballads.

CM : Tonight I was listening to the At the Chick’n Deli LP and heard you sing “Lord, Lord, Lord,” which you sang at Grossman’s the day I was there. Where did you get that song ? Does it link up to your religion or beliefs ?

CM : “Lord, Lord, Lord” is a well-known simple spiritual which was recorded by Ken Colyer and others in the trad revival days. Although I had a Methodist background, I’m not religious but I can appreciate the solace religion provided for the downtrodden hoping for a better life after death. “I’ll Fly Away” is an example of the escapism — a happy little ditty with doomy words – “Liked by many Baptists, Episcopalians and some Methodists” according to Wikipedia. Not surprised — my coal mining forebears were more concerned about building a new Jerusalem on England’s green and pleasant land than lazing about on God’s Celestial Shore. Incidentally, the song was partly inspired by “The Prisoner’s Song,” a popular hit in the 1920s : “If I had the wings of angel, over these old prison walls I’d fly.”

CM : Anything you would like to add ?

CD : We covered a lot of ground. It’ll be of interest, especially to the younger crowd. I was accosted by some young guys at Grossman’s last Sunday. They wanted to know how I started in the music and what it was like in the sixties. Told them anything could happen in the maelstrom in London. Did I tell about the first British amateur jazz contest (sponsored by The Melody Maker and Guards cigarettes) ? Our mainstream Manchester band, the Gordon Robinson Sextet, made it to the finals in Richmond Park London in 1963. (We won, with a trip to Zurich for the European finals — but I had to leave for Canada the next day...) There were four young oafs in the hospitality tent - drinking, smoking, shoving, shouting. Years later I read Stones bass player Bill Wyman’s bio : ’Our first jazz festival was Richmond in 1963.’

If you need any more info, I’ll be happy to oblige. Glad you’ve got 200 students for the Beatles [I am teaching The Music of the Beatles at Concordia University] — so those happy days are still alive, thanks to you. Thanks again for letting me rattle on. Good luck with your lectures — maybe I’ll pop down to Montreal to catch one.

All the best, Chris Daniels


comments or questions ? email me

Well now ! What a grand interview — informative, amusing and more than a bit of self back-patting. I hope your readers enjoy it as much as I did in responding to your questions. So keep up the good work. I’ll check on and recommend your website to the musicians and punters in Fresno — some of the ex-Brit lads in The Grand Dominion (Jimmy Armstrong, Gerry Green and Bill Dixon) will no doubt have their own stories to tell. So thanks again for promoting and explaining the evolution of the people’s music. Keep it coming !. All the best. Chris Daniels

I have posted interviews with many veteran musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006