Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Feldman Swing Club - Jazz Journal, April 1996

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Readers of JazzProfiles have been very supportive of its efforts to develop in-depth features about Jazz and Jazz musicians. Some of these features illicit greater interest and/or responses than others.

The 5-part profile on Victor Feldman, the late drummer, vibist, pianist and composer, was one that was very well-received by visitors to JazzProfiles. [See blog archives for November 14, 28 and December 9, 15, 21, 2008].

However, a number of the blog’s guests who knew about Victor before he came to the United States wondered why his earlier career in England had been omitted from the profile.

The simple answer is that I first met Victor in 1957 at the Lighthouse Café and at that time and subsequently, I had very little detailed knowledge of his musical activities in England during the years preceding his 1956 arrival in the USA.

In an effort to rectify this omission, Mark Gilbert, the current editor of Jazz Journal has kindly granted copyright permission to re-print this article about the Feldman Swing Club that first appeared in its pages in April, 1996.

The Feldman Swing Club is where it all began for Victor Feldman, and, as the article points out, it was also the beginning point for many of the careers of England’s great Jazz musicians during the second half of the 20th century.

Future editions of JazzProfiles will offer additional information about his musical activities in England before the 1956 “Arrival of Victor Feldman” [pun intended].

Until then, Victor has donned formal ware in this extremely rare photo for the express purpose of inviting you, dear reader, to come to the cabaret that was the center of the Jazz world in London from 1942-1954 – The Feldman Swing Club.

© - Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“This is the story of Britain's first ever real jazz club, The Feldman Swing Club, where famous British and American musicians played during, and just after World War II and where many readers perhaps had their first opportunity to hear and participate in live jam sessions. Researched and recounted by Barbara Feldman, niece of both founders, Robert and Monty Feldman and the famous international jazz drummer/vibist/pianist, Victor Feldman, it charts the central role played by her family within UK jazz history as creators of what the Melody Maker described as the 'Mecca of Swing.' The eldest Feldman brother, Arnold - Barbara's father - played trumpet, but was at that time stationed in Gibraltar with the RAF, and so took no part in the proceedings of the Feldman Club until after demobilisation.

This account is based on a series of interviews with the late Robert Feldman, Monty Feldman's wife Helen, family friends, and fellow musicians who willingly took Barbara into their confidence. It should be born in mind that prior to this the only jazz 'clubs' were 'Societies' or 'Rhythm Clubs' (which of course still exist today) where 78 rpm records were played by a recitalist who discussed a particular aspect of jazz music and illustrated his/her talk musically.

The Feldman story began in Gerrard Street in London's West End in 1942 where two brothers, Robert and Monty Feldman, worked as pattern cutters and designers in a small clothing firm managed by their father Joseph. Robert recalled that 'Business wasn't doing too well and the people in charge just muddled through.' The brothers took respite in listening to the Radio Rhythm Club Sextet led by Harry Parry blaring out of the radio. However, this would only have been a half-hour weekly slot for, according to music promoter Bert Wilcox, 'In those days the BBC saw jazz as second-rate music whose followers consisted of wild women and drug takers.' Robert, a clarinetist and saxophone player inspired by Artie Shaw, and his brother Monty, an accordionist, were becoming increasingly convinced that swing could be made commercial. Their enthusiasm was growing as well as their talent and, at home in Edgware, Middlesex, they were rehearsing with their young brother Victor as The Feldman Trio. The boys made home recordings and played at weddings, bar mitzvahs and youth club dances. They were becoming increasingly popular among local jazz enthusiasts and musicians, principally due to the unlikely talents of their young drummer, eight-year-old Victor.

Having recently moved out to Edgware, to escape the wartime bombing, their neighbor Ronnie Scott was one of many musicians who began to drop by to play with the kid whom he regularly saw in short trousers in the street. riding his tricycle.

Benny Green, who later became Victor's regular room-mate when they toured together with the Ronnie Scott band got to hear the inside story of Victor's beginnings. Victor told him how earlier Monty and Robert had been jamming and becoming increasingly annoyed with their drummer. 'Our kid brother can do better-than. that' they cried. At this point, to everyone's amazement young Victor stole the show - he said he didn't know why he could play, he just could. Benny said - 'He was phenomenal, there has never been anything like it and there never will.'

Little did the brothers know that such an event would create a sensation among musicians, culminating in Victor becoming a child prodigy and finally a top international name in the jazz world. He was groomed for adult stardom by the Harold Davison Agency, whilst American boogie woogie pianist and dancer Maurice Rocco gave him dance lessons. He would go on to play with such stars as Stephane Grappelli, Vic Lewis, Woody Herman and even Glenn Miller's wartime AAAF band, astonishing the musicians with his 10-year-old genius in 1944.

Billy Amstell, former tenor saxist with the famous Ambrose Dance band, recalls that night at the Queensbury Club (a club for wartime servicemen) when the late Ray McKinley, then drummer with the Band of the AAAF. ran up to him crying with shock at having seen and heard young Victor. 'I don't believe it!' he cried as little Victor's drumming lifted the a hole band.

Max Bacon the Feldman's cousin. was the drummer with Ambrose, and he started Victor banging on a child's tin drum when he was as four-years-old. Later he set the ball really rolling by promoting Victor using his contacts and agents. He helped him into major movies: King Arthur Was A Gentleman (with comedian Arthur Askey) and Theatre Royal, where Robert Feldman led the band and wrote the arrangements.. Ted Heath played trombone in that band with George Shearing on piano and Jimmy Skidmore on tenor saxophone among others. Victor was also in the Flanagan and Allen show and starred at The Royal Albert Hall, The London Palladium and The Piccadilly Theatre with Sid Field in Piccadilly Hayride. Meanwhile he was watched over by his increasingly anxious father 'Grandpa' Joseph who begged Benny Green to 'encourage him to get a proper job.'

However, on that cold September night in war-torn London, 1942, Robert and Monty were yet to realise the extent of the creative potential that was beginning to brew around them. Robert switched off the radio, left his pattern cutting and began his journey home. Passing number 100 Oxford Street, a sign indicated Mac's Restaurant. As if hypnotised he went downstairs and he later recalled how there were posts (pillars) all over the place and: 'Suddenly I imagined them turning into palm trees, and I thought to myself, this would make a nice little club.' Old Ma Phyllis, later nicknamed 'The Dragon' by club goers, was the manageress of Mac's and she was only too pleased to charge the young enthusiasts 4 pounds a night to start The Feldman Swing Club. According to Bert Wilcox, she was to become a central figure of the club, 'always licking her lips, bossing everyone around to put their coats in the cloakroom and the only person to make money from the event by charging people 6d (21/2p) for a plate of crisps.'

Despite having tentatively hooked Mac's for three weeks' time, Robert had no capital and no musicians, but he was convinced that swing music could be successfully promoted in a club. Their father, a guiding hand behind Windsmoor Clothing was at first unenthused by his son's brainwave and refused to give financial backing. 'That's not a proper business, do something sensible!' was his initial response and a not unfamiliar one at that, according to Ronnie Scott; 'For those creative Jews who didn't want to be butchers or go into the gown business, to be involved in music would have been one of the few possible ways out of "the ghetto'.' Ironically Joseph was later to become, according to Ronnie, like the Godfather, taking the money at the door with his wife Kitty, and was to form, with Bert Wilcox, The National Organisation For the Promotion of Jazz in Great Britain.

Robert and Monty had to be inventive. The penniless brothers marched towards Archer Street - then the haunt of unemployed musicians--by the Windmill Theatre, where musicians gathered in the streets and surrounding pubs and cafes hoping to be booked for gigs (weddings and dances, etc.). Benny Green and Ronnie Scott were regularly among the crowd. 'On Monday morning there could be as many as 500 people in the street, and every night around midnight, the owner of the Harmony Inn would give Ronnie the key for us to hang out.' Nearby was the American Forces Club, the Queensbury, where Glenn Miller's AAAF band sometimes played. It was to Archer Street that Robert and Monty went to book musicians for their opening night. 'We spoke to the bassist, and said "you're getting 2 pounds 10s? We'll pay you 3.00 pounds to play for us." He agreed, so I told him: 'Get George Shearing, Kenny Baker and six other top musicians!'. Robert then contacted the Melody Maker (then a dance and swing music weekly) and put in the following advert: No. 1 Swing Club ... 100 Oxford Street, opening night, for members only ... Listen and dance to the following line-up: Kenny Baker, Tommy Bromley; Bobby Midgley; Tommy Pollard; Jimmy Skidmore; Frank Weir. Guest artists: The Feldman Trio. Subscriptions 5s. 0d. (25p) per annum to be sent to: The Secretary, Oakleigh Gardens, Edgware. 'The idea' said Robert, 'was that only those who sent their five shillings could get in free on the opening night, and in future it would be 3s. 6.d 'for members and 5s. 0d. for visitors.'

The boys were inundated with enough members to book Mae's for three consecutive weeks. Thus on October 24, 1942 at 7.30pm The Feldman Swing Club was born. According to The Melody Maker, it would provide London enthusiasts with what they had always lacked, a regular home for swing music where they could meet, dance, and listen to jazz music from star players. However, the possibilities of the club were seen as wider than this. Its creation would bring to a climax that hoary old argument once and for all: whether swing can be made commercial. Excitement was in the air.

Helen, who met Monty at the club whilst on a date with an American officer. recalls the opening night. 'The atmosphere was electric with the low ceiling vibrating from the sound. From then on there were queues halfway Oxford Street.’

The club became so popular that it opened on a Saturday as well. Helen describes how Robert and Monty's lives began to change. 'I remember that in fact lots of money was made from the club, enough for the boys to give up their work as pattern cutters. They started to wear silk hand-painted ties, suede shoes and sports jackets. They spent their time booking musicians, filling out PRS (Performing Rights Society) forms and making demos at Carlo Krahmer's lovely recording studios in Tottenham Court Road.'

Until the formation of The Feldman Club the main places to hear live jazz were all night unlicensed clubs known as 'bottle parties' - here licensing laws were evaded by ordering a bottle and having it stored at the off licence close by with your name on it until you wanted it. They were, according to Ronnie Scott, 'peopled by ladies of the night and wartime guards officers out for a good time. . ..’ Here many musicians started their careers. The Feldman Club also allowed dancing and it was here that American Servicemen patronising the club introduced the free-style jiving (jitterbugging) which was then a new improvised style of dancing.

Dance promoter Tony Harrison confirms that 'jitterbuggers' (sic) would often collide with nicely dressed people in the 'posher clubs' and there would be signs saying 'no jitterbugging' or 'no jiving' (later) and if they dared, the owners would say ‘stop, or get out.’ At Feldman's they could relax and dance. There were also Rhythm Clubs -as mentioned in the introduction - where there were also occasional jam sessions. However, dancing was not permitted and a concert atmosphere prevailed.

The Feldman was a club with an open-minded atmosphere that would, according to Tony Harrison, 'open its doors to everybody'. There were no class, racial or religious distinctions, and the average working man earning 2.00 pounds per week could afford the 3s.6d. (l7 ½ p) to get in.

Visiting American musicians would always make a beeline for the club which became the number one place to go, and was advertised as The Mecca of Swing. At one point, Glenn Miller decided to visit the club only to be refused entry until Joseph Feldman himself intervened. However, on other occasions for Joseph this attitude worked to his disadvantage. Guitarist Pete Chilvers, who played with the band every Sunday night, recalls arriving at the door and asking if he could bring in a few pals. 'Any friend of yours is a friend of mine' was Joseph's amicable response. However, Chilvers chuckles, ‘you should have seen his face as I trooped in with an endless line of Yanks.’

Once inside, Chilvers recalls eight-year-old Victor, with braces on his teeth, running up and sitting on his knee, whilst Freddie Crump took the place to pieces playing on his own teeth with drumsticks'. into the microphone. Eighty-year-old bassist Coleridge Good remembers watching little Victor in amazement: 'He was so small his feet were too tiny to reach the drum pedal; he could just touch it with the tips of his toes. He was wonderfully agile.' Such scenes were to last for around ten years.

The club hosted every British jazz musician of note and many Americans including: pianist Mel Powell, drummer Ray McKinley, clarinetist Benny Goodman, saxophonists Art Pepper and Spike Robinson, plus French violinist Stephanie Grappelli. British saxophonist Kathy Stobart stresses the importance of the club in jazz history: 'The Feldman Club was the place where we all blossomed and made our contacts; that is where I first met John Dankworth'.

Ballad and blues singer Jimmy James remembers with a nostalgic glaze in his eyes some now famous musicians starting out. 'I can see them there now along the back stage right; there's young Tony Crombie (19), Johnny Dankworth (17), Carlo Krahmer, Phil Seamen (18) and 10-year-old Victor Feldman playing with 17-year-old Ronnie Scott' (this would have been in 1944-Ed). James recalls Glenn Miller's boys (sic) coming down for the big band evening and Joseph, smartly dressed, filming a line of fans with a cine-camera.

Vocalist and percussionist Frank Holder confirms the celebrity status 'Everybody was dying to play there and they knew Robert only went for star names'. He also stresses the importance of the Feldman for black musicians such as himself. 'When I arrived from Guyana in 1944 with the RAF I was hungry for jazz. At Feldman's you could prove yourself and get into the scene. People like Coleridge Goode, Ray Ellington and Lauderic Caton would play there. The guys got to know you and my reputation got around. When there was a sudden influx of blacks with the RAF I was then able to introduce them into jazz. What mattered to Robert and Monty Feldman was that you were musical.'

Guitarist Cliff Dunne recalls 'that there was a real family atmosphere at Feldman's which became an important refuge for Jews and blacks living in wartime London'.

New Orleans style bands such as George Webb's Dixielanders and the Crane River Jazz Band also appeared at the club. George Webb remembers that late in 1943, Ray Sonin the then editor of The Melody Maker, persuaded Robert to book the Dixielanders, who had a large following among traditional fans in greater London. Freddy Mirfield and his Garbage Men (another traditional band from East London) were due to play. Personnel included Freddy Randall (t), Johnny Dankworth (cl) and Dennis Croker on trombone. Croker never got to play however on this special Sunday afternoon as he was injured by a 'Doodlebug' (German flying bomb used to raid London from launch pads in occupied France). Eddie Harvey stood in for him.

The club continued until 1954 but then Robert said he started to lose interest. 'Some weeks it was doing all right, but towards the end, not so much. Other clubs started opening (The London Jazz Club and the Humphrey Lyttelton Club were using the same premises on different nights of the week - Lyttelton was appearing twice per week – Ed.) and there was too much competition. ‘I thought, I'm not taking it on for another year. If there were three new clubs opening I'd end up with a smaller audience and only one top musician, say Johnny Dankworth, and the rest would be just ordinary'.

Robert Feldman decided to try his luck in New York, but this wasn't a great success. He said later: 'It was hopeless.'

Unfortunately the Feldman brothers are no longer with us to give us more details of Robert's New York venture. Joseph died on July 31, 1957, Monty on March 9, 1979 (aged 53); Victor on May 14, 1987 (also 53) and Robert on November 2, 1992 aged 69. However, The Feldman Club is still alive in spirit where jazz still flourishes at The 100 Club and to mature jazz fans it will still be remembered as Feldman's!

(Editor's note: This feature is largely based on information given to Barbara Feldman during interviews, since she is too young to have actually experienced the events described. However, memories dim over the years and it has been necessary to adjust certain reports to conform with known facts and birthdates, etc.)”