Trumpeter and bandleader;
Born: May 22, 1930; Died: March 7, 2013.
Trumpeter Kenny Ball, who has died aged 82, was for years the public face of jazz in Britain, familiar to millions through his appearances as leader of the house band on the Morecambe & Wise Show, and later filling the same role on the BBC's Saturday Night at the Mill.
In the early 1960s he had the distinction of reaching No 2 in both the UK and US pop charts with his instrumental adaptation of the Russian song Midnight in Moscow and although the trad jazz boom that he spearheaded with Acker Bilk and Chris Barber would eventually suffer at the hands of bands that once played down the bill from Ball's Jazzmen, including the Beatles, he remained a popular figure, touring right up to the last month of his life. Indeed, his band, now led by Ball's son Keith, is honouring a commitment to play in Grantham, in Lincolnshire, this very evening.
Born in Ilford in 1930, Ball grew up in a typical East End of London family of nine children and his introduction to music came through the weekly Sunday sing-songs that his piccolo-playing father organised at home. The young Kenny began playing the harmonica before, on joining the Sea Scouts at the age of 12, he discovered a natural aptitude for the bugle, switching to trumpet three years later. Blowing in a marching band helped him to develop the lung power that would give his trumpet playing a tough, hard-hitting edge that he allied to the discipline of both the Sea Scouts band and the dance bands that he played in during his teens.
Ball's taste in trumpet heroes as he continued serving his musical apprenticeship into the 1950s was eclectic for a time when jazz audiences' allegiances were polarised, generally following either the traditional New Orleans style or the modern bebop trailblazed by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Ball loved Louis Armstrong, and would later support him during his final European tour, but he also listened carefully to more modern players, including Clifford Brown.
Having worked as a clerk on leaving school at 14 and played on BBC broadcasts with Charlie Galbraith's band, Ball became a full-time professional trumpeter in 1953, playing with the popular Sid Phillips and Eric Delaney bands. In 1958 he and trombonist John Bennett formed one of the longest-running partnerships in jazz when they put together the first edition of Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen.
With Dave Jones on clarinet, Colin Bates (piano), Brian Prudence (bass), Tony Budd (drums) and John Potter, who was shortly afterwards replaced by Dickie Bishop on guitar and banjo, they quickly established a tight, polished sound that proved popular in the jazz cellars of mainland Europe, as well as in the clubs at home. Within a year, through a recording contract engineered by Lonnie Donegan, they had released their first single, Waterloo, followed by Teddy Bear's Picnic the following year. Then, in 1961, they enjoyed a run of hits with Samantha, from High Society, I Still Love You All, Someday and the million-selling Midnight in Moscow.
Buoyed by being presented with the subsequent gold disc by Louis Armstrong, no less, Ball and his band appeared to be unstoppable. They appeared with Bilk and Barber in the 1962 film It's Trad Dad, made their first trip to the US, followed by tours of Australia and New Zealand, appeared on the Royal Command Performance, and for the next five years continued to have pop star-style success.
The trad jazz boom ended with the band playing mostly cabaret clubs and civic theatres as an extension of their house band role with Morecambe & Wise. They remained popular on the continent as a solid jazz attraction, though, and recorded grittier jazz tracks alongside commercial material, including the album A Friend to You.
In 1981, Ball played probably the most prestigious gig of his career when he presented his Jazzmen in performance as a wedding gift to Prince Charles and Princess Diana at their wedding reception and four years later he and the Jazzmen became the first British jazz band to tour the Soviet Union, where their performances of Midnight in Moscow especially made them national heroes. In the 1990s Ball and his Jazzmen teamed up with Acker Bilk's band as a popular touring package, later adding Chris Barber's band to re-unite the trad boom's most revered outfits.
Ball's autobiography, Blowing My Own Trumpet, and the subsequent "medley of memories", Musical Skylarks, written with John Bennett, detailed the worldwide travels and adventures of a band that continued pulling loyal crowds as the trumpeter entered his eighties. Even as his trumpet playing eventually had to give way to his singing, Kenny Ball continued to entertain his fans into his famous Jazzmen's seventh decade. He is survived by his son.
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