Wednesday, November 05, 2014
But one of the most unexpected pop hits by a jazz musician owed as much to its uniquely jazzy sound as to a melody people could hum in the bus queue. That was the West Country clarinettist Acker Bilk’s slow ballad Stranger on the Shore, which topped the charts in 1962.
Bilk, who has died aged 85, turned up on television pop shows, imperturbably at ease with his goatee, waistcoat and bowler hat amid the quiffed teen rockers, and bridged two worlds that were then still close enough to be crossed – the youngish audience for trad jazz, and the teenage fans living in a pop climate in which skiffle, swing and primitive rock still clearly had a common ancestry.
But if Bilk’s hit was possible because a late-50s trad jazz revival was still running in parallel with rock-driven pop, it bore little resemblance to the successful records being made by his contemporaries Kenny Ball and Chris Barber, with their tight and effervescent music for jiving, or, in Barber’s case, a hybrid of traditional jazz with a powerful shot of rhythm and blues in it.
The strings-backed melody of Stranger on the Shore was romantic and dreamy, like drifting in a boat on the sea, but the appeal of the record really lay in Bilk’s delicate, vibrato-shimmering mid-register clarinet sound. It sounded tender, generous, luxuriously relaxed, and it reached out to so many jazz and non-jazz listeners alike as to make Bilk the hottest commercial property of the British trad jazz movement. He called Stranger on the Shore his “old age pension”.
Bilk’s career began with a much more fundamentalist approach to the preservation of early jazz styles, playing a much harsher and more rugged-sounding clarinet in the revivalist band of the trumpeter Ken Colyer, which rigorously devoted itself to the pre-20s New Orleans ensemble style, with its emphasis on collective improvisation and discouragement of soloists’ bravura. But though Colyer’s highly authentic music appealed to buffs, Bilk was a showman with an instinct for popular appeal.
Born Bernard Bilk in Pensford, Somerset, he was encouraged by his parents, William and Lillian, to learn the piano as a child, but preferred football and boxing. He took up the clarinet while on national service with the Royal Engineers in Egypt. He acquired the nickname Acker (north Somerset slang for “friend”), and on his discharge in 1950 worked at the Wills tobacco factory in Bristol, formed his own band, and moved briefly to London with his wife, Jean, to join Colyer in 1954.
The change did not suit him, however, and he returned west to open a jazz club in Bristol – the Paramount – and founded his own Paramount Jazz Band. Bilk returned to London in 1957 as the trad boom swelled, toured Germany, and made his first recordings as a leader. In 1960, he reached No 8 in the UK charts with Summer Set, a theme inspired by his home county and co-written with the pianist Dave Collett.
On the road, the Paramount Jazz Band delivered a raw and bracing repertoire of blues and ragtime, but as the skiffle and trad jazz boom accelerated in Britain, the publicist Peter Leslie spotted Bilk’s potential and gave the band its trademark uniform of Edwardian clothes and bowler hats.
A series of hits for Bilk and the band followed, culminating in the clarinet-and-strings combination Stranger on the Shore. Bilk had originally written the tune for his daughter, Jenny, and the disc was to sell over 2m copies and become the theme music to a television drama series of the same name. Within two years, the Beatles were to transform pop music in Britain, and the jazz bands retreated to the devoted attentions of a niche audience. But Bilk, ever adaptable, transformed himself into a cabaret artist, developing enthusiastic audiences across Europe, though he took care to keep up with his jazz. In 1962, he played a Royal Command Performance and toured the US.
Bilk revealed that he was more open to later jazz styles than he seemed. In 1968 he recorded the album Blue Acker with such British bebop luminaries as Stan Tracey and Kenny Wheeler, and the following year he was in an A-list of soloists including the modern saxophonists Joe Harriott and Don Rendell on Tracey’s We Love You Madly album, dedicated to Duke Ellington. Lake Records reissued both albums as a compilation in 2005.
In the following decade, Bilk continued to record regularly, often repeating the evocative Stranger formula, setting his haunting clarinet sound against a string orchestra – he even had another hit in 1976, with Aria. The Paramount Jazz Band’s lineup stayed remarkably consistent, and the version that included the trumpeter Mike Cotton and the trombonist/vocalist Campbell Burnap lasted into the 90s, when Bilk cut back on playing to concentrate on a less strenuous long-time enthusiasm, for painting.
But he continued to record, in amiable rambles through timeless material with like-minded partners, including his fellow clarinettist Wally Fawkes. He emerged from throat cancer treatment in 2000, was appointed MBE in 2001 and showed that he could still turn it on in live performance well into his 80s.
Bilk’s trad reunions with Barber and Ball, such as the 2009 appearance at London’s IndigO2, confirmed that his deep, honeyed sound still flowed and his deadpan gags retained their flawless timing, even if he might rather wearily don the famous bowler hat for the inevitable Stranger on the Shore.
Bilk is survived by Jean, and his children, Peter and Jenny.
Posted by Michael Godin at 5:40 PM