1. Hi, Digby! We can't wait to have you at The Ashtead Jazz Club. Are you looking forward to playing at The AJC?
Of course. I’ll be working with marvellous players! I just hope I can keep up with them!
2. What can The AJC audience look forward to on 30th September 2016?
Well I’ll be playing nice tunes – nothing too ‘far out’ or ‘challenging’! I suppose I’m really a Swing player if that makes any sense. Oh, and I’ll be singing a few of my favourite songs too – so lock the doors!
3. You have spent the last nearly 40 years performing and touring the world as one of the UK's leading jazz names. What, do you feel have been some highlights?
Well that’s very kind. I enjoyed the seventies when jazz was still just fun (not a fulltme profession) – and the eighties when I made what I think may be my best recordings with the pianist Stan Barker. They’ve just been reissued by the way and I’ll have some with me on the night. Later I loved my six year partnership with George Melly too. But perhaps my favourite things has been leading my own ‘Half Dozen’. It’s a marvellous band. We celebrated our 20th Anniversary with a UK tour in 2015 and we’re still going strong!
4. We're extremely jealous that you had the opportunity to meet and work with the great Humphrey Lyttleton. He was a wonderful man, wasn't he? Do you have any memories you can share?
Well – although I shared many stands with Humph – he was a very private man and I never felt I knew him that well until about 2003 when we toured together with George in the ‘Kings of Jazz’ packages. I found a marvellous book of all the New Yorker magazine’s cartoons and – knowing his love of the craft - sent him a copy. It was an enormous tome and a week or two later he rang me and said:”Humph here! My postman has just had a heart attack delivering your parcel. But thank you!” After that we became good friends and we now have his complete collections at ‘The Jazz Centre UK’ in Southend. A wonderful man – and my only sadness was that he died on my birthday – April 25th – in 2008. One present I definitely hadn’t wished for!
5. Similarly, you have gigged and toured with blues legend George Kelly, how was he to work with?
Yes I did six years with George – from mid-2002 to 2007 when he died. Later I wrote a book about those years too. We recorded three albums with him with the Half Dozen including what he called his favourite of all: ‘The Ultimate Melly’ for Candid with guests including The Swingle Singers, Jacqui Dankworth, John Chilton and the great Van Morrison! George was a complete one-off – and a trouper. And although he was very ill at the end he sang for the last time at the 100 Club with us three weeks before he died. Our recording of ‘September Song’ was played at his funeral too and I was very proud of that.
6. You now work closely with clarinetist Julian Marc Stringle. How did that partnership come about?
Ah – Julian! What a player – and one of the loveliest human beings you’ll ever meet. I first played with him when he was 12 and leading hs own band in Kentish Town, North London. He was my founding-partner in the Half Dozen in l995 and although he’s a clarinettist by choice his saxophone playing is just as good these days. Absolutely premier-league! And he’s also a marvellous singer who sings lead in our vocal group. I can’t say enough about Jools – a dear man, a deeply generous soul and one of my best, best friends. He’s better looking than me too – the swine!
7. Do you have a favourite venue to perform at (apart from the Ashtead Jazz Club of course!)? What makes that venue so special?
Well – apart from Ashtead of course! – I suppose I have lots of venues I like and some I’m less keen on! The sound of the room is very important to me – the accoustics. The 100 Club had wonderful accoustics and a very good P/A and they both encouraged you to play well, not to overblow and relax creatively. But there are lots of others, and when we go out with the Half Dozen we carry our own P/A which means we can adjust the sound to our liking.
8. Who do you feel have been the biggest influences on your playing?
Well I’m a bit of a rag-bag. There are dozens of trumpeters I like. Louis best of all, naturally. But then there’s Harry James, Billy Butterfield, the great Ruby Braff (who – I’m proud to say – was my dear friend), another dear friend Wild Bill Davison, Charlie Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, Charlie Shavers, Warren Vache. Then in Britain there was Freddy Randall and Colin Smith. Too many to list really. But – although I revere Fats Navarro Clifford Brown Dizzy (of course) – the ones I go back to most are the ones I mentioned first. Oh – and Don Goldie! Another very under-rated phenomenon whom I knew well.
9. Do you have any particular artists you're enjoying listening to at the moment?
There’s an awful lot. Currently I’m revising Art Tatum –the greatest of all jazz pianists. But over the past week my wife Gwen and I have listened to – let me see – Georges Guetary, Wingy Manone, George Lewis, Geno Washington, Schnozzle Durante and Delius. Oh and Pops of course! We like lots and lots of different things!
10. Apart from jazz, what other styles of music do you enjoy?
Well – as above really. But I’m particularly fond of vocal groups: the Four Freshmen, Manhattan Transfer, Six Hits and a Miss, the Hi-Los, the Modernaires – anyone who does it properly and we like to try to sing it with the Half Dozen too. Four or five part harmony is a very specialized area which got lost to a great degree when rock music took over. Not that I don’t enjoy a lot of pop music! But I always remember my good friend Ross Barbour who sang with the Freshmen for years. I was talking to him for a BBC interview and he said:”Digby – we thought we understood the art of close harmony. But then these four guys come along and sing one sixth chord at the end of ‘She loves you’ and the whole world goes crazy!”. I think he was bewildered by that – and it took groups like Mantran to reintroduce the art. There’s a video where Janice Siegel makes the distinction very clearly. And I was heartbroken when Tim Hauser died. Tim was the co-founder of Mantran with Janice and he was a marvellous man whom I interviewed on his last-but-one visit to Ronnie’s.
11. Away from music, what else do you enjoy doing with your time?
Movies – certainly! Most nights when Gwen and I aren’t working we watch a film. I’m also extremely interested in American history. And of course I’m now directing operations at ‘The Jazz Centre UK’ which I very much hope will be the flagship centre for British jazz one day – something we’ve lacked