John Chilton: gentleman and scholar of jazz

February 26, 2016 at 10:29 pm (good people, history, jazz, Jim D, literature, music, RIP)

When I was a lad first getting into jazz I wanted a copy of Eddie Condon’s biography, ‘We Called It Music’, which I’d heard was an informative and entertaining read: but how to get my hands on a copy? The old memory’s not all it might be these days, so I cannot recall how I got the idea, but somehow I learned that a jazz trumpeter called John Chilton ran a bookshop in Bloomsbury, London and so I sent the shop a book token I’d been given, with a note asking if they had a second-hand copy. The book arrived a few days later, plus a friendly note from John and postal order for the change I was owed! That was my only direct dealing with John Chilton, who has died aged 83.

I did, however, get to hear John play on several occasions, starting with a Sunday lunchtime session at a rather grotty pub in Clerkenwell called the New Merlin’s Cave, and then at a number of rather more prestigious venues where his Feetwarmers were backing George Melly. In fact, the Feetwarmers became Melly’s backing group and John his de facto road manager and musical director from the mid-70’s until the early 2000’s.

But John had a parallel career as a jazz historian and writer. His seminal ‘Who’s Who Of Jazz’ was described by Phillip Larkin as “one of the essential jazz books” and his biographies of Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Sidney Bechet  and (together with Max Jones) Louis Armstrong won many awards and remain indispensable works on their subjects.

He also happened to be, by all accounts, a very decent and generous human being – well, he did, after all, send me that postal order.

Revisiting his ‘Who’s Who Of Jazz’ for the first time in a while, I’ve just noticed this forward by one Johnny Simmen of Zurich., which I think stands as a good, brief, epitaph:

“Rex Stewart, Bill Coleman, and Buck Clayton were the first to mention the name of John Chilton to me. They all said that he was a fine trumpeter and led a good band. ‘That boy is amazing’, Rex told me, ‘and I mean it’, he said, emphaising the point. Later on, when Bill and Buck expressed similarly flattering opinions, I concluded that Chilton had to be a pretty exceptional musician. I finally managed to hear a few of his solos and realised at once that they had not exaggerated one bit.

“Some time later, I received a letter from England, turning the envelope I saw to my surprise that the sender’s name was John Chilton. Perhaps he wanted me to investigate the possibilities of an engagement in Switzerland? No, there was no mention of this, but John – he had received my address from Bill Coleman – that he was in the process of writing a dictionary of American jazz musicians, from the very beginning up to the inclusion of musicians born before 1920. He asked if I had any information on doubtful points.

“From the tenor of the letter, I could tell at once that John is as deeply involved in the history of jazz and the men who play ‘the real thing’ as he is in his playing and arranging. Having gradually got fed up with phoney ‘jazz journalists’ over the years, I was glad to find out that John Chilton is an entirely different proposition. He has the ability, perseverence, and enthusiasm to tackle and finish such a demanding work. It is my opinion that this is one of the truly valuable books on jazz musicians. It is the work of a musician whose knowledge of jazz and love and devotion to ‘the cause’ is unsurpassed.”

Below: John on trumpet with the Bruce Turner Jump Band in 1961 (the still picture shows trombonist Johnny Mumford):

NB: Telegraph obit, here

7 Comments

  1. brucerob said,

    I object to the New Merlin’s Cave being described as grotty. I used to live literally across the road and acquired some of my initial jazz education there listening to such as Bruce Turner and Alan Elsdon at Sunday lunchtimes. It was not salubrious but not grotty by the standards of the time (late 70s).

    More to the point, I saw John Chilton a number of times with George Melly. He reminded me of an old fashioned bank manager and I remember his playing as surprising for someone who looked do strait-laced.

  2. Matthew Thompson said,

    • Jim Denham said,

      Thanks for that fascinating article, Matthew. I notice that a regular at the NMC describes it as ” a tatty old pub”, so perhaps Bruce and I have differing standards when it comes to pubs!

      • brucerob said,

        I just read that site too. I have to admit to having spent some time in grotty pubs in my youth and thus perhaps having tastes that would not pass the gastropub / bland chain test that seems to be the norm today. However I my defence I’d say I don’t remember the Merlin’s Cave as particularly bad.

        BTW Charles Rowan House were police flats subsequently squatted in the early 80s by, among others, a large contingent of obnoxious Socialist Action members.

      • Jim Denham said,

        I should add that when I first visited the NMC in my early teens and found a band including John Chilton (but not Bruce Turner – a minor disappointment) playing, I was in heaven. I remember I drank Guinness all afternoon because I wasn’t sure what else to order and had a good chat with reed player John Lee, who I next met about thirty years later.

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