george webb 100 - a celebration

George Webb is widely regarded as the 'Father' of traditional jazz in Britain. October 8th 2017 would have been George's 100th birthday and the Club marked the occasion with a special evening on 12th October, with Barry Palser's Super Six playing "A Tribute to George Webb".

Photographs by Sheila Humphreys

Over 120 people came to pay tribute to the 'Father' of Traditional Jazz in the UK. A great night was had by all. You can see Penny and Pete (George's daughter & son-in-law) jiving to a jazz classic previously recorded by the George Webb Dixielanders.

The George Webb Story

George Webb, who died on March 10th  2010 aged 92, is universally acknowledged to be the father of the postwar traditional jazz revival in Britain, serving as an inspiration to, and frequent band member with, the trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton. The movement George created, which grew steadily in the late 1940s, led directly to the "trad boom" of the late 1950s and early 1960s in which he also played a leading part, first as pianist and bandleader and later as agent and promoter.

George Horace Webb was born in Camberwell, south London, on October 8 1917, the son of a music hall artiste. His earliest memories were of his father and uncle (the "Brothers Webb") rehearsing their act at home. The family later moved to Belvedere, Kent, and George took a job at the Vickers Armstrong armaments factory in nearby Dartford. When war broke out in 1939, he was already a skilled machine-gun fitter and thus exempt from the call-up. A keen jazz enthusiast and self-taught amateur pianist, George helped organise entertainment in the factory canteen and, in 1940, began assembling a group of like-minded young jazz lovers with the aim of forming a band. The intention was to play in the style of the early jazz masters, whose music they knew well from records.

In 1941, the band acquired a name: "George Webb's Dixielanders", and a regular place to play – the downstairs bar of the Red Barn pub in nearby Barnehurst. Modelled on King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band of 1922 to 1924, their music sounded alien, even barbaric, to ears brought up on crooners and English dance bands. George was fond of recalling the band's first appearance at the Red Barn: "By the time we had finished the first number we were playing to about ten people, the other 50 having fled to the saloon bar upstairs." A sometimes pugnacious character, he once defended the band's honour from a mocking onlooker by striding off-stage mid-performance, landing a heavy blow, then returning to the keyboard. But the word gradually spread, and over the next six years jazz devotees converged upon their unlikely suburban stage to enjoy the unique experience of hearing jazz in the classic style played live. One such visitor was Humphrey Lyttelton, newly demobbed Grenadier Guards officer, first-year art student and aspiring jazz trumpeter. He sat in with the Dixielanders and was soon invited to become a permanent member.

As the style took off in the postwar years, a growing network of venues, along the lines of the Red Barn, became established around Britain. There were features in the music press, occasional radio broadcasts, and even recordings. In 1948, with its members scattering in search of employment, the Dixielanders folded and George joined Lyttelton's newly-formed band as pianist. Partly as a result of George's pioneering work, Lyttelton quickly found a new audience among the growing student population. In place of the beer-sipping aficionados of the Red Barn, his band played for crowds of youthful dancers at venues in central London, and later around the country. It also recorded prolifically, with George's effervescent piano often featured. He was a small man, with tiny hands, which Lyttelton said reminded him of a pair of kittens, scampering up and down the keyboard.

In 1951, observing the growing popularity of revivalist jazz, George thought it a good moment to branch out into promoting jazz events. The most successful of these were the Sunday night sessions at the Shakespeare Hotel, Woolwich, which played to packed houses until the early 1960s. In 1955, George joined the staff of Jazzshows Promotions, booking bands and singers for the ever-expanding club and concert circuit. Leaving Jazzshows after 10 years, he set up his own management and agency business, numbering rhythm and blues groups as well as jazz bands among his clients. George barely touched the piano during these years, but returned to playing in the early 1970s. He toured Europe as accompanist to the singer Jo Starr and, in 1973, briefly formed a new version of the Dixielanders. In 1974 he took the tenancy of a pub at Stansted, Essex, a move which enabled him combine all his various activities. He ran the bar, booked the entertainment and sat in with visiting bands whenever he felt like it.

In 1985 George gave up his tenancy and moved back to Belvedere, close to the scene of his early triumphs. On July 4 of that year he was guest of honour at the unveiling of a plaque at the Red Barn, commemorating his contribution to British jazz. He continued to promote jazz through his "Goodtime Jazz Festivals" and regularly attended the local Sidcup Jazz Club. Although officially retired, he resumed playing with gusto,  appearing as guest artist with many bands, formed several temporary outfits of his own, and was always the first to volunteer to perform at a charity event. In 1998 he took a prominent role in the celebrations of Humphrey Lyttelton's half-century as a bandleader. He continued to play with his "Band of Brothers" until the end of his long colourful life.

Listen to the original George Webb's Dixielanders: -

muskrat ramble

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George Webb (piano), Owen Bryce (cornet), Reg Rigden (cornet), Wally Fawkes (clarinet), Eddie Harvey (trombone), Buddy Vallis (banjo), Art Streatfield (tuba), Roy Wykes (drums).

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