NEWS/TRIBUTE: John Hughes, founder/musical director of Walsall Jazz Orchestra, R.I.P. (1940 – 2019)

John Hughes
Photo: © John Watson/
Peter Bacon pays tribute:

The death has been announced of John Hughes, founder and musical director of Walsall Jazz Orchestra. He had been suffering from prostate cancer. He was 78.

This message from Helen Miller, who plays first trombone in WJO and has been with it since it was a youth band, was posted on Facebook:

Dear friends,
It is with great sorrow that I announce the death of our dear friend and founder John Hughes. He passed peacefully away on Monday 18th March. John finally lost his brave eight year battle with prostate cancer.
John established the Walsall Jazz Orchestra in 1975. His drive, commitment, dedication and love for music has kept the band thriving for an incredible 44 years. 
I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of the band to thank you for the support you have shown John and the Walsall Jazz Orchestra over the years and look forward to your support as we endeavour to continue his inspirational legacy.
Our thoughts go out to Jeanne, Penny and Sue at this very sad time.
Helen and Walsall Jazz Orchestra.

Julian Argüelles, who was in the band in the 1980s, sent LondonJazz News these words today:

“Every year, for the last 30 years or so, whenever the New Years Honours list is published, and many rich and famous people are honoured, I think of John Hughes. He is the kind of person who should have been awarded/rewarded for all the tireless hard work and selfless dedication he put into running a community based project, in his case the Walsall Jazz Orchestra. When I was involved with it it was a fantastic youth band with a great vibe, playing new and interesting music, which is unfortunately not as common as it should be. He was a wonderful man and I will always be very grateful for all he did for us.”

I interviewed John on the occasion of WJO’s 40th anniversary in March 2015. He came across in interview just as he did on stage: self-effacing, modest, a little reticent to talk about himself and much keener to talk about all the musicians who had inspired him and who had contributed to the success of the band he had founded back in 1975.

Here is an extract from that interview. John explains how he became interested in jazz:

“I was completely useless at school, particularly at music which was just a no-no for me. We had this music teacher who would play us 78s of The Messiah and would tell us what great music it was…” (He makes a snoring sound.)

The moment of revelation came at a friend’s house. John can even remember the records he heard that day: Dizzy Gillespie’s The Champ, Woody Herman’s Wild Root, Stan Kenton’s Hammersmith Riff and Charlie Parker’s Cool Blues.

“I was just blown away. From having no interest whatsoever I wanted to go out and buy every record I could get my hands on…

“My friends wanted to buy instruments so I did too. One bought a trumpet, the other a saxophone and they said what we needed was a trombonist. I did a paper round to earn the money to buy a trombone.”

John was from the generation where semi-pro playing and taking any gig going formed the basis of his musical education. He was 40 before he gained any formal musical qualification.

Walsall Jazz Orchestra has its origins in the first school John taught in, Queen Mary’s High School in Walsall. And this all-girls origin still shows in the fact that today’s band is half female.

Here’s John again:

“Queen Mary’s had this fantastic wind band – they used to play Crown Imperial and play it well – but the one thing they all really perked up at was when they did a Duke Ellington number. So I said why don’t we start a jazz orchestra? The kids would love it…

“I borrowed some music from Norman Dovey – Woodchopper’s Ball and stuff like that… and from the word go it went like a bomb. We started in 1975 and by ’77 we played at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee at the South Bank and we were on ATV Today playing a Quincy Jones thing called G’won Train.”

Soon the girls from Queen Mary’s were joined by keen children from other schools… Two alumni who appeared with the band at their 40th anniversary concerts were saxophonist Julian Argüelles and trumpeter Martin Shaw.

John concluded our chat back in 2015 with these words:

“There never was a plan – things just happened. Financially I’ve made bugger all,” he says with a dismissive shrug.  And then the smile lights up his face: “It’s just great to stand in front of a terrific big band!”

It was typical of John to underplay his role. The reason Walsall Jazz Orchestra is, and always has been, such a terrific big band, is the warmth, dedication and generosity that John Hughes brought to it. His presence, standing at the front of Walsall Jazz Orchestra, will be sorely missed, but the ethos he instilled in the band and which has influenced all the musicians who have passed through it, lives on.

LINK: John Hughes interview from thejazzbreakfast

Categories: News

1 reply »

  1. I'm very sad to hear this news. John Hughes was a wonderful person to work with and to have a chat with about the music. The Walsall Jazz Orchestra was a great band and we at Birmingham Jazz and then Jazzlines loved putting them on. Indeed, Mike Gibbs' first projecton his return from the US was to arrange some of his material for the band.

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