Ronnie Hughes (1925-2020)

Sebastian writes:

“A wonderful lyrical player with a beautiful sound” is how Henry Lowther describes fellow trumpeter Ronnie Hughes, who died peacefully on 1 April 2020 at the age of 94.

Trombonist and arranger Bill Geldard remembers that “sometimes out of the blue would come a bit of pure magic from him. He was just a great and original player, he could do anything.” And Gerard Presencer says “he had an improvising style of understatement and grace, with a great sense of swing. He was a soulful player with a sweet sound – sweet is the only word that describes his sound adequately to me.”

He is also remembered as a likeable person who was fun to be with, and who had a fundamentally generous spirit. Henry Lowther remembers Ronnie telephoning him spontaneously to compliment him after having heard him on the radio. And Gerard Presencer has not forgotten his positive presence early on in his career: “I was just starting to get a few calls to do studio work in my early 20s and I was booked for a session with a big band full of the older generation of revered British big band players. I remember sitting down next to Ronnie, who was a friendly face when I really needed one.” Laurie Holloway remembers him as “a friend, a good man and a fine trumpet player.” And John Sergeant, who plays drums in the Kingswood Big Band, in which the trumpeter continued to play until just a few months before he died, remembers him fondly as “just a gentleman really.”

Ronnie Hughes with Dustin Hoffman on the set of “Quartet” in 2011

Born in Aberystwyth in 1925, Ronnie Hughes took up the trumpet at the age of eleven and the following year was already playing local semi-pro gigs. He was in the RAF from 1943 until 1947, including service in India. He returned to Wales to study photography, but then moved to London to join the band of Trinidadian clarinettist Carl Barriteau. He worked for a year with the Teddy Foster Band from 1948 until 1949, and was a member of the highly successful Ted Heath band from 1949 until 1954. He was married to the band’s vocalist Lita Roza (obituary). She famously had a No.1 hit in 1953 with the Bob Merrill novelty ballad, “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window”.

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In the late fifties, Ronnie was in the bands of Geraldo and Jack Parnell, and after his marriage to Roza broke up had a spell working on ocean liners. Ronnie Hughes was a totally reliable and ubiquitous session player during the heyday of TV work, and one of the original members of the BBC Big Band. He could be, as Henry Lowther describes it, a “lead player by default”, but was also a totally fluent jazz improviser. He was a member of the Sinatra band that travelled widely and included players such as Don Lusher.

A perhaps typical story is told by Bill Geldard who remembers a tour to Japan with Frank Chacksfield where the British band found themselves spending time with a top Los Angeles band of studio players. The lasting result was that, initially through their respect for each other’s playing, Ronnie Hughes became a long-term friend of fellow trumpeter Mannie Klein (1908–1994) who had played in the Paul Whiteman, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman bands. Ronnie would say later that one of his proudest moments was to have had trumpeters Mannie Klein and Tommy McQuater simultaneously as guests in his house.

L-R: Ronnie Hughes, Conte Candoli, Tommy McQuater, Stan Reynolds, Pete Candoli c.1994. Photo courtesy of the McQuater family

One highlight of the latter part of his life was an appearance playing in the film Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman, who was captivated by his playing and said at the time: “Ronnie Hughes has still got his chops today but for some strange reason the culture doesn’t call him because he’s 83 years old. And these people are in their 70s and 80s and 90s and came with such verve every day and would still be shooting these 10 and 12-hour days. So, that in itself made this an extraordinarily special occasion for all of us. It wasn’t a job for the crew after a few days, it took on another tone.” Friends and colleagues from the Coda Club would rib him for his new-found “stardom”, but that was something which Ronnie Hughes, typically, always took in good part.

Ronald (Ronnie) Hughes
Born : June 27, 1925, Aberystwyth, Wales
Died 1 April 2020, Banstead, Surrey

VIDEOS: With Jack Honeyborne and Roy Willox at the 2014 Ealing Jazz Festival

With Dustin Hoffman on the set of Quartet in 2011

AUDIO: With the Nelson’s Column Big Band ca. 1981

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