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RIP Eddie Blair (1927-2020). A Tribute by Simon Spillett

“A player archetypal of his generation of London-based, jazz-apprenticed session men”, trumpeter Eddie Blair was a stalwart of the ‘golden era’ of the Ted Heath band, a member of the Johnny Dankworth Seven in its heyday, and a a key inspiration for Kenny Wheeler. He passed away on Boxing Day 2020 at the age of  93. Simon Spillett pays tribute to “a master craftsman who rarely – if ever – put a musical foot wrong”:

Eddie Blair: Screenshot of a 1964 All-Star Jazz Session on Jazz 625.

After a certain while the notion of judging a musician by the company he or she keeps becomes redundant, and, as in so many other things in life, how one is viewed becomes less about how much a face might fit as to how well that face does the job at hand. Indeed, once you get past the rather naive distractions of novelty or shock value, what emerges with the most genuine lasting value in music is not ‘innovation’ nor ‘newness’ or any of the things we might blithely use to qualify a player’s work but craftsmanship, that is the fail-safe ability to do a great job, time and again, at the highest possible standard.

The role of session musician – sometimes maligned, often misunderstood and yet indispensable to virtually any style of music – could serve as an apex example of this sort of work ethic. Think about it; they are expected, day in, day out, year upon year, to be ‘good’, not occasionally but every time they pick up their instrument. There is no hiding place, as it were, save that for the fact than so much of what they do is uncredited or, worse still, ignored.

Theirs is a skill though, make no mistake. And it’s one that can create its own legends and icons, those whose unfussy executive abilities can make them veritable giants in a world otherwise unseen and unnoticed.

Very often these toweringly accomplished figures cut a decidedly modest dash – going about their business with such little ceremony that the unwary might consider them less committed or energised than their more extrovert ‘jazz’-focused contemporaries.

Take Eddie Blair, the Scots trumpeter who passed away on Boxing Day, aged 93.

Ask those who knew him and they’ll tell you that there was no more exemplary representative of the many-layered requirements of a ‘session man’. Scratch a little deeper and they might tell you how highly he was rated as a jazz soloist, a role he drifted in and out of throughout a career spanning nearly sixty years. Dig further still and you might find them expressing the melancholy opinion that they ‘don’t make them like that any more.’ They may well be right. One thing’s for sure though; with Blair’s passing there are now less than a handful left from those once regarded as the London session mafia – the Lusher’s, Baker’s, Willox’s et al – players who came up during an era with an optimistic catch-phrase – ‘you’ve never had it so good – which could have been coined specifically for them.

Hitting extreme old age, Blair’s death certainly wasn’t unexpected, yet it may come as a surprise to many who might have thought that, with so many of his peers long gone, he’d already passed on to the great brass section in the sky. Unerringly modest and a team player through and through, not for Blair the high-profile valedictory fanfare that was the latter-day career of his long-term colleague and fellow trumpet-man Kenny Baker. Instead, his was a quiet retreat from the music business, slipping unceremoniously away from being a once ubiquitous member of the profession who – as the saying goes – had ‘done it all’ to a well-satisfied man in retirement. After 1992, studio calls and sight-reading were replaced by skiing and golf.

In fact, if you were looking for a player archetypal of his generation of London-based, jazz-apprenticed session men then Blair was your man. His CV ticked all the usual boxes – pop sessions with the likes of Tom Jones, Dave Clark and Savoy Brown, endless uncredited contributions to TV themes like ‘The Benny Hill Show’, numerous film soundtracks including several entries in the James Bond franchise, even recording with Frank Sinatra. Towards the end of his playing days he retreated into the rather less pressured worlds of West End shows (‘Anything Goes’) and the occasional Ted Heath memorial gig, but there was little hint of anti-climax to such a step. His was a life well-lived, often, at his peak, lived at full-tilt.

It had begun in Johnstone, Renfrewshire on June 25th 1927, where, born into a musical family he joined the local Silver Band on cornet, aged just ten. Local brass band work both gave him a solid grounding and kept him occupied until 1945 when aged eighteen, he was called up for a three year stint in the Royal Corps of Signals. Part-time blows in various service dance bands, this time on trumpet, helped fuel a growing passion for jazz and when he was demobbed in 1948 his daytime studies as Glasgow’s College of Technology were balanced by night-time residencies with the likes of local bandleaders Bert Tobias and George Scott Henderson, with whose outfit he won a ‘Melody Maker’ ‘All Britain’ contest in 1949.

Eddie Blair’s 1949 Melody Maker Award – obverse and reverse. Photo courtesy of Kate Barrett

This accolade piqued the interest of those further afield, including rising big band star Ken Mackintosh, who briefly enrolled the young Blair into his band for a Glasgow run. The promise of still more work in London was a major incentive, the young trumpeter skipping college to realise a dream he shared with many of his contemporaries; to make it ‘down south’.

Rather disappointingly, this break lasted a mere two weeks before Blair… headed home to commence another stay with Tobias, playing an extended run at Glasgow’s Locarno Ballroom, this time lasting until August 1951 when he was called to to replace his fellow Scot Jimmy Deuchar in the then still red hot Johnny Dankworth Seven.

Eddie Blair, Cleo Laine, John Dankworth. Venue and date unknown. Picture courtesy of Kate Barrett.

It’s a little difficult, given the passage of time, and our distinctly blasé 21st century take on such things, to convey just how important a move Blair’s recruitment by Dankworth then was.
Not only was the young altoist (born the same year as his new trumpet soloist) then the man in British modern jazz circles, his band – a highly stylised seven-piece that cocked a snook at many of the conventions of the dance band circuit on which it was forced to work – was a proposition as radical as, say, the Sex Pistols were to be twenty-five years hence.
Shoe-horning in as much bop-based methodology as they dare into situations demanding a commercial outlook, the band had made stars of its horn soloists, saxophonist Don Rendell, trombonist Eddie Harvey and trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, the latter emerging as an especially natural exponent of the new language of Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and co. To step into this hallowed company – and in particular into Deuchar’s shoes – was a major achievement for an unknown like Blair.

The news even made headlines in the day’s leading trade paper ‘Melody Maker’ (‘Dankworth signs Scots trumpeter’), with the Seven’s leader telling the press, ‘Eddie is a great player. He deserves this opportunity.’ The paper went on to reveal how ‘Johnny made a dash to Glasgow…and signed Eddie’. If all this now sounds a tad dramatic, think of it in Premier League Football terms; Blair in the position of, say, a once a week amateur, gifted but in obscurity, being picked to play in a Cup Final.

Over the following year and a half, he recorded several times with the Dankworth unit before the Seven found itself absorbed into the leaders first even big band line-up. On these sides – eight or so 78rpms mixing hip bop themes like Bud Powell’s ‘Strictly Confidential’ with populist fare such as the execrable ‘Mr. and Mississippi’ – we hear the young trumpeter finding his feet, his phrasing and harmonic grasp not as firm as that of his predecessor, yet his head nevertheless still full of the latest ideas.

In some ways it was tragic that Dankworth should have subsequently decided to then bury Blair in the brass section of his new big band as this was a venture less driven by idealism than the Seven been. To his credit, Blair stayed until spring 1954, his solos dotted about a few early Parlophone’s taped by the band, but if anyone expected his next musical leap to be into a setting more suited to a nascent bopper then they couldn’t be more disappointed.

Blair joined the Ted Heath band in spring 1954, just in time for what is generally regarded as its ‘golden era’, five or so years in which a characterful blend of accuracy and showmanship combined with broadcast-driven popularity to make it a veritable industry giant. Work was more than plentiful, the wages astronomical in comparison to the Dankworth Seven’s co-op pay, and the chance to play regularly unrivalled. But there was a price to pay for all this luxury. Although sympathetic to jazz, Heath liked to keep those in his charge on a musically tight leash, even insisting well-regarded jazz soloists like Danny Moss keep their improvisations tight and repeatable. This was no place for taking musical chances and accordingly many jazzmen hated Heath for it, as Blair soon found out. There is a story – possibly exaggerated but proving a point – about the leader hissing at him after a particularly adventurous solo on a dance date in Birmingham; ‘Next time, take the boxing gloves off!’

Yet, despite these restrictions, Blair became a well-loved figure in the band, part of the legendary Heath team that famously broke the transatlantic impasse in 1956, becoming the first British big band to tour the USA. Although dance music was the order of the day, every so often Blair’s bop-chops would get an outing, such as on the 1957 LP ‘Spotlight on The Sidemen’ (Decca), the sleeve notes of which describe him accurately as ‘the most modern of all the [band’s] trumpet soloists’. (this album showcased the best of all Heath’s trumpet teams: Blair, Bobby Pratt, Duncan Campbell and Bert Ezard).

Although Blair was to remain a regular Heath employee until 1965, when the band began to slide as a live act and morph into an altogether more anonymous studio entity, he was also maintaining his connections with several other, far more jazz-friendly, bandleaders. And it was on albums under the leadership of musicians like Johnny Keating, Dave Lee and Stan Tracey that his jazz soloing came into its own.

A good place to hear him in his mid-1950s prime are Keating’s two recorded for US-export LP’s ‘British Jazz’ and ‘Swinging Scots’ (despite their differing titles the personnels have plenty of cross-over), the first of which finds the trumpeter featured on a piece he’d written himself with the unforgettable – possibly unforgivable title – of ‘Eddie Blair’s Picnic’.

So, hearing it on these albums, where does Blair’s playing sit in the great panoply of contemporary British jazz trumpet? Less dramatic than Kenny Baker’s, nor as waywardly inventive as that of Dizzy Reece, and certainly not as finely-poised as Jimmy Deuchar’s, it actually marks out a rather effective middle-ground, drawing on Gillespian sources certainly, yet with a sense of phrasing – elastic, far from earth-bound – and harmonic ambiguity that implies something far more adventurous than conventional bop.

You can hear this begin to blossom further on two releases under Tubby Hayes’ name; ‘Blues At The Manor’, comprising archive material by the Hayes-led Downbeat Big Band, taped in 1959-60 (Acrobat, 2017), and ‘Jazz For Moderns’, a BBC broadcast from 1962 issued on the high-end vinyl specialists Gearbox in 2010. Both sets juxtapose Blair with Jimmy Deuchar and therefore afford the opportunity to hear how each men’s methods differed. Whereas Deuchar is all über-hip and battened-down ‘changes’, Blair’s solos suddenly dart free from their underpinnings, as if the trumpet itself were giddy at the prospect of making music free of its usual studio restrictions.

That Blair was included in such company said a lot. Despite never making it above the trumpet also rans in the annual popularity polls conducted by ‘Melody Maker’ around this time, he was clearly well thought of by his peers. As well as working with Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott employed him briefly in a short-lived septet in 1962 (a BBC recording exists), and he was a first-call for the gifted Ellington-inspired arranger Ken Moule. Further appearances on record also confirmed his high ranking. In fact, do a quick count of the acknowledged ‘classic’ British modern jazz albums he appears on, as both soloist and section player – Tubby Hayes’ ‘Tubbs’, Joe Harriott and John Mayer’s ‘Indo-Jazz Suite’, Stan Tracey’s ‘Alice In Jazz Land’ prominent among them – and you soon realise that his was a top drawer talent, appreciated and booked by the best.

The latter-named album also includes a Blair solo that suggests not only where he might have gone given more exposure as a jazz player but which offers proof that for a time he and his better-known contemporary Kenny Wheeler were operating along parallel lines. The two men had recorded together under the leadership of another prominent British pianist Dave Lee a year earlier (the ‘Jazz Improvisations of Our Man Crichton’ LP), thus enabling close inspection of their shared aims (hear ‘Our Kind of People’) but on Tracey’s ‘Portrait of A Queen’ Blair offers a solo that is almost Wheeler to the letter; those soaring, overarching lines, the fat full tone in the lower register that suddenly spirals upward into wistful arabesques, the flavour of melancholy regardless of the brassiness of the setting.

Nothing in art exists in a vacuum and this one solo alone – which might well be Blair’s best on record – reveals a talent so much deeper than that of a mere ‘hired hand’ section player.

BACK: Keith Christie (trombone), Les Condon (trumpet), Eddie Blair (standing, soloing), Bobby Orr (drums), Jeff Clyne (bass), Bobby Pratt, Jimmy Deuchar (trumpets). (also Jan Orr, left) FRONT: Ronnie Scott, Alan Branscombe, Tubby Hayes, Jack Sharpe (saxophones). Downbeat club, Manor House, London, 1960. Photo from Simon Spillett Collection.

Other than than though, you have to go hunting for Blair solos. There is the lovely (oh-so-Sixties-titled) ‘Blues For A Smashing Bird’ on multi-instrumentalist Alan Branscombe’s 1968 double-LP ‘Swingin’ On The Sound Stage’ and a trawl through Johnny Keating’s many Decca Phase 4 extravaganzas from the mid-to-late 1960s will reveal several more finely-crafted gems, but sadly Blair never helmed his own album, a fate that befell far too many of his generation of UK jazzmen.

However, there are other ways in which to gauge his gift. Writers like Johnny Keating and Duncan Lamont – fellow Scots, and likewise proud of it – both wrote features for him, the latter casting Blair as Buttons in a jazz version of ‘Cinderella’ (this theme was later retooled under the title ‘Fred Astaire’ and appears on vocalist Tina May’s recently released album of Lamont material, ‘52nd Street and Other Stories’) and when in the late 1970s Scottish Television launched a new show, ‘The Jazz Series’, hosted by vocalist Annie Ross, Blair was a member of the house band, an undemonstrative, middle-aged figure who could nonetheless still blow with power and passion; the ultimate sideman.

It’s somewhat hard then, given Blair’s consistent skill at making other leaders sound good, to identify precisely what his musical legacy is. In his capacity of session king he’s left a lifetime’s worth of recorded evidence, of course, not all of it traceable, sadly, given the nature of the job. In that sense, his passing plants a memorial stone on a whole way of making music. Yet it’s not that simple, given that his surviving improvised solos, scattered about on various albums like sprinkled gold dust, are in no way forgettable doodles. Indeed, they have left their very personal mark at several key junctures in British jazz. This in turn makes his death so very much more than that of merely a ‘sideman’. And, moreover, how are we to assess his position in the jazz scheme of things given the intriguing proposition that he may have been a key inspiration to another trumpeter very much regarded as an innovator, Kenny Wheeler. This surely elevates his work into whole new level of significance?

However, Blair’s own character, the modest can-do attitude that made for a perfect fit in so many settings, was such that he never ever shouted about his talent. Unlike Kenny Baker, say, or Jimmy Deuchar or even the notoriously self-effacing Kenny Wheeler, he didn’t leave a defining verbal take on his own playing, or talk extensively about his ‘art’ or furnish us any of the other things an obituarist might draw upon in order to codify a life.

Instead, he left a pragmatic example which spoke for itself; that of a master craftsman who rarely – if ever – put a musical foot wrong. Even his rare interviews were refreshingly free of ego. ‘Being a musician entails the ability to move easily and accurately from one note to the next,’ he said in a ‘Melody Maker’ feature in 1962, a statement that is as truthful as it is unvarnished.

How Eddie Blair moved them, though, was a thing of beauty.

Edward Dunning ‘Eddie’ Blair
Born: Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland, June 25 1927
Died: Rustington, West Sussex, England, December 26 2020

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