A “supremely gifted musician” who “always conveyed the sheer pleasure of making music.” In this tribute, Richard Pite remembers Keith Nichols, who passed away on 20 January 2021:
Keith Nichols. Photo Credit: Ravi Chandarana
One evening back in 1975, when I was still at school, I’d been playing in a wind band concert with my fellow tuba playing roisterer Graham Read. On the way home we stopped off at a pub called The Wonder in Enfield Town, and came through the doors bearing a pair of matching, shiny, enormous Besson tubas. Shortly after the first pint, the pianist came over and took one of the tubas, went back to the piano and proceeded to play several choruses of hot jazz on the instrument whilst accompanying himself with an expertly striding left hand. Not only could he play this beast far better than me, he could also provide his own simultaneous accompaniment.
That was my first experience of the musical brilliance of Keith Nichols, who died on 21 January aged 75. That astonishing performance encapsulated what was central to Keith’s approach to music in the thirty or so years we worked together. Virtuosity, showmanship, thorough knowledge and love for early jazz and a finely tuned and utterly British sense of humour.
Keith’s humour and showmanship were nurtured as a boy when he attended stage school where he and his classmates got their first professional bookings appearing with Jimmy Edwards in the TV show Whack-o! He started fooling around on the piano at the age of five but his parents were deadly serious about Keith applying himself to the accordion and, despite his reluctance, he became the Under 13 Accordion Champion of Great Britain 1958.
Much to his parents’ disappointment, Keith gave up the much-loathed instrument at the first opportunity as he had fallen for Ragtime and Vintage Jazz. He was helped by two strokes of good fortune. Firstly, working in the sheet music department at Chappell’s he uncovered many rarities impossible to buy over the counter and secondly, in 1964, joining the Mike Daniels Delta Jazz Men as their trombonist playing the music of Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Whilst with Daniels he was also leading his own Sedalia to New Orleans Jazz Band specialising in his beloved Ragtime.
After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music in 1967, Keith joined The Levity Lancers – a group specialising in hot jazz and comedy. At the outset he was quite shy and never made any announcements but during the seven years he spent with them he developed into the fine entertainer and presenter that made him such a popular turn for the rest of his career. He toured the world with the band and his experiences with this bunch of hard drinking lunatics led him on many occasions to reminisce in the manner of a shell-shocked front-line veteran.
Various musical projects in the 1970s established Keith’s reputation as a major force in jazz. He collaborated with cornetist and trumpeter Dick Sudhalter and formed the New Paul Whiteman Orchestra (which played Carnegie Hall) and several years later he formed his much-admired Midnite Follies Orchestra with co-leader Alan Cohen. The Keith Nichols Ragtime Orchestra also had great success riding the wave of popularity brought about by the movie “The Sting” and the big selling records of Joshua Rifkin whilst another highlight from this decade was his piano playing on Bing Crosby’s final album.
In the 1980s he began a series of recordings for the American Stomp Off label. His meticulous recreations of the music of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Bennie Moten and many others allowed afficionados to hear for the first time the intricacies and subtleties that the primitive original recordings had often obscured. He also recorded numerous albums of solo piano and on all his projects his mix of musical archaeology and discovery alongside his relishing of the well-known repertoire were often displayed side by side.
Keith’s enthusiasm and humour made him an ideal teacher and his long stint at the Royal Academy of Music introduced many young players to a treasure trove that they had, in most cases, never explored or heard before. Critics of jazz education often would cite the lack of attention paid to the early jazz masters but on the jazz scene in the UK today there are many young players who are well versed in all the various jazz periods and styles. Back when Keith was putting together the Midnite Follies he often had to choose between a sideman who was an expert reader but wasn’t versed in the style of the 20 and 30s or find a wonderful soloist who couldn’t read at all well. Thanks to his efforts alongside others in jazz education there is now no shortage of ferociously good readers who can play and improvise in a mind-bogglingly wide variety of genres.
Besides his formal teaching Keith always gave generously of his time to musicians who would arrive at the house greeted by Eve, his wife of nearly fifty years, along with a motley pack of enthusiastic rescue dogs. It wasn’t unusual to turn up for some tips on how to phrase like Bix or how to arrange like Don Redman and three hours later still be listening to some rare sides by Duke whilst one of the dogs tried to pinch your biscuits.
The Blue Devils. Publicity photo.
From the 80s on he led The Cotton Club Orchestra and then The Blue Devils and was equally at home in concert with either of these fine ensembles or with a small band in some noisy bar where the only interaction with the audience would be a drunk asking for a request (often a number the band had just played). He’d had years of sizing up audiences and knew straight away if it was best to present a show to them or let them get on with their boozing, yelling and ignoring. He’d seen it all before and as long as he was playing with musicians he liked (or on a piano he liked) he was happy just to play.
What he always conveyed was the sheer pleasure of making music and the many responses to his passing from fellow musicians and from his many admirers make it abundantly clear that this supremely gifted musician was a much loved and greatly respected master of his craft.
Keith Nichols (centre) with Richard Pite and Martin Wheatley. Jazz Heritage Award winner. BBC Jazz Awards 2004