John Wurr (1940 -2023) by John Petters

John Petters writes:

John Alexander Wurr has died at the age of 82. He was one of the most popular clarinettists on the traditional jazz scene, who doubled on alto and baritone saxes, as well as being a composer, arranger and musical director.

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John Wurr. Photo by the late Sylvia Hewett

John was born on 24 July 1940 and grew up in Worthing. His family had a classical music background and John took up the recorder at an early age. At grammar school, he joined the choir but discovered jazz in 1956, whilst in the 6th form. Some friends, who were into the music, tried to form a jazz society at school, but the headmaster put his foot down and suggested a musical appreciation society instead. John joined the committee providing his expertise on classical music. One friend presented a talk on Benny Goodman, which went totally over his head. Then someone gave a talk on Ken Colyer and looking deliberately at John, played Ken’s recording of Brahms’ Cradle Song. Being a recorder player, John was attracted to Ian Wheeler’s clarinet, as well as Monty Sunshine on the Chris Barber records. He was also moved by Skiffle, after hearing Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line. He bought a guitar and formed a skiffle group. He saved his pocket money and purchased a clarinet and taught himself to play, using a piano at home to explore chord structures and how to improvise. His future as a jazz clarinettist was sealed after hearing the Colyer band live in concert.

Wurr started to recognise the difference between British jazz and American jazz. He started listening to Sandy Brown, Humph and Alex Welsh, who had a more American approach than Barber, Ball etc. Cy Laurie was another influence and John used to visit Cy’s club.

He started listening to the King Oliver and early Armstrong recordings. Later he was led to “modern jazz” recordings and was never part of the mouldy fygge versus modernist wars of the time. He listened to the West Coast school before he heard Be-bop.

In 1962, John moved to central London and married his wife Judy, in 1964, living in Covent Garden. He formed a band with drummer Brian Green, and he was the musical director. He took over Keith Nichol’s band, playing early Duke Ellington material, which became the New Sedalia Jazz Band.

Judy got a job as secretary at Dobells record shop. This enabled John to meet such legends as Benny Carter and Bud Freeman and many other visiting American musicians. He spent a day with drummer, (Papa) Jo Jones.

He met pianist Johnny Parker and depped for Wally Fawkes. He joined Steve Lane’s Southern Stompers and then was delighted to be asked to be a member of Ken Colyer’s band in 1972. John was part of the 100 Club House Band, with Al Fairweather and Alan Littlejohn. He played with such touring American’s as Billy Butterfield, Slim Gaillard and Wild Bill Davison, who put his arm around John and said, “you sound great”.

I first met John around 1980, when he depped with cornetist Ken Sims’ Dixie Kings at the 100 Club. Our paths crossed again in the mid ‘80 s at the Square Jazz Club in Harlow.

In 1988, I was invited to put a band on Canberra for a jazz cruise to the Med. John Wurr was a key musician in that ensemble.

He turned up at the Worthing Pavilion in May ’89 to hear Wild Bill and Art Hodes with my Dixielanders and it was too good an opportunity to miss. John joined the show for the second set, which was fortunately recorded.

In 1989, I was putting together a stage show to mark George Chisholm OBE’s 75th birthday. John was the ideal reedman for job and took care of the musical arrangements for Swinging Down Memory Lane. Maxine Daniels was the vocalist in the production and she was so impressed with John’s musical skills and she asked him to be her musical director.

In 1998, to mark the Gershwin Centenary, John was part of my touring show, ‘sWonderful.

John started to get invitations to play at the many residential jazz festivals which were taking off all over the country. He was part of my production company. I could put him into all sorts of different musical settings from Ragtime, to Gypsy Jazz, New Orleans, Dixieland and Swing and he would always play creatively and enthusiastically.

Two particular projects we worked on were Blame It On The Blues, an album to mark the Bechet Centenary in 1997, for which he produced an original, Reverie. He shared the limelight with fellow reedman and good friend, Trevor Whiting, pianist Martin Litton and bassist Dave Green. The final recording we did together was Heah Me Talkin – a Tribute to Johnny Dodds with Chez Chesterman, Martin Litton and Annie Hawkins.

John led his own Armstrong Tribute band at Keswick in 2003, with Enrico Tomasso and Colin Bowden featured in the all star line up.

John moved to Devon some years ago and was an active member of the scene in the South West, in particular, playing with John Shillito’s band.

In addition to playing, John also taught and remained musically active until his recent illness in December. John suffered a stroke following surgery and passed away on 2 February.

John Alexander Wurr. Born Worthing 24 July 1940. Died Plymouth 2 February 2023.

LINK: John Wurr’s son Max is raising money for Help Musicians

“Remembering John Wurr” Facebook Page

Categories: News, Tributes

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2 replies »

  1. I booked John for the first Swanage Jazz Festival in 1990 with his friend Campbell Burnap and continued to do so through most of the years to 2017. John was really good at producing effective tributes (Armstrong the favourite of course) and he was adept at leading and playing in a wide variety of styles. One of my favourite memories of John was when he and Campbell resisted the objections of the secretary of the Ken Colyer society of them going into the marquee to hear Dick Morrisey’s band – “it’s all jazz John” said John and in they went!

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