Pete Allen’s Band – ‘Celebrating 45 Years of band leading’ (Pizza Express Soho, 4 December 2023)

Newbury-born traditional clarinettist (and occasional saxophonist) Pete Allen – who is also an Honorary Citizen of New Orleans for ‘his services to British jazz and tourism’ – will be celebrating 45 Years of band leading at PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Soho on 4 December. Feature by Peter Vacher.

Pete Allen. Publicity photo.

The transient nature of society these days means that the new will always trump the old, or so it seems. Change is endemic. To put it another way, the idea of a fully professional jazz band enduring for forty-five years is now quite simply, beyond our ken. Think back to such traditional jazz overlords as the late Acker Bilk, Chris Barber, and Kenny Ball as they fronted their bands for decade upon decade. Can we imagine ever seeing their like again? Surely not.

Which brings us neatly to the traditional clarinettist (and occasional saxophonist) Pete Allen who is currently celebrating his 45th year as a professional bandleader. Defiantly bucking a trend, you could say.

The Pete Allen Jazz Band has a brand new 45th Anniversary album out on Upbeat (URCD337) and is showcasing its release at a special one-off, celebratory engagement at London’s Pizza Express in Dean Street on 4 December. Judging by the performances on the album, the Pizza audience is in for an entertaining mix of New Orleans-style flag-wavers and standard songs plus less obviously, modern jazz pieces all given a resounding Allen-style Dixieland-Mainstream makeover.

Pete’s jazz story began in his home town of Newbury where he first worked in a band led by his father Bernie Allen who played banjo and guitar, while pursuing his day job as a local Police Constable. After three years on the force, Pete moved to the West Country in 1976 and exchanged his police beat for another kind of beat altogether, when he joined the well-established Rod Mason traditional jazz band as its clarinettist. It was with this band that he says he ‘served his apprenticeship in the world of entertainment’ as Rod and company toured here and abroad, playing the club and festival circuit, and appearing on TV and radio. It was also the beginning of Pete’s recording career as he made three LPs with the Mason band. Incidentally, it was while with Mason that he first met trombonist Roger Marks, now a stalwart member of the present-day Allen band.

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Encouraged by his success with Mason’s outfit and mindful of what he’d learned on the road and beyond, Pete and his father Bernie made their decisive stab at jazz fame on 1 October 1978 by joining ‘the professional ranks of jazz’ and launching their own band under Pete’s name. The rest, as they say, is history. There followed a period of hectic success for the new Allen band from the late 1970s through the 1980s and 1990s, including tours of America – the band played at the celebrated Sacramento Jazz Jubilee in California in 1983,1984 and 1986, this the greatest Dixieland Festival of its kind, with audiences peaking at 85,000, Pete also afforded the honour of leading a special group badged as the Worldwide All-Stars. On a later US tour, in 1992, while appearing in St Louis and New Orleans in 1992, Pete was made an Honorary Citizen of New Orleans for ‘his services to British jazz and tourism’.

Add to all this an array of appearances on popular BBC Radio programmes like the Terry Wogan Breakfast Show as well as many TV specials, including BBC Pebble Mill at One and others for European TV stations. There were also residencies and a host of recordings, starting in 1978 and continuing to this day. Over 100 albums in all.

That was then, this is now. Pete’s band still plays clubs and residencies, and still looks to entertain wherever it goes. Pete himself is one of our finest traditional clarinettists, his slightly husky sound suggesting an awareness of Edmond Hall, for so long the clarinet mainstay of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. He’ll also offer some booting interludes on baritone saxophone and, dare I say it, produce the occasional burst on the banjo, plus plenty of vocals. His band members are all accomplished traditionalists who revel in the classic New Orleans ensemble style, while happy to cast their collective beady eye on such unlikely fare as Johnny Griffin’s lively ‘The Jamfs Are Coming’ as featured on the album. We’ve already alluded to trombonist Roger Marks, himself a successful bandleader too, with an ample discography of his own. A welcome returnee to the band is trumpeter Chris Hodgkins, who told me that he rejoined the band last year after a 40-year gap. He’s too modest to tell you that for much of the intervening time he’s been devoted to other good works for jazz, most notably his long-term role – 29 years, no less – as Director of Jazz Services, the Arts Council-funded support group for jazz development. He, too has other bandleading responsibilities, including his splendid Salute to Humphrey Lyttelton group. It’s Chris’s fiery trumpet attack that rounds out a strong front-line, buoyed up by the swinging rhythm section of James Clemas, piano, Dave Hanratty, bass, and drummer Jim Newton.

With a jazz pedigree of this calibre – 45 years in the making – it should be quite a night!

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LINKS: Pizza Express Soho bookings for 4 December 2023. Show time 8pm
The new 45th anniversary album at Upbeat Records

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