New Orleans clarinet player of today

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During Göteborg Jazz Festival in August 1994 Bill Salmond's Louisiana Ragtime Band were a big success. The band played in the spirit of George Lewis and Jim Robinson with just a clarinet and a trombone in the front line, what a swing they had! The audience was as close to ecstasy as you can get.

The band, the set-up without trumpet, the interplay between clarinet and trombone, and the swing, was a great inspiration to Hans Zakrisson and I when we started the Red Wing Ragtime Band right after the festival. When there were questions about how we could have a Scottish band as our inspiration, we just answered: "Why not?!" But of course, we also had listened a lot to the prototypes...

To me the clarinet player George Gilmour was the most interesting guy in the band. He not only had the same forname as his famous namesake, he also played like an incarnation of him - but in his own way. Now, many years later, I've got the opportunity to ask him about his playing, his thoughts about the music and much more.

He lives in a small fishing town called Eyemouth, on the East coast of Scotland, about 80 kms south of Edinburgh. Enjoy!

- The myth says when you learned to play you took some George Lewis records and your clarinet and went to a desert island for a year?

- Well lets dispel the myth first. As a boy of 8 years old I was given (ok, I wanted it) a piano accordion, by the age of 12 it was clear my passion for Scottish music had faded and a liking for, what I then thought was jazz. My inital interest was a recording made by Monty Sunshine playing "The Old Rugged Cross", that pricked my ear to the sound of the clarinet. My music teacher told my parents that I had some little music in me, but the accordion was not my instrument. I was given a new clarinet, a Boehm system (and a new teacher). 

The band in 1969, I would have been playing a Boehm back then. None of these guys are still playing to my knowledge, although on a recheck, that's a young Bill Salmond skulking in the rear.

I joined Bill Salmond's band at 18, only having heard George Lewis with Bunk on a record called "Great Trumpet Soloists". I didn't much care for the one track of Bunk playing "The Saints" in Aflat, I was more into Acker Bilk and the British trad scene, remember this was 1965 and I was young. I had heard Sidney Bechet and admired his playing the most, I even had a soprano sax, Bill took one look at it and said, "you'll not be needing THAT". Alan Quinn was his trombone player then and almost left the band, to be honest he did leave because I was so bad. I was given lots of George Lewis tapes and records told to get on with it ...eventually, I played the cracks and scratches too.

On stage 1970, we wore "dress" when playing everything apart from "pub" gigs. Bill Salmond on banjo.

Years later when I was 30, I married and joined the Scottish Lighthouse Service as a keeper, now you see where the myth is coming from, I was away from the scene for years, when I came back I was like a new kid on the block. There is more, but that's the bones of it.
Now divorced for 12 years I run my own business, this allows me to play when a gig or festival comes along. I do enjoy playing gigs, but I am just as happy sitting at home and playing ...Mozart (not very well), or along with some N.O. recordings. Most times I just make up phrases, finger exercises, listening to the instrument. I never feel I'm practicing, just enjoying the instrument.
- Where are you playing nowadays?
- I am just starting back playing after over a year of not playing at all, not even at home. I became very fed up with attitudes and a reluctance in promoting the band I just stopped. Alan Quinn was ill at the time and it looked as if he may have been obliged to hang up his trombone. I have always said I'd stop if he did, he is such a wonderful guy to have at your side, and there is no one locally to take his place. However, he's now well again and playing brilliantly, he just sounds so utterly comfortable with what he does. We both play in the Criterion Parade Band, Alan still plays with Bill and the Louisiana Ragtime Band, but I don't. It's not that I wouldn't, it's just how things are at present. The Criterion is in Ascona and Davos this year, and we're all looking forward to that.
- What kind of clarinet do you use?
- I started off playing a Boehm system, but changed many years ago to the simple system, which was a wall hanger of Ian Boyter, who plays tenor sax with the Criterion Parade Band as well as regular "sit down" gigs. I persuaded him to let me have it to practice on, someone once looked at it and said they wouldn't be caught putting it on a fire at night, but I liked it and enjoyed its sound, they do have something in their sound. I have a boxwood like Sammy Rimingtons, this was the last one made by Derek Joynson, it was to be Dereks own, but he very kindly sold it to me. He numbers them, so mine is a DJ7. It has a lovely tone but not a lot of projection.  
- What kind of mouthpiece do you prefer?
- The dreaded mouthpiece saga continues ...well for me it certainly does. I haven't played on a standard lay mouthpiece in 35 years, I've spent a small fortune on that most elusive of things, the perfect clarinet mouthpiece. You wouldn't believe me if I told you just how many Barri Buddy de Franco no. 3 relays I've had, as for 5JBs, I've lost count. I'm playing on an old Vandoren 66, the pre 5JB model, it has been relayed very wide and is a hard blow on my rested lip, but I'll persevere with it as it does sound nice. I'm shaving down 2 1/2 strength reeds just to get a sound.

Louisiana Ragtime Band at Göteborg Jazz Festival, August 1994. Bill Bryden, bass, Eric Jamieson,
drums, George Gilmour, clarinet, Bill Salmond, banjo, Alan Quinn, trombone, Graham Scott, piano.

- What clarinet did you used back in 1994?
- I'm not altogether sure what instrument I was playing back then, it certainly wasn't the E.J. Albert I play now, which I like very much. You must fall in love with a clarinet, as you know. I've had many an affair, even one night stands with some, but this instrument I do adore. The boxwood is beautiful to play, fine for church or background music, even trio work, but acoustically and especially with Alan, you need the power that is lacking in this material. They can also be very tempremental when it comes to atmospherics. 

Derek Joynson used the most basic simple system key work, mine was from an old Boosey copy of an earlier Albert clarinet, somewhere around 1932 vintage. I think the original instrument was beyond repair, so the key work was salvaged. I often wonder what happened to Chris Blount's metal Peddler, an instrument he had dreamed of owning, unfortunately he was given only a short time in which to become acquainted with it.
- It seems you are always searching for the perfect mouthpiece?
- My thoughts behind all this stems from the fact that New Orleans reed players, George Lewis is just one of the many who did most of their earlier playing outdoors on parades against a lot of brass, and the egos that seem to go with brass playing. He would require, even on an Eflat instrument, a tremendously good lip, also, they played almost non stop indoors ,"aint paying niggers to sit there listenin'" was a common club owners view. These sessions could last a long time, 6-8 hour gigs were not uncommon. Remember the early Bunk recordings were nearly all ensemble playing, because thats how they had to play. If you want a particular sound from your instrument, then work at it, accept the pain, it goes away eventually. That's my theory anyway.
I've been trying a new mouthpiece from Prof. Anton Weinberg, he makes them to order and is very reasonably priced for a hand finished mouthpiece. He works in conjunction with Dawkes Music in England. His side of the business is called Windcraft, and they have the web site if you're interested.
I have ordered yet another mouthpiece, this time from Bob Ackerman in the States. He is a legendary figure when it comes to custom mouthpiece work. When we spoke, he immediately recognised the need for a larger bore and tone chamber to suit my Albert. Hopefully this one may just be what I'm looking for ...yes I know, don't say it out loud.
I've also just had confirmation that the Meyer 10# mouthpiece I ordered back in January is now available. The 10# has a 71thou tip opening compared to the 5JB of 58thou so that should prove interesting. I would always wonder if I didn't buy it, so I await its delivery with my usual trepidation and anticipation. If it's so awfully wide I may have to play on old newspaper cut to size in place of the reed, and save a fortune to boot. Ha ha ha.
- Do you know what kind of mouthpiece George Lewis used?
- A story I got from Jake McMahon concerns a mouthpiece that Sammy got from no other than George Lewis himself. Both of them tried it, but neither the two of them could get a note from it as it was so wide. This doesn't mean George could either of course, or why would he be giving it away?

Playing Burgundy Street blues at Glossop Jazz Festival 1996.

 I held Georges clarinet when he came over here with the Barry Martin Band in the mid 60's. It was the clarinet that had been made for Jimmy Noone, I think. It had an adjustable tuning barrel and a wooden mouthpiece, but I didn't look to see how open it was. He was using reeds with the trade name Vibrator, and they had a fluted rib in the shank area. I'd never heard of them, and all inquiries at the time came to 0. I seem to recall reading George would go between strengths 2 and 4 depending on the state of his lip and how much playing he was doing, that makes sense I suppose. No matter, the same instrument in our hands wouldn't make us sound like George, and it's nonsense thinking otherwise, yet some people do just that with a variety of instruments ...not the banjo of course!!
There does seem to persist amongst some white N.O. style players that old broken instruments give some mystical and magical authenticity to the way they play. This of course is absolute rubbish, the tool must be fit for the work, or the work is sub standard.
- What are your views on reeds?
- I once was advised by some old pro to always start off with a reed that feels on the hard side, or at least offers some resistance. I have by and large followed that good advice, and have never regretted doing so. Reeds nowadays are bye and large much more consistant than 20 years ago, and the selection is staggering. You can put another reed in the opening between the lay and the reed, bent the fitted reed out a little just to get a bit more projektion. I occassionally used to do this, but only on a very good reed that has lost its edge.

I once did it at the start of a tune and broke the reed, it actually split across the cane. The piano was playing the intro and I had no idea what if anything would come out the horn. I was in a mild panick until the first note was played, it worked after a fashion, thank goodness, but I can't see how. At the first opportunity I changed the reed, and I have never used that particular trick since.

How long have they been playing together?

 - How come you and Alan have such a nice interplay?
- The understanding between players is a rare and very natural phenomenon which isn't rehearsed or contrived. It may only come along once in your musical life, or never, not even close. I must be very fortunate indeed, having experenced it twice in my playing career. First was Jack Weddell and the Edinburgh Climax Jazz Band. Jack has retired now, at least from playing in public. Secondly with, of course, Alan Quinn. Although Alan and I played together when I first started playing in a band, it took the non-trumpet line up many years later to allow this to develop. For some it would seem unnecessary in the first place, and that brings us back to (most) trumpet players. Having experienced the magic and beauty of it, you will understand how nothing else can ever replace it. When it seemed Alan would possibly be obliged to stop due to his health, I couldn't even think of playing this music with the musicians that were available ...I just stopped. That's how important it is to me.
- How do you look on New Orleans jazz as an art form?
- We play a unique music that gives an opportunity in expression that few other musical styles allow. This is so often exploited by opportunist, musical (not all of them) vagrants who play for claps from an audience that on the whole know no better. I'm sorry, but that's how I perceive what we've done to this rarest of music, it is not sacred, but it is rarely played as we heard it from those who inspired us. NEVER play for claps, for that is all you'll receive, my father told me this, and he was right. The joy is in you, you know when you've achieved what you set out to do, even if the audience ignores you. Maybe that is terribly naive, of course we are there to entertain, but you should know the difference, don't expect them to tell you, acknowledge with gratitude the praise, if any, but assess the performance only by your own ear.
- How do you approach a tune?
- I try to find the words for the melodies that we play, remembering that a lot of the tunes were never intended for our beat, instrumentation and style of interpretation. (Most of the classic jazz tunes as you know, were purposely written, much like modern pop groups today, who "write their own stuff". Some of these I suspect because they can't play anyone else's.) I feel a benifit knowing this, and it gives some understanding of the composers motivation to write the thing in the first place. A perfect example is "Bright Eyes Goodbye", written by a father watching his son go off to war, knowing in his heart he'd never see him again. The tears well in my eyes at the very thought of this, how can this knowledge not influence the way we play and feel the tunes message. All we need is the heart, the soul, and a little technique.
I'm sorry if I sound a bit vague in answering this question, I try and add to the melody either by playing it or augmenting it. I can no better than repeat a quote made by George Lewis, "It's everyones responsibility to add to the swing". I think each member of a band is a cog in a machine, we rely on each other for the whole swing, the complete sound. There is no magic, or maybe that's exactly what it is, that rare mixture of personalities and tastes that culminate as one, at least some of the time.

And in all honesty, I know nothing at all about chords, that doesn't mean I wouldn't benefit from the knowledge, but I am totally and utterly ignorant of their structure ...but I get bye.
- I've noticed you often play some parts of the melody one octave higher than when you started, why?
- I've no idea what the correct musical term is when you play part of the melody up an octave. If it has one, and if I ever knew it, then I've forgotten it a long time ago. It gives light and shade between the two front line instruments and allows the clarinet to assert its dominance for the melody, it is after all the soprano voice. I don't consciously think about doing it until I feel it in the music whilst playing.
- What feeling do you want in your playing?
- I have just watched a DVD made by Sarah Spencer's parents of the LRB and I'm playing the boxwood on that. The DVD was made at the Glossop Jazz Festival in 96', two years after we were in Sweden. The band line up remained unchanged more or less until 2005, the drummer being the only one to leave around 1998 due to poor health. Kenny Milne fills that chair now, when he's available. He still does a lot of work with several bands, such is the demand for a drummer of his quality. The recording sound is not good, but the band does seem much more relaxes than the 94' when you heard us in Gothenburg. We all seemed so frantic, the atmosphere having taken over sense and good taste ...well thats my opinion. I'm much more into the relaxed playing than on the edge of the seat stuff that so many bands seem to create, indeed, favour. Dancers help develop this state, but concerts have the opposite effect on most bands, the LRB back then, was no exception it would seem.
I remember reading an interview featuring Dizzy Gillespie, when asked how often he and the band "really took off", he astonished the interviewer by answering "Oh!!, maybe once every two years at best". I don't know if George Lewis on being asked the same question, would have answered much differently. It's all about what we are used to hearing around us when we play, the inter action between the usual members of the band, that known level can easily be upset by a substitute. Whether the change is for the better, or the worse, you have to handle the difference, and that may not be comfortable for you, the band, or the new member in the group.
I have felt for many years that the make up of any band is a very delicate combination of personalities and musicianship, especially in a N.O. band. We Scots (this is purely my own theory) have a link of sorts with the Black Americans, both cultures suffered appalling hardships, and slavery. From this was produced a musicical form, "The Blues" and "Piobaireachd"(pronounced like Peebrock), which is Gaelic for pipe music, mostly laments very similar to the Blues in many ways. Whether this gene is still working, or is almost diluted I don't know, but it might explain why so many notable jazz players came from such a small country as ours.
- What do you think of recording the band?
- Bill Russell produced such wonderful music back in the 40's with only one mike suspended from the kitchen light fitting. Now we with 4 inputs or more, all strategically placed, but can't produce anything like the sound he did. This a constant mystery to me. I'm sure its all the mixing afterwards that screws it up, gives it a sterility that live recordings generally avoid. Maybe the professionals who record bands read the instruction books for the gear they have, this surely must help.
The best recording are generally live, maybe because, like mentioned earlier, the people doing the recording actually know how. There is something in us who go out and perform that can be given an edge when in front of a live audience.  

Playing in Keswick 2004.

I was listening with some nostalgia to some early recordings of the LRB and came across a track, another recording by Peter King at the Keswick Jazz Festival. It was, I think, the opening concert and the place was packed, probably because we were the only band on that night. It was a very relaxed evening, and the band realized the importance of the honour we had been given in getting the coveted opening show. It made no difference of course, we went out and played our stuff and they seemed to enjoyed it, and we sold a bunch of CDs. What more can a band want?

- What are your next main gigs?
- Had an e-mail from Dan Venhettes, leader and trumpet man of the Vintage Jazz Band. He ask if I would like to take the clarinet chair for a gig at the Perigueux Festival in France this August (2007). It seems Tommy Sancton is returning to N.O. on a visit to his elderly parents. I of course accepted, the promise of good music and food is always tempting, you must admit. The Criterion Parade Band are at the Ascona and Davos Festivals in June and July. These are always good venues and give a chance to meet up with other musicians and swap stories, listen to some excellent music, drink some wine, just nice. It's such a beautiful place Switzerland, and the people so welcoming.

Criterion Parade Band in Ascona 2007.

 - Is it true as Scots you always drink a bottle of whisky when playing?
- Unlike you Swedish soaks, I personally don't drink much whilst playing, and certainly never to the extent of not being able to play. I already have a natural ability in that field, thank you. Bad music needs little help from a bottle, although it gets plenty.
- At last, what do you think of bagpipes?
- I'd like to tell you that the noise from the pipes kept the English at bay, but that is unfortunately not the truth. It seems they can only play in the key of Bflat, but unfortunately I know little more about them than yourself. The mainstay of the pipes is their ability to be heard throughout the great glens in the Scottish mountains ...that's why I stay by the sea.
- What other interests do you have besides playing the clarinet?

- Another passion of mine is photography. I'm not active now, but at one time, whilst in the Lighthouse Service, I was a very keen amateur. Mostly seascapes, sea birds and the like. I had a few articles published in various photographic and yachting magazines in the 80's, even won a 3litre bottle of Cutty Sark Scotch Whisky ...but that's another story.

 As told to Lasse Collin in 2007.

Look and listen at George Gilmour and
Louisiana Ragtime Band. Click on the title!

Video: "St. Philip street breakdown" - Glossop Jazz Festival 1996

Video: "Burgundy street blues" - Glossop Jazz Festival 1996

Video: "Climax rag" - Glossop Jazz Festival 1996

Video: "Martha" - Keswick Jazz Festival 2004

Mp3: "When the swallows come back to Capistrano"

Mp3: "Beautiful Ohio"

Mp3: "My life will be sweeter some day"

Mp3: "Ol' miss rag"

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