Obituary: James Young, jazz musician, businessman, ‘founder’ of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations

James Young
James Young
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James Young, jazz musician and businessman. Born: 7 June, 1933 in Edinburgh. Died: 13 August, 2017 in Edinburgh, aged 84

When Jim Young and his New Orleans-style marching band swaggered up Edinburgh’s High Street one New Year’s Eve, he inadvertently set off a chain of events that would lead to the world’s greatest Hogmanay celebrations.

They had just finished a gig and the night was yet young but at the time they attracted little attention, save for a policeman who the exuberant musicians feared was about to arrest them. Instead he held up his hand to stop the traffic and waved them over the North Bridge to the Trongate, the traditional gathering spot for those seeing in the New Year. After the bells, the players led by Young and accompanied by Barry ‘Kid’ Martyn’s band from London, spontaneously marched down a deserted Princes Street.

That was in 1966 and the following year Young’s Auld Reekie Parade Band returned and duly did the same, this time to a smattering of friends but basically still to an empty street. Undeterred, various musicians repeated the performance in subsequent years, gradually gathering more support from locals until the issue of the lack of a “proper” Scottish Hogmanay, complete with traditional pipes and drums, was raised.

The local authority became involved and the event became official, gaining momentum until it snowballed into the New Year extravaganza that attracts the eyes of the world annually. Jim Young was always happy to take the credit as the catalyst for the phenomenon but it was just a snapshot in the life of a musician and businessman who, despite his Scots roots, began playing in a silver band in Canada.

The son of police sergeant David Young and his wife Jayne, he was born in Edinburgh and educated at James Gillespie’s Primary and Trinity Academy until the family emigrated to Canada in the 1940s. There he attended Queen Elizabeth High School in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

As a child he had been interested in classical music, was a soprano in the church choir and sold programmes at opera performances just so he could listen to the music. And he already felt the pull of jazz, having been influenced by a film on the revival of early jazz that he had seen at the Grand Cinema in Stockbridge.

By the time he was a teenager in Canada he was playing tuba and sousaphone but after leaving school his first job was working for the Canadian Pacific Railway. However he continued playing when he joined the RAF after returning to Edinburgh for his national service.

He trained with a Signals unit but initially played full-time with the RAF band after answering a call for musicians when he stepped off the bus on his first day in the air force. That led to him playing in one of the bands at the 1953 coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II, an achievement of which he was immensely proud. While in the RAF he met banjo player Mike Hart who introduced him to the Edinburgh jazz scene and who would later create the Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues festival.

After completing his national service Young returned to the Scottish capital and took up the string bass, playing in various bands including the Crescent City and Climax Jazz Bands. Some years later he became part of Edinburgh’s New Orleans marching band tradition when he founded the Auld Reekie Parade Band.

Meanwhile he was working as an engineer for Burroughs Corporation, maintaining their business machines at various large companies in the Edinburgh and Dundee areas. He was also running jazz clubs – ventures that, despite an absence of alcohol and generally no bad behaviour, attracted the disapproval of police who would close him down almost as soon as he had opened up. The institutions included the Stud Club, started by clarinettist Sandy Brown and later run by Young, which gathered in venues including the cellar of a pet shop.

During the 1960s Young turned professional jazz player, touring the continent with the Keith Smith band and playing in London with various outfits including Ken Colyer’s band. He also recorded with Casimir’s Paragon Brass Band, Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band and a marching band put together by bandleader and trombonist Chris Barber for a recording session.

While living in London he ran a transport company for Kitchen Supplies, for which his friend Jack Weddell, a trombone player from Edinburgh, also worked. And after returning to Edinburgh Young founded his own business, Castle Catering Equipment, which he set up in 1967 to supply and service catering equipment and in which he would eventually be joined by his son David.

By this time he had made his initial musical march down Princes Street, kick-starting the annual focus of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations. The following year he married his first wife Joy, settled into family life and the couple had David and his sister Alison.

In addition to running his business, he became interested in vintage cars. Over the years he owned a Rolls Royce hearse, a horsebox, fire engine, signal wagon and a 1930s American Hudson. He was a founder member and latterly honorary president of the Scottish Association of Vehicle Enthusiasts, running its Wheels of Yesteryear rallies – albeit in a somewhat unorthodox and autonomous fashion – at Edinburgh’s Melville and Lauriston Castle and Dalmeny House, South Queensferry.

Music continued to feature large in his life and he often played at the Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues Festival, including once in the 1980s with the American jazz singer Lillian Boutté. He played regularly in Edinburgh with Kenny and Violet Milne, Jack Weddell, Jim Petrie and Mike Hart among others. In the early 1990s they took the Climax Reunion Band to Australia to play jazz festivals there.

He also loved sailing and had many adventurous moments on a variety of craft, including a home-made catamaran created by lashing together two windsurfing boards. When he retired in 1998 he bought a motor boat on the French canals and latterly sailed a small yacht on the Firth of Forth with his second wife Josephine.

Other hobbies included inventing – from gadgets to squeeze the last drop of toothpaste from the tube to a steam machine to make cappuccinos – and beekeeping. While living in Balerno, at the age of 80, he decided a community hive was required and promptly set about making it happen.

Though the smoky atmosphere of Edinburgh pubs, coupled with an arthritic problem in his hands, had brought his playing days to a halt in the 1990s, his love of music endured and he continued to follow jazz, singing the odd jazz number whenever he got the chance.

He is survived by his wife Josephine, whom he married in 1988, his children David and Alison and five grandchildren.

ALISON SHAW