Born: 22 May, 1930, in Dagenham, Essex. Died of pneumonia on 7 March, 2013, in Basildon, Essex, aged 82.
Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen were a British cultural institution, who played on the same bill as the Beatles at the Cavern, were regulars on The Morecambe and Wise Show for years and provided the tunes at Charles and Diana’s wedding reception.
Jazz was the music of black America, long before soul and rap, and remained a minority taste on this side of the Atlantic, with a few notable exceptions. But Ball produced a form of feel-good, foot-tapping, easy-listening jazz that appealed to a mainstream UK audience and gave him a string of hit records.
In the months before the Beatles took over the British hit parade, Ball could be found in the higher reaches of the charts with his upbeat instrumentals. At the same time as clarinettist Acker Bilk had his biggest hit with Stranger on the Shore, Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen were enjoying international success with their jazzed-up version of an obscure little tune from the Soviet Union.
An unlikely fusion of Russian and Dixieland music by a trumpeter from Essex, the record came out towards the end of 1961 under the title Midnight in Moscow and it reached No 2 not just in the UK, but also in the United States – a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle. But the point was that Ball had taken jazz beyond the core jazz audience of African-Americans and beatniks. Midnight in Moscow sold over a million copies and Ball was presented with a gold disc by the great American trumpeter (and Ball’s personal hero) Louis Armstrong.
He followed up with a speeded-up and very catchy version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune March of the Siamese Children, from the musical The King and I. It reached No 1 in the New Musical Express chart at a time when there were several rival charts.
The hit singles dried up as the 1960s progressed, but Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen, remained hugely popular, especially in the UK, across the Commonwealth and in Eastern Europe. Their status as a British institution was cemented by their regular appearances on The Morecambe and Wise Show during the 1960s and 1970s.
One of nine children, Kenneth Daniel Ball was born in Dagenham in 1930. He came from a musical family. His father had been in the army and subsequently played in the Salvation Army Band. (Latterly Ball’s own son Keith has been serving as vocalist with his band.)
Ball’s father encouraged his musical ambitions. He left school in his mid-teens and he began playing semi-professionally while also working as a piano salesman in a London music shop. He played trumpet in various bands before forming his own in the late 1950s. Like the Beatles, they honed their music playing in bars in a Germany that was still rebuilding after the Second World War.
Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen signed to the Pye recording label after the Glasgow-born skiffle star Lonnie Donegan heard them rehearsing in London and took them under his wing. Their version of Cole Porter’s Samantha was the first of 12 hits, including Midnight in Moscow and March of the Siamese Children, that they would have between 1961 and 1963.
Ball was well on his way to stardom when he appeared as the headline act at the Cavern in Liverpool in August 1961, with the Beatles as support.
He and his band appeared as themselves in Richard Lester’s 1962 teen drama It’s Trad, Dad!, along with the likes of Acker Bilk, Chubby Checker and Gene Vincent. They also featured in the 1964 film Live It Up!, with Gene Vincent, David Hemmings and a young Ritchie Blackmore.
Kenny Ball contributed to, and cashed in on, the popular revival in Britain of the Dixieland New Orleans brand of hot or trad jazz, with its heavy emphasis on trumpet and trombone. The Best of Ball, Barber and Bilk, a compilation album which also featured Acker Bilk and trombonist Chris Barber, reached No 1 in the album charts in 1962.
Ball’s music did not appeal to all jazz fans, but his achievements were recognised in the cradle of Dixie jazz itself when he was made an honorary citizen of New Orleans in 1963 and he would later join the city’s most famous son, Louis Armstrong, on Armstrong’s final European tour in 1968.
There were two final chart hits, Hello Dolly in 1964 and perhaps just a little ironically Lennon and McCartney’s When I’m Sixty-Four in 1967, a song which the Beatles did not bother releasing as a single themselves.
As well as Morecambe and Wise, Ball and his band performed on many other shows over the years and appeared on almost 100 instalments of the BBC late-night chat show Saturday Night at the Mill in the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Among his fans was Prince Charles who recruited Ball and his Jazzmen to play at his wedding to Princess Diana in 1981.
Although musical tastes changed, Ball retained a loyal international audience and continued to perform and tour until very recently. He was due to play at the Gaiety in Ayr two weeks ago, but had to pull out, and the concert went ahead without him.
He published an autobiography – Blowing My Own Trumpet – in 2004. And he and John Bennett, a trombonist with whom he had been collaborating for more than half a century, brought out another volume of memoirs called Musical Skylarks two years ago.
Ball’s first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife and three children from the earlier marriage.