TED HEATH - BRITISH BIG BAND ENIGMA

by Robin A. Brace, 2007.


Ted Heath, real name: Edward Heath (not to be confused with the famous former British Prime Minister - though he often is), was born on March 30th, 1900, in Wandsworth, London, England. He headed a very fine big band in the UK from 1945 until Heath's death in 1969. Heavily recorded, Heath's band were arguably the greatest of all the British big bands that followed the style of the great American swing big bands.


“Eventually, a few formerly devout fans started to desert, increasingly frustrated by the same old arrangements...”

In 1956, former Ambrose and Geraldo lead trombonist Ted took his band on the first of several American tours. Tours to Australia and New Zealand later followed. The band was always stacked with outstanding instrumentalists and lead trombonist Don Lusher began to attract worldwide attention at this time. His performance with the band at Carnegie Hall on the final concert of the first American tour, is often said to have placed Lusher among the big band and jazz trombone elite. Without doubt, Don was a most smooth and elegant player of considerable polish and stunning range. He was the only UK-based trombonist who could hold his own with those two American giants of the jazz trombone, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding.

There were many other outstanding players associated with this big band including Kenny Baker, the original lead trumpet from 1945 and generally regarded as the best European-based lead trumpet up to about 1953-1955, and Bobby Pratt who replaced Baker in the lead trumpet chair. Pratt too soon developed into the best British lead trumpet of the late 1950s by quite widespread agreement. Pratt even started developing a U.S. following where some big band fans rated him among the best trumpet leads ever, but Bobby, always a most modest man, shied away from any such claims. Ron Simmonds, who followed Pratt into the lead trumpet chair in 1960, gives the 1960 Heath personnel thus: Ron Simmonds, Bert Ezzard, Eddie Blair, Duncan Campbell (trumpets), Don Lusher, Wally Smith, Johnny Edwards, Jimmy Coombes or Ken Goldie (trombones), Les Gilbert, Ronnie Chamberlain, Bob Efford, Henry McKenzie, Ken Kiddier, (saxes, McKenzie also often on clarinet), Derek Warne, piano; John Hawkesworth, bass; Ronnie Verrell, drums.

Ronnie Scott, the top jazz tenor saxophone player who went on to found London's most famous jazz club also started with the original Heath 1945 band, as did top drummer Jack Parnell, who later went into television work. That original band is pictured here. Jazz trumpet soloists Eddie Blair and the much-appreciated Bert Courtley were also involved in later Heath bands from the late 1950s into the 1960s. I believe (though I might stand to be corrected on this point), that Courtley was the last guy (or, last from one guy), to play Heath lead trumpet and that he suffered a bit of 'arm-twisting' to do it since it hadn't formerly been his role but that he came to do it reasonably well. Bert had long played modern jazz trumpet solos but seemed to develop more of a swing mainstream style as time wore on. He was an accurate player but rarely played a high note so I was astonished to find that he eventually played the lead for Ted! But eventually I learned that Bert (who tragically finally turned to taking addictive substances), really struggled with the Heath lead part which was too strenuous for him. Source.

Ted Heath

Ted Heath and his Music. This picture probably dates to about 1955-58. Ted is in the left foreground, directly behind him is bassist Johnny Hawksworth. Bobby Pratt is the tallest of the trumpets to the far right, and trombonist Don Lusher is the third trombone from the left.

In 1976, seven years after Heath's demise, Thames Television produced an hour long tribute to what had been Britain's most successful band and Moira Heath, Ted's widow, chose Don Lusher to front it, which he continued to do for the very successful concerts which followed. Don Lusher went on to became the official leader of the reformed Ted Heath band. Ted's widow, Moira presented Don with her late husband's much-loved King 2B trombone soon after. An inscription on the trombone reads "Presented to Don Lusher on the 9th November 1976: Ted Heath’s trombone with thanks for perpetuating his memory." Sadly, Don died on Wednesday, July 5th 2006. He had been the greatest British swing/jazz trombone player of the 20th century by some margin. The late Ron Simmonds' own article on Ted Heath, which is here furnishes us with the final chapter on the Heath revival:

'In the summer of 1999, Moira finally decided to finish the band at the end of the year 2000, fifty-five years after it first began. She wanted it to finish while it was still a good band, playing well. She would rather it go out with a sense of triumph rather than with a whimper. Moira died on January 24th 2000.'

The Heath Band's Strengths and Weaknesses

The band, as led by Heath himself, was in existence from 1945 unitil 1969. During that time, as already suggested, they were technically the finest British swing big band. A few others occasionally came very close: Eric Delaney, Johnny Dankworth, Ken Mackintosh, the Jack Parnell band at its very best, but it was Ted who always seemed able to secure the services of the very best musicians, and section leaders, in particular. At its very best, the superb technical perfection of Ted Heath and his Music was without any peer. But as the 1960s progressed, some problems became evident.

Kenny Baker

Kenny Baker (1921-1999), lyrical and explosive in equal parts, and the possessor of a huge, rich tone, was the original Heath lead trumpet from 1945-1948. More on Kenny Here.

Truth was that, going into the 1960s, Ted continued to use too many very dated-sounding arrangements. He had been an admirer of Glenn Miller, but members of the public, and band members too, started to tire of repeated renditions of Moonlight Serenade and certain other Miller-style arrangements, the Miller sound being easily achieved with the placing of a prominent clarinet playing the same melody line as one tenor sax, and three other saxes harmonizing. Other ballad arrangements also started to badly need an update. The evidence is strong that the Heath band became famous as the best British swing band and few fans really wanted to hear things like Ebb Tide, Theme for Cleopatra, or Stardreams - but, if they did - new and more exciting arrangements became badly needed.
Most real Heath fans wanted to hear those exhilarating numbers which had placed this band where it was: Hot Toddy, Kings Cross Climax, Opus One, Flying Home and Mirage. Sometimes one had the feeling that various band arrangements were 'playing safe' - that is, they were overly conservative and staid - despite the prodigious musicianship of the assembled players. The feeling began to grow that flawless ensemble perfection was being pursued rather too much at the expense of the thrilling, exciting and exhilarating. That stunning brass section was being kept rather too tame and domesticated!

Ron Simmonds

Ron Simmonds, one of the great lead trumpets who served with Ted Heath, pictured here in his later years. Ron followed the great Bobby Pratt into the Heath lead trumpet chair in 1960. Sadly, Ron passed away in 2005.

Eventually, a few formerly devout fans started to desert, increasingly frustrated by the same old arrangements. It is always a very bad sign when band members know the 'book' so well that they can play anything and everything by ear without looking at a note of music, and there are signs that this is why Ted started to find it difficult to hold on to the very best players. In a 2004 communication to me, former Heath lead trumpet Ron Simmonds (sadly recently deceased), indicated that he started to lose interest when he could play every arrangement by rote without looking at a single page of musical manuscript: he was just so accustomed to those very familiar arrangements! But it is only fair to point out that Ted Heath suffered a stroke in 1964 and he was never the same after that for the last five years of his life. Maybe if he had fully regained health, Ted would have commissioned many new arrangements - we will never know.

Other Heath fans were frustrated that there was never any attempt to create a distinctively 'Ted Heath style' - being the technically-finest European big band seemed to be enough for Ted. By contrast, the original 1953-1959 Dankworth big band - much more jazz-based - developed a very clear style and sound all of its own (unfortunately, in complete contrast to the highly-recorded Ted Heath band, there is virtually nothing available on CD by the original Dankworth big band). Sometimes (completely erroneously in my opinion), the Heath band were compared to the American West Coast Stan Kenton band but I would say that while Heath started out by being innovative, it did not last, whereas Kenton remained a highly innovative big band leader.

Bobby Pratt

Bobby Pratt (1927-1968), who died tragically at only 41, was the greatest big band lead trumpet in Europe in his day, a fact which nobody disputes (this is a Tina Pratt picture).

Despite these minor criticisms however, it would be very true to say that the great Ted Heath big band is now very much-missed. Back in the old days, whenever one heard the band playing, the feeling was always strong that if this great big band ever disbanded, it would be almost impossible to achieve the same standard again and, lamentably, this has certainly proven to be the case. Thanks for the memories, Ted and the boys!
Robin A. Brace, 2007.


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