Jazz Greats at Eel Pie Island
Trend forming groups
Free jazz concerts
Long before the inaugural National Jazz Festival took place in Richmond in 1961, Eel Pie Island had discovered jazz. Built in 1830, the Eel Pie Island Hotel had always been known for its musical attractions. Charles Dickens made mention of the hotel in Nicholas Nickleby as a place where one could "dance to the music of a locomotive band". With the advent of the hotel’s famous sprung dance floor in 1898, balls and tea dances became regular events.
In 1956, under the stewardship of Arthur Chisnall, the music became more avant-garde. Arthur’s desire to see "trend-forming groups" play on the island led, in April 1956, to the first in a series of parties where crowds flocked to the island to listen to free jazz concerts. The success of this early venture led to the establishment of the Eel Pie Island Jazz Club, providing musicians with another important venue in the thriving south-west London jazz scene.
Grand Gala Opening Night
Advertised in The Richmond and Twickenham Times, the club's 'Grand Gala Opening Night – A Three Band Session', took place on February 9, 1957. Alongside headliners Cy Laurie and his band were Bill Brunskill's Jazzmen and the Alpha Jazzmen. Members to the newly inaugurated jazz club paid 4/-, guests 3/-.
Over the next few years, the Eel Pie Island Hotel played host to some of the most influential British performers of traditional jazz. George Melly, who appeared regularly, described the rambling, ramshackle hotel, with its ornate columns and arches, as being in "the Tennessee Williams style".
"It's funny how the places where one form or another of music started have achieved a kind of mythical status. There was also Eel Pie Island, which started off as a revivalist place. In those days you couldn't get to it by bridge. You had to get in a punt and an old man like Charon would haul you across on a chain. It was a wonderfully decaying place, there was the hotel and collapsing sheds and overgrown shrubbery. It was the first place I believe I sang with Cy Laurie's band."
Other notables who performed regularly on Eel Pie Island were Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, Bob Wallis and Bill Greenow, but perhaps best known for his long association with the island was Ken Colyer. Colyer was renowned for his purist approach to traditional jazz and his initiation of the skiffle trend. In 1957, Ken Colyer's Jazzmen, the line-up which succeeded his influential Crane River Jazz Band, recorded a live album on Eel Pie Island.
Richmond & Twickenham Times archives
'Owning Up' by George Melly (Penguin Books 2000)
'The Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music' by Phil Hardy and Dave Laing (Faber & Faber, 1990)
'Routes of Rock' - Carlton TV Interview with George Melly