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Ken Colyer

As one of England's leading trad jazz exponents, Ken Colyer's influence would have been confined to his own country were it not for a spin-off that would inadvertently lead to great changes in the music world at large. Self-taught on trumpet and guitar, Colyer was a founding member of the Crane River Jazz Band (1949-1953), a New Orleans-styled band that he left in late 1951 in order to join the Merchant Marines with the intention of shipping out to New Orleans itself and jamming with local legends. Upon his return to England in March 1953, Colyer joined a group founded by Monty Sunshine and Chris Barber that soon became Ken Colyer's Jazzmen. As in the Crane River group, Colyer's shows included a "band within a band" segment that purported to educate audiences about the roots of jazz, playing a guitar-based, highly rhythmic mutation of American folk music that became known as skiffle. When Colyer left the Jazzmen in 1954, the group coalesced around Barber and its banjo player, Lonnie Donegan, who went on to have a hit skiffle record "Rock Island Line" that caught the imagination of a Liverpool youngster named John Lennon...and you know the rest of that story. Beginning in 1954, Colyer split his time between leading trad jazz groups as a trumpeter and skiffle groups as a guitarist, recording frequently for English Decca. Colyer's melodic Bunk Johnson-influenced lead trumpet gave his jazz bands a distinctive flavor of their own, while his skiffle groups had a "blacker" sound than those of most English skifflers, grounded in the Leadbelly 78s that Colyer brought back from New York when he was 19. Colyer's jazz band of the mid-'50s rivaled Barber's group as the leading British trad band of the day, featuring such sidemen as Acker Bilk, Ian Wheeler, and Mac Duncan. Colyer would lead bands in the '60s and '70s with time out for bouts with illness, running his own KC record label, appearing at his own club Studio 11, and returning in the early '80s at the helm of the All-Star Jazzmen.
© Richard S. Ginell /TiVo
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