Clarinettist Alexander Revell was born in Highgate, London, on the 21st November 1929. When he was seven, the family moved to Essex.
As soon as Alex had reached the age of five and started to read, he had been intrigued by aviation of World War I, but that interest eventually gave way, for a while, to other things.
It was an older cousin who introduced Alex to jazz via the Ellington small groups, but at seventeen, Alex discovered Bix Beiderbecke and like Bix, wanted to play the cornet. Although his parents did not play instruments themselves, they loved music and encouraged Alex’s interest, but his father was not sure about the cornet: “He thought it would be too loud - he didn’t know about mutes,” says Alex. “Anyway, I opted for second best and went for the clarinet, which I played extremely loudly in our very large bathroom with beautiful acoustics, leading to the usual complaints from the neighbours and setting all the local dogs barking and howling”.
Above left: Alex at the Bude Jazz Festival in 1999 with one of the wigs the band always used for a charity gig at Annie's (Photograph © Alex Revell)
Eventually, Alex and his friend the banjo and piano player Fred 'Ferdie' Favager, were gigging with a number of local bands until Alex joined Reg Rigden's Original Dixielanders at the end of the 1940s.
“What happened was this,” says Alex. “I had met Chris Barber at the London Jazz Club and he had come over to play with Ben Cohen, Ferdie and myself at Gearies School in Barkingside. Chris then joined the Original Dixielanders and suggested that they give me a trial. I went along to rehearsal and they asked me to join the band. I was not sure whether to accept – I was still very young and didn’t like to replace anybody – but George Webb, who I knew from his being in the Humph band, read the riot act to me and told me that if I was offered a job in the band world, then I should take it.”
“After Chris and I had been with the band for a little time,” Alex continues, “we realised that it wasn’t what we wanted to do – which was to play in the King Oliver Creole Band style. We had both been told off by the other members, all older than us, for playing minor thirds, even though we explained that they were called blue notes, and in our youthful arrogance we started to play up a bit. I remember one of our gags during a gig was to see who could quote the most times a mildly be-bop phrase in Stan Kenton’s record of Peanut Vendor. In the end we both resigned - although my sacking passed my resignation in the post. Before we left, Chris and I had decided to form a band to play the Oliver tunes, more or less as co-leaders. This band was pretty successful, but broke up in 1953 because Chris wanted to turn professional – by then we had only one cornet, Ben Cohen.”
The Chris Barber Band 1951-1952
L-R: Ferdie Favager (banjo), Brian Baker (piano), Alex Revell (clarinet), Jerry French (cornet), Ben Cohen (cornet), Brian Lawes (drums), Chris Barber (trombone).
Photograph © Alex Revell
Alex could never afford to become a professional musician. By this time he was working in his father’s engineering firm, playing a great deal as a semi-professional, but to have turned fully professional would have cut his income in half - and by 1953 he had married.
Looking back, Alex remembers the first time he heard Sandy Brown:
"I remember very well the first time I heard Sandy. I was playing clarinet in the Chris Barber Band and as we did all the King Oliver tunes I had to attempt to play the Johnny Dodds parts. Somebody said to me 'Eh, you're a Dodds fan. Get down and hear this Scotsman, Sandy Brown.' Sandy was visiting London and playing a gig at a club near Leicester Square."
"I went down with my great friend, Ferdie Favager, the banjo player in the Barber band, also a Dodds fan. It's difficult to describe my feelings on hearing that great clarinet playing for the first time. It was one of those seminal moments in one's life. Did one just give up, or practise more and try harder? Later, I used to go straight from work to hear the band rehearsing in Mac's rehearsal rooms. This was the band that made Everybody Loves Saturday Night, etc. Sandy, Al, John R.T.(complete with fez), Alan Thomas, Mo Umanski, Graham Burbidge. I remember being amazed at Sandy's overall talent, let alone his wonderful clarinet playing. He'd say to Alan. 'I want you to play this, Alan', then sit down at the piano and demonstrate. The same with Graham, showing what he wanted from the drums. Talking of Graham, I remember how we all teased him unmercifully when he left Sandy to join the Barber band. With all due respect to Chris, none of us could understand why anyone would leave Sandy to join Chris - apart from the money, of course!"
"I've never in my whole life heard a better clarinet player than Sandy - and I've heard a good few. If he wasn't a genius, he was bloody near it. In my book, Sandy and Al were world class musicians, the equal of anybody in the world, then and now. Even in the early 50s, when they were still wearing their influences on their sleeves, they had such a great, authentic sound. A sound we were all then still trying to achieve - the Humph band included - but which Sandy and Al seemed to have without even trying. Great chaps, great music. An inspiration to all who knew and heard them."
Between 1954 and 1957, Alex played with George Webb's and Graham Stewart's bands until in 1958, he formed his own band and also played with Steve Lane until 1960. In 1961, when Monty Sunshine left Chris Barber's Band, Monty was to be replaced by Ian Wheeler, but before Ian could start he was involved in a serious car accident. Chris called on Alex and Sandy Brown to deputise. When Ian recovered, one of his first gigs with the band was at the 100 Club in London's Oxford Street. "In those days," Alex recalls, "the 100 Club lacked a liquor license and everybody used to congregate in the nearest pub, the Blue Posts. On this particular night, I was having a drink with Sandy and Al Fairweather and Sandy asked me how I'd enjoyed my gigs with, as he termed it, 'the big band'. I said I'd enjoyed it very much, especially the money, because Chris paid very well. 'Aye,' Sandy said, in that soft Scots accent of his, 'and I think, if we play our cards right we should be able to get a good six months of gigs with the band.' I was a bit puzzled by this, and asked how. 'Well,' Sandy said. 'I understand that young Ian is partial to fast motor cars. Leave it to me.'
"Shortly after this the Barber Band came in for their interval and Sandy called to Ian to come over and have a drink. Said drink obtained, Sandy said 'Well Ian, now you’re in the money, you'll no doubt be buying a good motor car. I hear the Austin Healey sports is a fine machine.' Ian looked a little puzzled by this, but agreed that, yes, he was thinking of getting a better car. After the interval, when Ian had gone, Sandy turned to me and said 'That should do the trick, Alex. I've been told that our Ian is a wee bit accident prone, so all we need to do is to get him in a fast car.' We had a good laugh over this, but I told Sandy I thought he was a wicked bugger. Even I wouldn't wish that on Ian, just to make a few bob. Al laughed, 'Aye, but you’re not Scots, Alex'. They both had a wicked sense of humour."
Alex led his own band again from 1961 to 1964 and then worked with Brian Green's New Orleans Stompers for several years before becoming part of the London Rhythm Kings. He then took a break from playing until 1979 when he stepped up again to play with Rod Mason's band. He then went on to play with several other bands including Colin Kingwell, Ray Foxley's Trio and the Frog Island Jazz Band. In 1991, Alex - along with Ben Cohen and Ferdie Favager, now playing piano - rejoined Chris Barber for Chris's Reunion Band touring Britain, Holland and Germany.
From 1993 until Ben’s tragic death in 2002, Alex played with Ben Cohen's Hot Five and Hot Seven. He has played at a number of the UK's Bude Jazz Festivals including sessions with the Ben Cohen bands, and with the George Huxley/Alex Revell Vintage Five, with George on soprano clarinet and alto, John Penn on piano, Geoff Over, banjo, and Colin Turner, bass sax.
The Ben Cohen Hot Seven at Bude in1998.
L-R: Nick Ward, Terry McGrath, Alex Revell, Mick Clift, Ben Cohen, Geoff Over, Jon Penn.
Photograph © Alex Revell
It was in the early 1960s that Alex visited the Shuttleworth Collection of vintage aeroplanes. He discovered that, since his boyhood interest in aviation, a number of serious researchers into the subject had emerged, both in the UK and in the United States. “That started me off again,” he says, and the result has been his writing about ten published books on the subject, including The Vivid Air, Brief Glory, High in the Empty Blue, and numerous articles for aviation magazines. A number of them are currently available from Amazon.
© Alex Revell and Sandy Brown Jazz 2009 - 2015