Sandy Brown Jazz

 

 

Avon Blues - A Jazz Fantasy

by Lionel King

 

 

River Avon Bridge

 

The Stratford Herald recently carried reports of tourists complaining about losing a night’s sleep while staying in a B&B near Charlecote, Warwickshire. The matter is being taken seriously by the English Tourist Board. The aggrieved pair, an American academic and his wife, heard someone playing a tenor saxophone.
 
 “It sounded wonderful at first, coming through the open window from far away in the darkness but it went on all damn night for God’s saxophonistsake!  No one else heard it.  The landlady thought we were mad.”

Memories have been stirred of similar unexplained occurrences in the area dating back forty years. A forlorn-looking individual, with a gaunt, expressionless countenance is reported to have been seen in several instances staring at musical instruments through shop windows for hours on end in various Warwickshire towns. At the Leamington Jazz Festival in 1979, a tenor sax player captivated enthusiasts at a fringe event at The Dun Cow.  After playing solo for an hour, he promptly left without identifying himself.  Witnesses recalled a man in his late 20s, perhaps older, clad in a sombre dark grey suit, his Brylcreamed hair parted neatly down the middle in 1930s style.  Despite the technical intricacies of the jazz numbers he played, he demonstrated complete mastery of his instrument and effortless breathing control. His facial expression was immutable throughout. Festival organisers suggested he was one of many musicians whose services had to be turned down through lack of sponsorship or that he was a talented amateur, eager to take part in this prestigious event.

A retired policeman wrote to The Warwick Observer later, recalling an incident in the 1960s. Two traumatised poachers had turned up to the station where he was on desk duty in the middle of the night, freely confessed to their nefarious activities and reported having just seen ‘a spectral clerical gentleman’ playing a musical instrument, standing on a tiny island in the river Avon. They were not taken seriously.

 

In the 1980s, an intrepid electronics student from Lanchester College, having heard something of the poachers’ story and other rumours, camped out near Guy’s Cliffe. He saw no apparitions but heard music which he captured on a cassette recorder. The late Humphrey Lyttelton, jazz musician, broadcaster and a leading authority on jazz history, studied the tape. He was given no Ghostly figureinformation about the circumstances in which it had been recorded.  His verdict was that it appeared to be the work of a highly accomplished musician, playing unaccompanied in a distinctly rhapsodic, personal style, influenced by the American saxophone virtuoso of the 1930s and ‘40s, Coleman Hawkins. He remarked on the unknown musician’s faultless technique on his extended renditions of the jazz standards, Ive Got To Sing A Torch Song, It’s The Talk Of The Town, Blue And Sentimental, Indian Summer and Avon Blues, among others.

Humph commented on the haunting, ethereal tone of the music, which he suggested was recorded by a river in the open air. He specified passages in which lapping water could be heard, also the muffled cry of waterfowl, and that the latest modern sound filtering equipment would erase such extraneous noises without damaging the quality of the music. Humph’s verdict was that they represented original recordings by a saxophonist unknown to him.

These opinions appeared in the Jazz Rag many years ago and might well have been forgotten, but for the wider publicity arising from the happening at Charlecote. Leaving aside speculation about ghosts, hallucinations, restless spirits or in this sceptical age, what are described as a paranormal phenomena, it is apposite to recall here the verifiable details of a romantic tale of the 1930s of star-crossed Warwickshire lovers about which readers may draw their own conclusions.

 

 

Rebecca Witherington-Manners, nee Vernon, born near Preston Baggot in 1906, was related on her mother’s side to the Earls of Warwick. Both before and after a runaway early marriage to Jack, her womanising, gambling, drug addict husband, she had been prominent on the London social scene. There, with her marriage already on the rocks, she met up again with Harold ‘Hal’ Hobson, a childhood sweetheart.  Hal went up to Oxford to study Divinity but his heart was in music, particularly the new jazz from the USA.  He abruptly abandoned his studies to join a dance band. Like Rebecca, he married young and in haste.  His wife Sybil, a former debutante, had soon exhibited signs of mental instability and later, after injuries sustained in a car accident, she became a morphine addict.

Hal’s career flourished. Obliged to play in the ‘sweet,’ heavily commercial dance bands of successively Debroy Summers, Jack Jackson and Jack Hylton, and never out of well-paid employment, Hal was frustrated at being unable to develop his talents as a jazz tenor sax soloist. In a Melody Maker interview he revealed his ambition to lead a band with a declared jazz policy, along the lines of top American bands of the day. Visiting American musicians of the 1930s with whom he played in ’after hours’ jam sessions, urged him to migrate to the USA where opportunities abounded for talents like his in the burgeoning Swing Era.

Eventually, exhausted by the relentless nightly grind of playing trite popular songs for dancers, despairing of ever finding lasting happiness with Rebecca, and stricken with remorse when his wife was finally committed to hospital, Hal gave up music overnight in 1938. He had been about to record with the legendary but short-lived British all-star jazz group, The Heralds of Swing.  He resumed Army chaplainhis interrupted divinity studies at Oxford University, being ordained a Church of England priest shortly before the outbreak of World War II. He joined the Army immediately as a padre, serving six years abroad, unable to return home, first in the Battle of France, then North Africa and finally in the long Italian Campaign, where colleagues reported he displayed reckless courage and total disregard for his personal safety. Once back in England, he learned that Sybil had died three years earlier, the authorities having failed to contact him during his absence. His many letters to her were returned unopened.

With the return of peace, the Rev. Hal Hobson served as a curate in various rural parishes in his native Warwickshire before being appointed to a living near Alveston, Stratford-upon-Avon. His bishop, something of a jazz buff himself, urged him to play his sax for fun at social gatherings but Hobson steadfastly refused, claiming he no longer owned an instrument. His housekeeper later revealed he spent hours listening to jazz classics from his vast collection.

On the death of her widowed father in 1951, Rebecca had inherited the family estates. She joined the board of a commercial television company as a director and was employed in a PR role, for which her continuing high public profile admirably suited her. In 1956, Rebecca agreed to make a solo flight over the North Polar route for an episode in a prodigiously expensive series on the theme of courage and endurance. She took off in an obsolescent aircraft, dangerously over-loaded with extra fuel for the non-stop haul to Anchorage in Alaska. A radio signal was picked up as she passed Thule in Greenland, still heading north, after which all contact was lost. 

Deep in the peaceful Warwickshire countryside, an erstwhile popular and dutiful parson, whose love affair with the missing Rebecca had been long forgotten by both media and public, would doubtless have heard of her disappearance. A parishioner observed that the Rev. Hobson had become prematurely aged and his sermons diffuse and incoherent. He neglected his pastoral duties, his behaviour increasingly unreliable and eccentric. One evening in the mid-summer of 1959, he failed to return from his regular evening riverside walk. Two years passed before a skeleton was found trapped in a weir near Tiddington. Positive identification proved impossible, though months later, dredging operations nearby turned up an instrument case containing a saxophone. So, as in the case of his beloved Rebecca, the location of a final resting place remains unknown. 

There the sad tale ends, or very nearly. In 1991, a Russian Orthodox nun, recently released after years as a political prisoner in a Siberian gulag, informed journalists she had once shared a cell with a beautiful, proud, defiant English-speaking woman known to her companions as ‘Becca’, who boosted captives’ morale, earning grudging respect even of the camp guards. And shortly before this article went to press, it was announced that a compilation album with the title “Classics of British Jazz” is to be released. It will include four immortal tracks, recorded posthumously by the Avon, by Hal Hobson. 

 

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Sarah McKenzie sings Moon River at the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival with guitarist Andrew Marzotto - beautiful despite a slight lyric mistake (before someone points it out). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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