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Ball, Kenneth Daniel [Kenny]free

(1930–2013)
  • Digby Fairweather

Kenneth Daniel Ball (1930–2013)

by David Redfern, 1970s

Ball, Kenneth Daniel [Kenny] (1930–2013), trumpeter, was born at 30 Mayesbrook Road, Ilford, Essex, on 22 May 1930, the youngest of nine children of James Daniel Ball (1888–1986), printer and master bookbinder, and his wife, Ethel Louise, née Glithero (1886–1962), a dressmaker at the time of her marriage. He took up the harmonica at ten, learned the bugle while a member of the Ilford Sea Cadet Band, and bought his first trumpet in 1943. After leaving school at fourteen he worked as a messenger boy and then (following national service from 1948 to 1950) as a salesman, while playing in local jazz clubs, deputizing for the trumpeter Freddy Randall and playing with trombonist Charlie Galbraith in 1951–2. On 14 June 1952 he married Betty Cecilia Tracey (b. 1931), daughter of James Joseph Tracey, engineer; they had two daughters and a son.

From 1953 to 1956 (with one brief break in 1954) Ball made the leap to professional musician with Dixieland bandleader Sid Phillips, then a household name and a strict disciplinarian who paid for music-reading lessons for his young sideman and taught him valuable arranging techniques. In 1956 Ball extended his musico-stylistic experience further by joining drummer Eric Delaney's big band in a five-man trumpet section; later he cited as a principal influence the unsurpassable modern jazz icon Clifford Brown. By this time he was fully equipped to release his pent-up energy in a band of his own and after a first attempt (in 1957) and a brief spell with clarinettist Terry Lightfoot (in 1958) he formed his own group including his lifelong musical partner, trombonist John Bennett, which played its first concert in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in October that year and which, with limited personnel changes, he continued to lead for the next fifty-five years. 'When we were with Terry but plotting Kenny's future band', Bennett recalled in 2016, 'we decided that our influences would be the American bands of Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden, and Wilbur de Paris: a link between British traditional jazz and the smoother Dixieland style of the others' (private information).

In the first years of its career Ball's new band (like The Beatles shortly after) played long and exhausting residencies in Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, and Hamburg, as well as doing the rounds of British jazz clubs, but after a rehearsal for an ITV children's programme overheard by Lonnie Donegan, they acquired immediate and simultaneous contracts for radio, television, and recording as a result of the enthusiasm of skiffle's biggest star. Their first album, Invitation to the Ball (1960), created astonishment throughout the jazz community, for the ground-breaking brilliance of its front-line soloists (Ball, Bennett, and clarinettist Dave Jones), its ingenious arrangements of non-standard material including 'Teddy Bears' Picnic' and 'Hawaiian War Chant', and the incidental championship of the influential all-music critic Steve Race. Another important champion was broadcaster Brian Matthews, producer of the Sunday morning BBC Light Programme show Easy Beat, who invited Ball's band to take up a weekly residency on his programme in January 1961. 'The band made a colossal impact on its very first show' Matthews recalled later; 'our audience increased by leaps and bounds and Kenny's contract was extended until he eventually stayed on the programme for seven months without a break' (private information). Within weeks, 'I Love You Samantha' (from the Cole Porter musical High Society but converted into a powerful upbeat excursion featuring the leader's exuberant vocal and a challenging plunger-muted trumpet declamation) propelled Ball's charismatic and handsome young Jazzmen into full pop-star status and national front-page publicity which to some degree set them apart from and ahead of their more conservatively imaged contemporaries Chris Barber and Acker Bilk.

For the next four years Ball would remain a premier British trumpet star with fourteen hit recordings with his band including 'Midnight in Moscow' (1961), which stayed in the British charts for twenty-one weeks, sold over a million copies, and reached number one in Australia, Canada, Sweden, and Japan; 'March of the Siamese Children', 'The Green Leaves of Summer', and 'So do I', his lifelong signature tune (all 1962); 'Acapulco 1922' (1963); 'Hello Dolly' (1964); and last of all (in 1967) 'When I'm Sixty-Four', a Beatles cover proving that four years after his Liverpudlian juniors had dismissed ‘trad’ jazz from youth culture Ball still had a huge community of secure followers. By then his band had conquered America (its leader received the freedom of New Orleans in January 1963) as well as Russia and Japan, amid a gruelling round of non-stop touring, radio and television appearances, and films including It's Trad, Dad! (1962), directed by Richard Lester, later the Beatles' film director, and Live it Up! (1963).

It was in 1965 in Blackpool, however, that the first unexpected evidence of flaws in Ball's titanic trumpet technique began to appear. 'Our spot was just twenty minutes per night, six days a week', Bennett recalled, 'and I think it was a combination of growing age, booze and lack of practice during that three-month season that caused the problem. It halted his macho style more or less overnight' (private information). For several months Ball—then at the height of his fame—was virtually unable to produce a correct note on the trumpet, a traumatic experience which he rightly described as 'a terrible blow. I used to dread going on-stage, fearing I was going to let myself down again' (personal knowledge). But somehow, amid a merciless non-stop performing schedule, this problem was tortuously resolved by a combination of personal courage, sleeping tablets, alcohol, and dismal trumpet experimentation. He recalled:

It was like going to school again, really monotonous and depressing. I would pump musicians in the pit orchestra to find out how they had coped with lip trouble. Then I found my big mistake: I was trying too hard, practising strenuously with the high notes … so I did one hour's practice a day blowing on the low ones and gradually building up to the higher register. And slowly I began to improve.

personal knowledge

Throughout his non-stop career the problem would recur from time to time, a haunting insecurity that would occasionally bring supportive trumpeters to his stage, but which Ball would conceal with professional fortitude, outward bonhomie, and (later) more alcoholic reinforcement.

By 1965, despite such challenges, Kenny Ball's Jazzmen were household names ('like Harpic—clean round the bend!' (personal knowledge), he later joked) and remained unaffected by the seismic shift in popular culture caused by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the new youth culture of rock music. In 1967 clarinettist Dave Jones was replaced by Andy Cooper, whose outsize personality, fluent clarinet, and powerful vocal talents fitted the band to perfection, and added a further standby—'I Wanna Be Like You' (from Walt Disney's Jungle Book)—to the band's catalogue of signature songs. In 1968, with his lip back at full strength, Ball and his band supported Louis Armstrong's All Stars for four London concerts, gaining on-stage applause at the end of their set from Armstrong, who dubbed their leader ‘a genius’. In September of that year the band recorded a further seminal live album in Berlin, King of the Swingers, on which Ball is plainly back at peak form again. From that year his band appeared in every episode of the first six series of the Morecambe and Wise Show on BBC television, and despite the occasional audible return of lip problems on albums including Pixie Dust (1971) and a likeable and rare solo outing, A Friend to You (1974), his Jazzmen were resident band on BBC1's Saturday Night at the Mill from 1975 to 1983. They also played at the wedding reception for Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

For over three decades more Kenny Ball's Jazzmen continued to appear as a starry solo act, complete the ‘Three Bs’ (Ball, Barber, and Bilk) for reunion tours, and until 2002 play at least 150 concerts a year. After their contract with Pye Records expired in the mid-1980s they recorded regularly for a variety of labels and in 2003 Castle Music issued a handsome boxed set of six of Ball's best early albums. A ghost-written autobiography, Blowing My Own Trumpet (a title he disliked), was published in 2004 and a second, corrective volume, Kenny Ball's and John Bennett's Musical Skylarks (compiled by Ball, Bennett, and Digby Fairweather), appeared in 2011. His first marriage ended in divorce, and on 28 December 1984 he married Michelle Wilde, née Pertho (b. 1945), daughter of Karl Anka Pertho, naval officer, and former wife of Peter M. Wilde.

Ball was, to a degree, trapped by stardom, a relentless work schedule, and the compelling need to produce his high-powered show night by repetitive night, and his later years were once again hampered by lip and breathing troubles, but he continued determinedly fronting his band and playing until his last appearance in Germany in January 2013. A generous man and lifelong (but discreet) donor to a variety of charities, he unaccountably received no public honours. Having lived latterly in Wickford, Essex, he died at Basildon Hospital on 7 March 2013 of respiratory failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and was buried on the 19th at Herongate Wood cemetery, Brentwood. He was survived by his wife, Michelle, and the three children of his first marriage. His public legacy was a recorded catalogue of entertainment and fine jazz performance; his private legacy was as a lovingly remembered model of modesty, friendly spirit, and supreme personal fortitude.

Sources

  • J. Chilton, Who's who of British jazz (1997)
  • K. Ball, Blowing my own trumpet (2004)
  • K. Ball, J. Bennett, and D. Fairweather, Kenny Ball's and John Bennett's musical skylarks (2011)
  • Cambridge Evening News (7 March 2013)
  • Daily Telegraph (8 March 2013)
  • The Independent (8 March 2013)
  • Barking and Dagenham Post (20 March 2013)
  • Ilford Recorder (21 March 2013)
  • personal knowledge (2017)
  • private information (2017)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, light entertainment and performance footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, performance recording

Likenesses

  • Redfern, photograph, 1970–79, Getty Images, London [see illus.]
  • S. Samuels, photograph, 1991, NPG
  • G. Knowles, photograph, 2003, Getty Images, London
  • B. O'Connor, photograph, 2012, Getty Images, London
  • obituary photographs