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Neil Millett

 

Some while ago, Rich Millett wrote saying: 'I live in Nashville, Tennessee and haven't been back to England in far too long. My uncle was Neil Millett and I know he played clarinet all around the same scene as those on your website, which I have read with interest. I believe he lived in the Bournemouth area. I have a recording that he played on by the Original Georgia Jazz Band ... but I find that I want to know more about my uncle. My uncle died some years ago, but as a fellow musician, I've always been intrigued to find out more about him and maybe even hear more recordings and see some photos of him in action.'

Since Rich wrote to us, a number of people have written to us and Neil's daughter, Susan Millett, has helped to tell Neil's story. At the time of going to press we still have to find pictures of Neil and hope we can include some shortly.

Clarinettist Neil Millett was born in Harlesden on July 31st, 1929.  His mother was Grace Ada Quick and father Anthony Millett.  His daughter, Susan, says: ‘My Mum, Pamela Parkes, and Dad met at the Bun Shop Jazz club in Berrylands, south west London. They both worked in west London aviation places, Mum at Faireys, and  Dad was a technical illustrator (I think he went to Twickenham or Teddington art school). He worked for various aviation companies around London Airport, and also later at Ham. I have some of his technical drawings on tracing paper, amazing pre computer stuff.  He was very keen and organised with his skills in this area. He continued this work until retirement, jazz always being alongside  this and at least as important.’

‘I understand he learnt to play the clarinet (his main instrument) in about 1948 whilst he was on National Service.  Just after I was born we lived in a caravan in Abbeyfields, Chertsey,   My mother was the eldest of 8 and her family lived in Surbiton. I think my grandparents, or we, lived in Cranford for a while after our caravan.  When I was very young, about two, the earliest memory I have is of having a day out with dad and visiting a friend who had a bee hive in his garden.  There was a white picket fence.  I asked Dad about this not long before he died but he had no memory of who this was.  I recently had a look on Youtube at some of the Crane River Band footage and was amazed to see a picture of the "home" of the band, which had a white picket fence.  Apparently behind the White Hart in Cranford.  Anyone remember bee hives there?  I suppose it could have been a wasps' nest ....  It would have been Ken Colyer's Omega Brass Band albumabout 1956/7.  Dad was also a good friend of Sonny Morris, I believe.'

'Dad was in the Crane River Jazz Band, also the New Albemarle Jazz Band. He played with Ken Colyer - he played drum in the marching band album Ken produced and his feet are on the cover although he is hidden by his drum!  Mum says he was in a band called the Wolverines (I know there were a few of these!)  I noticed on your site that he set up his own band and was advertised as the Neil Millett band playing at Eel Pie Island in the late 50s.’

'Mum says in the early days in Hounslow we had Ginger Baker as a paying guest.  We settled into a flat in Surbiton, having temporarily lived in Ealing in 1962 with a jazz friend couple of his. I remember Dad arriving back at the house in Surbiton with an enormous double bass. He was basically out all the time playing. He quite often went off to gigs in Germany or other places when they were young and married.’

Bass player Ron Drakeford recalls: 'Prior to moving to the South Coast, Neil was very prominent on the jazz scene in Kingston and the London area. He was a regular depper on clarinet with many bands and we used him often when I was with the Canal Street band. He played fairly regularly with Mole (Mo) Benn and had a club at Thames Hotel with Mole Benn at one point. As for recordings, I only am aware of one, and on that he is not playing clarinet. He (and Mole Benn) were in the line up on the 10inch LP Marching to New Orleans on Decca LF 1013 by Ken Colyer's Omega Brass Band. On that occasion Neil was playing the bass drum and Mole Benn on sousaphone. Both Neil and Mole often made the line up for various Omega gigs as did many other musos outside of the Colyer band. Neil Lived in Endesleigh The Grey Horse Kingstongardens in Surbiton. The last time I saw Neil was when we did a gig together at Clapham Junction for Lew and Pam Hurd who were over touring U.K from Australia. That must have been mid to late sixties.'

Mick Brocking adds: 'I know that Neil started playing about 1950 with the Albemarle Jazz Band of Southall with Pat Halcox on trumpet. Pat left to join Chris Barber in 1954 (to replace Ken Colyer). I heard him play many times around the Kingston area in the late 1950s and early 1960s, notably at the Fighting Cocks in London Road (home of the Bill Brunskill and Canal Street bands) and with the Georgia band at the Grey Horse in Richmond Road. I recall him as a fine driving clarinet who could also play with great sensitivity. Personally he impressed as a very likeable extrovert, though a bit of a rogue with it. I was at his farewell bash at the Cocks on his leaving the area (late 1960s?) to live on the South Coast. He hired the hall on the first floor but omitted to pay the landlord! Some years later (1970s?) I heard that he was living and playing in Holland or Belgium probably with his close friend Andy Ford, the banjo player, who was also living there. They often played together in the Kingston/London area. I know that Andy was still playing with bands a couple of years ago and may well still be playing but I have not been able to contact him.'

 

Susan says: ‘I have to explain he was a very young dad (24) and mum just 19,  when I was born in 1954, the eldest, of three, my brothers now aged 58, and 54.  The reason I point this out is that Dad was a bit absent, in fact  totally out of touch with our family between 1981 and about 1995, so I've been piecing stuff together myself. Most of his early young jazz days I was a small child, so I don't remember too much.’

‘In about 1964 Neil got work in Hampshire and moved us to Bournemouth, where he connected with an active jazz scene there and was playing with local bands, but he did go back to the Kingston area in the early 1970s and played  regularly in The Original Georgia Jazz Band at the Grey Horse in Kingston.  They recorded a live session there in 1973. I have a photocopy of the line up, and just after he died I discovered one member of the band (Geoff Cole?) regularly  played in a Hackney Pub near me, I went along to see him, and met his wife.  Dipper Duddy was one of the band members, but no longer playing in that pub so we didn't get to meet.’

Mick Brocking also has that Original Georgia Jazz Band album: 'I have just unearthed the sleevenotes for the Original Georgia Jazzband LP. Recorded at the Grey Horse on October 28th 1973 the personnel was Mick Burns (trumpet/cornet), Geoff Cole (trombone), Neil Millett (clarinet), Andy Ford (banjo), Geoff King (bass), Brian Dipper Duddy (drums). Guest drummer Lloyd Taylor is on a ragtime track. It says that "Andy Ford formed the band 18 months ago" / "Neil also plays alto and baritone saxes" and that "he has only been back in the London area for two years after having brightened up the Bournemouth jazz scene for six years" So he left Kingston in 1965 and when I heard the Georgia band it was in the early 1970s.

Bassist Neil Clifton adds: 'When I joined the Ian Bell Jazzmen in 1972, Neil Millett was a member of this band on clarinet and baritone. I don’t remember him playing alto. Like most members of the band, he could sup his pint and enjoy it. The Ian Bell Jazzmen were resident on Thursdays at the Grey Horse in Richmond Road, Kingston. The personnel of the band at that time was Frank Wilson (trumpet), Mike Hogh (trombone), Neil Millett (clarinet, baritone), Dave Rylands (piano), Rod Simmonds (guitar, banjo), Neil Clifton (bass), Ian Bell (leader, drums). Neil remained in the band for about a year after that but then left and I lost touch with him after that.'

Trumpeter Pete Batten also remembers Neil: 'About August 1973, I did an audition for a band that played every Sunday lunchtime at the Half Moon at Putney. The leader was a banjo player, John Green. His regular trumpet player, Daze Allen, was taking time off to cope with a bereavement – I think it was his mother. I got the job and soon met Neil Millett, who was a regular member of the band. At that time the band played in the front bar. The band became very popular and in January 1974 the session moved to the large hall at the rear of the pub. Daze Allen returned but John Green asked me to stay on. I was to play most of the lead trumpet while Daze would contribute solos and sing. It soon became obvious that his singing was a very important factor in the band’s growing popularity. Neil made a very important contribution on clarinet and baritone. He also brought along Geoff Cole to take over on trombone. At that time they were both members of the Georgia Jazz Band, which had a residency at the Grey Horse in Kingston. John Green then decided to further enlarge the band by adding another clarinet/sax player and asked Neil to play mainly baritone. The band quickly became very popular and began to pack the hall every Sunday. To my surprise, about May or June 1974, Neil Half Moon Putneyannounced that he was moving to Bournemouth. I am not sure, but I think he had been offered a good job. Although he was not a close friend, I did enjoy his company and his playing. The band at this time was called “John Green and his Snap Syncopators”. In 1981 it became “The New Dixie Syncopators”; it finally broke up in 1987. Geoff Cole was a leading member of the band until about 1982, when his other band commitments became too many. His playing and singing too were an important part of the band’s success.'

 

Half Moon, Putney

 

Carol Lowther adds: 'I remember Neil playing with my Dad, Roy 'Dace' Allen at the Half Moon Putney. My Dad was in touch with Neil and visited him in Amsterdam. Roy is now living in North Yorkshire, still playing two hours a day (the neighbours love him), he records tracks with a garage band and has just taken up playing the piano. Not bad for an 86 year old Snap Syncopator!'

Garry Crook says: 'Not sure if this is the same Neil Millett I knew in Amsterdam from 1984 to 1986 but it sounds like him."My" Neil Millett was working for Giltspur Engineering as a Technical Illustrator, but he was a clarinet player and had played jazz professionally. One thing he mentioned was that he had played on some Rolling Stones Albums, not sure if that is correct? I remember his 57th Birthday in Amsterdam, he was roaring drunk and the jazz band that was there invited him up on stage to play, he staggered up and then whilst sitting down proceeded to play a beautiful intro into a jazz piece on his clarinet. I remember him as a very humorous man, and have a few funny stories about him, sad to hear of his passing.'

 

Susan explains: 'In 1968, dad had left the family home in Bournemouth to work in Amsterdam. He did return regularly, but then dad moved to Germany around 1981 and he was no longer in contact.  I think he also used to visit the Swanage Jazz Festival - he always mentioned seeing Chris Barber there.  We all lost contact for a while until around 1994 when dad reappeared in Bournemouth after time abroad. He reconnected with the Bournemouth jazz scene and carried on playing until he died of a sudden heart attack in March 2001, having been ill for a while.  His friends say he got up on stage as long as he could manage, which was about a year before died.’

Illustrator Martin King recalls: 'Originally from Bournemouth myself, I met Neil in the mid to late 70’s. We both worked as Technical Illustrators and whilst working on a contract for IBM in Hursley, Neil, myself and two others shared a house in St Thomas Street, Winchester. The house was originally the servants' quarters to the big house next door and was well positioned close to several pubs which we all used to enjoy. The owner of the house was horrified upon our arrival due to the quantity of musical instruments being carried into the house. My next meeting with Neil was in Germany. I was at work one day when the telephone rang. It was Neil phoning me from Wolfsberg (The home of VolksWagen) telling me of a job opportunity. I took him up on it and he kindly put me up for a few days until I got myself sorted. Neil played at many venues around the Wolfsberg and joined a local band called the Saratoga Seven (I think). I remember they made an LP and I think I still have a copy in the attic. Neil was friends with Acker Bilk and he used to go and meet up with him if he was touring in the area. I know Neil was estranged from his family at the time but I do remember him talking with pride of his son and daughter who I believe attended Slade School of Art. Neil was talented and always great fun to be around and I was sorry to hear about his sudden death.'

Banjo player Chris Mitchell says: 'I knew Neil from Kingston upon Thames days. He was playing with the New Crane River band, and afterwards formed his own band. I used to do his printing. Many years later, I was playing in Stuttgart in a club and, as you probably know, one looks around to see lookalikes. (There was a dead ringer for Terry Lightfoot in Zurich). I thought “He looks like Neil Millett”, and blow me, it was. He was working for Messerschmidt in the drawing office. He had his clarinet with him, and we enjoyed a good session on the bandstand and in the bar afterwards. I never saw him again. Andy Ford sent a email to say that Neil had passed away. It was good that I knew him'.

Susan Millett began to discover more about her father as she dealt with his belongings after he died: ‘Although he had recently moved from a small flat to one room, and had very little stuff, he had kept two address books, one the most recent and the earlier one very thrillingly from the 50s and 60s. For his funeral I rang everyone in both those books, it took hours but it was therapeutic, and I discovered very interesting stories .... the local band marched along at the funeral, it was great to meet them.’

If you remember Neil and would like to add to this Profile, please contact us.

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Other Profiles / Articles that might be of interest

Dipper Duddy
Jazz In Kingston on Thames
Bill Brunskill
Finding Trad

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