Sandy Brown Jazz


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Jazz Remembered


Jay Wilbur

by Jeff Duck


Jay Wilbur


We are now seven days into March of 2019 and I find myself receiving an email that reminds me this article is due, unfortunately as age creeps upon us all, I too need reminding these days. So onwards and upwards as we say, our subject for this Musical Missive should by rights have been as much of a household name as Ambrose, Jack Hylton and Henry Hall if not more so. With some confusion about the place and year of birth one would expect James Edward Wilbur to be a mystery but fortunately there is plenty of information about this UK bandleader available (although some is conflicting). One can make one’s own decision as to which you choose.

According to a number of sources, James Edward Wilbur, popularly known as 'Jay Wilbur'. was born in 1898 (although one would expect this to be earlier given some of the documented history). Some say he was born in Bournemouth, Hampshire and others that it was Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. His mother was a wardrobe mistress and she and Jay's pianist/violinist father both worked for the Carl Rosa Opera Company. Now the opera company was based in London with many of its performances taking place in London and its surrounding towns so one would expect that Jay was born in Bournemouth rather than Leamington Spa as it is geographically closer to London, and taking into account that there were good transport links from the south coast to London.

Jay started singing at a young age and along with taking up piano at the age of eleven, soon held his own position in the local church choir as well as singing in a few of the opera company’s productions. At this stage of his career Jay was also involved with a variety act called “Casey’s Court”. Part of their performance required that Jay be wheeled on stage in a soap box. It is recorded that the lad pushing the soap box was Charlie Chaplin, if this is so (and I have no reason to dispute this) it could not have been later than 1910 as this is when Charlie went to the USA, with this in mind it would mean that Jay was just twelve years old at this point, hence the confusion over Jay’s year of birth.


The H2G2 website tells us: ‘Many people are familiar with the term 'Casey's Court', used to describe a gathering of unruly Caseys Court posterchildren. However, it is almost certain that those who use this term are completely unaware of its music hall origins. 'It's what my mum or dad used to say' is the common response when a person using this turn of phrase is asked exactly what they mean by that expression. ...  the origins of Casey's Court are rooted firmly in the main form of entertainment before the advent of the silver screen, in the twilight years of the music halls in early 20th-Century Britain. For it was here that the music hall star Will Murray chose to launch his twice nightly crazy show 'Casey's Court' on an unsuspecting public. The style of Casey's Court was similar to the popular 'gang show' ... The cast was made up predominantly of children, with Murray dressed in drag and failing to keep them in order as his character 'Mrs Casey'. ... At various times the promotion posters would be for 'Casey's Court Circus', the 'Will Murray Gang' and finally 'the Casey Circus (prop Harry Cardle)'.


The young stage-struck Jay was both geographically and talent-wise well positioned and open to a wide range of opportunities from variety to straight theatre roles and as a boy soprano who could also accompany himself. Jay was in big demand. With his voice breaking at the age of sixteen Jay decided to concentrate on piano, it was also at this time that the movie business was fast producing silent movies and as a result these movie theatres required a pianist or even an orchestra to accompany the films. It was 1912 and at just 14 years old, Jay was chosen as pianist in some of London’s early movie houses and went on to form one of the first movie house orchestras, developing an early system of cue sheets to ensure that the musical score was consistent with the action of the movie. Without continually disputing Jay’s year of birth (and / or talent) this is another reason to suspect that Jay’s birth was earlier than documented.

Holding the position of movie house pianist, and having to concentrate on the bad quality pictures, led to Jay developing bad eyesight. In 1916 Jay would have been 18 years old and conscription to the war had started. Due to his bad eye sight, Jay was graded as 'C3' which meant that he was only suitable for non-combat service. Although conscripted into service and having to give up the position of movie house pianist/orchestra leader he was able to continue playing at various restaurants and private parties in the evenings.

In 1919, Jay formed his own dance band working on the continent for approximately three years. When he returned to England he became musical director of the Ashton and Mitchells Agency supplying dance bands for various venues around the UK. It was after a meeting with Edward, Prince of Wales at a high society venue that Jay was invited to play with his band at Buckingham Palace on a number of occasions. The position at The Ashton and Mitchells Agency came to an end in September 1923 when Jay joined the Emlyn Thomas London Band for their first recording session. Jay soon reformed his own band, and after various gigs at some of London’s high society venues including the Savoy and Piccadilly hotels, he returned to the continent including the Hotel Bristol in Oslo and the Casino in Spa, Belgium. Interestingly, it was from this town that the word 'spa' originates as it has become famous for its several mineral springs and the company 'Spa' that exported the mineral water across the world.


Emlyn Thomas London Band


Emlyn Thomas London Band
The players so far identified in the photo from mgthomas Dance Band Encyclopaedia are:
Back Row: Fred North (trombone); unknown (drums); Fred Cooke (piano); unknown (tuba); Emlyn Thomas (violin/leader); 2 unknown french horn players.
Front Row: Billy Bell (banjo); 2 unidentified trumpet players, one of which is probably Jay Elms; Jay Wilbur (piano); George Clarkson (sax); Nat Star (sax); unknown (sax).


After this tour Jay was asked to form an orchestra to play on a cruise to the West Indies. During the cruise the ship took a short stop over at New York. Jay ventured into the city and met with many of the local bandleaders including Paul Whiteman. It was as a result of these meetings that Jay realised the importance of proper and full orchestration in making a dance band to successful.

March 1926 marked the start of Jay making various recordings with Leon Van Straten’s Orchestra; if my research serves me correctly most if not all of these recordings were issued on the card-based Duophone label and they seem to have sold very well making the band quite popular. Almost a full year later, Jay reformed his own band to play in London at the Tricity Restaurant in the Strand. He was there until 1928 when he left to become musical director of the new Dominion Gramophone Records Ltd, the orchestra Jay formed for the company featured some of the UK’s best musicians, notably Max Goldberg, Tony Thorpe and Billy Thorburn. It seems that to make the company look bigger than it was, almost all the recordings were issued under various band names.


Here is I'd Rather Cry Over You from 1928.




The orchestra also made various recordings backing some of the day's popular vocalists such as Amy Brunton (a pseudonym for Elsie Carlisle). After much work and effort by all involved the Dominion Gramophone Records company was barely established by the time of the Wall Street crash, and it became a victim of the Great Depression.



This recording of Deep In The Hollow Of A Hill with Jay Wilbur and his Band is from 1929.




Not hanging around and marking the start of a thirteen year association, Jay soon became musical director for the Crystalate Gramophone Manufacturing Company Ltd which as producers of the cut-price Victory and Imperial labels was much better established and placed to survive the hard times of the Great Depression. They were also keen on growing their British dance band output so as not to become dependent on the America market. To mark the new era for the company, the colour of the Imperial label was changed from mauve to red. The last of the Victory label issues was cut in 1931 with the label being superseded by the red and gold Eclipse label. Jay’s recordings for the Imperial label were issued under his own name but his recordings for the Victory and new Eclipse recordings were issued under various pseudonyms such as The Hottentots, The Biltmore Players, The Ambassadors Twelve, The Connecticut Collegians and The Radio Serenaders, to name but a few.

One of Jay’s early Imperial recordings, Adeline, was in-fact issued twice in two different versions - the first a vocal version featuring Al Bowlly the second an instrumental version. Radio was not a new medium to Jay as he had played various shows in 1927 for the new BBC public corporation (before 1927 the BBC was a private organisation). During his time with Crystalate he had secured his own radio programme and he continued to broadcast on both the Music While You Work and Hi Gang radio shows.


Listen to Adeline from 1930 with Al Bowlly taking the vocal refrain.





In 1932 with the Imperial label becoming dedicated to Jack Payne, Jay’s recordings ceased for Imperial and he concentrated on recordings for the new Eclipse label. The new “King of Records”, the Rex label was also to feature many of Jay’s recordings under his own name and various pseudonyms. Some of Jay’s recordings were also featured under his own name on a few of the Broadcast 4-in-1 sides. 1935 saw the Eclipse label reach one-thousand issues and the label ceased production being replaced by the new Crown label. Jay’s work never ceased and his recordings for Crown were issued under his own name and again various pseudonyms. One of the pseudonyms used to cover some of Jay’s recordings for Crown was the exotic Manuel Espinosa and his Rumba Band. The Crystalate Gramophone Manufacturing Company was acquired by Decca in 1937 and the Crown label was discontinued.

Listen to Miss Otis Regrets from 1934. The singer is Sam Browne who had become a regular vocalist with Jay Wilbur. One YouTube comment says: 'I bought this record as a second hand 78 in 1966 in Manchester. It was very popular amongst my fellow students especially the Jew's Harp solos'.




With the arrival of 1942 Jay and his band started a tour of service camps as part of the war effort. As a result, his recording sessions with his Hi Gang Orchestra dwindled and by September 1943 had stopped completely. The war had a profound effect on Jay (as with almost everyone). He lost his son, an aerial photographer for the RAF, at the age of twenty-one and along with an unforgiving work schedule this led to a fall in Jay’s health. He was told to rest and take it easy. When Jay returned to work he was faced with many changes to the music scene, but in his inimitable way he adapted very quickly by carving out a new career in light orchestral music. He left England in 1946 for New Zealand and then resettled in Australia in 1948 where he began broadcasting regularly with an eighteen-piece band. In 1958, Jay relocated to Cape Town, South Africa where he broadcast with his band 'The Firestone Strings' on the then popular Springbok Radio. Jay sadly passed away in 1968 while in Cape Town.

It was with the publication in 1987 of the Rust and Forbes British Dance Bands On Record book that collectors were finally able to appreciate the full works of Jay Wilbur whether published in his own name or as a pseudonym. A large portion of Jay’s recordings were issued on cut-price labels such as the seven inch Victory, eight inch Eclipse and the nine inch Crown labels. As most of these mentioned releases were sold for around sixpence in Woolworths one would expect the quality to be low, but this could not be further from the truth. As a collector I understand that these recorded sides are still sought after and when found are still of reasonable quality, even after being extensively played. As a studio director Jay had access to many of the day’s top players and a lot of his recordings were issued under different names - perhaps this was why he has never qiite been remembered as a prominent name in the industry?


.... and finally, here is Jay Wilbur and his Band playing Glenn Miller's hit In The Mood in 1940 - the vocalists are The Greene Sisters. Does anyone know anything about the Greene Sisters? I don't think they are the American Soul group?



Alan Bond writes: 'I thought you might be interested in this personnel listing for the Jay Wilbur Band of 1928 (I'd Rather Cry Over You recording) mentined in your article about Jay Wilbur.

JAY WILBUR AND HIS ORCHESTRA : Jay Wilbur (director); Max Goldberg, Bill Shakespeare (trumpet); Tony Thorpe (trombone); Laurie Payne, Jimmy Gordon (clarinet, alto sax, baritone sax); George Clarkson (clarinet, soprano sax, tenor sax); Norman Cole (violin); Billy Thorburn (piano); Dave Thomas or Bert Thomas (banjo, guitar); Harry Evans (brass bass, string bass); Jack Kosky (drums); Tom Barratt, Eddie Grossbart, Jack Hart, Cavan O'Connor (vocals).

Sometime during 1928, Ted Heath was in the band on trombone. Among others in the band in 1930 was George Melachrino and pianist Pat Danny PoloDodd, who worked latterly with Danny Polo and George Chisholm. My late grandmother was a great fan of Cavan O'Connor and had a number of records by him with Jay Wilbur.

As you probably know, Danny Polo was resident over here for some years before World War two and he did some superb small band recordings with George Chisholm. Back in the 1970s and 1980s myself and a old mate used to be regular visitors at Trevor Benwell's place at Dollis Hill to sample his record collection, virtually all of which consisted of thousands of 78s. He often had other guests staying with him and we had a very pleasant evening with Yank Lawson who was over here with the World's Greatest Jazz Band. Trevor played a couple of those Danny Polo sides and Yank was very effusive in his praise of George Chisholm's trombone work as well as that of Tommy McQuater. He mentioned that he had heard about George from Danny Polo many years before but this was the first time that he had heard any of the sides with Chis. Now Danny Polo died in 1949 so George's fame was spread around in the US quite early on.


Danny Polo


Another of Trevor's guests was Eva Taylor, who was on passage to Sweden to do some gigs with Maggie's Blue Five. She was a very pleasant and gentle lady who was kind enough to give us a few anecdotes about her days with Clarence Williams who was, of course, her husband for many years. Trevor played one of the Blue Five sides with Louis and Sidney Bechet and she told us how there was a battle royal between the two of them to see who could blow the other out of the studio first and poor old Charlie Irvis on trombone was absolutely overwhelmed. We started calling her Eva but she corrected us in no uncertain terms to tell that that was only her stage name and we should call her Irene, her real name being Irene Williams nee Gibbons. We were spell bound with her anecdotes and that was one very late night. With Trevor living at Dollis Hill and my mate living (and still does) in Watford and myself living in Slough at the time, I think I got in at about 3.30 am but at least the M25 was quiet on the way home.

On the odd occasion Vic Lewis would drop in as Trevor knew him through contacts in the record industry when VJM Records was a going concern. Vic was always entertaining company and would regale us with stories of his agency whose clients included the Beatles until he sold the business to Brian Epstein. He always referred to the Beatles as the 'three chord wonders' and hadn't a good word to say about them. I asked why he took them on as clients and he said "ten per cent mate, ten per cent."


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