Obituary: Owen Bryce

By chance today I learnt of the death of Owen Bryce at the age of 95. Woolwich should be proud of Owen, not just because he was a shopkeeper here but because he was one of the people who started revivalist jazz in Britain. ‘Trad jazz’ – played by a group of lads from Woolwich in wartime Barnehurst.

We don’t hear much about ‘trad’ these days. The history of popular music tends to be written in terms only of rock and roll – but, for the discerning teenager in the late 1950s, ‘trad’ was what it was all about. We knew about Owen Bryce, same way that we knew about Chris Barber, Terry Lightfoot and people like that – and we knew Owen had been one of the first. We rather looked down on any band that became too popular.

George Webb’s Dixielanders first played at the Red Barn in Bexleyheath in 1943. Another band member was Wally Fawkes who later played with Humphrey Lyttleton and was the cartoonist, Flook. In the war Owen was stationed at the Rescue Service in Shrewsbury House – and spent his time studying Dixieland jazz, and was a partner in a radio shop in Woolwich ‘Farley Radio Service’ . He married Iris in 1945.

American musicians – some big stars – had played jazz in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s but by the 1940s a union embargo had stopped them coming here and popular music was played by professional dance bands. Jazz in Britain became confined to exotic clubs and some enthusiasts. It has been described many times in the history of blues how young seamen took shore leave in the US, visited clubs and brought records back here. The same thing happened with jazz. Some enthusiasts began to play here, and some opened clubs – Cy Laurie, George Chisholm and, of course, George Melly.

In darkest Barnehurst George Webb set up a band which first played in at the Red Barn in 1943 – it included Wally Fawkes, Reg Rigden (later curator at Plumstead Museum) and Owen Bryce on cornet. Owen was important because he could read music and sort of do arrangements. In 1945 they won third place in the South East London Dance Band Championships at Peckham Baths. To quote a jazz historian “the Dixielanders were true dilettantes, overtly and aggressively intransigent in their policy, and they believed that learning to read music would rob them of the jazz spirit …. their models were the black jazzmen … ‘. One of their number was soon in trouble for playing with the Eltham Studio Band.

Thus traditional jazz was first played here. Other clubs began to open, other players played – but George Webb’s band, and then Owen’s band, kept on playing. Owen and Iris turned the basement of their radio shop into The Hot Spot which employed James Asman. It was opened by Humphrey Lyttleton. Their main customer was a young man called Chris Barber who Owen eventually allowed to play with the band. In Timbercroft Road in Plumstead James Asman began to edit Jazz Record.

They also opened a club called ‘The Sunday Barbecue’ – although they had to explain to Woolwich what a barbecue was (an alien way of eating whole pigs from the US). This was in the Cavendish Room in the Ritz Ballroom, Woolwich New Road – although they later moved to Mr. Tilley’s School of Ballroom Dancing in Calderwood Street. Sadly they were closed down by the Lord’s Day Observance Society. They opened other clubs and at the Harrow Inn, Abbey Wood, Owen refused to let a young banjo player, called Lonnie Donegan, sing with the band because he didn’t like his voice.

In time a new trumpeter took over from Reg Rigden – he was very very different from these working class South Londoners, ex-Eton and the Guards – Humphrey Lyttleton. The movement started by Owen and George Webb grew and grew. One of my favourite records was always ‘Humph at the Royal Festival Hall’ – recorded in 1954 with Wally Fawkes and credits to George Webb. Traditional jazz on its way to becoming the most popular music of the late 1950s.

Owen and Iris remained in their Woolwich shop – and many people will remember it before it was pulled down to make way for an abortive supermarket scheme which became General Gordon Square. They then took to living on a canal boat and Owen has died in Northampton – the only obit I have seen was from a Northampton newspaper. I hope there have been more.
As a teenager at Gravesend’s Terminus Tavern, I knew about Owen Bryce – it was the best band we used to get there (except for Sandy Brown, but he only came once). I knew about how it had all begun at the Red Barn. My late husband, Alan, was a big big big jazz fan, who looked down his nose at ‘trad’ – but he would have said over and over again how we should honour those lads who began it all in Barnehurst.

Thanks Owen – hope Woolwich remembers you properly.

Bits of this taken from:
Iris Bryce. A tree in the Quad. Uni. Greenwich 2002
Jim Godbolt. A History of Jazz in Britain. Northway 2010.

Dr Mary Mills is a former councillor for the Peninsula ward, has authored many books on the local area and is the Chair of the Friends of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels. She has an M.Phil in George Livesey and the South Metropolitan Gas Co's Co-partnership Scheme and a PhD in The Early Gas Industry and its by products in East London.

Comments

  1. Thomas Brian Wood says

    My thanks to Dr Mills. I keep a jazz database, The Song for Me, and only heard of Owen’s death by chance and an online search revealed a paucity of news until I came across her entry. My taste in jazz has always been catholic but my particular interest was the vernacular music of New Orleans, acts I visited many times. Owen and co. were early heroes of mine from 1948 and I began playing bass and tuba with the Eagle Jazz Band in Canterbury the following year or so.

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  2. Chris Watford says

    Hi ! Just stumbled on this- didn’t know Owen had passed away, although I emailed him earlier this year,, and he replied saying he was suffering from serious depression. Sad to hear he’s gone, as he was a good friend, and always positive in his encouragement to other jazz musicians. I sent him a CD of my band with Charlie Connor (soprano sax), who was another old friend of his, and he liked our music.

    You’ve got one piece wrong, he did not leave his shop and go on the narrow boat. You’ve missed the years he was living near Wrotham Heath, in Kent, owning a small-holding. He played a Sunday lunchtime session at his local pub for many years.

    Rest in peace, old friend.

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  3. Dave Allen says

    I have seen Owen a few times,the last was at the funeral of George Webb,where we had a brief chat. Although slowing down in his advancing years he could still blow that horn. Cheers Owen hope you’re up there with Gabriel! Dave Allen.

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  4. alan beecham says

    Back in the 60s I had some trumpet lessons from Owen Bryce at his shop in Woolwich. I like to think he set me on the right path – still playing today.

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  5. Erica Chapman says

    Thank you so much for this lovely obituary Mary. I am one of Owen’s grandchildren and it makes me so proud to know how much difference he made to people’s lives, not only through his musical talent in playing and writing music, but also the encouragement he always gave to those who wanted to play (including myself and my children!)

    This is something my brother wrote on FB on the day he died and I think it pretty much sums up how we feel.

    “Today we said goodbye to a legend of our family, my Grandad, a true character who packed more into his life than anyone else I know. A legend of the trad jazz scene and was given the freedom of New Orleans because of it, he played alongside, and was well respected by some very well known jazz musicians, lived through the war, owned his own shop, ran his own farm, lived on a boat, travelled far & wide, wrote books and still found time to raise 4 children who then gave him numerous grandchildren of which I’m lucky enough to be one…and then great-grandchildren who due to his ripe old age (95) he was able to spend many years with plenty of them.

    He had only been ill for a relatively short length of time but became very ill in the last few weeks, he died with my Grandma Iris beside him as she had been for nearly all of his life, and after speaking to her today I believe the end was a relief as he suffered very little.

    I’m not looking for sympathy, as always I celebrate his life and the 46 years I have been blessed to know him.”

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    • says

      So sorry for you loss. Owen helped me in my early stages when I was about 15 by letting me sit in with his band on trombone. He invited me to have tea with him and his wife on his farm and he played a couple of pieces on the piano and I played along with him. I think he wanted to hear me in case I was rubbish. We then went on to the gig at the The Bull at Birchwood. I will never forget it I was so scared. He was a great man and musician. I am now 76 – Regards Ray Maisey

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    • Susan de Haas says

      I remember Owen & Iris also vaguely the kids. My Uncle Laurie & Auntie Mo were friends & I recall visiting Wrotham a few times. My family lived in Seal & I also visited The hot spot several times , maybe your Grandmother would remember Laurie & Mo Brooks

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  6. Mary Mills says

    Thanks Erica – earlier there was a message from Iris for me, and as a result I might go to the opening of the Museum in Southend
    Since I wrote the obituary I have been to various events round the borough where there has been a speech from someone from the Council, or whatever – and they have started to add in when they talk about the important things that have happened in the Borough, something about Owen and his work. So I guess that means they have read the obit,. and that he is now getting some recognition.

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    • John Goodman says

      I never met Owen but I had the real pleasure of sitting next to Iris at yesterday’s opening of the new ‘branch’ of the National Jazz Archive in Southend-on-Sea. We had a delightful chat whilst waiting for the afternoon’s ‘jam’ session to start and although she could only stay for the first number due to having to return to Northampton, she was absolutely charming and full of memories and enthusiasm for the music.

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  7. says

    Hallo – I have just seen the above comments and only found out from these (5mins ago, 12.35, 14/Feb/16) about Owen passing away. I just thought I would put his name on the computer to see if there was any news of his current activity.
    I knew Owen through attending the Wortley music week run by the Workers Music Association during the years 1970 to `76. I put myself down for the Orchestra and Jazz courses but, as they interfered with each other – I kept on with the Jazz! So that is how I met and played alongside Owen during the evenings at the bar and in the ballroom. He once asked a friend of mine who was, in fact a very able musician but who was new to Wortley and therefore someone whom Owen hadn`t heard play “We usually ask new jazz members to go for the beginners course to start of with ………. for instance, do you know what a Dixieland Blues Sequence is? ” Bill would have instantly understood and played according to the chord sequence of the above – but he probably hadn`t heard that expression before despite the fact that the sequence was simple enough – so a slight hesitation there: “Well,” says Owen, “this precisely why we ask beginners to go to the beginners class – because, if you don`t know what a Dixieland Blues Sequence is – you will NEVER be a jazz musician!”. Subsequently, though, Bill`s ability was soon realised by Owen and Bill played a lot with the rest of the players. At Wortley, the jazz classes were so relaxed and enjoyable – very laid back. Some of the class would go to a room at night and sit, drinking (sherry, amongst other things) and listening to jazz quietly (so not to disturb others) and Owen would tell us some of his experiences, (one outrageous in particular!).
    When I got married in `77, I lost touch with Owen as I did not attend any more music courses at Wortley – but I did `phone Owen a number of years ago and spoke to him and, in fact, Iris as well.
    I am sure there are many others from the Wortley days who would have offered up memories had they been aware of Owen`s passing. I believe he discontinued Wortley sometime in the seventies – but I could be wrong. I wish all the best to Iris and any other family members and relatives. BEV

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    • Lisa Waterman says

      I have a much cherished photograph of Owen Bryce at Woolwich Polytechnic in 1961 leading the band for the valentines day ball. I never knew Owen but my parents did, Ann Grigsby and Nasir Ahmed, were both students in love with each other but whose relationship was culturally unsustainable. The picture shows them all three and is much cherished by me because it is the only picture I have of my father, who refused his consent for my adoption when I was 12 months old but his plea went unheeded and I was sent to the Thomas Coram Foundation for new parents. A search for him over 40 years has failed from lack of a date of birth. I have stared at the photo of Owen Bryce for 50 years and mourn his passing as much as I am sad for never having known nor met my father .

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  8. Lisa Waterman says

    My sympathies to all friends and family. I have a much cherished photo of Owen Bryce at Woolwich Polytechnic in 1961 leading the band for the Valentines day ball. I never knew Owen but my parents met him and are also in the picture. Ann Grigsby and Nasir Ahmed were both students in love with each other but whose relationship was culturally unsustainable. the photo is much cherished by me because it is the only one I have of my father; I was adopted against his express written wishes and a 40 year search for him has failed due to lack of a date of birth. I have stared at the photo or Mr Bryce for 50 years and mourn his passing as much as I am sad for never having known nor met my father. .

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  9. Kevin O'Brien says

    Having watched the fabulous BBC4 Trad Britannia programmes, I finally fell for maybe the only remaining musical genre I’ve hitherto not been able to enjoy, in no small part due to listening to the stories from from those days from the likes of Owen. I then Googled Owen’s name having enjoyed his terrific character and contributions, only to see he had sadly passed. I then found this piece which, through the lovely reminiscences of friends and family, completely confirms the impression I got from Owen in the programme of being a wonderful, much loved man. May you rest – and blow – in peace, Sir!

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  10. John Skuse says

    I played croquet against Owen when he was about 93. He had fallen the day before and was quite badly hurt but nothing was going to stop him representing Northampton in a league match at Chelmsford.

    Sorry this has nothing to do with his jazz playing but what a guy! Playing a full day’s croquet takes a lot of stamina.

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  11. says

    I remember a jazz course at Wortley, maybe around 1965. By then, I had played “Old style” jazz for a few years but Owen had a different slant in things and took on all comers who expressed an interest – including violinists and brass band guys. I played brass & string bass ( so got roped in fir the orchestra as well!). My twin brother got to know him better through conducting the Wind Band and arranged one of Owens compositions, Girl From Cambridge I think.
    Owen was definite in his opinions and methods, which led to a series of Lets Play Jazz books, which I have recommended to people over the years. I was in contact with him a few times over the years . Always remember him saying ” play the chords the composer wrote” and ” my chord book is the only one with the right chords in, but it’s not for me, it’s for the piano or banjo player I play with” !
    Sorry that he’s gone. Good lead cornet and bandleader.

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  12. Peter Ninnim says

    A few weeks ago while visiting London from the North Of England I was in the Quecumbar in Battersea and came across an advert for a band called “Troika” and to my surprise Owen Bryce was shown as the trumpet player. At that time I had not thought about Owen much for many years and until I discovered that this was a different person, I was quite excited and then back at the hotel I looked on the web and found amongst other things this blog.
    Owen was a great man. When I was 15 my father took me and my old drum kit to Chiswick one evening where he was at an evening class in some college or other. Owen had a Jazz class and I enrolled (too young really); of course I had no idea at all but Owen was helpful, patient, and kind. He even had to explain what you did with all the kit. I stayed with that class for as long as possible and then went off to the great Jim Marshall for lessons. Five years later I was playing professionally and was resident at the Park Lane Hilton. I am still playing although as a fairly busy semi-professional with big bands and small jazz groups. Thanks Owen.

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