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.