Christmas, A Clarinet And Acker Bilk (RIP)

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Christmas is coming.

I know that for certain because following much deliberation and discussion my son has composed his 2014 letter to Santa Claus. We sealed the envelope with due ceremony and in his best handwriting addressed it to Santa’s North Pole headquarters. We cycled down to the local postbox/mailbox and very carefully sent the vital message on its way.

What he wants, and what we are all sure he will receive curtesy of the elves and Santa’s crack reindeer delivery team (led by Rudolph) is a clarinet.

Why a clarinet? Because over the last year listening to CDs in the car Tom has become a fanatical fan of British ‘Trad Jazz’ from the 1950s and 1960s. This was led by young men aflame with passion who had discovered in the shiny shellac of imported American Jazz records a doorway to a new world of rhythmic joy and wonder. Many of them then started journeys and careers that would sustain them for the rest of their lives through obscure internecine culture wars, improbable transatlantic popular successes and long periods playing to small audiences in draughty halls and smoky pub back rooms.

Prominent among these was a clarinettist from Somerset named Bernard Stanley Bilk who rejoiced in a schoolboy nickname he would ever after be known by, ‘Acker’. Though Tom has time for the pure vision of the incorruptible Ken Colyer, the urbane style of the aristocratic Humphrey Lyttleton and the gusto of the Chris Barber and Kenny Ball bands his unquestioned favourite is Acker who has just died at the age of 85.

Acker came from England’s West Country where the accents, the cheese, the cider and the characters all have a distinctive flavoursome tang. This distinctiveness is reflected in the instantly recognisable sound and tone of Acker’s clarinet playing. There is an immensely charming open hearted generosity and vibrato vigour in his sound. Once Acker announced his beckoning presence you just naturally relax and lean in confident that you will be moved, entertained and uplifted.

Acker also developed a signature look – bowler hat, waistcoat and goatee beard that amounted to the kind of winning brand that ‘image consultants’ would now charge you a couple of limbs to devise. There was an element of the Edwardian dandy in this but also a sense that a canny countryman was both celebrating and mocking the whole show business cavalcade – a witty wink to the wise.

At the dawn of the 1960s Acker hit his musical stride and issued a string of records that would become hits and and cement his place forever in the national consciousness. Let’s kick off with a top 10 hit from 1961, ‘That’s My Home’ which nicely demonstrates Acker’s relaxed take on traditional jazz.

Later that same year Acker composed a tune he called, ‘Jenny’ after his daughter. Retitled ‘Stranger On The Shore’ when it was used as the theme tune of a BBC TV show it became Acker’s calling card, his old age pension and a world wide hit selling millions of copies. Billed as by, ‘ Mr Acker Bilk And His Paramount Jazz Band’ Stranger took up residence in the UK charts for more than a year and became almost unbelievably a US number one record in May 1962. There was a ritual at Acker concerts whereby he laid his bowler hat on the piano when taking the stage – donning the hat near the end of the concert was the rapturously received signal that he was about to play Stranger: the tune be would always be known by.

Stranger must be one of the most evocative instrumentals ever recorded. Acker’s clarinet seems to drift into our minds like an enveloping sea mist. For the duration of the record we are cast into a reverie where our everyday cares are dissolved and memories of landscapes, seascapes and times past swirl deliciously in our thoughts. Turn down the lights, lie back and prepare to be transported!

Acker was a major draw in Britain and you might be surprised to see who was below him on the in June 1963 – none other than The Beatles!

In 1964 Acker cut a particularly charming single which showed that he was open to new influences and that he was a more versatile musician than often supposed. ‘Dream Ska’ is one of those records that sets me grinning wildly and assaying a series of lurching dance moves best executed in private.

In Britain the baby boomer generation grew up with Acker as a fixture on our radios and TV screens. He was one of those rare artists that everybody recognised and who was universally regarded with affection. This embrace extended to some of the titans of the music world who turned to Acker when they wanted a clarinet sound that was poignant and nostalgic. If you can find it look out for Acker joining forces with the great Van Morrison to bring before us the shades of Avalon. Acker is reported to have described Van as a nice guy and expressed some surprise that when Van offered him a lift home to the West Country after a recording session it was by private plane rather than by car!

My last musical selection to showcase Acker’s gifts is a wonderfully romantic song by the sadly lost siren of English folk music – the incomparable Sandy Denny. It would be hard to beat this record for an example of distilled English melancholy.

Acker Bilk was a hard working musician who never stopped making records and performing for his loyal audience. He played his heart out every time he lifted his clarinet and he leaves a marvellous legacy of recordings filled with humanity and joy which will always find an audience.

Acker Bilk born on January 28 1929 died on November 2 2014 (Ar dheis De go raibh a anam)

This post dedicated to my son Tom: avid music fan, Acker Bilk devotee and a proper chip off the old block.

Post Christmas update!

For those of you who were concerned about whether Tom would receive his clarinet I am happy to report that Santa’s Sleigh made a pin point landing in the meadow near our house so that when Tom woke up on Christmas morning a clarinet was indeed poking out of his stocking! We are getting used to Tom’s version of Stranger On The Shore – which is somewhat more free form than Acker Bilk’s version!

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