Drummer Malcolm 'Mal' Cutlan was born in Coventry in the UK in 1937. His father was an engineer, but his uncle was a drummer and bandleader. Mal was around thirteen when he started collecting 78 rpm records of jazz and ballad singers, but the real epiphany came when a friend suggested they go to Sunday night concerts which were held in theatres across Britain at that time. Mal says: “The first band we saw was the Jack Parnell Orchestra, the one that also featured Phil Seaman on drums. My future was set. I was completely blown away by the skill of all the musicians, presentation, humour etc. I went on to go to every Sunday night concert and heard and saw all of the bands touring at the time.”
A man who garaged his car at the same place as Mal’s father was a drummer and put Mal in touch with a drummer and teacher, Des Woods who helped Mal to get into a local rehearsal band. After playing a few trio gigs, Mal was invited to play with the orchestra of pianist and bandleader Ricky Gerngross. Eventually moving to London, Mal began sitting in with a variety of bands and hanging out in the late evenings at Ronnie Scott’s Club where he heard many of the great jazz musicians of the time.
Mal joined the Dick Williams Band at The Cafe Des Artistes in Chelsea only to find that the band had only a few months left of its contract. Dick Williams, a Canadian, had booked a two week holiday back in Canada. The man he chose to deputise for him while he was away was trumpeter Alan Littlejohn. Some weeks later, in 1964, Alan rang Mal inviting him to join a new group Alan was starting with trombonist Tony Milliner. Mal's time with the band lasted until 1970 but popular music styles were changing and Mal was increasingly playing Standards and then rock music. Fortunately we have rescued a few tracks recorded with Tony and Alan's band. Here is Mal with the Tony Milliner/Alan Littlejohn Sextet playing One For Bob recorded at a gig at the Manchester Sports Guild (date not known). Tony Milliner (trombone); Alan Littlejohn (Flugel horn); Lew Hooper (saxophone); Mat Mathewson (piano); Dave Holland (bass) and Mal Cutlan (drums). Mal thinks the 'Bob' in the title refers to valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer as the early band, a quintet, was modelled on the Clark Terry/ Bob Brookmeyer Quintet.
Moving to Cambridgeshire, Mal was able to join the Mike Bunting Dance Band. The band was permanently touring and after three years the demands began to take their toll. Relief came from an offer of work in Mallorca for theatre productions and hotel bands until 1998 when Mal returned to the UK and returned to playing jazz with "a wonderful, very busy pianist, Bob Bromhead, who said he would keep my date book filled, which he did until we both retired in 2002. "
I was able to grab a tea break with Mal where we were able to look back at some of those times when jazz and dance bands thrived.
Hi Mal, good to see you. Fancy a tea or coffee? There’s a really nice café just round the corner that’s usually quiet this time of day. Do you want to grab a table? - This is on me - tea or coffee?
Oh, coffee please, Ian. I'll get that table in the corner.
There you go. I picked up a few sugar bags - I don't know whether you indulge? I remember you telling me about some guy who you saw with a drum kit when you were a kid? Is that where you started?
Oh yes. There was a man called Ted Doubleday who garaged his car at the same place as my father and I had seen him with drums in his car often going on gigs. I spoke to him about my latest obsession and he put me in touch with a teacher/player called Des Woods. Armed with no more than a pair of sticks and a practice pad I began to learn, but there was the problem of how to afford a drum set. Like most people I started out with only parts of a full kit, bought second hand, but I do remember going to the large music shop near Snow Hill station in Birmingham to buy my first brand new Ajax tomtoms. Eventually, I had completed the “Ray Bauduc 150 Drum Rhythms” and Des got me into a local rehearsal band which met in a pub on Sunday mornings.
I think that Ray Bauduc book is pretty rare now. Didn’t you then go on to play with a local big band led by Ricky Gerngoss?
Yes. I would take the latest girlfriend to the Rialto Casino Ballroom on the outskirts of Coventry. Not to dance but to listen and learn from what must have been the best dance/jazz 16 piece orchestra for miles. The Ricky Gerngross Orchestra. Ricky, a fabulous musician and pianist had the amazing ability to transpose music currently being played by many of the top American bands - Basie, Ellington, Stan Kenton, etc, and produce very accurate sets of compositions for his band. I was still living with my family - my father had become alarmed at all of the gigs I had been getting to play at and after many bitter arguments, we agreed that I would join Armstrong Siddeley Motors on a 5 year engineering apprenticeship. Complete that and he would say no more!
Much to my father's concern, I found out that some of the other apprentices were also musicians so we formed the Apprentice Band. There were two apprentice Managers and one of them, Mr Phillips, was very keen on the band and gave us Thursday afternoons for rehearsals. We played for company functions and local charities - here's a picture of us at the time. That's Bill Crawley with the bass behind me, Derek Stratton was the trombone player, Mick Walsh the alto sax, Kier Godwin at the piano and John Osbourne with the trumpet.
The Apprentice Band
Photograph courtesy of Mal Cutlan
Then I got home one day and Mum said “You will never guess who has visited today. Ricky Gerngross, and he wants you to audition for him next Sunday morning at the ballroom.”
How did the audition go?
I was filled with stark terror and disbelief! I got to sit on this tiered stage - Bunny Roberts the outgoing drummer had left his kit for me and a few other members of the band were there to assist with the audition. It must have gone OK as I started on the Tuesday night. The job was a basic 4 nights a week with “specials” added on. One of those, in my first week was a televised professional dance contest, Britain versus Holland. You can imagine I was wondering what I had got myself into. And then I discovered some of the band were not too happy about my getting the job. Half of them were leftovers from the Teddy Foster Orchestra and were bothered about a learner joining a professional band. Fortunately I was nearing the end of my engineering apprenticeship. Bernard Clarke, the bass player, helped with the formalities - tax, accountant, MU membership, etc. so I became officially a pro. There was still opposition among some of the older guys and as I was about to take my first 2 week summer break, Ricky told me although I was coping with the job, he had booked a pro drummer from Scotland to deputise for me and he would let me know the outcome. I heard no more about it. So with renewed confidence I continued with the orchestra until some three years later when the owners of the ballroom sold out to a gaming casino.
So how was it you moved to London Mal?
Ah. It went something like this. This was the time when Rank, Mecca and others were going over to Bowling, Bingo etc. - as you can imagine, this decimated the dance hall world and the world of the musicians who supported it. But during this time, Ronnie Scott had established his network of ‘once a week clubs’ operating in bars and back rooms of pubs. If you held a club card, you could get into these, usually on Sunday nights, which added another night to my week. Ricky sometimes played piano on these. The formula was, 3 nights a month would be given over to the local musicians and once a month either a guest London player would join the locals or a whole group from London would appear. On one occasion I was talking to Harold McNair, the flute player. He was asking me about the local scene in Coventry - I got the impression he may have been looking for work. I told him except for a few, it was dire. Before we went back on stage he wrote his telephone number on a piece of paper and said – if you fancy moving to London, give me a ring. I did both of those things, but when I rang the number, a woman answered and said Harold went back to the West Indies months ago. A short time later I read he had died from lung cancer.
So you were stuck in London without a job?!
Fortunately, I had a pianist friend, Derek, working at the Cottage Club in Lichfield Street off the Charing Cross Road. I rang him and he said: “Can you start Friday”!! The set up was a new one for me. The way it worked, there was piano, bass and drums who were hired and paid, but it was one of a number of venues around London where an army of sitters-in would play a couple of numbers and move on to next venue and so on. But it was a good time for me. I think we finished at 1.00 am so I could leave my car outside the club and walk to Ronnie’s in Gerrard Street. No one would be on the door at that time and I could sit and enjoy all the great players around including Jackie Dougan, Ronnie Stephenson, Alan Ganley, Bobby Orr, Bill Eyden …... Then some time later Derek phoned: “The Cottage Club is finished Mal – it has burnt out, nothing remains.”
That sounds a bit desperate, Mal. But I get the feeling that moving around the jazz community you have made some usefully connections by that time?
That’s true. A few days later I received a phone call asking: “Are you the drummer from the Cottage Club which has had a fire? Have you heard of Dick Williams? I’m a friend of Dick’s and he cannot find a decent drummer, I’ve heard you play a couple of times and I think you would be ideal, can I give him your number? So I joined the Dick Williams Band at The Cafe Des Artistes in Chelsea, but again I found out the band had only a few months left of its contract. Dick was Canadian and a brilliant cartoonist and film maker. He had booked a two week holiday back in Canada and the man he chose to deputise for him while he was away trumpeter Alan Littlejohn. Alan and I became great friends, but the band disbanded and it was a lean year that followed. I did gigs with bassist Tony Baylis (who eventually became a 'Wurzel'!) and with John Benson who set up a support trio at the 100 Club inn Oxford Street. And then Alan Littlejohn got in touch again asking if I was busy? He went on to explain about a new group he wanted to set up and said the next person to call would be trombonist Tony Milliner.
That band with Alan and Tony seems to me to be neglected these days in the story of British Jazz. It was a band with some very talented musicians.
Yes it was. I remember our first gig was at the Tally Ho! in Kentish Town. Wednesday was our night. We went on to do BBC Jazz Club broadcasts and two British tours.
I'm really pleased we have been able to rescue from Tony some recording of the band from those days. I don't think the tracks have ever been commercially released, so they are rare nuggets. Here is the band with you and a driving version of Groover Wailin' from a gig at the Manchester Sports Guild with Tony Milliner (trombone); Alan Littlejohn (Flugel horn); Lew Hooper (saxophone); Mat Mathewson (piano) and Dave Holland (bass).
I recall you also played with some great visiting musicians such as Dave Brubeck, and Tony Milliner sent me this picture of you all with Earl Warren and Paul Desmond:
Top Row: L-R: Tony Milliner, Alan Littlejohn, Earl Warren, Paul Desmond, Lou Hooper
Bottom Row: L-R: Matt Mathewson, Pete Chapman, Mal Cutlan
© Photograph courtesy of Tony Milliner
Tony also sent me this picture when you backed members of the Ellington Orchestra but unfortunately you were hidden in the background!
L-R: Tony Milliner, Mal Cutlan (hidden), Lou Hooper, Dave Holland, Jimmy Hamilton, Matt Mattewson, Alan Littlejohn, Cat Anderson.
© Photograph courtesy of Tony Milliner
Yes. They were good times and we went on until 1970 but the band was not earning a living wage so I had to take on engineering contracts too.
It must have been hard to earn a living that would pay a mortgage. I remember Tony Milliner similarly telling me how he joined an advertising agency to make ends meet. So presumably you had to move on?
Yes, the Watermill at Dorking offered me 3 to 5 nights a week playing pops/standards. I was there for two or three years and then the band at the Venue in New Cross offered me a considerable increase to join them. That was a rock/pop only policy. I stayed for four years until the management decided to go to disco, so it was a period again of just gigging, so I had to go back to engineering and short term contracts. We eventually moved to Cambridgeshire with a promise of better prospects where I was able to join the Mike Bunting Band. That was a very busy dance band but it meant a sort of ‘permanent touring’. After three years I had to leave through illness due to my workload. I managed a short rest then a friend suggested I try Spain where there was still plenty of work. He had a contact in Mallorca.
I think it’s time for another coffee Mal. They have a good selection of cakes – do you fancy something – a muffin, croissant, Danish pastry?
Ah, go on then. A muffin would be good. Thank you.
I think people these days forget how Rock and Pop ended the jazz 'revival'. Modern jazz had emerged but didn't have the popular following Trad had. Dancing moved on to other music. How was Mallorca? I remember pianist / bass player Ron Rubin had a very enjoyable time playing there.
It was good – the first year I played in bars and restaurants for general entertainment and then I was engaged by the theatre there to play for pantomime and a run of Godspell; then on to a ten month season at a 5 star hotel with an established Spanish group called Tango who normally worked with backing tapes/discs but the hotel wanted to see a drummer on stage.
It seems you had to leave jazz behind. Was it a very different life with non-jazz musicians?
I didn’t quite leave jazz behind. I stayed until October 1998, but the work dried up so I returned to Norfolk. I did keep playing. I met a very busy pianist called Bob Bromhead who had a trio or quartet or quintet and he said he would keep my date book filled, which he did until we both retired in 2002. That was mainly jazz style music background for corporate events, conferences and the like.
Looking back, Mal. What would you say was the most inspiring time as far as jazz was concerned?
No doubt at all, it was the period 1964 to 1970 with Tony and Alan. That opened the door to working with many top jazz players.
Do you still have a favourite jazz musician and a jazz tune that stays in your memory?
Let me see, I think I'd choose Ronnie Scott with Tubby Hayes and the Couriers Of Jazz. and their version of Guys and Dolls.
Amazing choice, Mal! I don't think that gets heard enough. I think it was, thankfully, recorded at a live gig at the Dominion Theatre in 1958 and Bill Eyden was at the drums, Terry Shannon the pianist and the bass player was Phil Bates. Tell you what, the cafe is empty at the moment - let's give it a listen while you finish your coffee. Thanks for dropping by Mal. It's been good to see you.
Thanks for the coffee, muffin and music, Ian. It has been good reminiscing.