Search this site
John Robert Brown
“My dad was a pilot. He was in the RAF during the sixties, flying Lightnings. Then he went on to commercial flying. So I suppose I was wanting to follow in my father’s footsteps. Upon leaving school I was already playing music, but I thought it would be really cool to be a fighter pilot. I’d applied to the RAF, but wasn’t getting very far because my knowledge of current affairs wasn’t very good. They always asked me about politics! So my dad suggested that maybe I could get a pilot’s licence. At the time it was cheaper to do it in the States. He could get me some cheap flights. So I went out to Texas and did a course lasting three weeks, for a single-engine propeller Cessna. I did that, got the licence, came back to the UK, and then I was applying to British Airways, British Midland, and maybe a couple of other airlines. But it didn’t come to anything. They seemed not to care whether I had a licence. They’d ask strange things in the interview, such as how do you cut an onion, or other weird things to do with your psychology, maybe to discover whether they could mould you into the way they wanted you to be, I guess. Obviously, I didn’t fit into the required category.
“My dad always reminds me about the day when we were talking about Texas. We were looking on the map and I noticed how near Texas was to New Orleans. Already I was into Louis Armstrong and Traditional Jazz. I said: ‘There’s no way I could get a ticket to pop down to New Orleans on the way back to England?’ So I went. I remember in Bourbon Street sitting in at a couple of bars. They wanted me to speak on the mike, like Prince Charles!
“Not long afterwards I was busking on the Underground one day when Phil Mason came down the escalator on the Victoria Line. It was quite rare for him to be passing through London, because he lived up in Scotland. He was coming through to get the pick-up in the van from Bromley South. He heard me busking.
“He came up to me, introduced himself, and mentioned that they happened to have a gig in a pub in Carshalton. They weren’t doing very many pub gigs at that time. They were looking for a new clarinettist. Phil invited me to go along. There was another guy auditioning as well. It turned out that he had only one lung. When I got up to play, Jim Macintosh asked: ‘Well, how many lungs has this guy got, then?!’ That audition led to two years going around Europe with the Max Collie Rhythm Aces. I wasn’t playing that well yet, but Phil could hear the potential. Obviously they were trying to get me to play like Johnny Dodds. There was no saxophone allowed. They went right back to really early jazz.” Did he mind? “No, I’m grateful for it now. It helped my playing. People seem to think I’ve got an original sound. I think that may have something to do with it. I wasn’t forced into it, but I was encouraged to listen to some of that really old stuff. I didn’t go straight in with Charlie Parker.
Boston started piano before he went to Christ's Hospital School. He was aged 11 when he started there. "That was when I took up clarinet," he said. "I had a clarinet teacher who was a real character. Sadly, he’s passed away. He was David Elliott, a former Royal Marines bandmaster with a great sense of humour. We had a marching band, which marched the school into lunch every day, playing Joseph Sousa marches. I started off on third clarinet.” Boston sings some typical third clarinet figures. “Then I was on tenor saxophone for a while, before ending up on first clarinet, and playing those lovely counter-melodies. So that was seven years, with David Elliott and the military band, but he was also into the dance bands as well. He formed something he called a showband. We’d do Glen Miller, all that kind of stuff. All of the solos were written down.
"But there was a guy called Miles Russell, who is a trumpet player, now on the London jazz scene. We did The Jungle Book in the theatre. Miles organised a kind of pit band, made up of a Dixieland combo. I was on tenor for that. I remember asking if it would be alright if I tried to make up a solo. He said: ‘Yeah. Go for it.’ That was my first opportunity to improvise.“I remember one New Year’s Eve my girl friend of the time, Ewa, who was Polish, said to me: ‘While you’re still young, you might want to get a bit more music education.’ I thought about it, then I applied to Guildhall and also Leeds. I was too late for admission to Guildhall that year, but got into Leeds. I told Max that I wanted to leave and go to music college.
“I had lived in Lancashire from when I was three until I was 7. Nevertheless, when I arrived in Yorkshire at the age of 20 it was a bit of a culture shock. I remember going into the local chip shop for the first time, where a man called me ‘love’. I was up in Leeds for about 8 years. There was a short period when I went to Birmingham with King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys, then I returned. I really enjoyed my time in Yorkshire, lovely people and lovely culture
“I left Leeds College of Music in 1994, moved to London, and encouraged [reed player] James Evans to join me. He’d gone back to Anglesey after college. By 1992 we’d started a combo, which we called The Boston Tea Party.” Boston won Jazz Player of the Year 1993, when Chris Barber and John Dankworth were judges. Barber took The Boston Tea Party into the studio. His album Memories of My Trip (2011) features this early band.
Today, Jonny Boston lives and works in Amsterdam. He has worked at his Dutch language skills, which he demonstrates convincingly. “I’m getting there. I listen to the radio every day. I make sure I’m hearing Dutch. If a conversation becomes deep, without reference to objects, I can find that difficult,” he says. “I had a Dutch girlfriend. I met her through the jazz scene, because her father plays the banjo in a band called The Freetime Old Dixie Jassband. He’s from Enkhuizen. I used to go to the Enkhuizen Jazz Festival regularly. I also go out there and play with some of the younger bands. I don’t know quite what happened there, but there are about fifty traditional jazz bands in this town of 50,000 people. So when the Enkhuizen jazz festival comes around the whole place turns into Dixieland mayhem! They march around the streets, and do all the New Orleans stuff with the umbrellas.
“Amsterdam is a very cosmopolitan place. I see a lot of similarities with London. There are all kinds of races and religions there, a big pot of diversity. I live in the west side. It sounds horrific when I first say this to people, but I live in an ‘anti-squat’. That is, if there are properties that are going to be demolished, or if the owner is away for a long period of time, then for cheap rent you can live in one of these dwellings to stop squatters moving in. But the whole place was grim. I’m living with two other friends. I did most of the cleaning and painting. Now it’s like a home again.
“I’m heavily involved in Crossroads International Church. I’ve got involved in the worship, so that I can play my saxophone in the church. And with my new band Jonny and the Jazzuits I want to be able to go into places where people can find solace in the music.”
“I saw Tommy Smith playing a Mark VI Selmer Tenor in 1992 at the Isle of Bute Jazz Festival. I was knocked out by that, I remember, so eventually I got a 1954 model. I bought an old Berg Larsen mouthpiece, and use LaVoz medium-hard reeds.
My clarinet is a Bliss. The action is nice. The mouthpiece is a Buddy De Franco. I use a shortened barrel.”
John Robert Brown