Born to actor parents in 1926, the young Jo Hunter grew up in a household filled with music. His father, the actor Ian Hunter, starred in a couple of early films by Alfred Hitchcock and soon the family were moving to America where his father appeared in Hollywood films (such as Ziegfeld Girl) and Broadway theatre productions. As a young boy Jo frequently heard Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, his father’s favourite composers, and soon he was playing classical music on the french horn. As a teenager, Jo switched from french horn to playing the bugle at US military academies in California and West Point, before taking up the trumpet.
His father, who had served in the First World War, returned to London in 1942 to help with the war effort whilst Jo continued his classical music studies at the Royal College of Music before joining the army.
It was in post-war Germany where he first heard recordings of Benny Goodman (featuring trumpeter Harry James), Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Inspired by the jazz that he heard, on his return to London he joined a new band, Kenny Graham’s Afro Cubists, one of the first British bands to perform the new music called bebop. The band frequently performed at Ken Colyer’s Studio 51 in Great Newport Street, London (though by the Mid-Fifties the club dropped modern jazz in favour of the new craze: trad jazz).
Jo Hunter also joined some of the new big bands that were formed in the 1950s, and toured with the Roy Fox Big Band which gave him the opportunity to play with Tony Crombie and a young Victor Feldman. He also joined The Jack Parnell Orchestra in 1952 joining Jimmy Watson and Jimmy Deuchar in the trumpet section and performing around the UK in an orchestra that also included drummer Phil Seamen and a saxophone section that included Ronnie Scott and Pete King (Jack Parnell famously fired Pete King, resulting in Ronnie Scott leaving the band in disgust and later setting up his own jazz club). Jo, however, stayed with the orchestra and by 1954 was performing alongside young vocalist Annie Ross and 19 year old Tubby Hayes.
It was around 1959 that Jo Hunter moved to Brighton where he performed in local big bands and small groups, often performing on cruise ships and at functions.
In his later years he was frequently seen busking on the streets with Rockin’ In Rhythm, soloing on the old standards, which is when I first met him. A shy and quiet man, he would often only open up after a couple of drinks but would soon start reminiscing about performing bebop and talking about his hero and inspiration, Harry James. Trumpeter Ron Simmonds remembers him with this story:
“Jo…was a very quiet man indeed, hardly ever speaking at all. He was a brilliant jazz trumpet player though. He told me once of an incident that had happened just before he joined the Parnell band. The clarinetist Frank Weir had been holding auditions for a trumpet player. Frank’s was a small band, so he only needed one jazz trumpet. Jo went in to the audition and waited while two or three other guys played. When it came to his turn Jo lost his nerve and left. He told me the names of the other candidates. I knew them all, and he was much, much better than all of them.”
Jo also sat in at local jam sessions, such as The Brunswick on a Tuesday evening where he would often perform beautiful, obscure songs from the American songbook.
We’ll miss you, Jo.