Born in Bermondsey in 1933 Peter was six years old when war broke out. “I have a lot of horrible memories of the war. It was all quiet for about a year and then the Blitz really started and that was absolutely horrible. I lived through that either in Bermondsey or at my uncle’s bungalow in Laindon, on the way to Southend, which was actually still in the bombing zone. They completely destroyed my ability to have any faith in anything.”
After the war ended Peter attended the local grammar school, St. Olave’s. “My main ambition at that time was to be a professional cricketer, but when I was about 18 it suddenly dawned on me that I was never going to be good enough. My idea wasn’t going to work so I decided I’d better go to university.
Before going to Cambridge University to study literature, Peter decided to do his two years of national service. “I was very lucky because I was still in RAF training when an officer came to see me one day and said ‘we’ve been looking into your record and you’ve been very good at Latin, French and Greek. Would you be interested in learning Russian?’ So I said ‘yeah, why not’. I went to a camp in Bodmin, Cornwall. At the end of 8 weeks they decided you could either be an interpreter or you could be a translator, or you were useless, but I qualified as an interpreter. They then said, ‘Right, you’re now going to go to Cambridge to the Slavonic Studies Department for a year’.”
It was at Cambridge where Peter became interested in jazz. “At one point five of us were sharing a room and I got into this friendly argument with a bloke who was a Doris Day fan. He kept playing Doris Day records and I said ‘you’ve got to play something else’ and he said ‘okay, where are your records then?’. I hadn’t got any records but I remembered that a teacher at school had played me some records of Jelly Roll Morton in order to get me interested in jazz. I hadn’t really been bowled over by them but I went out and bought a record of Jelly Roll Morton and got him to put it on his wind-up gramophone. I was hooked from then on. I really loved it. I started to find out more and more about jazz. There happened to be quite a knowledgable jazz fan in the next room who heard these records in the evening and said ‘who’s the jazz fan?’. So he told me a lot about really earthy New Orleans jazz like Bunk Johnson and George Lewis.”
From there Peter attempted to learn jazz piano. “I had lots of lessons when I was a kid and was never any good. I gave up the piano but still dabbled a bit, so I thought I’d try playing jazz piano. No chance. I hadn’t the first idea where to start.”
Whilst studying Russian at Cambridge Peter met a trumpet and French horn player from the Band of the Royal Horse Guards. “A very nice bloke called Tom Hunter mentioned that he’d recently been playing French horn on some private sessions with Tubby Hayes where they were trying to re-create the sound of The Birth of the Cool. It didn’t mean a thing to me because I was stuck in Trad land, but he said ‘If you want to have a try, why don’t you take up a fairly simple instrument like a trumpet or the trombone?’. He said ‘buy some kind of cheap cornet and have a go, see how you get on’. So I got this cornet. I just sort of put it to my lips and had a go at playing it and found that I got quite a pleasant sound more or less straight away. So knowing what I knew from the piano I started playing a few scales and picking out one or two tunes and it started from there. It seemed to be much more natural to me than the piano. It seemed as if it was part of me, speaking for me. Mind you, it was a terrible mistake, in a way, because later in life I had to go for lessons to sort out my embouchure problems.”
Peter returned to Bodmin to take the Civil Service Interpreters Exam, which he passed. “While I was there I met up with somebody who was learning to play the banjo, so in the evenings we used to go off to a quiet classroom in this camp to play a few tunes and we gradually met up with one or two other people. Then I left the Air Force and got myself a little job in London, filling time before going up to Cambridge in October. But I didn’t do any playing, I wasn’t good enough really. I just practiced by myself. But then I was lucky. When I got to Cambridge, at Jesus College, I started playing in the college football team. As I was walking off the pitch one day, one of the other players said to me ‘oh, by the way Pete, are you interested in jazz?’ so I said ‘yes, I am, as a matter of fact’. So he said ‘we’re trying to form a little college band. Do you play an instrument?’ So I said ‘I’m trying to play the cornet’. And he said ‘we’re having a get together tonight of all the people who are interested. Derek Moore, one of the leading lights of the University Jazz Band is going to be there with his clarinet and he’s going to see what we can do’. So I went along and met Derek Moore, who became one of my very best friends for life in fact. We played a bit and he said ‘why don’t you work on it, you’re able to play a bit, and see if you can get on’. So I did, and at Christmas I put together enough money to buy myself a cheap Boosey & Hawkes cornet and met up with one or two other people including a chap who was very keen on Johnny Dodds. In the summer I made my first appearance in public in a pub in Cambridge playing with this bloke’s band where we were trying to play like those Chicago washboard bands of the 1920s, playing very simple tunes. That was my first introduction to playing in public.”
In Peter’s next year the university had a regular weekly jazz club meeting where the main band consisted of Derek Moore and Dick Heckstall-Smith, in a Sydney Bechet style band with soprano, clarinet, piano, guitar, bass and drums. “The University Jazz Club invited me to form a second band, so I put together a band which was quite traddy.” After a while Peter said to fellow bandmember André Beeson ‘We don’t want to play like this. I want to play in a more swing style. So why don’t we get together with a very clever chap that I’ve met called Tony Tanner’. Tony Tanner had started out as a cornet player before taking up piano, and after graduation he became a literary critic and a leading expert on American Literature. The new quintet performed mainstream jazz like Lady Be Good and Sweet Georgia Brown and as Peter observes, “I think we were quite a good band, because at one point we played opposite Scottish clarinettist Sandy Brown and he said ‘Ooh, you’re quite good, you lads, you’re really swinging’. So I thought ‘we must be doing something right’.”
At the end of that year, the University Jazz Club invited Peter to lead the University Jazz Band. “In 1956 we were still in the grips of trad jazz, although I’d started to meet up with people into modern jazz. I’d started in London, alternating between some trad clubs and modern jazz clubs like the Flamingo, where I heard people like Don Rendell, Tommy Whittle and Dill Jones. In the end I decided to form a sort of Chicago-style Dixieland band. My friend André Beeson refused to join me, but I managed to find a quite brilliant Dutch medical student called Joe Berima who played clarinet very, very well to a professional standard, in the style of Edmond Hall. That worked out quite well.”
Peter and his university band entered the British Universities Jazz Contest in 1957, which had been won the previous year by Derek Moore and Dick Heckstall-Smith. “They were far and away the best band. We went in for it and we also won. What helped us was having Colin Purbrook on bass, who was a very nice bloke and a very fine pianist. We won the competition and we won most of the awards including best clarinettist, best bass player, best drummer, and I was voted the best trumpet player. By the standards of today it was a pretty third-rate band, but by the standard of those days we must have sounded quite professional. By that time, I’d given up the cornet and called myself a trumpet player, because the cornet wasn’t loud enough. Bands were bloody loud so if you were going to play a tune, you’d got to be playing an instrument where you could make yourself heard.”
At the end of that year the band went on a tour of Holland and Germany and performed at a concert on the same bill as Stéphane Grappelli. “I was absolutely bowled over by Stéphane Grappelli’s playing on that evening. We were top of the Dixieland bill and he was the big attraction in the second half. That was how we rounded off our year.”
In Part 2 next month we discover more about Peter’s life after university. Read here.
Interview by Charlie Anderson.
Photography by Lisa Wormsley.