Interview - Jazz legend Frank Holder

  • Classical & Jazz
Interview - Jazz legend Frank Holder


Thu, 11/07/2013 - 11:30


Frank Holder with bongos, now – and, right, then
11 July, 2013

GUYANESE singer and percussionist Frank Holder’s musical career so far straddles a golden age of jazz: he tutored Cleo Laine, supported Nat King Cole and stunned Ella Fitzgerald with his dulcet tones. He also inspired young award-winning alto-saxophonist and MC Soweto Kinch. And that’s just so far.

Because at 88 Frank has no plans to stop playing any time soon. He’s a Camden jazz phenomenon who dates back to the 1940s when he lived in Mornington Crescent as a young serviceman to wartime Britain.

His most recent album Interpretations is a collaboration with guitar accompanist Shane Hill which boasts 16 covers and originals, including standards alongside covers of Amy Winehouse, Katie Melua (a certified Holder fan) and George Michael’s 1980s classic Careless Whisper – which is coming up to its 30th anniversary next year – making Frank the oldest artist to cover all three. Another cover on the album, Stevie Wonder’s You are the Sunshine of My Life, is 40 years old as of last year. It just goes to show how certain material can stand the test of time.

Hill saw Frank fronting Latin-jazz group Paz at The Bull’s Head in Barnes in the 1980s; the two have been performing and recording together since meeting at a party in 2011. Frank is still active on the live circuit, having played a key role since entering the UK in 1944.

“I wanted so much to entertain, to raise people off their seats,” says Frank. Singing from an early age, he grew up on a diet of church socials and falling asleep to live bands at parties thrown by his promoter father, while Guyanese radio in the 1930s introduced him to US and UK music and charismatic bandleaders such as Leslie “Jiver” Hutchinson and Ken “Snakehips” Johnson.

Arriving in the UK as an RAF recruit, he followed live bands from his camp-base in Wiltshire, latching on to Hutchinson’s project and stepping in when the regular lead-singer made a post-war exit.

Amazing as this already sounds, it was only the beginning for Frank. With Hutchinson, he entered an historic scene, where conservative “Big Band” orchestral music was morphing into the radical energy of swing and bebop, echoing the black migrant music that filled London’s former 100 Club, The Feldman Swing Club.

British jazz musicians would play on ships to gain passage to New York in order to hear the US music that could not be bought in the UK, and Frank was no less fanatical. He was delighted to be approached and recruited one day in 1950 in Archer Street by John Dankworth. Dankworth’s words: “The boys tell me you’re good” stuck with Frank. “I could have snatched his hand!” he recalls, “but I kept calm.”

These years turned Frank into an all-round performer, able to sing, drum, tap-dance, trip-fall, do the splits and wedge his bongos between his knees and leap into the air. “I brought something to the Dankworth ballad orchestra that wasn’t there at the time”, he explains, in a dramatic understatement that will not be lost on those familiar with British tea-room culture. For Frank it was a happy learning curve, involving time spent performing up and down the country.

Occasionally there were problems finding guest houses that would accommodate a black jazz musician – still a rare sight in the Home Counties.

Still relatively unknown, Frank’s voice possesses an effortless mix of height and gravitas, pitch and personality. The Other Side of The Rainbow is a sad lullaby featured on the album The Artistry of Frank Holder; the vocal delivery carries the tender assurance of a wise spirit.

On Frank’s new album, Interpretations, he covers Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Judy Garland’s vocal on the original was amazing for her 16 years of age; Frank’s rendition at 88 is no less remarkable, and in a poetic sense it completes the picture, placing a pot of gold at both ends of the generational spectrum.

Shane Hill has enjoyed a star-studded list of mentors and collaborators. He clicks with Frank in the manner of all good accompanists, guiding the flow and enabling the singer to sit back and be a passenger on his own trip.

In turn, Hill’s collaboration with Frank has enabled him to become part of another journey; the amazing arc of a Guyanese recruit who entered the UK with no agent or international backing of any kind, and ended up a bona-fide British jazz legend. Not a bad trade-off.

Interpretations is available on iTunes.

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