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Jim Godbolt has the last word

Jim Godbolt funeralJim Godbolt’s funeral took place on a winter’s day in Finchley, north London, last year. A group of old friends lugged their instruments through the snow to give him a proper British jazz enthusiasts’ version of a New Orleans send-off. Goldbolt was a British jazz enthusiast of the early type, his characteristic responses formed by the wider world’s dismissal of the music he loved. Those whose encounters with him never got beyond the superficial tended not to see below the sardonic, suspicious surface.

His two-volume History of Jazz in Britain (1919-1950 and 1950-70) is invaluable. But it was through his two works of semi-authobiography, All This and 10 Per Cent (1976) and All This and Many a Dog (1986), that he gave us an amusing and perceptive account of a jazz fan’s precarious life on the music’s margins, where he functioned as a promoter, manager, booker, writer and editor. So precarious, in fact, that he had a spell reading meters for the gas board. In one of his books he created a character whom he described as “a snarling anti-social inverted snob with a chip on his shoulder”; it was, he later admitted, a self-portrait.

He was 90 when he died. We’d had our disagreements now and then and I suppose I’d always thought of him, in the phrase used by moderns to disparage traditionalists, as a bit of a mouldy fygge. But he wasn’t, really. He just liked what he liked and had got used to mounting a sort of passive-aggressive defence of it. And he managed to edit the house magazine of Ronnie Scott’s with distinction for more than a quarter of a century, a job that required him to engage with the sort of modern stuff heard in the club. His diary pieces were a kind of jazz version of a cross between J.B. Morton (“Beachcomber” of the Daily Express) and Michael Wharton (“Peter Simple” of the Daily Telegraph), which means they were full of fantastical invention, characterised by an ingrained pedantry and a deep scepticism directed at anything remotely fashionable. Like their author, they were cranky and sometimes infuriating but often very funny.

Now his final memoir, titled All This and Slowly Deteriorating Fast, has been issued by Proper Records in an interesting hybrid format: a 240-page book shaped like a CD, with a disc of some of Godbolt’s favourites (from Bogus Ben Covington via George Webb’s Dixielanders and Mick Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band to an excerpt from Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite). In the text he revisits some of the episodes covered in the earlier volumes, from the perspective of a man who knows that he is closer to the end than to the beginning, but the elegiac tone is spiced with typical tartness. There is a substantial amount of elaborate score-settling, much of it savagely amusing: “My enemy had a heart transplant operation, at which one normally shows sympathy, but in this case my concern was more for the doctor than the patient as he must have had a hell of a time looking for the afflicted organ.”

I suppose Godbolt was one of the last of a breed of British jazz fan whose deep and enduring allegiance to the music was formed at a time when it was at best patronised and at worst despised by the arbiters of culture. Those of us who came along later will never know quite how that felt.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Just reading this, and catching up on the Brubeck/Bernstein piece of last year, I feel moved to exclaim on how wide AND deep is your response to music. Sometimes that spread can be quelling to geeks like me who, however briefly, might have felt we know LOTS, and now realise how little we do know. But moving bravely through the quell, l must thank you for the rolling education.

    June 1, 2014
  2. Anthony #

    Used to see him in my local newsagents in kentish town in 90s buying cup a soups, red wine & photocopying what looked like yellowing pages from old melody makers, wearing odd clothes, flared trousers, safari suits, I believe he inherited from some 70s groover. I enjoyed his auto biographical books about reading gas meters.

    June 1, 2014
  3. philip putnam #

    Lovely post. Takes me back to the 50s and the first time I heard Humph on Forces Favourites which led to excursions to Walthamstow Town Hall in my school blazer to hear Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine and Pat Halcox. Then later still, my mother’s reaction to George Melly singing
    ‘my canary’s got circles under his eyes.’ George saved ’round the clock blues’ for a night at Cook’s Ferry Inn, memorable for when – perhaps a little put out by her recent successes –
    he announced, ‘I will now sing my sister’s arse’ before falling off the stage. Shortly after my tastes changed forever when I bought a ten inch Blue Note LP of Art Blakey and ‘a night at Birdland.’ I shall put it on now, the CD anyway, as Mike Osborne has just finished
    another memorable Town Hall concert, this one, Birmingham. Regards, Philip Putnam.

    June 2, 2014
  4. A warm response to a man I imagine at the other end of the music spectrum in many ways Richard. Jim was a curmudgeon and expressed some pretty outre views (although these days he’d be in the mainstream), but he was warm and funny, always asked after my daughter (his advice, to keep her quiet with a tot of whiskey) and was another part of that extraordinary post war scene. Matthew Wright, who worked at Ray’s Jazz Shop, was instrumental in getting the book published…

    June 2, 2014
  5. Stuart Lyon #

    I have warm memories of Jim when he was working as an agent for Gerry & Lillian Bron at the Bron Agency in the late 60’s early 70’s when I was running the Hampstead Country Club. He was responsible for booking a diverse rosta of acts including Uriah Heep. He rang me one day to say that he had been instructed by Lillian Bron to see if I would give them a date. He concluded the call with a curt “Well I have rung you haven’t I?” before I even had a chance to give him an answer!

    When I was living in Shaftesbury Avenue above Cat Stevens’ father’s restaurant he turned up one day to read the gas meter. Thank god he went on to edit Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s his witty columns were always worth reading!

    June 3, 2014
  6. scaulkin #

    Lovely piece, Richard, thank you. I did enjoy those bands – Terry Lightfoot was another – often at a club called the Latin Quarter in Reading, an oxymoron if ever there was one, but quite suitable. I’m now furiously displacing by ransacking the flat to find my copy of All This and 10 Per Cent

    June 5, 2014
  7. Simon Frith #

    Many thanks for this, Richard. I had my own reasons for mourning Godbolt’s actual death. Some years ago, in an introduction to a history of jazz in Australia, I referred to ‘the late Jim Godbolt’ in telling a story about a characteristically grumpy encounter with academia. A few months after the book came out I got a lengthy lawyer’s letter, demanding, among other things, a grovelling apology–not for the way I’d made fun of Godbolt but for wrongly assigning him to the grave. Despite our bad tempered early morning meeting under a tree at Keele University, he was someone for whom I had the greatest respect–his autobiographies, even more than his histories, are invaluable for a proper understanding of the strange ways in which popular music making developed in post-war Britain.

    June 9, 2014
  8. Matthew Wright #

    Interesting to read Simon Frith’s contribution as his description of the “late” Jim Godbolt was unintentionally the inspiration for the chapter entitled “Premature Announcements” in the book.
    I sat with Godbolt one day and we both recounted examples where this happened, from the well-documented (Twain, Graves, Hemingway) to the lesser known (Kipling, Swarbrick, Marmarosa). Of course, this is potentially hazardous territory for the obituary writer, as you recently experienced yourself, Richard!

    June 17, 2014

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