Earlier last month I learned that my good friend John Nixon had died at the age of 84. He had not been in the best of health for the last couple of years and finally succumbed to chronic anaemia and heart failure on March 4th. He was a master musician who played alto saxophone and bass to a high standard, although he was best known for his English Concertina playing. John was a man who didn’t differentiate between genres of music: it was either good music, in which case it interested him, or it was bad music and therefore didn’t. As a consequence he saw nothing unusual about playing modern jazz or classical music on the concertina, which is normally seen as a purely ‘folk’ instrument. He was therefore much in demand for sessions and studio work.
Just over ten years ago John wrote a short autobiographical article for use by Rob Howard ( who also posted an obituary of John on Concertina.net in his four Volume work - The A-Z of the Accordion (and related instruments) and I have been given permission by John's widow, Margery, to reproduce it here.
THE ENGLISH CONNECTION
Recollections from John Nixon
My father, the late Jack Nixon, was one of five children who lived with their parents in a village just outside Bolton in
Lancashire. The village ( Lever Bridge) was surrounded by, on one side the church where I was christened, the , a river, Ramsden’s Pub, a very lofty railway viaduct and just beyond that, a monster canal aqueduct which, like the railway viaduct, crossed the valley high in the sky. Further round was a steep grassy bank on top of which was a terrace of cottages. In the centre of this terrace lived a man who was to have a big influence on my father’s life (and subsequently mine). Leverhulme Park
The man was a musician who played a Wheatstone Treble Aeola (which had glass keys) and other instruments such as Musical Glasses and a Musical Saw. I think his name was Abraham. My father, as a boy, used to climb the grassy bank and sit outside Abraham’s house to listen to his music. Abraham soon encouraged my dad into his home to listen properly and this led to dad being taught by Abraham to play the concertina.
My dad’s family were not interested in hearing a youth practicing scales in the house so dad had to practice in the coal shed outside. Of course, when his ability was recognised locally the family became very interested. Dad saved his money for many years until, at age 19, he bought a new Wheatstone Aeola Treble (the one I still play).
My father married and they set up home around the corner in Radcliffe Road in two rooms above a Butcher’s Shop (which is where I was born in January 1927) just a couple of hundred yards along the road from where Fred Dibnah lives today. The shop is currently a Chip Shop.
We moved to Bridgeman Street, Farnworth, which is where at my age of four dad taught me to play a Wheatstone Treble of the learners type, which had rosewood ends and white bone keys except C naturals, which were coloured red. I have a similar model still which, with reeds removed, has been used by a number of actors in various TV productions that I have played in. When I was almost six years old dad bought me a second-hand Wheatstone Aeola Baritone and that is the one I use mostly nowadays.
Dad took me along to a
Bolton English Concertina Band rehearsal when I was six. This was in the basement of Queen Street Mission in Bolton and dad, who was the lead concertina, introduced me to the band’s conductor, Albert Jennings (who also conducted the Black Dyke Mills Brass Band) and it was agreed that I be allowed to join the band. I was handed a Wheatstone Baritone which had been tuned by the local expert (Dick Lord, I think his name was) so as to be playable from Horns in F parts directly using standard English fingering. I played in many concerts with the band and the highlight came on January18th 1935, one week before my eighth birthday. It was a broadcast from the BBC Manchester Studios in Piccadilly. I remember such programme items as a Selection from The Maid of the Mountains, Lustpiel Overture and The Entry of the Gladiators March. I can, for some obscure reason, remember that each player was paid 5 shillings except the Drummer (not part of the normal line-up) who received 7 shillings and 6 pence.
About this time dad formed his Quintet which enjoyed success with many concerts and broadcasts from
. In those days the BBC used to audition folk in their own homes as well as the studios and I can recall a visit to our home in Manchester Bridgeman Street by BBC men Mr D.G. Bryson and a Mr McNair, who auditioned dad’s Quintet. Initially, the quintet consisted of dad leading on Treble, Wilf Wallace on Baritone, Bert Dingsdale on Double Bass and Jim Howarth on Cornet. Jim Howarth was later replaced by an excellent pianist called Arthur Prescott. The popular programmes they played included The Grasshopper’s Dance, Cuckoo Waltz, Old Comrades March, Belphegor March and, most popular of all, the Intermezzo from Cavalleira Rusticana.
During the 30’s dad had also played many solo spots around Lancashire and
Yorkshire, usually accompanied by a pianist. He eventually arranged the piano parts for me to play on my Baritone and as a duo we were quite busy during the late 30’s, playing in clubs, schools and pubs etc. Each year dad would book our one week holiday in Morecambe at Mr’s Law’s boarding house in Queen’s Square and he also arranged for he and I (sic) to play at the Phoenix Club in for three evening spots. This engagement each year paid for our family holiday. Lancaster
A very significant contribution to improving my sight reading came as a result of borrowing large volumes of complete pianoforte works of all the great composers from Farnworth Public Library. By now I had developed the ability to read the bass clef parts of piano music on my Baritone and each free evening after my father had bathed and eaten (his day job was of (sic) an Iron Moulder) we would play all the music available from the library, playing some of the more difficult parts over again until we were satisfied with our performance.
I was given an opportunity to go to the B.B.C. studios in Manchester to audition for the Children’s Hour Programmes and although I passed the audition I wasn’t allowed to broadcast until I was 12 years old and even then I had to have a licence from the local authority.Eventually in 1940 I did play the first of many solo spots on the Children’s Hour, accompanied by that fine musician, the late Violet Carson. I remember playing Tosselli’s Serenata, Heyke’s Standchen Serenade and The Stars and Stripes Forever March. I was also called upon to perform the musical parts of actors in a number of radio plays for the Children’s Hour. Just prior to this, in the late 30’s dad bought me a trumpet and I eventually played it with his Quintet and also with the local Salvation Army Band and the Farnworth Old Brass Band.
When the 2nd World War came along members of the
Bolton English Concertina Band and dad’s Quintet dispersed for the war effort and never reformed after the war ended. I sold my trumpet and borrowed money to buy an Alto Saxophone with the intention of getting the Concertina into a dance band. In fact the Saxophone (and Clarinet) took over as I was in demand to play Lead Saxophone at the (then) Bolton Palais. During the resident band’s holidays I took my own band into each ballroom for a fortnight.
Even though I had, you could say, made it with the Saxophone and Clarinet, I still wanted to push the Concertina forward to play with other different instruments and one evening, whilst playing for dancing with a quartet, used the concertina for a waltz and played through the stand microphone so as to be heard above the other instruments. A man came to me and said that he could provide me with a much better sound with a personal amplifier and a small microphone fitted to each end of the Baritone. After he tried various combinations I was kitted out and that really opened up a whole new opportunity to develop my playing in Dance Bands and with Jazz Groups. I shortly afterwards moved to the South West and the amplified Baritone was seen and heard in just about every establishment in the Bath, Bristol and Warminster district, including the Radio and T.V. Studios of T.W.W. and B.B.C. I was very busy playing for dancing in large and small bands and became a regular member of the Tony Mockford Quintet at the Grand Spa Hotel in
for some years. Tony loved the sound of the Baritone and wrote many special arrangements for it within the quintet. The guitarist with this band, Bill Parnham, had previously been a member of the Mantovani Orchestra. Bristol
I later moved to the West London district of New Denham and developed a long B.B.C. and I.T.V television connection for session work and also many engagements to play in orchestras for the recording of film scores, notably with the
Symphony and Wren Orchestras. The noted French composer Philippe Sarde first wrote for the English Concertina in his score for the Roman Polanski film ‘Tess’, and he said that he liked the sound of the Concertina because it was different. He scored for the Concertina in a further four films which were recorded in London London or . Paris
I had the pleasure of playing alongside the great Jack Emblow during a Jazz session in Marlow in 1972 and that was the first of many enjoyable sessions in and around
I had become conscious of the fact that I had gradually used the English Concertina in an ever enlarging sphere of music and this was something that dad did during the 30’s. This has been done in the company of quite famous musicians such as Michel LeGrand, Paul McCartney and Barbra Streisand and I feel sure that my father and the man who taught him so many years ago would have been pleased and even proud to have witnessed such a wide acceptance of the English Concertina. I hope that others can further this and that the very many players whose main interest lies in the English Folk idiom will take advantage of any tuition available to spread their abilities to take in classical, Jazz and Dance Music, in addition to the folk music of other countries.
My father taught me to play the English Concertina, but even more he taught me to appreciate all forms of music and how to listen to them properly.
21st September 2000
I shall be playing some of John's music on my radio show in a few week's time, so watch this space for further details.