The Versatile Saxophone of Ted White

In 2013 I interviewed Ted White about his career as a saxophonist both in Australia and the U.K. His horn work can be heard on classic recordings that include the Arena LP and Stratusphunk with Bruce Clarke. The interview was subsequently used to build an episode of the podcast RareCollections which I hosted with my father, David Kilby. What follows is a transcript of that episode. I hope to publish transcripts of other interviews we did for RareCollections in the coming months so that all the good information contained within them can be read for the first time.

Jordie Kilby – There were some really exciting experimental jazz and electronic music that came out of the studios of Bruce Clarke in Melbourne in the late  60s & 70s. Now Clark was in the business of producing  TV and radio commercials  and a very good business it was for him too, but when the work was done and the musicians were still around in the studio there was always time for a bit of playing around…..

Ted White – John Lewis from the Modern Jazz Quartet came down one afternoon and looked at us like  and thought we’re all Martians, you know he couldn’t understand what we were doing, and we couldn’t either. It was one of those things  that you play or  see for  twenty seconds, then you wait for 12 more seconds and then you play and hey one of those you know.

David Kilby – A lot of the stuff was never released, but there are few interesting examples of some of the things they got up to. Now the voice you just heard belongs to Ted White and you’ll get a chance to hear him blow his sax in a moment, when this piece your hearing really opens up. It’s a version of  Oliver Nelson’s Three Seconds and the track comes from an album called Stratusphunk, released in 1974, and credited to the Bruce Clarke Quintet .

TW – Well we were electric at that time, I had an electric saxophone with a ring multivio with all these wizz-bang things you know, and I went in and saw Bruce, and Bruce was just at that time experimenting with the Moog synthesizers and all that sort of thing, and we went into the studio and I did a couple of things with the electric thing for him on commercials, and then he decided to form the group with Keith Sterling as well on trumpet. He had an electric hook up as well with wah wah pedals and all sorts of stuff like that, and that’s how we put out the album.

DK – This is RareCollections and the theme for this show is Ted White. Ted was a great and versatile sax player who has worked not only with Bruce Clarke, but led the band on the great arena LP, played bebop and big band jazz in England during the 50’s, toured Europe with the Maori Hi-Five, played on more TV shows than you can poke wharpy stick at, and even had a very small part as an extra in the film Cleopatra. Now there’s some great stories to be told ,so stick around and enjoy the man and the music.

JK – Now, in case you hadn’t already picked it up Ted was born in the UK and he started playing sax when he was sixteen, and he got his initial break  in a somewhat unconventional way.

TW – I’d had the saxophone about a week and I was practising my front room and a guy walked by and sort of came up the steps and knocked on the front door and said “have you got a  tenor sax”, I can hear you, and I said” yeah”,  and he said  “well we want someone for my band”, and I said “well you’ll still be looking because I’ve only  had it  a week”. Fortunately for me I’d had piano lessons when I was about five or six, but which got cut out because of the war, so I could read the treble clef and so he said “well, come along to the band and see how things go”.  And I went along and that’s how it all started.

DK – Now he stayed with that band until 1954 when the new movie about the life of Glen Miller opened.

TW – And the local Odeon had a competition with the bands to play Glen Miller tunes and see who  won. Well we came second, it was only a seven piece, and the band that won it, I had a couple of solos, and they offered me the job. And so I left that band and went with Len Turner, another band which was working  the American  bases at the time. I was also an apprentice at that time, an engineering apprenticeship, and I was coming home at 5 o’clock and 6 o’clock in the morning, and then I would get up and start work at 8 o’clock,  you know, and it got very tiring. In the end I gave the apprenticeship away.

DK – Once he committed to the life of a musician he threw himself into the thriving UK band scene.

TW- There was so much work in the 50’s. You know you just couldn’t stop.  If you got upset with one band you’d go down to Archer Street in London on a Monday afternoon and pick up another job almost immediately. It was a fantastic time for musos.

JK – Ted was gigging 6 nights a week at his peak. Often starting the evening with a big band on the Mecca Ballroom circuit or in a military base somewhere. And then after that he’d go onto a club in search of a smaller jam.

TW- I mean I was still playing when Charlie Parker was alive and there was no vocals at that time, there was purely instrumental music.  In those days if you played a good solo the crowd use to shout “go, blow, blow” and all would really get excited about everything, but of course they don’t do that anymore.  Every band now has virtually 85% vocals, which is a shame. That’s killed instrumental music.

When I was probably 11 or 12, we could get the Hot Club of Paris on the radio in London and I use to listen Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, things like that. So I think this, this is good music. There was a friend of mine, from a different school, came to me and said “I’ve  got these records of Alan Dean”. Alan Dean was later in Sydney, he had a recording studio there. So I met him years later and said to him “now you’re the cause of my downfall”.  You know I used to listen to Alan Dean. Ronnie Scott and Johnny Dankworth were in his band. I think they’d been on the boats, been to America and they came back to England and it was like a refreshing thing you know, it was away from the Dixieland, but you know, sort of more contemporary music, and that’s how we all got involved.

DK – In 1958 Ted made his very first appearance on vinyl playing sax with Chico Arnez.

TW – Well his real name was Jack Davis, he was a bass player and his father was a bass player and I think his grandfather was a bass player. They were a family of bass players. But he decided to form a Latin American band. We had 5 trumpets and 1 trombone, 4 saxes and about 6 rhythm.

JK – They gigged around London and they had a residency at the  Edmundo Ros Club on a Sunday night.

TW – Robert Mitchum was there, he use to like the band.

DK – Ah did he? Because he liked that sort of music didn’t he? That and West Indian music.

TW – Yeah and I think on the second album, I think he was on the cover or back sleeve of the cover on the second album. But I’d left the band by then. Well, after we played it was funny because Jack lived in Battersea, and after we’d finished we’d all go back to his place for drinks and play cards and he’d try to win all our gig money back of us by playing cards. And of course Robert Mitchum was there.

JK – The album Ted is on is called ‘This Is Chico”.

JK – In 1963 Ted moved to Australia, but in the 6 months or so before he decided to leave he was encouraged by some mates to sign up to work as an extra  on some movies being shot in London and he ended up getting screen time in 3 films. A documentary about the atomic bomb, Tarnished Heroes, and Cleopatra which was staring of course Elizabeth Taylor.

TW – It was in February in England which was below freezing and we had to get dressed up. I was suggested to hold this spear, or something like that. We had to get wearing the plastic Roman armour that they issue you and then sprayed down with a sun tan and then given a blanket and then got out on the set. This was of course about 6:30 or 7 o’clock in the morning and it was absolutely freezing. We waited and waited and waited because Elizabeth Taylor didn’t turn up. So we were all paid off. We came back I think and we did it the second day, did the same deal and got paid off again, and she had pneumonia and she didn’t do the thing and they eventually, I think they kept some of the long shots  of that day because it really looked like Rome. The set was  fantastic. Then of course they went to Italy and made the movie .

DK – Ted’s ticket to Australia came via a popular actor and TV personality, Digby Wolf.

TW – He said if you come out to Australia, he said I’ve got another show lined up in Brisbane. I want you to be the band leader because its aimed like the Gleason and Sammy Spear – Sammy Spear was a musical director and he wore a funny jacket and Gleason tore shreds out of him all the time. So he says I don’t want to do that to an Aussie, but I can do it to you because I know you.  So we got to the Chevron and we were out sitting by the pool, living like a Raja on Channel Seven’s budget, and we got a telegram from the States from Chris Bearde to go back and write Laugh-In. So he says “I’m going back to write Laugh-In, what do you want to do?” So I said “I’m quite happy where I am thank you very much”, and I stayed and got a job in the Surfers Paradise Hotel with an eight piece band there.

DK – In 1965 Ted hooked up with the Maori Hi-Five.

TW-I was working in the hotel with the band and the entertainment manager of the Chevron spotted me out and said “look I’ve got a Maori group over here and I want you to come over and try and, you know.” They couldn’t read music  that was the thing,  and everything was like, I’d have to play for them or write myself a piece of music and then play it for them to teach them.  You know they’ve got ears like parrots –  they could just pick it up.  Incredible musos they were. So I started off working the lights over there for them. I had another quartet in a nightclub called Digby’s, which was on the Gold Coast, and I used to work the lights and then he said why don’t you come and, you know your doing a few musical things, why don’t you come and join them? Which I did. And then they got a chance to go overseas, with an agent in London, and I joined the band.

JK – Ted travelled with the band to Europe and back. Stopping in South-East Asia along the way. While in the UK,  Ted says they were the highest paid unknown act working the club circuit.

DK – After returning to Australia he settled in Sydney where he soon found work playing with Ian Saxon and his band The Sound. They did a national tour and cut one single before splitting. The B side of the single was written by Ted and well give you a taste of that now.

JK – That’s a bit of Love Doesn’t Always Find A Way by Ian Saxon and The Sound from 1970. It was after Ian Saxon left the group to join jazz-rock outfit SCRA that Ted moved to Melbourne where he was to base himself for the next decade or so. By day he’d often work sessions at the Bruce Clarke studios in Saint Kilda backing artists or cutting jingles.

TW- I used to work a lot with Peter Best. Remember the one about Norm?

JK – Life Be In It?

TW- Yeah that one. Well the one I did was Norm dreaming.  It was one of them. I had to play the alto in an echo chamber sort of thing as though we were in his brain, you know.

DK – But by night he worked gigs, sometimes live, and sometimes on television. One long term gig he had was as part of the band on Ernie Sigley’s massively popular evening TV show .

TW- The entrance to the band room was a bottle of red wine or a bottle of wine every night. So there was 8 of us in the band so you can imagine how much wine we had. Whatever used to happen in the band room Ernie used to come and have a drink with us and that would end up on the show. Because he’d tap into everybody’s conversation and then roast you on national television.   

DK – It was while he was working on the Ernie Sigley Show  that he got a chance to make the Arena album that has since developed a reputation for being one of the finest jazz-funk LP’s ever cut in Australia.

TW- The Arena one was never intended to be an album. It was just a fact that the owner of the studio  had got a new desk and his engineer said to me “bring some of your mates in and record a couple of things” to let him have a good go at the desk. Which we did. I wrote a couple of things out on the quick went in and recorded them and thinking no more of it. Then they were interested….”oh you better come and do some more.” So we did 7 tracks  thinking well that’s it. We didn’t get paid or anything like that for it. Just purely a labour of love and much to our surprise he put it out as a  album.

DK – In fact the band on the LP is pretty much the same guys who were working the Sigley show with Ted.

TW – It was Bobby was on bass

JK – that’s Bob Arrowsmith

TW – Graham was on drums

JK – that’s Graham Morgan

TW – So I was on saxophones and another one of our mates  Jonesey….

JK – That’s Peter Jones

TW – he use to come in now and again but he was a jazz player and a good writer and used to do his own  commercials jingles and things. And Charles Gould. He was a guitarist who was in the ABC show band.

DK – When you think of the kind of stuff the band must have been playing on TV, and then listen to a song like The Long One, you can’t help but think they must have relished the opportunity to cut loose a bit.

TW – I’ve always been involved in that sort of music you know, that stretched out stuff. Music that you can have a blow on you know, where you can stretch out as a soloist.

JK – That’s Arena from their self-titled LP from 1976 and the track is called The Long One and it features some really tasty sax from the subject of this episode of RareCollections – Ted White.

DK – As you can probably imagine a sax player like Ted has had, over the years, the opportunity to back some of the biggest name in show business, when they’ve toured down under and he remembers a few fondly.

TW-Sammy Davis was great. Mel Torme was fantastic. Jerry Lewis was good.  I played with Clark Terry when he came out. He set the music out and we organised the band and we did a concert with Clark terry which was fantastic.

Well we’re close now to the run out groove of another episode of the show. We might finish up with a track from the 1972 LP Vichyssoise by Bruce Clarke and Maryan Kenyon. Its an LP that Ted was also involved with during his  early days in Melbourne and one that’s quite different to the Stratusphunk album that we began the show with.

TW – It wasn’t a call a three hour call or anything where we did the album. It was done over a few days, or perhaps a couple of weeks or something. It was a bigger band and on some days we had like 5 saxes, trombones, and trumpets, and all that sort of thing on a couple of tracks. And on another one we did with four flutes and strings.

JK – We will finish with Apricot Hot and it features Ted and his mates in the brass and woodwind sections being run through a Moog synthesizer, for a little bit of added colour.