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Saxophonist With Roots In SwingCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1998
Skidmore, JimmyJimmy Skidmore made a significant contribution to the development of both traditional and mainstream jazz in Britain, particularly in the 1950s, and remained a strong and resourceful player into the current decade. While his son, saxophonist Alan Skidmore, is a devotee of the example of John Coltrane, the elder Skidmore remained loyal to the swing-based style of pre-war giants like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, while also remaining open to new influences.
James Richard Skidmore was brought up in North West London, and began his musical career as a teenager, playing guitar and singing in local gigs around the Willesden area. He turned to the tenor saxophone when he was 20, and cut his teeth in a band led by pianist Len Young before joining trumpeter Jack Hamilton's group in Soho in 1940.
He met and played with pianist George Shearing around that time, often in the jam sessions at the West London Rhythm Club and in the BBC's Radio Rhythm Club Quartet, and played in a number of wartime bands, including those led by Harry Roy, Harry Parry, Carlo Krahmer, Frank Deniz and Eric Winstone. The solid grounding of these years established his reputation as a strong-toned, exhuberantly inventive player, and his style incorporated elements of both the power and depth of Hawkins and the sinuous agility and melodic surprise of Young.
In 1945, he began a successful association with one of the most important of all British band-leaders, Vic Lewis, initially in the Vic Lewis-Jack Parnell Jazzmen, and then with Lewis's own band in 1946-7. He came across the first bebop recordings in 1946, and while he admitted to being impressed with Charlie Parker's prowess, his own tastes and approach remained firmly rooted in the earlier style.
By now much in demand, he worked with a number of the major emerging names of the day in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including Victor Feldman, who, like Shearing, went on to make a significant name in the USA, Ralph Sharon (who was Ted Heath's pianist at the time, and has been Tony Bennett's pianist and musical director for many years), Kenny Baker, Eddie Calvert and Eric Delaney.
Although he had chosen to remain loyal to his style, he was by no means a stubborn traditionalist, and was open to the new experiments and more progressive leanings of so-called mainstream jazz in the mid-50s. He played with Kenny Baker again around that time, and was also involved with the Jazz Today Unit, as well as being a co-founder of a touring ensemble known as Jazz At The Prom, a name which carried a hopeful echo of Norman Granz's hugely successful Jazz At The Philharmonic.
Skidmore had first met Humphrey Lyttelton at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1948, and joined the trumpeter's then-controversial band in 1956, where he lined up alongside fellow-saxophonists Tony Coe and Joe Temperley on an instrument which the Dixieland diehards of the time regarded as being beyond the pale of the recognised traditional instrumentation, which demanded clarinet rather than saxophone. Lyttelton's band broke new ground in the UK in establishing the swing-based mainstream style at that time, and Skidmore remained an important part of the band until 1960.
He travelled to America with the group, and his muscular, swinging playing is heard to advantage on their records of the period. In terms of public recognition at least, it represented the peak of his musical career, but he continued to be active around London in the ensuing decades, working with Alan Skidmore, saxophonist Kathy Stobart, and pianist Colin Peters, among others. He led his own band into the 1990s, and celebrated his 80th birthday in 1996 in characteristically appropriate manner, on stage with his son, Alan.