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Preserver of the Big Band MessageCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Fanning, BillThe death of Bill Fanning has closed another chapter in the story of Glasgow's big band tradition. Fanning was one of a dwindling number of bandleaders in the city still maintaining a jazz big band on a regular basis until shortly before his death, and was involved in the heydey of Glasgow's dance and jazz band scene, both as a player and as a leader.
Born William John Fanning, he worked briefly in the Glasgow shipyards as an apprentice joiner before opting for a more congenial career in music. He joined the big band led by Jimmy Colquhoun in Paisley as a 19 year old alto saxophonist and clarinetist in 1948 while still serving his apprenticeship, then set aside joinery for good.
Big band musicians were much in demand in Glasgow in the 1950s, where live bands served the city's highly active ballrooms and dance halls as well as its theatres. The major ballrooms like the Locarno, Dennistoun Palais, Majestic, Astoria and the Barrowland all had their own resident orchestras, and Fanning worked with a number of other leading bands in the city and on the Clyde coast, where he played with Henri Morrison's popular band in Gourock.
'Battle of the bands' competitions were also popular in that period, and Fanning took part in many of them. His most successful foray ended with him winning the best musician award in the Melody Maker All Britain Dance Band competition in 1995 while with Henri Morrison's band, which finished fourth in the band category.
He was a capable arranger and orchestrator as well as a talented player, and his reputation reached beyond the city, including a year spent with Teddy Foster's band in London. In addition, he joined the large coterie of British musicians who worked on the transatlantic cruise liners, which also carried their own orchestras.
The decline of the big bands under the successive challenges of rock and roll in the late-50s and post-Beatles pop music in the 1960s saw many of the regular venues which had supported the bands close their doors or turn to other forms of entertainment, leaving many musicians with no regular source of employment or outlet for their work.
Fanning first put together a ten-piece band in the 1950s as an offshoot of his activities as an instrumental teacher, and began his own big band in response to that dearth of opportunities, albeit more in the spirit of preserving the music -- it began as a rehearsal rather than performing orchestra -- than swimming against the economic tide.
The band remained a going concern, however, and provided a focal point for musicians of several generations in the city, mixing seasoned big band veterans with aspiring teenagers in productive fashion. They dedicated themselves to the classic big band repertoire, and performed regulary in Glasgow (and occasionally further afield) until ill-health curtailed Fanning's activities in recent times.
He is survived by two daughters, two sons and five grandchildren.