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Leading Figure in the UK Trad Jazz RevivalCopyright © 2001The Scotsman, 2001
Sonny Morris was one of the pioneering figures in the New Orleans and Dixieland jazz revival movement. He was a founder member of the celebrated Crane River Jazz Band in 1949, which adopted its name from a modest river in Middlesex. He shared trumpet and cornet duties in the band with the doyen of New Orleans revivalism in Britain, Ken Colyer.
He was born Leo Morris, and took up violin at seven. He played drums and bugle in the Boys Brigade, and joined the Household Cavalry at 18. He took up trumpet at the behest of his friend, banjo player and fellow Crane River band member Ben Marshall, who talked him into buying the instrument from a friend who had given up on jazz.
He taught himself to play by ear, aided by Ken Colyers wind-up gramophone and collection of 78s by Bunk Johnson, the raw, robust New Orleans trumpeter who had been rediscovered and enthroned as the figurehead of the New Orleans revival on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Crane River group did not toe the strict New Orleans line quite rigidly enough for Colyers purist taste, and he left the group in 1951 (eventually to make his way to New Orleans itself as a sailor in he merchant navy), leaving Morris as the principal trumpet in the band. He took over leadership of the group, and remained in that position until October, 1952, when he left for a short time. He reformed the band in 1953, and led it until 1956.
He worked with several other bands in the late 1950s, including those led by Cy Laurie and Terry Lightfoot, then reformed the Crane River band in 1961. The Crane River luminaries also included clarinetist Monty Sunshine and the Davies brothers, John R. T. and Julian, all of whom were notable contributors to traditional jazz in the UK.
The band ran more or less continuously until the late-1970s, including a reunion with the original members in 1972, which reconvened the twin-trumpet/cornet pairing of Morris and Colyer, and led to bookings in Europe throughout the decade.
Morris also played with Colyer in the latters Omega Brass Band, which was said to be the first band outside Louisiana to recreate the authentic sound of a New Orleans marching band. The group achieved notoriety on many CND (Campiagn for Nuclear Disarmament) anti-war marches from Aldermaston in the late 1950s, although Morris always maintained they were not politically-motivated, but simply relished the chance to play.
Morris led a successor to the Crane River band, his Delta Jazzmen, in the 1980s and 1990s, and established the group as one of the countrys best-known revival bands.