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Rupert Nurse: 1910-2001
Rupert Nurse
Bass, piano, saxophone, arranger

Born: December 26, 1910 in Port of Spain, Trinidad
Died: March 18, 2001 in Arima, Trinidad

Broke New Ground in Caribbean Jazz

Copyright © 2001 

The Scotsman, 2001


Rupert Nurse was part of a generation of Caribbean musicians who emigrated to Britain in the 1940s, and enlivened the London jazz scene with their presence. Nurse was notably successful in adapting the calypso to the needs of the jazz big band, and his arrangements broke new ground.

He was born Rupert Theophilus Nurse in Trinidad, but spent some of his childhood in Venezuela, before returning to his native island to finish school. He worked as a teacher for four years in Tobago, then for an electronics company in Trinidad, but all this time he was also working on his music, teaching himself piano, saxophone and double bass, and studying arranging from a mail-order Glenn Miller tutor.

He joined with Guyanese saxophonist Wally Stewart to form Trinidad’s first American-style big band, The Moderneers. He had the opportunity to play with (and for) visiting American soldiers during the war, and began to arrange calypsos for the band, despite the stern disapproval of those who felt this was a form of desecration of his native music.

He arrived in Britain in 1945, and began working as a bass player with guitarist Fitzroy Coleman at the Antilles, a West Indian club in London where Caribbean and jazz musicians mingled freely. He performed in Europe with trumpeter Leslie Hutchinson and singer Cab Kaye, but became best known for his calypso music in the 1950s.

The expanding West Indian population in London created a ready-made audience, and his arrangements for the popular calypsos of Lord Kitchener (the singer was a fellow Trinidadian and childhood friend of Nurse) were particularly successful, and served as an introduction to the island’s music for many non-Caribbean listeners as well.

He worked with musicians like trumpeter Peter Joachim and pianist Winifred Atwell, then took over the band at the Sunset in Carnaby Street in 1954, and later the more up-market Sugar Hill in St James’s, where he met and recorded with the great American pianist Mary Lou Williams.

Nurse also acted as talent scout and principal arranger for the Melodisc label, which issued the Lord Kitchener records. He recorded many Caribbean and African artists, and led the largely Trinidadian “house band” for the label. The modern sound of his settings for the traditional calypso proved popular with musicians and listeners.

His love for jazz did not dissuade him from pursuing more commercial avenues, and he worked regularly nightclubs and restaurants, while continuing to arrange and teach. He remained active into the 1990s, but eventually retired to his native Trinidad, where he continued to turn out occasional arrangements for local musicians.

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With 3 reader comments, latest October 29, 2004