I’ve never been a big fan of dixieland jazz. I remember hearing a lot of it when I was a teenager and a friend of mine seemed inexplicably entranced by a group called the Dukes Of Dixieland. He had several LP records by the Dukes and seemed to play them every time I visited. It was almost like he wanted to chase me away. (Hmmm.)
In any case, my lack of interest in the genre might have kept me from noticing a strange musical movement in Great Britain during the 1950s and 1960s. Dixieland jazz — the kind made popular in New Orleans — became the basis for a style of music that British fans called “trad jazz”. It had many stars, including Kenny Ball, Chris Barber, and Acker Bilk, all of whom led popular bands. Ironically, clarinetist Bilk is most remembered now for his 1962 mega-hit “Stranger On The Shore,” which was about as far away from dixieland — or trad jazz — as you could get.
Bernard Stanley Bilk was born in the Somerset region of England, and took the area’s slang word for friend — acker — as his nickname. Bilk wasn’t particularly interested in music while growing up, but while serving in the British Army in the 1950s he learned to play the clarinet, and after his discharge began to try his hand at a professional career.
After gaining a little experience, he formed his own group called the Paramount Jazz Band and began to perfect his personal style, which included a vibrato-style clarinet reminiscent of Sidney Bechet and a look that often included a bowler hat. As his band began to find some success in Great Britain, he also found himself branching out a little musically.
Written for a British TV show and dedicated to his daughter, “Stranger On The Shore” was quite a departure from his normal musical style, but the melodic piece caught the imagination of music lovers world-wide and became his biggest seller by far. But Bilk remained a popular part of the trad jazz scene too, as you can see in the video below. It’s a scene from the movie, It’s Trad Dad, and it also just happened to feature my old buddy’s favorites, the Dukes Of Dixieland.
Mr. Acker Bilk (as he’s often billed) has continued to perform through the intervening years and is still going strong, even in his eighth decade. He’s also formed a partnership of sorts with his old trad jazz contemporary Kenny Ball (who had his own big hit with “Midnight In Moscow”) to promote their appearances, keeping their music alive.