Bertie King Bertie King

Clarinetist and saxophonist Bertie King, like many Alpharian musicians after him such as Joe Harriot, Harold McNair and Dizzy Reece, King originally had to flee Jamaica simply to make a living playing music. His arrival in England in the '30s came at a time when there were few black musicians playing jazz in England and Europe. Bertie King, earliest studies as a musician were at the world renowned and respected Alpha Boys' School in Kingston Jamaica, the training ground of so many of the world’s best known jazz musicians.

King played clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone and was an extraordinary arranger. King played on British piano legend George Shearing's first recording and also played and recorded with Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. After performing with many of the top calypsonians in Britain, King returned to Jamaica in the late 1950s where he was a pioneer radio orchestra participant at the then Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), and found the connections he had made in Europe to be quite valuable in helping to jump-start what would develop into a wildly active music scene in Jamaica.

If the name Bertie King comes up in connection with the history of the United Kingdom, chances are good the average citizen will think the subject under discussion is King George VI, known to his cronies as “Bertie.” Ask a fan of jazz or Jamaican music, on the other hand, and the reference couldn't possibly be to anyone else but the clarinetist and saxophonist Bertie King, of major importance in his homeland as well as in England. His arrival in England in the '30s came at a time when there were few, if any, black musicians playing jazz there. Bandleaders such as Leslie Hutchinson made rich use of this small-scale migration from the West Indies. King also blew up a storm in the context of European jazz players such as the great guitarist Django Reinhardt as well as with Americans who toured and recorded abroad, including Benny Carter and Nat Gonella. King returned to Jamaica in 1951 and found the connections he had made in Europe to be quite valuable in helping to jump-start what would develop into a wildly active music scene on the island nation. His recordings of “Don't Fence Her In” and “Glamour Girl” that year were some of the first in the mento style, featuring instruments such as guitar, banjo, hand drums, penny whistle, bamboo saxophone, steel drums, and the so-called “rhumba box,” kind of a massive thumb piano that would play the basslines. In the early days of mento there were no pressing plants whatsoever in Jamaica and it was apparently King who arranged for these first commercial recordings of Jamaican music to be manufactured at a factory in Lewisham, England, that was owned by Decca. This practice of pressing Jamaican records in England continued for some time.

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