Jazz Stars: Bert Ambrose and Jimmie Rodgers

Today we feature two talented musicians born in September - Bert Ambrose (1896-1973), a violinist and conductor who formed one of Britain's most famous dance bands – Ambrose & His Orchestra, and Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), one of the first country music performers.

Our new selection features music performed by these talented jazzmen, born around the same time, hence in different countries and representing stylistically different jazz standards and trends.

Bert Ambrose was born in London, moved with his family to the USA when he was a child, studied violin in New York, and began his career as a professional musician in orchestras accompanying silent films in cinemas. Later he played in symphony and pop-dance orchestras, in 1917-1922, he led his own orchestras in New York clubs and hotels (Club de Vingt, Clover Gardens, etc.), made recordings for Columbia, after which he returned to England, organising and leading the orchestra at the Embassy Club in London (1923-1927). He continued to playing occasional concerts in New York.

Due to the growing popularity of the band in Great Britain, Ambrose gave up his permanent working place and switched to working on engagements in the most prestigious clubs and restaurants (including the Mayfair Hotel, Cafe de Paris, Ciro's Club, etc.). In the 1930s, Bert Ambrose dance orchestra was considered the best in England and one of the best in Europe. Regular BBC radio broadcasts directly from the clubs (since 1928) and numerous recordings (mainly at Decca Studios, UK) contributed to its success.

In 1938-1939, Ambrose performed with an octet (expanding it to a big band when necessary), from the early 1940s, he toured extensively with variety theatres at the head of small ensembles, and during the Second World War he conducted an army band. In the 1950s, the popularity of Ambrose orchestra began to wane due to changing public tastes, leading to its eventual disbandment in 1956. Ambrose went into artist management. He also wrote orchestrations for television shows, composed songs and instrumental pieces.

Burt Ambrose and his orchestra performed mainly dance and entertainment music, popularising the commercialised swing style. At the same time, he managed to achieve a very high quality of musical performance, perfect coherence and balance of the instrumental groups sounding, refinement of colour and rhythmic intensity, bringing his orchestra closer to the best jazz big bands of the swing era.

Stylistically, the orchestra of Ambrose is more closely associated with jazz than other similar dance bands - largely due to collaborations with jazz musicians (much like the orchestras of Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller). English and American musicians whom Ambrose helped to become famous are – Joe Crossman, George Chisholm, Max Goldberg, Lew Davis, Tiny Winters, Danny Polo, bandleaders Ted Heath, Stanley Black, George Shearing, George Melachrino, orchestrators Lew Stone and Sid Phillips, and vocalists Sam Browne, Elsie Carlisle, Everly Del, Vera Lynn, Ann Shelton and Danny Dennis. Some of the most popular tunes from the orchestra repertoire include “After You”, “Cotton Picker's Congregation”, “Dinner at Eight”, “Moaning for You”, “Night Ride” and composition by Ambrose “When Day is Done”. The tunes “Hors D'Oeuvres”, “I'm on a See Saw” and “South of the Border” were particularly successful in the US as late as the 1930s.
The musician died in 1973 while working in the studio.

Jimmie Rodgers, also known as “The Singing Conductor”, was country music first star. Because of this, another of his nicknames was  ”The Father of Country Music”.

James Charles Rogers was born in Meridian, Mississippi. He was the youngest of three sons. His mother died when Jimmy was a baby, and he spent the next few years living with relatives in southeast Mississippi and southwest Alabama. He finally returned home to live with his father, who by then had become a foreman on the railway.

Jimmy had a desire to perform on stage at an early age. Road always tempted him. By the age of 13 Jimmy Rogers had tried twice to organise road shows, but both times his father brought him home. His father got him a job as a water carrier on the railway. There he learnt to sing in his own way and the workers taught him to strum his guitar. A few years later he became a conductor on the North Eastern Railway.

In 1924, at the age of 27, Jimmy was down with tuberculosis. The illness temporarily cut short his railway career but, at the same time, gave him the opportunity to return to his long-time love – music. He organised a tour and travelled around the south-east until one day a hurricane destroyed his tent. He returned to his job as a conductor on the east coast of Florida, but illness prevented him from staying there. Jimmy moved to Tucson, Arizona, and took a job as a railways pointsman. He remained at this job for about a year and then, in early 1927, returned with his family to his native Meridian.

The same year, 1927, Rogers decided to go to Asheville, North Carolina. In April, he, along with Otis Kuykendall, made his first radio appearance. A few months later, Jimmy assembled a band in Tennessee called the “Tenneva Ramblers” and got a weekly radio show. In August 1927, the group broke up and Jimmy made his first recordings alone in Bristol, Tennessee. These recordings were released in October and were a rather successful. In November, in Philadelphia, Rogers had another session in which he records four songs, including "Blue Yodel", better known as "T for Texas". Over the next two years, over half a million copies of this song were sold – an incredible success in those days.

For the next few years, Rogers was consumed with work. He made a short film, “The Singing Conductor” for Columbia Pictures and recorded many songs around the country. Participating in the Red Cross programme, he, along with comedian Will Rogers, toured the middle east. In July 1930, the musician recorded "Blue Yodel #9", with Louis Armstrong and his wife Lillian accompanying them on piano.

The penultimate session of the musician  took place in August 1932, in Camden, New Jersey. At this time it became clear that his tuberculosis was progressing. He no longer toured, but did  a weekly radio show in San Antonio, where he moved after "T for Texas" became a hit.

It was the time when the Great Depression was rampant in the country. In May 1933, Jimmy goes to New York City for a group recording session. He started this session alone and recorded four songs on the first day. Meanwhile, the sound engineers find two musicians for him, with whom he recorded several more songs, including "Mississippi Delta Blues". However, the last song Jimmy decided to record alone, and the song "Years Ago" summed up his career.
Jimmie Rodgers died two days later, on 26 May 1933. He was 35 years old.

When the Country Music Hall of Fame was established in 1961, Jimmie Rodgers was one of the first three people inducted (along with Fred Rose and Hank Williams). He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as an early influence on that musical style.