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Nat Gonella - World famous Jazz musician

Nat Gonella  

Nat Gonella was one of the few survivors of the dance bands of the twenties and thirties, a time when only a few musicians made a living playing jazz, but it was the likes of Nat who suddenly burst from a highly arranged score to set the place alight, albeit for only eight or 16 bars.
They would prevail upon the frock-coated and baton-waving leader to allow an unwilling granted 'hot' arrangement.
Nat's first solos on record were with Billy Cotton's band in 1930, displaying, on Bessie Couldn't Help It, the first example on gramophone record from a British musician/vocalist of that rhythmically phrased gibberish called 'scat' singing.

He moved to Roy Fox at the Monseigneur Restaurant, Jermyn Street, St. James's, remaining when Lew Stone took over, both leaders indulging his 'Cockney-Armstrong' vocals, and 'indulging' his trumpet solos, Stone particularly.

The Georgians

In 1932, Nat recorded out and out jazz sides which led him, in 1934, to forming his Georgians, so-called because of his signature tune, Georgia On My Mind, which in Nat's amazingly long career he must have sung a million times. A quota of pop songs of the day and some pretty dire comedy routines enabled Nat to present a fifty per cent jazz programme in his 'act' on the variety halls. These appearances and the 270 sides of wholly jazz recordings on the Parlophone label between 1934 and 1940 led many of his fans to Nat's mentor, Louis Armstrong, one of these an Eton schoolboy, Humphrey Lyttelton.

Nat Gonella 02  

From St. James' to the Pioneer Corps
Nat made a small fortune with his Georgians, but was coolly received by the magazines then covering jazz; the Melody Maker, Rhythm, Swing Music and Hot News, and the home-produced magazines devoted to the gospel of 'pure' New Orleans jazz published in the mid forties, who dismissed Nat as a mere Armstrong imitator. (Ironically, they had no complaint with the new breed of Armstrong-influenced trumpeters, including Humphrey Lyttelton.).

The 1939-45 conflict saw a drastic change in his fortunes, not the least of which was that he, a musician of his calibre, was called up into the Pioneer Corps, the dogsbodies of the Army, constructing latrines one of their jobs. On demobilisation, he found a totally different musical climate. The writing was on the wall for the big dance bands, in the face of competition from the emerging dichotomy of small revivalist and be-bop bands. He had lost his fortune.

  Nat Gonella 03


Stills taken from a video we made of Nat's 88th Birthday Party at the Thorngate Theatre

Nat Gonella 03  

Nat's Be-Bop Band
Nat jumped on the bebop bandwagon, enlisting bassist Lennie Bush and alto-saxophonist Johnny Rogers, both founder members (with Ronnie Scott), of the seminal Club Eleven, drummer Phil Seamen (later, with Ronnie's nine-piece), tenor saxophonist Kenny Graham, and guitarist Roy Plummer. Later, another rising star in British modern jazz, Harry Klein, replaced Rogers. That band was a financial disaster. In those bitterly divided times, those who recalled Nat's Armstrong-inspired trumpet were appalled, and followers of be-bop, no less insular than their traddy counterparts, were mistrustful of Nat's apparent conversion to the new faith.

Dance hall proprietors from pre-war days asked Nat, why this change of policy. 'It's the new thing', said Nat, and they replied, 'Take it away and don't come back with it'. Nat later described be-bop as 'gas-oven music' and complained that the odour of smoke in the dressing room was unlike that of Ardath, De Reske or Players No 1. He was referring to marijuana, known to the young be-bop tearaways as 'naughty-type African Woodbines', not legally obtainable. Phil Seamen and Kenny Graham are dead, but I spoke to Johnny Rogers, Lennie Bush and Harry Klein, about Nat.

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Nat Gonella 1949  

At his funeral, some 10,000 people lined the streets of Gosport to pay their last respects. The mourners including Humphrey Lyttelton and Mrs Joyce Stone, widow of Lew. Yes, the critics were often right about Nat's clipped military phrasing that harked back to the orphanage boys' band, under the tutelage of William Clarke of Kneller Hall. Nat's tone was often coarse and his phrasing erratic but, at his best, he was a genuine swinger with a considerable range, evidenced by his recordings made in New York in 1939 with John Kirby's band, (with Benny Carter).
This piece has been extracted from an article by JIM GODBOLT. To read more please
click here. )

Editor's footnote: I was lucky enough to have known Nat in his later years and filmed him doing several guest appearances both in London and Gosport. The 3 hour concert by the Beachcombers, Beryl Bryden and Rosemary Squires is now available on a 2 DVD set priced at 10 (click to order).
When Nat was ninety, he was persuaded by friends to record a "swan song". David Maber recalls-"When Nat Popped into my home in May 1998 to get me to accompany him singing a new song I felt it essential he be recorded singing it. After rehearsals I took him to our local recording studio- after all, I believed that his fans would wish to hear him. Nat was aware that this was a "good-bye song. What else would a title like "When I kiss the world goodbye" suggest. As Nat put it "I hope you enjoy it!"

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