Bertie King

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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…
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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. Like many Jamaican players such as Joe Harriott, Harold McNair, and Dizzy Reece, King originally had to flee Jamaica simply to make a living playing his horns. 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.

An even heavier presence by King in the nation's music came about in the early '50s, when the then-current Prime Minister ordered the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation to install a permanent studio band. King was the first leader of this outfit which eventually grew to 14 pieces, involving great Jamaican players such as guitarist Ernest Ranglin and bassist Tommy Mowatt. King made many recordings with this group, most often called Bertie King's Royal Jamaicans and also worked with the West Indian Swing Stars. As a jazz player, King managed to play on an average of at least one release every year between the mid-'30s and 1967. His earliest studies were at the Alpha Boys' School in Kingston, the training ground of so many of the country's best musicians that it eventually turned part of its facilities over to the creation of a small museum -- which appropriately has King's original saxophones on exhibit.