Johnny Claes was one of those figures in jazz who could only have come from Europe, and really only out of England between the two World Wars. A British bandleader and trumpet player who made a name for himself before and during the Second World War, he was born into a wealthy family -- actually, two wealthy families -- in 1916, to a Belgian father and a Scottish mother. He was drawn to music from an early age and, by the early '30s, was taking lessons from no less a figure than Nat Gonella, an older contemporary who was already regarded as one of the top jazz trumpet men in England. By 1935, at age 19, Claes was working professionally, playing at the Nest Club in London, and two years later, made his recording debut on English Decca with bandleader Gerry Moore. Fluent in French as well as English, and with family and business contacts across western Europe, as well as a good player, Claes was able to make the rounds of the top swing and jazz bands in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium in the second half of the '30s; he also managed, during a stay in Holland in the summer of 1937, to play in one of the bands that Coleman Hawkins led during his extended stay in Europe. The outbreak of the war in 1939 brought Claes back to England where, amid the turmoil of the so-called "Phoney War," he re-established himself in a London facing blackouts and a potential shut-down of its entertainment industry (as an example, for a time it looked like the government was simply going to close all clubs and movie theaters, and, incidentally, padlock the movie industry) Claes played at the Boogie Woogie Club in the spring of 1940 and then joined the Teddy Joyce Orchestra before deciding in early 1941 to form his own band.
Despite the austerity of wartime conditions and the limitations that these imposed on performing and recording, Claes managed to carve out a name for himself and his band -- christened the Clay (or Clae -- the spelling varied) Pigeons -- during the next four years. Although Dixieland (usually referred to as "trad") was the dominant (and preferred) sound of most British jazz bands and audiences (and clubs), Claes populated his band with some of the top modern jazz players of the period, among them Ronnie Scott, Tommy Pollard, Norman Stenfalt, Harry Hayes, and Kenny Graham, which helped to make his outfit one of the more cutting-edge ensembles of this period. They also managed to record some impressive sides for EMI. Toward the end of the war, however, Claes' interest in music began to flag; what's more, with the liberation of Belgium the year before, there was now a family business to return to, and also, a bit later, a new interest on the horizon in the form of auto racing. In 1947, Claes served as interpreter for the British drivers in the French Grand Prix, and from then on he took a much more active interest in the competition. Although he no longer performed, Claes ran his own club in England and wrote for Jazz Hot magazine in Belgium, but his main public activity was as a driver -- he competed in numerous Grand Prix races between 1948 and 1955 (with a disastrous crash in San Remo in 1951 that made international headlines). By the mid-'50s, however, his health had begun to deteriorate. Some accounts say he contracted tuberculosis, while others say it was cancer. Whatever the cause, he died in early 1956, at the end of a colorful 39 years of living.