Joe Deniz

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b. José William Deniz, 10 September 1913, Butetown, Cardiff, Wales, d. 24 April 1994. Deniz’s musical apprenticeship was served on the docks of his native Butetown district (now known as Tiger Bay),…
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Artist Biography by

b. José William Deniz, 10 September 1913, Butetown, Cardiff, Wales, d. 24 April 1994. Deniz’s musical apprenticeship was served on the docks of his native Butetown district (now known as Tiger Bay), where he played impromptu calypsos to deprive sailors of their small change. He was one of three sons born to a black American mother raised in Bristol, England, and all of her offspring would make their mark on the UK jazz dance scene as a guitarist. Joe himself learned the ukulele first, before upgrading to the fuller fretboard. As his skill increased so he would join with other vagrant musicians travelling through the ethnic centres of Cardiff, playing engagements at houses in exchange for drinks. Eventually a nucleus of black musicians, Victor Parker, George Glossop and Don Johnson, in addition to Deniz, found work in Soho clubs.

After a brief sojourn in his home town, Deniz returned as drummer at an after hours London club entitled the Nest. A haunt of visiting Afro-Caribbean musicians, it saw him introduced to the likes of Fats Waller and his idol, Django Reinhardt. His next engagement came as part of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson’s black orchestra, once again on guitar, where he remained until 1941 (when Johnson was killed in a Café De Paris bombing). Deniz too was injured (spending the rest of his life in discomfort owing to shrapnel in the leg), but went on to find session work with many top-flight band leaders, as well as violinist Stéphane Grappelli. His personal fame also rose via solos with Harry Parry’s Radio Rhythm Club Sextet. Turning away from jazz, he joined his brothers in the Latin-styled Hermanos Deniz, before joining the West End run of Ipi Tombi, a South African musical which featured his duets with brother Frank. He retired from music in 1980, contenting himself with his memories, passion for DIY and running a successful business.