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Fred Woods is Still The Man

Fred Woods

Published in 2012...

On the first Wednesday of every month, Freddy Woods and his Big Band squeeze into a room at Horsham Cricket Club for a night’s entertainment that has been called ‘Horsham’s best kept musical secret’.

The band, including vocalist Sarah Prichard, perform numbers by the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Besie, King Oliver, Glenn Miller, Benny Golson, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie.

We spoke to Fred Woods as well as musicians Richard Guest, Andy Walker, father and son Peter and Sam Walker, and pianist Mike Lavelle about Fred and the band’s history...

Fred: “I never had any academic musical education. My father was the local bandmaster of the Salvation Army and when I was eight I joined a class of boys and we learnt musical theory on the blackboard. After a few weeks
he gave us all an instrument and I started playing. I joined the RAF in 1944 but fortunately I wasn’t trained early enough to go on operations. I was demobilised in 1947 and went into the music business. I became completely
disillusioned with it. I formed the opinion that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune.’”

Fred: “I had heard the music that Dizzy Gillespie was playing at that time. He was an early hero – he changed my life really. But I could not play that music and earn a living. I came back to Horsham in 1948 and got a job, and played with part time bands. I’ve been doing that ever since.”

Andy: “Fred was in a band called The Progressioneers in which he played the trumpet, as he still does. I think he is the last one of the original band still alive.”

Peter: “I have played with Fred for 54 years, back from the days when he was one of The Progressioneers and I was eighteen or nineteen. I learnt a lot off him in those early days. The reason people play with Fred is because he was such a good musician in his day and it is still a privilege to play alongside him.”

Fred: “The Progressioneers was started in about 1948 by a local musician called Stan Redford, who ran a band in Horsham. I joined along with one of my brothers. After Stan, Jimmy Petts took it over and it became The Progressioneers and we played regularly at The Drill Hall. I had three brothers who played with him and they
all had the greatest respect for Jimmy.” 

Peter: “Back then, popular music was big band music, with the likes of Ted Heath’s band. Then Rock ‘n Roll came in and that still involved a certain amount of jazz. You would have songs such as Rock Around The Clock (Bill Haley & his Comets) which would have a saxophone solo. But when The Beatles came along it all went out of the window.”

Fred: “This Big Band started about 35 years ago when a friend of mine called me and told me about a group at Forest School.”

Richard: “I’ve been with the band since it started about 35 years ago. It started as an evening community band at Forest School, and Fred was brought in to lead the band. We used to rehearse at the school on a Wednesday night and like most musicians do, we went to the pub afterwards.”

Fred: “We went to the Hornbrook Inn for a drink after practice and the landlord John Fisher said ‘why don’t you come and play in my pub?’ On our first night there was a big notice up that read ‘Live Tonight – The Freddy
Woods Big Band’. That’s how it all started.”

Richard: “We played at The Hornbrook for many years, before going to the Hunter’s Moon in Copthorne and now here at the Cricket Club.”

Fred: “We got the offer to play at the Cricket Club about fifteen years ago and we’ve been playing there ever since. I always say it’s the best kept musical secret in Horsham! We had a member of Ted Heath’s orchestra playing the bass trombone at a recent concert, and he brought along people who were amazed at what a lovely venue it is there. I’m so grateful that we get the opportunity to play there.”

Andy: “Where else can you get one hundred people in a room and have a beer? You have got the Holbrook or here and that’s about it in Horsham now.”

Mike: “I’ve always played jazz locally and watched the Freddy Woods Band for years. I was filling in every now and again when I was needed, but was not a band regular. Playing jazz has been a big part of my life. I remember as a teenager I was listening to Dave Brubeck and I realised what was going on with jazz music. It was incredible as I could suddenly hear what was happening musically.”

Sam: “I’ve been playing piano since I was four, and now I also play saxophone and flute clarinet. My father (Peter) sat me down on the piano at the age of four and said ‘this is what you are doing for the next half an hour.’ Now I play alongside him in the band, which is great, and I teach music a couple of days a week.”

Andy: “When I was thirteen I would come down with my dad and occasionally sit in and blast out a couple of tunes. I’ve been a regular in the band pretty much since I left school. I also lead a small band and we play at
the Sussex Oak in Warnham.” 

Fred: “About fifteen years ago, we had been to Lewes for a Christmas party at Stan’s and I had (younger brother) Les with me. I must have fallen asleep at the wheel and went off the road and hit a tree. I was taken to hospital.”

Mike: “I was the surgeon on call at the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath that night, and Fred was brought in very seriously ill and I had to operate on him. I didn’t know it was Fred - . It was so severe I had to rush in and the first time I saw him that night was in the operating theatre, covered in drapes. It was a life and death situation.” 

Fred: “My wife was at the hospital and she said ‘Mike Lavelle? Fred knows him and plays with him’. He led the team that saved my life.”

Mike: “Thankfully he made a full recovery. I joined as a permanent member a few years ago.”

Fred: “Before every concert I have to get out about 400 band parts, and put them in order, and then file them back again. Every instrument has its own file. Every concert we play twenty-four numbers and after four months I put them back so there are no repeats during that period. I write quite a lot of stuff myself. I’ve done about 60 arrangements for Sarah Pritchard who sings with the band. I’ve done other arrangements for the band, which is good training and therapy for me.”

Peter: “Fred is a legend in his own lifetime. He has perfect pitch, he is a gentleman, he is intelligent, and he can hear anything and take it down. You could give him a CD and he could write down the whole arrangement
with harmonies.”

Sam: “Fred is a genius. He is one of the best trumpet players you could ever meet and is a great arranger. You play in his band for the fun, not for money. They’re a good bunch of guys and good musicians.”

Fred: “Richard is very keen on big band music and runs The British Legion Dance Band. He is a colossal help to me. All I have to worry about is the music and to a degree the money and he does the arranging of the band. He enables us to keep it all going.”

Andy: “Some of these guys come a long way to play for nothing. They put a bucket round at the end of the night and it might raise £100, and £10 gets given to those who have travelled the furthest. But I’ve not had a penny out of the band for ten years, as it’s not why we do it. In years gone by Freddy was the man and he still carries respect because of what he has done.”

Peter: “We have an enthusiastic and friendly audience here so you get feedback from them too. It’s sad that there are not many young people listening to jazz. Some of it is quite difficult to listen to – not what we play here – but some jazz is. Also there are a lot of very good jazz musicians who do not play to the audience; they play for themselves and do not make it easy listening. You do have to learn how to listen to jazz.”

Sam: “It is difficult to get younger people involved in jazz. It works up in London, with the Jazz Café and places like that, but in Sussex it’s quite tricky.”

Mike: “Jazz is not fed to people nowadays, but I’m convinced that if you made people listen to it they would end up liking it! It’s just not forced on people like pop music is.”

Fred: “I’ve always loved Bebop but that sort of music has gone completely out of fashion except amongst people of my generation. Will it have its time again? I don’t know. You have some big bands that just play Glenn Miller. It is lovely stuff and quite hard to play. We play it sometimes – you never hear applause like you do when we play ‘In the Mood’. We could play that song every time but the guys in the band have played it thousands of times and
want to play something different.”

Andy: “It is hard to get new people through the door, and when people do come here for the first time they often say ‘how come I never knew about this before?’ Once you get them in they nearly always keep coming back.”

Richard: “I still enjoy performing. I always make sure I am back in the country for this night – I wouldn’t miss it for anything. The adrenaline gets pumping and it’s brilliant.”

Fred: “I have three brothers and a sister, and two of my brothers were professional trumpet players. Stan finished off with the London Philharmonic and he lives in Lewes now. Dave went to Canada after seeing an advert for a violinist for the Halifax Symphony Orchestra in Canada. He was a founder member of what was one of the best big bands in the world, Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass. My other brother Les died recently. As for the Freddy Woods Band, who knows what will happen without me.”

Peter: “The future for the band is okay so long as Fred is still going. When Woody Herman and Count Basie passed on, their bands kept playing for a while but the character of the band disappears. When I play a solo, I’m not really playing it for me - I’m playing for Fred.”

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