Johnny Rogers, saxophonist – obituary
Saxophonist who brought the bebop sound to post-war Soho
Rogers (second from left) at Eleven Club in 1948, with Ronnie Scott on far right performing in 1948.
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5:11PM GMT 18 Jan 2016
Johnny Rogers, the saxophonist, who has died aged 89, was among the earliest British exponents of bebop, the “new jazz” introduced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s; along with Ronnie Scott and Johnny Dankworth, he was a founder member of Club Eleven, the group of musical pioneers which gave the first performances in Britain of this revolutionary style.
John Harry O’Dell Rogers was born in Southgate, north London, on August 14 1926, and took up the clarinet, and later the alto saxophone, as a teenager. He began playing with local dance bands on leaving school and quickly worked his way up in a booming post-war profession.
It was while playing with a quartet at the Fullado Club, much frequented by American servicemen, that Rogers first became aware of bebop and fell under its spell. In 1948, he joined 10 other converts in renting a basement in Windmill Street, Soho, to rehearse and eventually perform for a paying public.
Rogers made his only recordings with bands formed around Club Eleven. They reveal a fluent improviser in what was then a new and complex idiom. Following a bout of illness in 1949, he joined the pianist Lennie Metcalfe in co-leading a sextet called Jazz Inc. In the early 1950s, however, it was virtually impossible for a musician to maintain a professional career by playing jazz of any kind, and his main occupation came from dance-band work.
In 1955, while playing a summer season with Joe Loss at the Villa Marina, Douglas, Isle of Man, he met Irene Mitchell, a saxophonist with Ivy Benson’s band. They married soon afterwards and when Irene became pregnant they moved to Redcar, North Yorkshire, her home town, where her father was the bandleader at the Pier Ballroom. The couple played at the ballroom and Rogers ran a weekly jazz club in the town on his night off.
The pattern of their lives, while raising a family over the next 15 years, encapsulates the history of their profession from the 1950s to the 1970s: ballroom gigs (which were now down to three nights a week), playing in the orchestra pit for musicals at regional theatres, and augmenting the bands at cabaret clubs in the North East when big stars were appearing.
Eventually, with the closure of the Pier Ballroom in 1971, they made the break and bought a small farm of 12 acres. Rogers became a railway signalman at Glaisdale, on the Esk Valley line, one of the few rural branches to escape the Beeching axe – on account of its remoteness. Irene took a job as a cook at a school in the nearby village of Lealholm.
By now even the most avid of British jazz buffs would have been unable to answer the question of what had become of Johnny Rogers. In 1985, however, as part of a “jazz weekend”, BBC Two broadcast a Club Eleven reunion from Ronnie Scott’s club – and there he was, still playing very well.
The programme also showed a short film of him in his signal box and among some sheep. The contrast between this and the surroundings in which he was seen playing was bizarre, fixing him firmly in everyone’s mind as the bebop-playing signalman shepherd. This was reinforced when, in 1989, an item in Railwatch on BBC Two, dealing with the Esk Valley line, presented him, anonymously, as a saxophone-playing signalman.
Johnny Rogers finally gave up playing because of ill health in 1990. He is survived by his wife and son. A daughter predeceased him.
Johnny Rogers, born August 14 1926, died January 4 2016