Ken Colyer (1928–1988), nicknamed 'The Guv’nor', was a British jazz trumpeter and singer who took part in the revival of classic New Orleans-style jazz in the 1940s and 1950s.
Early career in England
Born in Great Yarmouth, England, Colyer first learned about jazz from records owned by his elder brother Bill. He had already learned to play a few tunes on the mouth-organ when, at the end of World War II, he joned the Merchant Navy, serving on a tanker, where he practiced trumpet and guitar in his free time. As a sailor he visited Philadelphia, Gibraltar, Italy, Aden, Oman, Haifa, and Copenhagen. He committed to memory a verse of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'The Long Trail' -- he was living its subject mater -- and later set it to music and recorded it with guitar accompaniment.
In 1949, Colyer and his brother Bill (playing the washboard) joined Ben Marshall's Crane River Jazz Band, practicing on the banks opposite the house of trumpeter Leo 'Sonny' Morris's father. Colyer and Morris played a two-horn lead based on King Oliver and Louis Armstrong's loose style, with horn playing variations to the lead. In the early days their sound was rough -- until trombonist and saxophonist John R.T. Davies pointed to the existence of musical keys -- and loud.
First visit to New Orleans
In 1952 Colyer signed up as a sailor again to get to New Orleans; now he was pleasing passengers and crew with his playing. Working as a waiter, he came to dislike and disdain the upper crust. He arrived in New York, then Mobile, Alabama, where he jumped ship and finally reached New Orleans with a trumpet mouthpiece. That night he heard and met the George Lewis band, and later in the week sat in with them, learning all the time. They welcomed him with surprised pleasure: "Ain't that Bunk, George? That's Bunk, man," said pianist Alton Purnell, likening Colyer to the legendary trumpeter Willie 'Bunk' Johnson, as they played 'Sister Kate'. The critic Dick Allen said Colyer was the only white man who contributed something to the band.
Colyer recorded with two local bands including that of bassist Albert Glenny, 90 years old and the last surviving musician who could remember legendary cornetist Charles 'Buddy' Bolden, who had died in 1931. The liveliest of their numbers was Ciribiribin, which Colyer had never played before, and during which he missed the key change.
Return to England
Because he had overstayed his 30-day visa -- and possibly also because he had fraternized with African-Americans -- he was jailed in New Orleans for five weeks. Bailed out (without the aid of the British diplomatic service), he returned home to join a band whose lead trumpeter, Pat Halcox, had dropped out to study. It included Monty Sunshine, the clarinetist from the Crane River band, and trombonist Chris Barber. The band recorded for only a year, but in that time saw one of its numbers, 'Isle of Capri', enter the Top 5, a first for any jazz record. Trumpeter and radio host Humphrey Lyttleton said, shortly after Colyer's death, that he had been light-years ahead of the other band members in technique.
Over the next decade Coyler formed several bands, all called the Jazzmen, then played and recorded with various other artists in several European countries until 1986.
After he suffered financial reverses late in life, fans donated money and living space to him. He died of colon cancer in France in 1988.
Colyer had said, "I have had to pay heavily for being the Keeper of the Flame" of classic New Orleans jazz. Record companies had often paid him poorly for recording sessions, and had provided less-than-adequate recording engineering. Although Coyler often had difficult relationships with other musicians, many expressed admiration for him: Lizzie Miles had inscribed two records "To a great jazzman," and Jimmy Rushing had said, "You know how to play the blues."