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World On Your Street: The Global Music Challenge
Billy Amstell
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Describe the atmosphere and live music at a local pub, restaurant, festival, church or temple, club night.... inspire other people to check it out!


Musician: Billy Amstell

Location: London

Instruments: saxophone, clarinet

Music: Jazz, Klezmer


Listen  Listen (2:26) to 'Boobala' played by Billy Amstell

Listen  Listen (10:21) to Billy Amstell talk to Max Reinhardt about his music

'My piano teacher was a lovely guy and he was heart broken when my mother told him that I was going to play saxophone.'

How I came to this music:

My father, mother and grandmother came to England from Warsaw at the start of the 20th century and settled in Jamaica Street in Stepney. I was the youngest of seven.

If you possessed the musical talent it was a natural thing to do to become a musician, your parents' wishes didn't have much to do with it. My first instrument was piano and I got two certificates from the London College of Music in the west end and my piano teacher was a charming old man. He was a lovely guy and he was heart broken when my mother told him that I was going to play saxophone. You see my brother, Mick, bought he a saxophone and naturally it was kept in the house. When he was out chasing 'birds' - he was a good-looking guy - I would open up his saxophone case and have a blow and my sister would sing the notes for me.

I had a good start because I played the piano, so I had no problem in reading music. And later I used to deputise for guys - just go in sit down, open the book and play- that was no trouble for me at all. Whenever my brother Mick carelessly double-booked himself, he used to send me along. Now I was always short when I was a kid and another brother of mine had to carry my saxophone for me. We'd get to say Hoxton Town Hall (what a joint!) we'd play and they couldn't understand how a kid like me could read orchestrations. I mean they were written tonic sol-fa but these guys couldn't understand how a youngster like that (I was only 14) could do it.

There was a guy in our neighbourhood, his name was Moshe. I did some gigs for him and recorded some of the tunes from those days on the LP that I made in the 1980's. And after I did a gig for him he would come round the next day and give my mother 10 shillings for the gig and a sixpence because I was a good boy. He didn't actually teach me the repertoire (for weddings and barmitzvahs). They played it and I picked it up because I've got a keen ear. We played tunes for any simcha (ie.festivity) and the people there made up their own dances - they did their own thing and they enjoyed it, it wasn't something they had learned from the old people.

Where I play:

Billy AmstellI used to be the soloist in the legendary Ambrose's band in the 30's, and later with the bands of Geraldo and Stanley Black. I'm 91 now but I still enjoy playing. Listen to this piece and tell me if you like it.

A favourite song:

'Boobala' (Grandma Dear)

A lot of the tunes were in D minor, a favourite key for Jewish music.I tried to vary it, C Minor say, because it's monotonous, finishing one song in D minor and starting the next in the same key. I wanted to avoid that on the LP.

You ask me what this piece was called and I never really knew. Ivor Mairants (guitar player with Geraldo's and Ted Heath's bands) sat in that chair and told me it was 'Ich Bin A Boarder Bay Mein Weib'. But recognising these tunes can be confusing. When I got the master tape back from the studios, after the sessions for the LP, they asked me to name each tune and I couldn't! Ivor 's wife said 'You wrote the arrangements, you played so beautifully…well you're a clever boy and yet…. you don't know the names of the tunes?' So I played her this tune Boobala and at the end I said to her, 'Do you remember that tune from the old days?" and she said "Course I do Billy'. I said 'But Lily, I wrote it for this LP.'

* Billy Amstell's Jewish Party with Harold Berens (Zodiac ZR1015 -recorded 1981) Boobala from that album, features Neil Fullerton on trumpet, Emilio on accordion, Art Learner on bass, Harry Barnett on guitar, Brian Emney on drums and Billy Amstell on clarinet.
Click here for Hande Domac's storyClick here for Mosi Conde's storyClick here for Rachel McLeod's story





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