Monday, 30 November -0001

Radio Review: 30 January

A fitting tribute to the king of the clarinet, Acker Bilk

Written by Louis Barfe
Louis-Barfe-portrait-176Jazz haters like to dismiss the whole genre as pretentious and po-faced. I have a simple two-word answer for them: Acker Bilk. Some try to dismiss this and say that Bilk wasn’t ‘proper jazz’. Well, the great Stan Tracey was very much ‘proper jazz’, and he rated Bilk. That’s good enough for me.

Bilk died last year, and his funeral drew a capacity crowd to his local church in Somerset. I know, because I was there, and, despite arriving over half an hour early, only just bagged a seat. So, it was smashing to hear Radio 2 paying lavish tribute to Bilk last week in Somerset Blues, narrated by Clarke Peters.

Acker means ‘mate’ in Somerset dialect, and the name fitted the erstwhile Bernard Bilk perfectly. He was fun to be around, and that came through in his music, along with that gorgeous rounded tone and wide vibrato. Moreover, he swung like mad, a quality that took him beyond trad jazz when the time came.

The fun was often boozy. Tales of riotous tours where bands split and reformed on an almost daily basis abounded – on one, a white witch bass player put a spell on drummer Ron McKay.

Michael Winner was one of the talking heads, having used Bilk for a film soundtrack. It’s odd to hear someone paying tribute to someone they predeceased, but I am reliably informed the BBC has a disc of Winston Churchill praising the Queen Mother fulsomely in the past tense.

The real joy came from Bilk himself in archive interviews – including a great Saturday Club chat with Brian Matthew, where he said he practised his clarinet for hours on end in custody while awaiting his court martial for falling asleep on guard. RIP, mate.

Somerset Blues: The Story Of Acker Bilk, is available on iPlayer.

Louis on Twitter: @LFBarfe or email:

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