Garden Route Accommodation

A night with Bill Ashton OBE

If you were having dinner at Augusta de Mist last night you would have heard the soft crooning of a septuagenarian after the dessert course, first in English and then in French. The singer was Bill Ashton, a living jazz legend and the song was one he composed for his gorgeous wife of 40 years, Kay. She smiled right through both versions and gently reminded him when he mixed up a few words. It was magical. Best of all was when Bill surprised us by giving us a copy of the sheet music, which he dedicated to us and signed it. He also gave us a copy of his latest cd, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra ‘Christmas Carol’ featuring music by Paul Hart. It is wonderful. Big band and swingy. Very now.
Bill is soft spoken, and a fountain of knowledge. He speaks French and Russian and Polish and he is keen observer of people. Here are some of his memories of a singer whose name most people will recognize
“In my loft there is a pile of largely unmarked minidisks. One of them, dating back to July 2000, contains four tracks recorded live by the sixteen year old Amy Winehouse. A few weeks earlier, I had had a call from Sylvia Young, Head of the eponymous Theatre School, “Mr. Ashton, I’d like to send a sixteen year old singer called Amy Winehouse to you. Neither we nor the Brit School really know what to do with her”.
“Send her along” I said cheerfully, “We don’t audition; she’ll just join in if she wants to”.The following Saturday, a typical North London schoolgirl appeared at the Cockpit. In a voice only slightly higher than that of Michael Caine, she said, in one breath, “ullomynameisAmyWinehousethat’saJewishname”. I sent her through to the singers’ rehearsal room, and for the next few weeks, she sat in the corner smoking for England, not joining in with anything they were doing but in the words of Annabel Williams, her singing teacher, “Whatever we were doing, she nailed it in one”.

In June of that year, I invited her to sing one song and the following month, I rang her early Sunday morning, “Can you sing with us today, we haven’t got a singer?”  “I don’t know your repertoire, but don’t worry I’ll learn them on the tube”. She was a good as her word, she came through the door having learnt four songs, and sung them perfectly without any leadsheet or even a set if words. Saxophonist Alan Stuart commented, “Are you going to sign her? Because if you don’t, I will. She’s going to be a superstar”.

She left us not long afterwards, because she had hoped to sing standards with NYJO and found herself singing songs by me and other NYJO writers. She formed a trio of NYJO 2 players including drummer, Bradley Webb, and she set off around the jazz clubs. I can honestly say, she had the best jazz voice of any young singer I have ever heard, learnt from her taxi driver father, Mitch. Jewish taxi drivers having the best musical taste of anyone!

A few months later, I was approached by Simon Fuller’s 19 Management, who had launched the Spice Girls, to give them a list of young female singers. I figured that they and Amy deserved each other, so passed on her numbers to them and she went to the audition. The rest is history, and for some reason, I was sent two copies of her first album called, Frank. Some of the tracks of which are excellent jazz singing. But then, she hooked up with the ‘pop world’ and married her songs to street rhythms and became the pop icon that we all know.

When she died, on Saturday 23rd July 2011, the pop world lost an icon. The jazz world had lost a great jazz singer several years earlier.

William Michael Allingham Ashton was born in Central Nursing Home Blackpool on 6th December 1936. He attended Miss Tustin’s Kindergarten School, Red House School near York and Rossall School, Fleetwood. Going up to St Peter’s Hall, Oxford in 1957 he immediately co-founded The Ambassadors Dance Band with Andrew Hayman.  He took a degree in Modern Languages and during vacations worked as a fair-ground attendant, vacuum cleaner salesman, barman, sous-chef, baker, wholesale grocer’s warehouseman and tri-lingual tour guide in Switzerland. His third year was spent in France as an English Assistant. During that time he played in The Stardust Combo in the Caveau des Fouleurs, Chateaudun and worked in Paris as a street photographer, office worker and gardien de nuit des Bateaux Mouches.

Returning to Oxford he co-founded the Oxford University Big Band in1960. He stayed on at Oxford to do a Post-graduate Diploma in Education and after university worked as a musician on the American bases in France.

In 1963 he came to London, where he played in Red Bludd’s Bluesicians with organist Jon Lord, whilst working first as a supply teacher and then as a French teacher in London Schools for 10 years. In 1965 he founded the London Schools Jazz Orchestra with Pat Evans, Mike Kershaw and others. This rapidly became the London then National Youth Jazz Orchestra which for five years ran Easter Jazz Courses in London as well as rehearsing every week. Bill has missed no more than half a dozen weekly rehearsals in nearly 45 years.

To date, NYJO has made about 50 albums and Bill has taken the orchestra all around the world: notably to USA twice, USSR, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, Bulgaria, Poland, Malta three times, Portugal five times, France and Germany several times each, Sicily, Madeira and Spain. NYJO has performed many times on television and in front of the Royal family, notably at The Royal Variety Performance and the Royal Celebration of Youth.

He has written over 70 songs in whole or part, including notably Much Too Much, Wait and See, It’s Over, Looking Forward, Looking Back, New in London, Don’t Try Argue With Me, Let’s Settle Down, A Step Too Far, A Way With Words, Paris is for Lovers, London, No Flowers By Request, and several instrumental themes. He was awarded the OBE for Services to Music in 2010.