Friday 23 March 2018

'It's too late now to retire at 68'

Legendary jazzman Acker Bilk has no intention of hanging up his clarinet, he tells Aengus Fanning

Aengus Fanning

'Retirement? I don't know what the word means," says Acker Bilk. "You see, if it wasn't for venetian blinds, it would be curtains for us all!"

I had been hoping to discuss the new retirement age of 68 with the legendary clarinettist whose great hits Stranger on the Shore, That's My Home and Buona Sera took the world by storm from the Sixties onwards. But he was having none of it.

"My belief is, keep blowing, keep playing, keep touring and keep meeting people. It keeps you young."

Acker, at 81, is the oldest of the famous Dixieland jazz triumvirate known as the three Bs, the others being Chris Barber, 80 on April 17, and Kenny Ball, 80 on May 22. "They're only youngsters. And I've led a better life!'' says Acker.

Promoter John Conway is planning to bring Acker to Dublin again this autumn.

"I love coming to Ireland. Tell all my fans there that I'm looking forward to seeing them again soon," says Acker.

Apart from playing jazz, Acker likes to paint Somerset landscapes with his friend, piano player Dave Collier.

Chris Barber is just as indifferent as Acker is to the concept of retirement. He is still touring with his 11-piece band featuring such fine musicians as Mike Henry on trumpet and Bob Hunt on trombone.

"The World Cup in June is interfering a little bit with our plans. There aren't many gigs around while that's on," says Chris a little ruefully.

He is recording a track or two with Eric Clapton later this month to be included on a double CD birthday album on his own Blues Legacy label, one disc of jazz with musicians such as Sandy Brown, Sammy Price, and Dubliner Ruan O'Loughlin, and the other of blues with Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and others -- some old recordings, some new, but none of them released before.

In the weeks ahead, the Barber band will be performing in Zurich, Frankfurt, Lubeck and the Isle of Bute. "I'd love to come to Ireland again," says Chris, "I wish to be invited. See what you can do."

Kenny, the youngest of the trio, has had a temporary setback and is in hospital at the moment with high blood pressure and a touch of pneumonia. "He'll be back in action soon," says his wife of 25 years, Michelle. "Music is where he gets his buzz from. I would never dream of taking his trumpet away from him. Kenny's as strong as an ox. He'll be out in a week.

"He has plenty of bookings coming up. He had two for this weekend, but Digby Fairweather will stand in for him."

Chris Barber's trumpeter for more than 50 years, Pat Halcox, will be 80 on March 18. "I missed St Patrick's Day by a few hours," he says.

Pat has retired from life on the road with the Barber band, though he still does local gigs with amateur musicians. Does he miss the big time? "I do and I don't," he says. "The strain of constant travelling wasn't good for me. On the other hand, I miss meeting people -- that's one of the joys of life."

What the song says of old soldiers might also be true of musicians: "Old jazzmen never die, they only fade away."

Gay Byrne features Acker Bilk on his radio show 'Sunday with Gay Byrne' on Lyric FM today from 2-4pm

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