The long march: 50 years of jazz band history


The Burntwood Blue Birds were a champion band who won many competitions. Image courtesy Wendy Jones.

Readers who’ve been hanging around this ramshackle, leaky village pump for a while will no doubt remember how we’ve touched here on the history of local marching bands, particularly the Burntwood Blue Birds Jazz Band.

Band members Wendy Jones and Stuart Cowley have been generous enough over the years to write a lot of material about the band as a community activity and as a social phenomena, and Wendy has taken the whole thing forward with a busy Facebook group for the band and last year organised a very successful reunion party event.

Stuart, a long time pal of the blog has been further inspired by the fascinating work of Lisa Ashby, ace photo restorer and vide maker, who recently did such wonderful things with ‘I vow to thee my Black Country‘ and the remarkable Cliff Richard episode with the Bluebirds.

To this end, I hooked the two up, and a formerly lost documentary recorded from the original broadcast by Stuart on the marching band culture and history has been set to images and film beautifully by Lisa.

In addition to that, Stuart has written a lovely piece explaining it all. This is the kind of communal history activity I love to see, and recalls the hazy, halcyon days of the lost jazz tapes and the Crown, in the earlier years of the blog.

I’d like to thank Stuart, Lisa and Wendy for all they’ve done to record and preserve a bit of otherwise, perhaps overlooked history and for giving us an insight into something that’s almost, but not quite passed into time.

If you have anything to add, please do speak up: either by commenting here, or mailing me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers, everyone!

Stuart Cowley wrote:

Evening Bob,

Just got back after a week away and felt the need to comment on Lisa Ashby’s recent work on ’50 Years of jazz band history’, difficult to believe that in a week [Lisa is a lot quicker off the mark than me 🙂 – Bob] the project went from me notifying you of the existence of the sound recording to Lisa’s finished item and then a week later over 500 hits already! What a fantastic job she did, there is definitely a raw talent that she has. The way this has come together says a lot about the value of this blog and the work that you do, so pat yourself on the back chap over this one.

Another remarkable bit of video from Lisa Ashby, who has this to say about it:

To create this video I have used audio from a documentary which first aired in 1976 and illustrated it with photos and video footage. Wendy Jones allowed me use her cine films of marching bands from the era the audio was produced. The original programme focussed on bands from South Wales and I have tried to use photos and footage from that region, however the bulk of the footage is of the Burntwood Bluebirds (from Staffordshire) and some of the images are my own family photos along with those from my towns mining history. Several of the photos were used by kind permission of Carole Boucher and audio was provided by Stuart Cowley.

Stuart continues:

Just to recap, I recorded the sound only on to cassette when the programme was first broadcast back in 1976, it lay in a shoebox up the loft for the best part of 40 years and it was only when I was going through some old recordings of my hospital radio days in order to convert them to digital for posterity that I came across it and converted it. After listening to it again recently I thought it was too much of an important piece to just ignore, to my knowledge there is nothing else documented that covers that moment in time back in 1926 when these carnival bands were created. I know it predominantly has a Welsh feel but it is reflective of the kinds of struggles that were going on at the time of the strikes of that period not just in Wales but also the Midlands and the North East and traditionally these have always been the main locations of the bands.

I have tried to explain in my own way how these bands came to be in the past in a previous article on your blog and over the years as more photographs come to light I can see why anyone who didn’t have any dealings with them may wonder what all of the fuss was about probably thinking that it was just about a group of kids marching behind a carnival float or doing a display on some carnival field somewhere, I’ll try and explain why it was a little more than that.

Lisa also created the video above, on the subject of the Bluebirds uniforms:

I have tried to keep to chronological order of the different costume styles from the creation of the Blue Birds in 1969 to their final performance in 2003, but some errors may have been made.

Stuart explains:

I was a drummer in the Burntwood Bluebirds and we had fantastic times as previously mentioned, the Cliff film, trips to France all of the friends we made along the way, memories that stay with you forever but what brought home the true value of it all was after I left that band and with my now wife, Sharon and other committee members we started a new band in Huntington Cannock called the Chaseley Coronets, I was a drum trainer along with my mate Dave also an ex Bluebird member, only 19 years old and the band only ran for about 3 years but what I hadn’t appreciated as a kid a few years earlier was all of the hard work and community spirit that was needed to get them on the road. You had to get the interest of some 30 children and keep them interested for about 12 months while money was raised for instruments and uniforms and a band coach. The fund raising involving things like disco’s and bingo sessions within the village that involved other people outside of the band so the whole experience drew people together within a community. We even had the local Police sergeant volunteering to drive the coach for us at times. I can remember one occasion where the coach needed repairing if we were to get the band to a competition one weekend, news got to the fitters at Littleton colliery and within an hour an NCB van pulled up a part was taken away, they returned with a modified part, fitted it and we were away again.

There is one memory that probably sums it all up though and it’s this, we were on our way to a carnival at Morecambe Bay and I spotted one of the band members sat in the middle of the back seat of the coach, it was an odd sight, she was about 9 or 10 very small for her age to the point where her feet weren’t touching the floor, she was swinging her legs, although it was the middle of summer she was wearing a thick coat about three sizes too big obviously a hand me down and she had about the biggest smile on her face that I’ve ever witnessed. I asked her why she was looking so pleased, she responded, “ I can’t wait to see the sea, I’ve never been to the seaside before”, later in the day I saw her charging around the beach chasing after the seagulls, still with that coat on and still grinning from ear to ear, so that sticks with me more than everything else and this is what the bands did for kids, gave them memories to cherish.

Lisa’s wonderful film of the Bluebirds involvement with the Cliff Richard film, that kicked this off:

Take Me High is a film starring Cliff Richard (Tim Matthews) and is set in Birmingham. In the story Tim helps Sarah (Deborah Watling) to establish a new burger bar and to advertise the grand new venture Tim and Sarah hold a parade in the centre of Birmingham.

Among those who took part in the filming of the parade was a jazz band called The Burntwood Bluebirds and this video is a tribute to them x

The song, Take Me High by Sir Cliff Richard, is available on iTunes and all other music online music thingies …. yada yada yada 😀

Stuart concludes:

It’s fair to say that these bands probably reached their peak in the 70s all thanks to the hard work and dedication of their trainers and committees and it’s impossible to mention them all but you had the likes of the Shears, Cann and Ridgway families of Cannock, the Worrall and Poole families from Norton Canes and Heath Hayes, the Stokes family of Burntwood and the Haycocks of Brownhills all giving their time and energy to make it happen, they should all be very proud of what they achieved,

So with that film that Lisa did I think it’s the missing link that explains how all of this happened, knowing that a fairly concise history exists here of the whole experience I’m satisfied to leave the subject alone now and I thank you for allowing it on your blog

Some bands are still going though so if any of you see them at events in the region please give them your full support.



The skill, dedication and expertise of the people involved should not be underestimated. his is a real art form. Image courtesy Wendy Jones.

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16 Responses to The long march: 50 years of jazz band history

  1. Sue probert says:

    Great tribute. Loved every single moment with my jazz band family specially the bluebirds xxx

  2. Brian Lester says:

    Some of the best years for families, the public and in general everyone involved. B. Lester (Chasely Coronets) Huntington.

  3. Dawn holland says:

    Brill times loved every minute of them .rawnsley rube totes ..and west Cannock grenadiers . Was my bands …

    • Patricia says:

      I remember the grenadiers me and my sister was in the Gaytones for years! lol

      • stuart says:

        Evening Patricia,
        If you search on this blog for an old article called “Marching on” go to the comments section on that and someone was making reference to that band,just thought it may be of interest.

  4. Maria Earland says:

    I’m almost sure the band at the start was Ynyshir Solitaires, a band I later was a part of for many years. Fab footage and fantastic memories.

  5. carol leyshon says:

    Hi again Stuart the ynysowen and visiting bands had a great reunion last night lots of pics even film footage from the 70s and lots reminising from our jazz band days all these years on we still habe our drums mace couple of kazoos which were being played well. Thanks for letting me know about the films we loved them so heres to the next reunion sorry i cant get some pics on.

    • stuart says:

      Evening Carol,
      Glad you all had a good evening and the films were of use,we’ll have to rely on you being our South Wales contact for spreading word of the good work that Bob has done on this site in allowing us to record the history of it all assisted by the work of Lisa Ashby and Wendy Jones. The Burntwood Blue Bird site on facebook has many photos,if you scroll through you’ll see many welsh bands cropping up from the 70s so they may be of use to someone.
      Thank you for the interest and thoughts are with you in the valleys 50 years on from the Aberfan disaster.

      • Carol says:

        Thank you Stuart for your kind words as you can imagine a lot going on In aberfan at the moment as you know we were formed after the disaster but the trainers and committee that got us all together after such a tragedy led us to some of the best days we could have had with the jazz bands.

  6. Sharon Cowley says:

    Had some good times in the band, Littleton Startones then later Chaseley Coronettes were the band’s I was in. Met my hubby through the band’s 39 years ago today at Pelsall Carnival, Stuart who provided the audio for this article. X

  7. I was lead drum in the Hednesford Sapphires won world champ lead drum 2 years on the trot the 2nd time i broke my stick chucked it over and carried on playing lolol i was also bass drum in Hednesford Emeralds happy days

  8. stuart says:

    Just came across this which backs up the audio in Lisa’s film (50 years), from Ferndale carnival South Wales 1926.

  9. Jean Jennings says:

    My mom may Littler had the rawnsley Rubbetts fantastic years loved every minute of it wish thay were still going

  10. Jean fereday says:

    Hi Bob I were in the coronation guards from Brownhills ithink the leader of the band was called Mr hlll I wonder if anyone else remembers this band we had great times Jean fereday

  11. Stuart says:

    Evening Jean,
    Not sure on the time period you’re covering Jean.
    My mother and aunt were in one, going back to the 1930s. Dorothy and Marjorie (June) Wright.
    I don’t know the name of the band but they lived in Brownhills West at the time.

  12. Pingback: Carnival marching bands in the Black Country – SIMON BRIERCLIFFE

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