George Melly was the first musician to be contracted by Brecon Jazz for the 1984 festival and remained a loyal and inspirational performer and supporter until his death. He was instrumental in setting up the Jazz Festival and was President of the Festival in 1991.
When he left school he joined the Royal Navy and during this time he started singing to amuse his colleagues. His first introduction to jazz was hearing a recording of Bessie Smith singing Gimme a Pig-foot and a Bottle of Beer and she strongly influenced his singing style. "This woman roaring around, singing that line, made me think, 'Well, this is what I want!' "
He also became particularly interested in Surrealist art after reading Herbert Read’s book on the subject. After the war, Melly worked for ELT Mesens, the Belgian surrealist and art dealer who had come to Britain in 1936 to run the London Gallery in Brook Street and was generally acknowledged to be the leader of the surrealist movement in Britain. But George eventually drifted into the world of jazz music, finding work with Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band. This was a time (1948 onwards) when New Orleans and "New Orleans Revival" style jazz were very popular in Britain. While many British musicians of the time treated jazz and blues with almost religious solemnity, Melly rejoiced in their more bawdy side, and this was reflected in his choice of songs and exuberant stage performances. He also delighted his audiences with saucy jokes and witty asides.
George was not fond of cars. He hated the idea of paying for expensive car insurance. Everything motoring, for him, was cheap, cut price. The front of a rusty old van he was driving down the M1 once fell off and for a long period his favourite transport was an old motor scooter. Not for him a Rolls Royce, like Bernard Manning drove; he preferred the very lowest cost insurance of his scooter and thumbing lifts from audience members whose cars he soon filled with smoke from one of his huge cigars.
In the early 1970s he sang with John Chilton's Feetwarmers, a partnership that only ended in 2003. He later sang with Digby Fairweather's band. As well as being the President of the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, George Melly was a contemporary art collector. His passion for Surrealist art continued throughout his life and he lectured and wrote extensively on the subject. Another of his passions was fly-fishing and in later life he sold several important paintings (by Magritte and Picasso) to enable him to buy a mile of the River Usk. In 2000 he published Hooked! - a book on fly-fishing.
The 25th Anniversary of Brecon Jazz Festival in 2008 saw the launch of an exciting campaign to commission a sculpture. The sculpture would commemorate George Melly’s relationship with Brecon, his role in the founding of the Jazz Festival and as President of the Contemporary Art Society for Wales. The aim was to honour the man and his sense of fun, his mistress jazz, his interest in Surrealist art and his passion for fishing.
The aim was for the sculpture to be sited on the Promenade in Brecon at the confluence of the River Usk and River Hondu. It was intended that the sculpture would make a strong artistic statement, one that would raise interest in contemporary art, attract local, national and international visitors to the area and support and add value to the visual art collection at Brecknock Museum & Art Gallery, the town’s flourishing arts organisations and the Art Beat Trail.
I have been unable to find any trace of it. Was it ever created? I would love to know!!
Copyright 2021 Maureen Daley.