Danse Eternelle: the history of big bands in Belgium
by Matthias Heyman
On 27 March 1991 the BRT (Belgische Radio- en Televisieomroep, Flanders’ public broadcasting system) big band formally ceased to exist. Although this had been coming for a while, it came as a shock to many jazz musicians and fans alike. As a result of the decision to discontinue supporting the BRT’s Grote Big Band Formatie, as the jazz orchestra was officially known, “we were actually hungry to play in professional big bands,” says Frank Vaganée in Guy Fellemans’ documentary about the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Bring It to The People (2020). But, as the old adage says, every ending is also a new beginning. Vaganée, Marc Godfroid and Serge Plume, who had all had the opportunity to gain experience with the BRT in their youth, weren’t going to just give up: “Why not start an orchestra ourselves?,” says Plume in Bring It to The People. And the rest is history.
Whether you’re a faithful BJO fan or chance visitor, this long read will introduce you to the illustrious predecessors of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. What large jazz ensembles did our country have before them? When did the first big bands start up in Belgium? Were Belgian players also working in international jazz orchestras? The answers to these and many other questions are in the following.
Amateur Dance Orchestras
In the 1930s and 40s everyone listened to big bands, the order of the day. Every night in the United States, thousands of young people danced to swing music by big bands with leaders like Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. In the rest of the world as well, swing and the big bands that played it — fifteen players, the ideal size for staying audible in full dance halls — were immensely popular. The first Belgian big bands arose almost simultaneously with the birth of the swing craze in the United States, in the middle of 1935. Jazz was nothing new in Belgium by then. The still-new music genre had gained a firm footing on Belgian soil in around 1920, introduced by visiting American groups, after which local ensembles were formed. Many young people, mainly students from the urban middle class, started experimenting, mostly in smaller combos of four to seven members. A few of these groups grew into the amateur dance orchestras (or ADOs), with nine to twelve players, a kind of prototype of the later big band to come. Especially in Brussels, at the time Belgium’s jazz capital, various ADOs were formed that nursed young talented musicians who would later find their way to the swing big bands.
The best-known and longest-lived of these, the Bistrouille ADO, played from 1920 through 1935. Its ranks include some illustrious names like pianist John Ouwerx, woodwind player David Bee and trumpetist Peter Packay, musicians who would pop up later in the first big bands. (video) The latter two musicians were better known as jazz composers; in this recording from 1930 we hear the Bistrouille ADO in Dixie Melody, composed by Packay.
Despite their larger size, the ADOs weren’t yet real big bands. Stylistically they resembled the early jazz from Chicago and New York, played by the large ensembles led by people like Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman and Fletcher Henderson. Belgium would have to wait until 1935 for its first native swing big bands.
The Big Three
That year signalled the start of the swing period in Belgium, an era that more or less ended in 1944. One of the major players of the day was tenor saxophonist Fud Candrix. He assembled a select group of jazz musicians which slowly grew into one of the country’s leading ensembles. In 1937 Candrix signed a contract with Telefunken, a German label for which he recorded until well into the course of the Second World War, and his jazz orchestra was regularly featured on the BBC, taking the reputation of Candrix’ band over national boundaries.
(video) The many recordings they made give a good idea of the sound of a Belgian swing big band. Although they preferred their own compositions, they were strongly inspired by American models, as you can hear in this tribute to big band leader Count Basie, Introducing Mr. Basie, written by Candrix’ pianist, Coco Colignon.
Introducing Mr. Basie
Woodwind player Jean Omer is mainly remembered for founding Le Bœuf sur le Toit in 1938. This Brussels jazz club, where Omer’s own big band was in residence, became a real magnet for jazz fans. The club was too small for much dancing (for exuberant dancing in any case!) but it was the place to hear a host of top soloists at work, among them tenor saxophonist Jean Robert.
Stan Brenders’ story begins at the National Institute for Radio Broadcasting (NIR), where he was initially recruited as a classical pianist for the Radio Orchestra. There was no room for jazz at the NIR: it was hardly ever played on the radio and there was no in-house jazz orchestra like the BBC’s (which had been in existence since 1928). After years of lobbying by jazz musicians, the NIR finally changed tack: on 1 January 1936 the Jazz Orchestra of the NIR was founded, with Brenders as its leader. He was given barely two weeks to assemble a professional big band with sufficient repertoire for daily live radio broadcasts. Talk about a quick change!
Candrix, Omer and Brenders quickly became famous as the “big three” and their respective big bands soon joined the ranks of the top orchestras in Belgium, and by extension, in Europe. Our country also numbered many other professional jazz orchestras, such as the orchestras led by woodwind player Gene Dersin or trumpetist Robert De Kers. There were also a great many Belgian soloists working in international groups, such as trumpetist Gus Deloof (with Ray Ventura & Ses Collégiens) and trombonist Marcel Thielemans (with Het Ramblers Dansorkest; no relation to Toots).
Germany ‘s invasion of Belgium in May of 1940 did not put a stop to the jazz scene, contrary to what many people still think today. Although the Nazis were ideologically opposed to jazz, they had a relatively high degree of flexibility in that regard, at least in Belgium. Quite a few jazz orchestras, including those of Candrix, Omer and Brenders, continued to perform, record, and do radio broadcasts (now for the “Nazified” Sender Brüssel). Of course the occupier imposed some measures: “jazz effects” had to be avoided, compositions from enemy countries were prohibited, etc. But the lack of proper scrutiny and the use of clever dodges such as changing English titles to French or German ones (St. Louis Blues became Lied vom blauen Ludwig) meant that jazz thrived in occupied Belgium, perhaps more than ever before.
(video) That big bands were playing out in the open is evident from concerts given by both Brenders and Candrix in 1942 with guitarist Django Reinhardt as guest soloist, at the height of the war. They also went into the studio, producing gems like this one: Dynamisme (aka Modernes Tempo) by Arthur Saguet, a wind player in Brenders’ band.
Dynamisme (aka Modernes Tempo)
When the country was largely liberated in 1944, the apparent economic and collaboration of Candrix, Brenders and other jazz musicians with the Germans came back to haunt them. Candrix playing In the Mood (“disguised” as In guter Stimmung) in Berlin’s Delphi-Palast for hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers in 1942 can be viewed a subtle act of resistance, but in the middle of such repression, public perception was otherwise. Brenders even had to appear at the infamous collaboration trials and, despite being completely acquitted, was mercilessly let go by the NIR. Many other big bands broke up; despite the “Belgian economic miracle”, it was financially difficult for many to maintain such a large ensemble. The golden age of Belgian swing had come to an end.
The jazz torch
With Brenders’s sacking, the NIR had lost one of its leading lights, yet it lacked the enthusiasm to found a new big band. Ultimately it would not be until the 1950s before jazz groups would appear again on the public broadcaster. It was the French-speaking division that took the lead. In 1955 Henri Segers, formerly a pianist with Omer, founded a jazz and entertainment orchestra. The Dutch-language division followed a year later with the NIR “Amusementsorkest” (after 1960 it was called the BRT’s Amusementsorkest, due to the official splitting up of the public broadcaster along linguistic lines) led by trombonist Francis Bay. Both big bands emphasized ”varieté”, with light-hearted songs performed by popular artists like Jo Leemans and “the Belgian Sinatra” Maurice Dean. Segers’ orchestra provided that little extra bit of jazz; accordingly it featured many of Belgium’s most talented players, like alto saxophonist Etienne Verschueren, trumpetist Herman Sandy and bassist Roger Vanhaverbeke. Bay’s big band also numbered quite a few jazzmen including guitarist Freddy Sunder, trumpetist Edmond Harnie and saxophonist Benny Couroyer.
(video) How varieté and high-level jazz could go together is shown by Side by Side, a broadcast from 1965 featuring Segers’ orchestra and guests like Fats Sadi and Dean.
Side by Side
In 1965 Segers put down his baton. The (francophone) RTB tried to continue his legacy with their Orchestre des Variétés, and Sadi, who was one of the country’s most famous jazz musicians (a vibraphonist and singer), would occasionally appear on television with his Sadi Big Band. Nevertheless it was mainly the (Dutch-speaking) BRT who kept the jazz fires burning. In 1963 the Amusementsorkest was split into the TV orchestra led by Bay, and the Radio Dance Orchestra, temporarily led by former Bay trumpetist Charlie Knegtel. Two years later, Knegtel passed the baton to Verschueren. Although the two orchestras had to be flexible in their repertoire — the popular (or “schlager”) repertoire was their bread and butter — the Radio Dance Orchestra came to focus more and more on jazz, partly encouraged by radio producer Elias Gistelinck (the father of David Linx). They — like the BJO in recent years — were guests every year at Jazz Middelheim, a festival that Gistelinck founded in 1969. They appear in programme brochures from the time as the BRT Jazz Orchestra. However, this name would only become official in 1977, when the BRT formed the first big bands that could devote themselves exclusively to jazz. However, there were still plenty of thoroughbred jazz orchestras in the 1960s, albeit not associated with public broadcasting.
The Clarke-Boland Big Band
In the decades following the Second World War the European big band milieu was strongly connected with the public broadcasters. The majority of the big bands were employed by the national stations, were hired for events or were purely amateur groups. The most important European jazz orchestra not operating under the aegis of a broadcaster was one with a strong Belgian angle: the Clarke–Boland Big Band (CBBB). The “Boland” in the band’s name was Francy Boland, a pianist and composer/arranger who had played with the Bob Shots (whose personnel included saxophonists Jacques Pelzer and Bobby Jaspar) in the 1940s and 50s, and with tenor saxophonist Jack Sels and trumpetist Chet Baker. Encouraged by promotor Gigi Campi, in 1961 Boland and Kenny Clarke, an American drummer who had been living in Paris since 1956, founded a truly pan-European big band. The ensemble was a colourful patchwork of American expats (like trumpet players Benny Bailey and Idrees Sulieman) and the cream of the European jazz scene (like English tenor saxophonists Ronnie Scott and Tony Coe), which also included several Belgians among them Sadi, Harnie, trombonist Christian Kellens and contrabassist Jean Warland. Based in Cologne, the CBBB made many recordings and toured regularly throughout Europe during its ten years of existence. Together with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, founded in 1965 (later called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra), they were one of the most influential big bands since the age of swing.
(video) Along with Sax No End Boland wrote a feature for the saxophonists of his CBBB, in this case Johnny Griffin, Coe, Scott, Sahib Shihab, Derek Humble and, finally, the five of them together.
Sax No End
Verschueren’s Jazz Orchestra
The 1970s and 80s were the heyday of avant-garde and fusion. Although big bands were scarce in the professional music scene, the BRT did not neglect jazz. In 1977, both Bay’s TV Orchestra and Verscheuren’s Radio Dance Orchestra started up again as genuine jazz ensembles, their new names the BRT Big Band and the BRT Jazz Orchestra. Suddenly the public broadcaster had two full-fledged jazz ensembles! Both worked for television and radio, yet it was Verschueren’s Jazz orchestra that enjoyed the most fame, among other things because of its annual visit to Jazz Middelheim.
(video) Recordings of the two groups are difficult to find; they are often “hidden” under the name of a guest soloist they accompanied, as they are on Versad, a composition by Verschueren written for Sadi.
In the 1980s, it was slowly becoming apparent that Bay and Verschueren’s retirement was inevitable: in 1981 Sunder took over the BRT Big Band over from Bay, and in 1985 keyboard player Bob Porter succeeded Verschueren in the Jazz Orchestra.
The Act Big Band
In the same era another major jazz orchestra not aligned with radio or TV arose in Belgium: the Act Big Band. The band was founded in 1978 by drummer Félix Simtaine, who entrusted its musical direction to pianist Michel Herr. The Act Big Band was a fertile mix of veterans like trumpet player Richard Rousselet and tenor saxophonist John Ruocco and, after a few years, newcomers like tenor saxophonists Erwin Vann and Kurt Van Herck. In the past the BRT jazz ensembles had been primarily focused on a traditional repertoire, but now they were playing new works, by people like Herr and trumpet player Bert Joris.
(video) The latter can be heard in the somewhat spicy composition Easy Fucksong from 1986, featuring, in addition to Van Herck, future BJO members Godfroid and Plume.
A jazz orchestra of one’s own
Around 2000 the Act Big Band seemed to have died a slow death, but for many active today in the Belgian big band scene, including BJO members, it was an important training ground.
Besides the BRT jazz ensembles and the Act Big Band, numerous other jazz groups were active in this period. Many worked more locally, but had strong ties with the professional big-band world. They consisted mainly of talented fans and semi-professionals, and often these bands gave them their first experiences playing in a big band. For example, we find Lode Mertens and Dieter Limbourg in the ranks of Big Band ’86, which had been led by Godfroid since that year. The likes of Plume, Laurent Hendrick and Bart Defoort passed through the West Music Club, which had conductors like Couroyer (1977–1988, former member of Bay’s orchestra) and Rousselet (1988–today). Founded in 1967, this may be the oldest big band still in existence in Belgium — and possibly in all of Europe.
Big bands like Big Band ’86 and West Music Club had effectively survived the public broadcasting jazz ensembles. In 1987 the remainder of the BRT Big Band and Jazz orchestra were merged to form the BRT’s “Grote Big Band Formatie”, with the leadership entrusted to Sunder, who did all he could to keep the group going for several more years but to no avail. (The quality of the musicians was never an issue; since the 1980s, the big band could count on, in addition to the regular players like Godfroid and Joris, freelancers like Vaganée, Van Herck and Plume.) In 1991 the curtain fell irrevocably for the last of the BRT big bands. After 55 years of large jazz ensembles led by the likes of Brenders, Segers and Verschueren, things were not looking good for the professional big band scene in Belgium. Until one day someone put forward the idea, “Why not start an orchestra ourselves?” With valuable experience under their belts in the BRT bands, the Act Big Band and many semi-professional big bands, Vaganée, Godfroid and Plume found the ideal basis for their own jazz orchestra in Bo Van der Werf’s ensemble Octurn. Enter the Brussels Jazz Orchestra.
Of course the story doesn’t end with the BJO. In the last few years, many new jazz orchestras have started up such as the Youth Jazz Collective, Bravo Big Band and the Jazz Station Big Band. Although the BJO often served as a catalyst, Belgium has always boasted a rich history of big bands. This past means that the big bands’ dance party isn’t over by a long shot. A danse eternelle keeps propelling them onwards…and onwards.
Matthias Heyman - University of Antwerp
Thanks to Karel Cuelenaere, Frank Vaganée, Johan Favoreel, Lander Lenaerts, Koen Maes, Johan Vandendriessche and in particular Hugo Sledsens, archivist at VRT. His detailed overview of the radio-and-television ensembles was indispensable for disentangling the knotted threads of formal and informal jazz ensembles of the NIR and BRT.
Dr. Matthias Heyman is the first person to earn a doctorate in Belgium on jazz . His research, which he is currently conducting at the University of Antwerp under the auspices of The Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO), deals with, among other things, jazz competitions, historical performance practice in popular music, and Belgian jazz history. Matthias has played contrabass with Toots Thielemans, Bert Joris and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra (as part of his doctoral research), and others. His publications and presentations about Belgian jazz can be found on his website.