A popular traditional and swing big band during its time, the British Ambrose Orchestra has in time become a stopping point for musical travelers interested in the madcap, exotic big-band world of cartoon composers such as Raymond Scott.
One of several European bands that were influenced by Scott's music, the Ambrose Orchestra recorded prolifically in the '20s and '30s, with most of the group's material available on intelligently organized CD reissues. The group was formed by Bert Ambrose, a violinist and arranger who first came to prominence as the music director at the Club de Vingt in New York from 1917 to 1920, and at Clover Gardens in 1922. He began recording for Columbia in 1923 with the first versions of an orchestra under his own leadership. This relationship continued through the end of the decade, followed by recording contracts for the orchestra with labels such as Brunswick, Gramophone, and the fledgling Decca, which began releasing sides by the group once the star American clarinetist Danny Polo had joined the reed section. Ambrose extended his musical director's influence to London's Embassy Hotel, where his baton waved merrily from 1920 to 1926, and then on to the Mayfair Hotel from 1927 to 1933. At this point his band began attracting American musicians, while Ambrose himself developed into a celebrity in Britain through his regular appearances on a BBC radio series. When the network began remote broadcasts from the Mayfair ballroom the following summer, the band emerged as one of the most popular in all of Britain. It was known as a versatile big band which handled many styles including rhumbas, sentimental ballads, and straight-ahead big-band swing. In the '30s, Ambrose bounced back and forth between the previously mentioned hotels, and by the latter part of the decade was leading both a big band and an octet. The latter group would receive the lion's share of his concentration in the '40s and '50s, as the economics of keeping the Ambrose Orchestra afloat became impossible, a situation that was happening to many other big bands as well. But the orchestra enjoyed much further glory before calling it quits. In the spring of 1938, it settled in at the Cafe de Paris, the engagement managing to launch the career of singer Vera Lynn and thus responsible for uncountable performances of the hit "We'll Meet Again." In late 1939, the group was back at the Mayfair, but at this point began losing valuable sidemen to the unfortunate process of military induction. The Ambrose Orchestra made its last recordings in 1947, continuing to broadcast for a few more years. An examination of the complete discography inevitably leads to the conclusion that the orchestra's high point was during the tenure of staff arranger Sid Phillips in the late '30s. Phillips, who led his own band in the '50s, was an extremely creative individual who came up with compressed symphonies of cartoon music, although the Raymond Scott influence could hardly be considered subtle. Ambrose gave Phillips free reign to musically describe such exciting events as midnight rides, attacking cannibals, Martian landscapes, and monster spiders. Many different musicians passed through the orchestra, sometimes scratching their heads in bewilderment at the music, but the most famous alumni is undoubtedly the blind virtuoso pianist George Shearing. Ambrose died of a heart attack in 1973 after collapsing during a television taping in Leeds, England. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi