Jack Hylton: The British King of Jazz

The name of Jack Hylton (1892-1965) was central to British popular culture for around four decades.

One is tempted to call him the approximate English equivalent of Paul Whiteman, with a significant difference being that in addition to being a bandleader, Hylton played also piano. He started out accompanying his father, an amateur singer, in Lancashire working men’s clubs, billed as The Singing Mill Boy. For a time, he toured music hall as accompanist in a double act with Tommy Handley. He then graduated to playing for dance bands, serving in the capacity for the army during World War One.

Hylton formed his own bands starting in the mid ’20s, and quickly built a reputation for bringing American sounds to the U.K. Much like Whiteman, he played dance band music with large orchestras, in a style that wasn’t really jazz, a music then associated with the hot “Dixieland” sound developed in New Orleans, Chicago, and Harlem, with lots of simultaneous improvisation. Hylton’s was more the orchestral style then being developed by Duke Ellington, though with much less of what we think of the jazz rhythm. Still, Hylton was considered a kind of ambassador of the music, pivotal in bringing American jazz artists to Britain on tours, and popularizing their hits. His large band toured the British Isles and the Continent for years, cut records, and appeared on radio. In 1932, he participated in the first transatlantic radio hook-up, as did Whiteman, his counterpart on the American side.

In 1935 he realized his long cherished dream of visiting the U.S. , where he toured with his band and performed on radio. When it was time to return, his singer Pat O’Malley remained behind, and became a popular Hollywood character actor. Hylton’s band also appeared in several British movie shorts in the late ’30s. Percival Mackey was another alum of the band, and celebrities like Maurice Chevalier and Paul Robeson also recorded with him.

In 1940, most of his musicians were drafted to fight in the Second World War. Hylton kept a hand in by leading the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on UK tours. After the war his reputation morphed into that of an impresario, producing West End revues and the London productions of Broadway hits. When television arrived in the ’50s, he also produced variety programs for ITV.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.