Clarinet legend Acker Bilk dies at 85

ACKER_BILKPhotograph: Allstar/Cinetext

The celebrated and much loved jazz clarinettist Acker Bilk died on 2 November 2014 aged 85.

The following tribute appeared in The Guardian

Bilk was perhaps best known for his 1961 song Stranger on the Shore and was one of the most important figures in the revival of traditional jazz in the middle of the last century.

“He was vastly important to the jazz movement, he could play the clarinet like nobody else, he had a special tone and vibrato – other musicians would tell you that,” his manager, Pamela Sutton, said.

Sutton, who worked with Bilk for 45 years, said: “His life was music and performing. He only gave it up because his age caught up with him and he couldn’t perform any more.”

Bilk’s last performance was in August 2013 at the Brecon jazz festival in Wales.

Sutton said: “He was a charming person to be with and he was famous worldwide, especially in Australia.

“He was a brilliant musician. He had a great sense of humour in every way. He just loved life.”

She said that he died around 2pm with his wife Jean by his side. “I am very happy that so many people have called [since news of his death broke]. As he was 85, age had just caught up with him. He was in some pain from different things that were going wrong.”

He also leaves two children, Peter and Jenny.

Bilk, who was made an MBE in the New Year Honours List of 2001, had previously overcome throat cancer.

Poet Ian McMillan tweeted: “Goodbye Acker Bilk, creator of one of the great earworms. That shore was strange, but memorable.”

He was born Bernard Stanley Bilk and raised in Somerset, and soon took the name Acker – a local expression meaning “friend” or “mate”.

Bilk’s uniform of garish waistcoat and bowler hat set the tone for onstage outfits for anyone performing in that genre.

He was 18 when he took up the clarinet while in the Royal Engineers during his National Service. Posted to Egypt, he found himself with plenty of spare time in the desert and borrowed a marching clarinet, learning by copying recordings.

4 responses to “Clarinet legend Acker Bilk dies at 85

  1. Dave Hetherington

    Yes very sad news, though to be expected, considering Ackers’ age and health.
    Acker was my favorite jazz clarinet player, with that beautiful, broad sweet and passionate tone! His timing and expression was probably only equalled by Freddie Gardner, but Acker had a singular feeling for ‘the blues’ that put him on another level. I grew up in the jazz world in Sydney Australia in the 50’s & 60’s with these words ringing in my ears, when I asked the members of the Paramount Jazz Band what jazz was they answered..”you’ll know it when you hear it”…which for me at the time was frustrating .. but as time went on and I kept listening and evaluating, remains the best piece of advice I’ve ever had! It meant that I couldn’t take any jazz performance on face had to be subjected to the test–is it honest, heart-felt, swinging, from the soul and with an element of the blues. I learnt that jazz isn’t necessarily fast ‘show offy’ or smart. It just has to be heart, and soul,felt! Which get’s me back to Mr Acker Bilk. Through those years of searching I discovered the passionate blues cry of Johnny Dodds, the nimble dexterity and staccato ‘tounging’ of Jimmy Noone, the power and passion of Sydney Bechet and coming from the UK the family had several 78’s of the exquisite talent of Freddie Gardner so it occurred to me that, as I valued all these musicians for different reasons, that I should take all I needed from each one, and combine them into one!..what a clever idea I thought…..then I heard Acker Bilk!…after that I was hooked. Acker Bilk was all that was the best in jazz clarinet….and I’m proud to have met him and even for a short time jammed with him. He wasn’t only the best clarinet player I’ve briefly jammed with, he was also one of the nicest and most genuine men Ive ever met. VALE Bernard ‘Acker’ Bilk..we will, very likely , never see his ‘ilk’ again! Dave Hetherington

  2. It is sad to see the passing of Acker. So many of the good jazzmen of the 1950’s and 1960’s are passing on now. That great music is tending to pass on with them as there are so few youngsters who thrill to it or who are exposed to it now. It is all so sad.

  3. Vale, Mister Acker.
    If I recall correctly, we played the sets opposite Acker and his band in Canberra in the late 1960s, in the “Capital City Jazz Band” with Greg Gibson on clarinet, Derek Long trombone, Stering “Sausage Fingers” Primmer piano, possibly Ray Simpson guitar, unrecalled bass and drums, and myself (Joun Roberts) on trumpet. After the performances, we all had a late hour “rort” at Greg’s place – which probably accounts for my hazy memory of the occasion.

  4. Tinge of sadness, it was Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball that gave me an interest in jazz. Thanks for this.

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