Bert Niblett –
Guitarist and Luthier, 1914 -2000
Founder of Club Django Haringey 1955-2000
Bert With D Hole Macca and his trademark added Pick Guard. Many of the older members of the Club were very sad when Bert swapped his D-hole Macca for the John Le Voi Copy. They all said it was a truly beautiful instrument with an outstanding tone
Django’s death was the catalyst which prompted Bert to think about a way to continue his interest in the music. Engineer, guitarist and maker of Selmer Maccaferri style guitars, Bert was founder and leader of “Club Django” . The club ran from 1955-2000 in North London for the enjoyment of its members. During his lifetime Bert transcribed the chords to over 200 Django Reinhardt compositions and swing standards, in 3 hardback books with some transcriptions of Django solos. ‘The Gypsy Jazz Melody Book‘ for violin with guitar chords by Bert is still available.
The original homemade chord books by Bert Niblett were gradually compiled over many years, (he may have started them in the 30s) certainly before the club began in 1955 until the 90s. Many were written out at a time when not much else was available. In the evening or at the weekend he was often found with guitar in hand working out the chords, or transcribing a solo while listening intently to Hot Club recordings. Bert organised ’Club Django” which was featured in the Channel 4 documentary “The Django Legacy” which was 1st broadcast in January 1991. Having written out the chords the other players would copy them into their own hardback books and most of the players, apart from Bert, seemed to like to play with the security of the chords in front of them, their books spread open on the table/desk.
When I was very small my father took me to the BBC where they were recording ‘Guitar Club’ which was broadcast for 30 minutes every Saturday evening on the ‘Home Service.‘ Bert knew Ken Sykora and Ike Isaacs, who presented and played on the program. Bert was asked to play on the program, but declined.
Bert was born in 1914 and spent the 1st 14 years of his life living in the Welsh mining valleys. At the age 10 Bert had started playing drums in a dance-band. Apparently he was placed out in the front of the band as the young novelty. He told me that he used to find this terrifying, but nevertheless he used to play about 3 nights a week, (earning as much as the poor miners did for a week) and he was often very tired at school the next day. Times became very hard when the depression years hit. He remembered children walking around with no shoes, and people could not afford to pay my Grandfather for the building work he did. So his family moved to London and about the same time my Dad acquired his 1st guitar. However he decided early on to earn his living as an engineer and keep music as a hobby, as he disliked travelling around and found performing very nerve-racking.
22nd August: New Empress Theatre 1938, Brixton
QHCF played for a weeks engagement.
Opened on Boxing Day, 1938, this impressive theatre/music hall stood on the corner of Brighton Terrace and Bernay’s Grove, offering popular Variety Shows (and pantomimes at Christmas). A sizeable venue, the New Empress Theatre offered seating capacity of 1,260 with a stage width of 60′ and a depth of 40′. In 1909 Bioscope described the Empress as ‘one of the finest of London’s suburban music halls’. Over the years, the building would be variously described as the Empress Theatre, Empress Theatre of Varieties, Empress Music Hall and Granada Cinema. The theatre was demolished and replaced with a housing development in 1992
Bert Niblett attended The Empress and waited stage door for Django and Stephane’s Autographs – Bert’s autographed programme is evidence of that.
29th March 1948 : Empire Theatre, Wood Green QHCF Engaged for a week.
It transpires that Louis Gallo and friend, Len Williams (father of classical guitar giant, John) were set to interview the great gypsy backstage after the Hot Club’s performance at the Wood Green Empire, London in the 1940s for a review. (Len seen here without his later beard. John is a close likeness). Len was editor of the guitar periodical Modern Guitar and later Fretted Harmony magazine. However, as was the tendency in those days, whilst the performers were receiving their tumultuous applause at the end of a fantastic display of virtuosity, audience members would start to leave the Theatre in order to ensure they caught the bus home! Transport was very different in those Days. Django, who was used to a level of adulation normally afforded a Prince, noticed that certain audience members were leaving the theatre before he had left the stage, becoming incensed! How dare they! He was not amused and took this ‘insult’ very personally indeed. Our two intrepid reporters, having noticed this from their seats eagerly but nervously made their way to the master’s dressing room, aware to some extent of Django’s displeasure. Len as magazine editor went on ahead. Django was in no mood to be interviewed, full stop. The tantalizing piece here though is that Louis Gallo could closely see his hero through the open dressing room door, almost within touching distance, but would never meet him! A memory of tantalizing proportions!
Fishmongers Arms – Where Django gigged during his 1938 tour and gave a ‘Cup’ to the winner of a Quintet competition perhaps organised by Bert Niblett or Diz Disley. Now this would have been the then Wood Green Jazz Club at the time in the Bourne Hall behind the ‘Fishmongers’ Arms‘ – run by Viv and Art Sanders. 287 High Rd, Wood Green, London, N22 8HU now converted to a block of flats.
I worked at Wood Green Jazz Club from about 1962 to 1968-ish. I helped Viv and Art run the club, cleaned up, picked up glasses, repaired their car and hopefully advised on bands and helped with bookings. I know I am a bit later than the period you are looking for but it was a fantastic club and allegedly the oldest ‘hot rhythm’ club in the UK, with posters advertising appearances by Django Reinhardt and many others.– John Cox
Club Django Members used to visit the Fishmongers Arms (I remember seeing Diz Disley there one evening), but, as far as I know, the Club didn’t meet there. He did tell me once that, after a Django concert, he caught the bus back home from the Finsbury Park Astoria and was astonished to see the tall, hunched figure of Django himself sitting further up the bus (upstairs), with some others, presumably the rest of the band. I think that’s as far as the encounter went! – Mike
Ade Holland’s visit – Sadly I only ever met Bert that one time at his house in Crouch End, it was during the time I was in favour with Lord (Ian) Cruickshank! We both went to his house, a very nice chap, mild mannered and softly spoken, he had an original Selmer and let me take pictures of it (‘dont know where the guitar it is now since his demise) – did it find its way to Ken Sykora? – very likely
I took several detailed shots of his Maccaferri guitar, close ups of the tailpiece, machine Heads and side profile etc, I have them in an album I noticed the guitar top had been re-finished. With regards to the bijou pick guards, I suspect they were on there when he bought it from Louis Gallo (who I also met on 2 or 3 occasions).
I never made a visit to the Club Django but I remember Diz telling me about it years ago, I think it was held at the Fishmongers Arms at first. I never heard Bert play, except on the Django Legacy film, and never had the pleasure of meeting his daughter either.
If you find the location of the guitar I would love to have the opportunity of buying it if it ever came up for sale. I only met Bert that one time but felt very privileged as he was a true gentleman.
I remember Bert telling me he sat behind both Django and Stephane on a bus, he said that Django was very broad and rather a big person, he also showed me a ticket or a programme with what he claimed was Djangos Signature, he also said he saw the Quintette in concert and if my senility serves me properly he mentioned the Wood Green Empire …….
Ade Holland – Manoucherie and Luthier – pictured here with a very pensive Bert,
I am hazy about my Dads Selmer Mac. I have a feeling that the neck on it may have come from another Selmer guitar, the fingerboard may have been replaced. But I really am not sure. Obviously the scratch-plate was an addition and the orange varnish not original. Whether my father was responsible for the finish I don’t know. Pam
Bert discussing the chart and a line of lubricated chat with Bob White Bassist. The pictures of Bert with guitar in hand are genuine Macs. He owned the D – hole ‘Grand Bouche’ until the mid 1960s, and then the oval hole.
A must for all Django style jazz fans. An excellent documentary that explores the influence of Django Reinhardt. Included are: a rare clip of Django playing. Clips from the Paul Paviot 1958 documentary on Django and the Gypsies. Gypsy sites in Holland, a Paris guitar shop with the Ferret Bros., 9 year old Jimmy Rosenberg and the Gypsy kids. The village of Samois sur Seine where Django lived and died. Extensive footage of interviews with Babik Reinhardt. The 1990 Django Reinhardt Festival in Samois featuring Babik Reinhardt, Birelli Lagrene, The Stochelo Rosenberg Trio, Gary Potter from UK, Serge Krief, Boulou and Elios Ferre. The Samois cemetery where Django rests. (Bert Niblett episode 4) 1990
I believe I was indirectly responsible for sparking off the Django Legacy film.
I had linked up with another swing guitarist called Trevor Davies in the early 1970s.
We both played in a curious trad rehearsal band which met in the back of Ray’s Bookshop in Finsbury Park, amid the dodgy Swedish mags and a complete set of cases of printer’s type! I’d been taken along by Laurence (saxes) I mentioned earlier, met Trevor and decided to take him back to Club Django, where he met Ian Cruickshank. The two got together, went on numerous field trips to France with a movie camera to film the gypsy jazz players (1978) and tried to get a documentary together from the footage. After that, I lost touch with Trevor, until I saw that Channel 4 were about to launch the famous documentary. The Django Legacy – Mike
I can’t guarantee this is the same Trevor – it’s possible. He used to be a marketing executive for KP foods, but he did move west, so perhaps it is. I hope it is, because I’ve just emailed him with an ‘are you the Trevor Davies…..’ sort of letter!!
Great stuff on Bert’s feature on our Pioneers pages. The rate of material input has been impressive and Bert’s daughter is appreciative. This is such an interesting chapter in the Django Legacy story. It’s also fascinating to see the information joining up with links to Diz etc,etc. – P V Chester.