Fitzroy Coleman – Jazz Guitarist
Fizroy Coleman, 76, was born in Alfredo Street, Woodbrook. His father, a steamroller driver, played the guitar for amusement, but did not want young Fitzroy to touch his prized instrument. So, he improvised one by nailing a flat pan to a piece of wood and stringing marling on it to let the boy amuse himself. But at age 19, Fitzroy could take it no more and made for the guitar each time his father was out working, and began to teach himself to play.
He recounts the events as follows: “I started to invent chord constructions and rehearse the popular ballads of the day. It was only when he caught me and realized I could play without any teaching that he allowed me to use the guitar freely. “On moonlight nights, Ray Holman’s father, Leslie, would come over to our house and he would play his ukelele and I would be on the guitar. A lot of fellows used to come by and sing songs from Satchmo and Rudy Vallee and the talk would usually be how I make chords different to other guitar players. “One of the people who came by was Victor Hudson, known then as ‘Whistling Charlie’. He had a fake flute but he could whistle so sweetly that he was considered a musician. When he heard me play he asked my mother to let me go with him all through St Clair on his tours.
“Remember, this was in the thirties. Radio was not popular, so together with Steadman Butler on cuatro, we would learn the songs, however we got to hear them, and walk to St Clair and stand outside the gates of white people houses and play songs. They would come into their gallery to listen, then would send the maid out with some coins for us. But for those days, we made good money. “My playing came to the attention of Captain Cipriani, who then introduced me to a whole new world by taking me to perform at dances and concerts in the Princes Building and the Royal Victoria Institute (now the National Museum). Meanwhile, I was also making some money playing for the tourists on the waterfront. But by 1942, I started playing formally with a big band. It was Len Woodley’s orchestra, a band that worked for the elite.
“I played with Woodley until 1945, when an Englishman, Al Jennings, came to Trinidad to select a Caribbean All Stars Band and I was chosen as the guitarist, even though I could not read music. They said I was a drinker and knockabout but Rupert Nurse, who was chosen as the arranger, stood up for me and promised to teach me the notes when we got to England.
“We left here in October, 1945. All I had was my guitar and the clothes on my back. I did not even know that there was a thing called winter. It was a soldier on the boat who gave me a coat. But from the first time they heard me play in London, I nearly always enjoyed steady work, which continued for all of the 26 years I spent there.”
Coleman’s unique style of playing chords to match virtually each note in a song’s bass line, caught the attention of all who would listen. When the band with which he left Trinidad folder while on tour to Paris, Coleman was selected from the lot to perform at London’s prestigious Milroy Restaurant at Les Ambassadeurs Club. It was there that he made some of his more valuable contact, spending may hours after work relaxing with the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis when they were in London, and exchanging notes, as it were, with Hoagy Carmichael whenever he was in town.
Coleman married in 1947. His wife, Victoria, was well connected, although the war had devastated the family’s clubs. But she became his manager and piloted his flight to the top of the heap of jazz guitarists. He regularly played sessions for BBC TV and was featured at all the top nightclubs. Business got so good, Coleman was soon able to offer regular work to the very band members that begged him to go to London.
Coleman also introduced Lord Kitchener to the circuit when the latter arrived in London in 1951. He worked on Kitchener’s early recordings and did some work for Beginner, who had accompanied Kitch to the UK. Coleman continued to amaze audiences until his retirement from the British scene in 1975. Now, he lives with his second wife, Edna, surviving on royalties from his life’s work.