One might say that Joe Pettitt is living the best of both worlds. During the day, he is ‘sir’ to all the music students he teaches at Trinity School in Croydon, where he is head of jazz, rock and pop. But some nights, he dresses up in a smart dinner jacket and swaps standing in front of a class to standing in front of an audience of Big Band fans.
Pettitt is the bandleader of the Len Phillips Big Band, a south London based 17-piece band whose members have worked with Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles, Bing Crosby, Freddie Mercury, Noel Gallagher and Robbie Williams, to name a few.
Like all musicians during the past year, going on stage is no longer an option and they have switched online. Next Saturday, March 20, the Len Phillips Big Band will be streaming a live show from the iconic Abbey Road Studios in north London. “I’ve been meaning to do some kind of great big performance, not only to mark the end of the pandemic, but also in honour of [band founder] Len Phillips, who passed away in January this year,” Pettit says.
Pettit is the successor of sax player and bandleader Phillips, who founded the Big Band in 1986. Pettitt joined as a bass player in 2003 and six years later, when Phillips’s health declined and was forced to step down as bandleader, Pettitt was asked to take over. “I had no experience, but somehow Len thought I was the right person for the job.”
The band will be playing alongside Matthew Ford, who regularly performs on BBC 2 with the John Wilson Orchestra. The recording of their performance will be later published as an album. “The timing to collaborate on an album together has always been off, but this time everything kind of slotted into place,” Pettitt said
The 39-year-old, who currently lives in Crowhurst, Surrey, graduated from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in 2003. Since then, he has worked as a music teacher at a number of schools, including Westminster School and Dulwich College Prep School, and has been teaching at independent Trinity School, Croydon for 12 years, becoming head of jazz, rock and pop in 2019.
Pettitt first got into music while at Oval Primary School in Croydon. “We were offered free guitar lessons. My next-door neighbour lent me a guitar and I never looked back! The Croydon Youth Jazz Orchestra (since then victim of cuts) gave me a great training ground before college,” he says.
It was during his time in university that Pettitt fell in love with Big Band music. He says: “The college had a Big Band run by an amazing musician called Bobby Lamb. He’s played with many of the great American bands and backed people like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. He was like a kinder version of the drum teacher in the film Whiplash! An absolute inspiration.”
Taking over the band
Pettitt’s first performance as leader of the band was a baptism of fire. He said: “When I was about to come back from my honeymoon in 2009, I got a phone call from Len saying he was told to stop working immediately and that I would have to take over a gig in two days. This concert was no ordinary one. We were playing with Ted Heath Orchestra’s singer, Dennis Lotis, who was a megastar; everyone’s grandma loved him!”
That night at the Mote Hall in Maidstone, Pettitt faced a crowd of 600 Lotis’s fans, who sat, many arms-folded, observing his performance. “They didn’t know who the Len Phillips Big Band was, and they certainly didn’t know who Joe Pettitt was. It took a good hour before they were smiling, but we got them in the end.”
For the past decade, Pettitt has led the Big Band and what began as a hair-raising experience turned into a thrilling passion. However, it’s not always easy balancing a teaching job and a career as a bandleader: “I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty full-on. The school understands that I am a professional musician, so they give me a certain amount of flexibility. They’re very aware of what it takes because, in essence, they are professional musicians themselves.
“I’m a father of two as well, aged 5 and 7, and sometimes it’s hard to balance family commitments and work. It’s very important financially, as much as anything else, to have some kind of stability – but it’s more than just that, I really enjoy what I do. Even though it’s hard work, it’s worth it and I love it.”
Hit by the pandemic
As with most musicians, things have been very difficult in the past year. “It has been appalling for everyone. The music industry has been deeply affected, especially freelance players who go from job to job. Many have fallen through the cracks, and for whatever reason, a lot of my friends haven’t had any support from the government. Many have gone and got other jobs just to get through,” said Pettitt.
Like others in the industry, Pettitt and Big Band had to move online: “The first time we turned to streaming was last June, when groups of up to six people were allowed to meet. I suggested we had a five-piece band playing in the garden and a cameraman to stream it live.”
To Pettitt’s surprise, thousands watched their first live stream and soon , the entire band was playing live shows online. “I’ve managed to find a farm and set up a beer garden and a stage in one of their fields. We had 250 people socially distanced watching the show, and we streamed it live. We had more than 15,000 views on that one, it was a massive success.”
What has been keeping the band afloat is their audience. “We’ve been using an honesty box and people are putting the money in. They’re seeing the value of our work, which is allowing me to pay all the band members as if they were doing a normal gig. I get emails and handwritten letters saying how much they’ve enjoyed it, with a check to pay everybody. ”
Plans for the future
Pettitt isn’t afraid to make plans for the future. “We have new bookings coming in and we’re confident that, by the end of the year, things will be closer to normal. We want to be back on the road playing, but more importantly, we want to see more and more people loving swing music, big band music and jazz, especially younger crowds.
“Everyone likes a big band when they hear it!”
The Len Phillips Big Band & Matt Ford live from Abbey Road Studios will be streamed on the band’s Facebook page.
More information on the Len Phillips Big Band can be accessed on: