Ray Gelato: The British-Jewish ‘Godfather of Swing’ - opinion

Gelato, who has always strongly identified with his Jewish roots, is credited with kicking off the Swing revival in the early ‘80s with his highly successful band, The Chevalier Brothers.

 RAY GELATO (second from right) and members of his band pose, overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City. (photo credit: Ray Gelato)
RAY GELATO (second from right) and members of his band pose, overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.
(photo credit: Ray Gelato)

Jews and music; the two have always been inextricably linked.

It is thought that the oldest known form of musical notation – or “notes” – can be found in the Old Testament where every phrase has a sign to show how it should be sung or chanted. Such “notes” are still sung each week in synagogues around the world.

Celebrated British Jazz/Swing musician, Ray Gelato is one such Jewish person for whom music has always played an integral part in his life.

Known as “The Godfather of Swing,” Gelato was born in London to a Jewish mother and an Italian-American father. He has always strongly identified with his Jewish roots, celebrating Passover each year with his mother’s family, (her father was a London taxi driver), as well as spending time with his father’s family, enjoying their culture and heritage.

Gelato is credited with kicking off the Swing revival in the early ‘80s with his highly successful band, The Chevalier Brothers.

Ray Gelato (credit: IAN REID)Ray Gelato (credit: IAN REID)

He started playing the tenor sax in 1979, initially learning by playing along to his dad’s old Rock ‘n’ Roll records. Before long, this instrument had become his trademark on the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Blues curcuits where he soon became a familiar face.

During this time, Gelato also studied music in college and took private lessons from UK sax great, the late Pat Crumly.

Gelato’s “swing band” saxophone and vocal style have earned him a huge following and seen him working with many greats in the business, including Van Morrison and Scott Hamilton.

No stranger to the big stage, he has also performed on two occasions for HM The Queen, supported Robbie Williams at The Royal Albert Hall and played at Sir Paul McCartney’s wedding.

He also performs on a regular basis with his acclaimed band, The Giants, at world famous jazz clubs including Ronnie Scott’s in London and The Blue Note, New York, to name but two. Before COVID-19, Ray Gelato and The Giants had a packed schedule, performing in numerous theaters, clubs and festivals across the globe.

In 2018, they embarked on a ten-day tour of Israel as part of the Hot Jazz Series. Based in Tel Aviv, a city which clearly left its mark on Gelato, they played in various locations, including Ganei Tikva, Herzliya, Beersheba, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Sadly, as live gigs were put on hold shortly thereafter due to the pandemic, the band faced cancelled shows and lost income. Instead of touring, they took to their recording studio where they recorded and produced their new album, Locked Down But Not Out.

As soon as live shows were back, however, Ray Gelato and The Giants started doing what they love best; performing in front of live audiences.

“The airlines have cost me thousands.”

Ray Gelato

Not everything has gone smoothly

Sadly, things haven’t gone as smoothly as they’d hoped as lost luggage, flight delays and cancellations, all of which have blighted air travel of late, made touring increasingly difficult for them.

“The airlines have cost me thousands,” Gelato said.

HE WENT on to explain how this sorry state of affairs plumbed new depths a short while ago when he and his bandmates were due to fly with KLM to Norway for a gig on June 1st.

Their journey was punctuated by a connecting flight in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol airport. Unfortunately, due to delays, they missed their connection and were rerouted back to London, with only four of their eight cases in tow. Sadly, four bags are still missing to this day.

To add insult to injury, one of the missing bags contains an irreplaceable 1940s vintage tenor sax worth in the region of £3000, while another contains a beloved trombone. The remaining two missing bags contain sentimental, personal items belonging to Gelato himself, such as old cufflinks and tie pins.

Most of us know how annoying it is to lose a suitcase, but to lose one which contains a treasured instrument is even harder to bear. Insurance policies may eventually cover the financial loss (once the items have been declared officially missing), but any musician will tell you that the loss of their instrument is not only frustrating, but also extremely upsetting. It is akin to a personal loss.

Although most instruments will fit in the overhead lockers, Gelato told me, most airlines have a policy of forcing musicians either to pay for a separate seat for them, at great personal expense, or else to check them into the hold and risk losing them. Such “discrimination,” as he sees it, has long been the case, making it extremely difficult and nerve-racking for musicians to travel.

Since returning home, things have gone from bad to worse. Despite repeated emails and phone calls to KLM, Gelato has not received any information as to the whereabouts of the missing cases or instruments. Instead, he’s been given the runaround. At the request of the airline, he’s submitted copies of receipts on three separate occasions and provided additional information. He’s waited patiently on the phone for hours, desperately hoping for answers which, thus far, have not materialized.

The instruments are still missing and no one knows where they are.

Not one to let things get him down, Gelato is still touring with his band, although they are now too anxious to travel with their own beloved instruments. Instead, they borrow them whenever possible.

In spite of this ongoing headache, Gelato is now doing something new and completely different; he is offering all budding saxophonists the chance to study with him in a special programme of one-to-one lessons.

“I believe in learning from the great players that came before us as music is a listening art. We learn first by imitating, then striving to find our own personal style. Let me help you release the talent inside you,” he says.

Gelato is not only a giant personality on the Jazz/Swing scene, but a giant personality in every way.

Let’s hope that he and his bandmates are reunited with their beloved instruments as soon as possible so that they can continue, unfettered, to delight us all with their artistic genius.


The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Netanya, where she spends most of her time writing and enjoying her new life in Israel.