Sunday, 15 January 2012

Serendipity in Cyberspace (Ken Sykora documentary)

Other fans of Ken Sykora (I wrote about him earlier, here) will be interested to know that a documentary, The Man With the Jazz Guitar, has been made and that The Ken Sykora Radio Station is being launched on mixcloud - go to mixcloud and put  his name into search. At present there is a kind of sampler lasting about twelve minutes with snippets from various shows and family members talking, but I hope that full editions of Serendipity with Sykora may be available at some point.

He kept copies of more than 300 programmes throughout his career (about a tenth of his output) so fingers crossed. Because of my vintage and where I grew up it was those Serendipity programmes on the newly formed Radio Clyde which I remember, but the likes of Paul McCartney would have listened to the BBC's Jazz Club

You can find out more about The Man With the Jazz Guitar here. The site includes the information that his personal archive includes 3 complete Guitar Clubs from 1958 and 1960, his first Django programme of 1956 and his appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. You will find on the documentary site links to some teaser clips of the film, and Radio Clyde's Andy Park appears, talking about working with him:

Ken was far and away the best programme maker, I mean he could have been an essayist or a storyteller. He could have been an architect sometimes I thought, because his programmes were so thoroughly well planned: he knew everything that was going in there from the word go and they were a joy. I never had to edit them or anything like that.

To close, an edited extract from my previous blog post about Ken Sykora, originally part of a series commemorating broadcasters who influenced my musical tastes:
He possessed an intimacy of manner perfectly suited to late night listening, fostering the illusion that the broadcast was intended solely for you.The title of his programme allowed him to play whatever he wanted, assuming some chance connection with the previous piece could be found, and the result was a beguiling mixture of novelty songs and jazz, knitted together with odd anecdotes and what came across as an absolute ease in the studio. I really wish I'd taped some of those shows at the time; alas, I have no record of any of them. It felt like a friend was informally guiding you through some records he happened to like, saying whatever came into his head about them or any loosely related matter, wholly at ease.

He was very fond of Peggy Lee but it's the oddities I remember: it was Serendipity which introduced me to Spike Jones and His City Slickers, in particular Cocktails for Two. Some records such as Hoagy Carmichael's version of Barnacle Bill the Sailor straddled the novelty/jazz divide, with Bix Beiderbecke and others blowing wildly between the verses - and Sykora had an eye for the pleasing detail, informing us that the use of a rude word - "I can't swim a bloody stroke" - had caused this to be banned at the time.

On the down side he seemed inordinately fond of the Stargazers, or maybe it's just that songs like Twenty Tiny Fingers and Close the Door, They're Coming in the Window (featuring what sounds like the return of Barnacle Bill), once heard, cannot easily be forgotten. To counterbalance that, the Lovin' Spoonful's Nashville Cats,  a paen to guitar picking, was a particular favourite of his.

I can remember the keen pleasure of the programme, the seemingly endless new (to me) discoveries it contained, but I've no idea how long it ran. I've got a feeling, in fact, that he was shifted to an earlier slot for a programme specifically about the big bands, but have no idea whether this was a matter of choice. I enjoyed that programme, too, although it meant the element of unpredictability which made the Serendipity show so enjoyable was lessened. But it strikes me now how artfully assembled his programmes were: those novelties were a way of hooking the casual listener into a programme which had no artificial musical divisions.

What was most important about his programme was a sense that the music and personality were one and the same - that you didn't wait for one to be over so you could enjoy the other - and that you were happy, above all, simply to spend time in his avuncular company. His sign-off - "From me, Ken, adios" - always seemed personal to you.

Update 18th Jan: 

The good - very good - news is that complete editions of Serendipity with Sykora will indeed be included on the Ken Sykora Radio Station.

Update 24th Jan: 
You can listen to Ken Sykora's 1956 BBC programmea about Django Reinhardt on mixcloud here.


  1. God, I feel old! I remember the name Ken Sykora from 'Jazz Club', 5.00 pm Saturday, the Light Programme. I always wondered about that unusual surname (Polish for dormouse, it turns out).
    He probably wrote and introduced the programme about Django Reinhardt that stuck with me.
    The name kept cropping up in connection with interesting music programmes over the years.
    As for the Stargazers, they were harmless enough. There wasn't much choice under the Reithian dictatorship. Jazz Club was the total BBC jazz output; a half hour on a Saturday (mostly traditional), and that's your lot, jazz fans.

  2. His 1956 BBC programme about Django has just been uploaded to mixcloud:

    "World of Jazz presents 'Django' - A portrait of the great Romany guitar Player Django Reinhardt - Introduced by Ken Sykora - Produced by Jack Dabbs - BBC Light Programme 31st January 1956

    "The programme is a landmark for Ken Sykora as a broadcaster. It was one of the very first programmes he created himself, as both writer and presenter. It was extremely well received at the time and helped launch his radio career with the BBC."