Big band star Crissy Lee, 75 and still drumming, recalls mentor Ivy Benson ahead of opening this year’s Durham Brass festival

WOMEN and Brass is the name of the gig opening Durham’s 12th annual celebration of brass music and also a strand running throughout. Men have hogged headlines and opportunities for too long is the clear implication.

Veteran drummer Crissy Lee, whose all-woman jazz/swing outfit will open Durham Brass, wouldn’t disagree.

Told by festival director Paul Gudgin that a band he booked last year had no women, she retorted: “Paul, don’t get me started on that. I know so many superb woman players but so often it’s been the case that they just don’t want women. My brilliant lead trumpet player, Annette Brown from Harrogate, is in the West End and has been in all the shows. But it has taken a long time for it to happen.”

In that opening concert on July 13 tribute will be paid to Ivy Benson, the big band leader who defied convention and prejudice to take her all-woman band to the dizzy heights, headlining at the London Palladium for six months in 1944. So who better to open proceedings than Crissy? Herself something of a legend, she is one of the few surviving members of the Ivy Benson Band.

Crissy was born in Colchester in 1943, the year Ivy’s accomplished outfit became the BBC’s resident dance band. She cut her teeth as a performer with the Salvation Army, having shown an aptitude for drumming as a young girl when her dad brought some drumsticks home. Soon Crissy was beating out rhythms on a chair arm. She joined the Ivy Benson Band at the age of 17, but says she first auditioned at 14.

“My dad took me up to London and I met Ivy. I played something for her with sticks and then brushes and then she said, ‘Do you sing?’ After that she said, ‘I’d stick to drums, Crissy’. But she seemed delighted. There wasn’t a place for me at the time because Paula Pike was still the drummer. But when Paula was going to leave, Ivy called me.

“Oh my God, talk about jumping in at the deep end. I was 17 but very young, more like a 12-year-old, and I had to join the band in the Isle of Man where they did a summer season. I stayed with Ivy and her parents, who would rent a house there for the summer.

“She really made me work. I’d played in other bands but what was nerve-wracking was having five trumpets, five trombones, five saxes and strings and singers in abundance. I developed my technique of playing hard and loud when I had to and I’ve never lost the knack. I do know how to kick a big band along.”

Leeds-born Ivy, who played working men’s clubs from the age of eight, gave her young protégé a grounding in resilience.

“She was very tough but I think she needed to be,” says Crissy. “If we had to be somewhere at a certain time, you had to be there. If a rehearsal was at nine in the morning and someone was late, you’d be in at 8.30 next morning. Ivy didn’t have the advantages we have, bless her. It was the war that enabled her to make her mark. She took her band out to entertain the troops.”

Crissy stayed in Ivy’s band for about four years.“What happened was the (Rolling) Stones and the Beatles came in. Ivy started ordering orchestrations so her band could copy what the rock bands were doing, but they were awful and I had big ideas for myself.”

Crissy formed The Beat-Chics, a female five-piece which toured in Europe and even supported The Beatles. “We had some success but I was in Germany once and really missed the big band scene. When Ivy rang and said the drummer was leaving and she’d love me to come back, I did for a bit.”

Other opportunities arose for Crissy, who has demonstrated her brilliance as a drummer in many different contexts. She says she was thrilled when Ivy said towards the end of her life that Crissy was the best she had worked with. The Ivy Benson Band wound up in 1982 and Ivy retired to Essex, near where Crissy still lives. Crissy was a friend and confidant until Ivy’s death in 1993.

Now she keeps the flag flying for female musicians in jazz and big band music. Her standards are high. “With a band with the reputation of mine, I have to have the best,” she says.

In Durham, Crissy and friends will perform “some Count Basie, some Duke Ellington and Sing Sing Sing (made famous by Benny Goodman) which is quite a long number.”

They will then make way for Swedish jazz trumpet star Gunhild Carling, who will also be out to prove that in music, gender shouldn’t be an issue.

Crissy, who recently turned 75, has no plan to retire and write her memoirs. “I’m too much of a fidget,” she laughs. “Maybe when I’m 85 I’ll have time.”

Women and Brass is at the Gala Theatre, Durham, on Friday, July 13 at 7.30pm. For tickets and details of the festival, running until July 22, go to