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Jack Bruce 1943-2014

Jack BruceIt was around two o’clock in the morning, and a few minutes earlier the band called VSOP — Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams — had just finished playing to an audience of record industry folk in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. The occasion was the 1977 Columbia Records international sales convention, and the salesmen’s minds had been elsewhere, following their bodies out into the night as the performance went on. Few were left by the time the set ended.

The restroom door swung open. A short figure lurched out and stumbled straight into me. His eyes took a couple of seconds to focus before he recognised someone he had met a handful of times. “You used to be Richard Williams,” he said. “I used to be Jack Bruce.”

And now, following the announcement of his death today, at the age of 71, he really did used to be Jack Bruce. Here was a musician whose achievements now seems mind-boggling in their stylistic breadth. Who else spanned such a range of music — from Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” to Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill — in those years when a generation of young players, bursting with creative energy, were spending their lives venturing into uncharted territory?

The further out Jack got, the more compelling I found him. When I saw Cream on their first go-round of clubs, I couldn’t hear anything interesting. For me, that didn’t change. But the John Burch Octet of 1963: now that was a band, especially if you were fond of Blues & Roots-era Charles Mingus. They never released a record, but just before he died eight years ago Burch gave me a precious cassette of a couple of BBC broadcasts they made.

With Jack on double bass, Peter “Ginger” Baker on drums, Burch himself on piano, Mike Falana on trumpet, John Mumford on trombone, Graham Bond on alto saxophone, Stan Robinson on tenor (depping for Dick Heckstall-Smith) and “Miff” Moule on baritone, they played Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'”, Oliver Nelson’s “Going Up North” (from Afro-American Sketches), Jimmy Heath’s “All Members”, Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford”, Sam Jones’s “Del Sasser”, Burch’s own “Nightwalk” and, best of all, Ginger’s wild arrangement of the prison work song “Early in the Mornin'”, first heard with the edition of Blues Incorporated in which most of the octet also appeared.

A couple of years later there was the amazing album by the pianist Mike Taylor, Trio, on which Bruce and Ron Rubin shared the bass duties: sometimes together, sometimes alternating. Taylor’s conception was that of an English Dick Twardzik, abstract and cerebral even on standards like “All the Things You Are” and “The End of a Love Affair”, and Jack was the perfect fit.

When I interviewed him a few years later, he’d made his fortune and there was a very nice Ferrari Daytona parked outside his manager’s office. But nothing could stop him joining Tony Williams’ Lifetime, a band who were never going to fill stadiums, even though they played two of the loudest (in terms of decibels per cubic foot) and most powerful gigs I’ve ever heard. The first, before Bruce joined, was in the early weeks of 1970 at a club called Ungano’s in New York. As Williams, John McLaughlin and Larry Young shook the walls, Miles Davis slouched elegantly at the bar, checking out his protégés.

In October of that year, with Bruce on board, Lifetime played a British tour. I went to see them at the Marquee with Robert Fripp, and we spent the evening glancing at each other in wonderment as the storm raged through the club, threatening to strip the black paint from the walls. I don’t believe the sheer ferocity of it, the unstoppable outpouring, the brutal intensity and sometimes ecstatic interplay, could ever be recreated. Sadly, their records didn’t even begin to tell the story.

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28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Beautiful

    October 25, 2014
  2. Mike browne #

    RIP Jack
    Any chance of the cassette of the Octet being made available…..love to hear that

    October 25, 2014
  3. Mick Steels #

    After the increasingly formulaic and stultifying approach of Cream it seems Bruce was liberated in the period 69 to 71. He popped up in all sorts of challenging situations from working with Mike Gibbs and Neil Ardley to the much lauded Lifetime. There was the group with Larry Coryell and Mike Mandel and the Chris Spedding/John Marshall trio who I remember seeing with Graham Bond as added guest.
    It would seems the Marquee performance has now achieved legendary status up there with Massey Hall 53 and The Band Albert Hall 71, surely someone had a tape recorder at one of their gigs?

    October 25, 2014
    • I saw him at the Houston Music Hall in I believe 1969 with Coryell and Mandel, but he had none other than Mitch Mitchell playing drums. I had expected to see John Marshall since he was on the recently released “Songs for a Tailor,” but at least (being a brash 17-year old bass player) I was able to sneak backstage and meet both Bruce and Mitchell. They both accommodated me and signed my copy of Wheels of Fire, but Bruce only had a moment so I got to spend a few minutes only with Mitchell. I asked if he was going back to play with Hendrix again (who then had Buddy Miles) and he said they had plans to get back together; unfortunately Hendrix died not long after. What really was interesting about the evening — besides the music — was that the newly-formed Mountain replaced The Kinks as the warm-up band and I recognized Felix Pappalardi when he arrived and introduced myself. Since at the time I was very serious about playing in bands and I co-owned a speaker box construction company with a friend, I got to know a lot of people in the music business both locally and (inter)nationally. Pappalardi was the nicest guy I ever met in the music business by far with the exception of Billy Gibbons. Pappalardi treat me, a kid, like an equal and talked for a few minutes about music with me. But I always wished that I had been able to spend more time with Jack since musically-speaking he was my god and I had tons of questions to ask him. I was at least able to see him several more times over the years, whether in small places like Toad’s bar in New Haven or at MSG with Cream in ’05.

      August 8, 2015
  4. crocodilechuck #

    He made some interesting records with Kip Hanrahan in the early ’80’s.

    October 25, 2014
  5. Paul White #

    I’m going to dig out Emergency and play it loud.
    Then as a requiem Folk Song from Harmony Row.

    October 25, 2014
  6. Thanks for this, Jack was always more than just Cream.

    October 25, 2014
  7. George Foster #

    A great piece, Richard. I hope it encourages people to listen to the astonishing variety of music he played. I looked at the lists of gigs and recordings on http://www.jackbruce.com and was amazed at his energy. And the venues in his post- Cream years have become names to conjure with.

    My own memorable gigs are Lifetime at the Town & Country Club in Hampstead, a stunning Mike Gibbs Concert at the LSE, Ian Carr’s “Solar Plexus” suite in Notre Dame Church Hall, Leicester Square and a Nucleus gig at “The Torrington” pub in North London. I can’t believe that those sounds were made 45 years ago -they are so vivid and challenging.
    For me his most memorable recording is of Mike Mantler’s settings of Samuel Beckett’s “No Answer” with Don Cherry & Carla Bley, Harrowing and unforgettable.

    October 26, 2014
  8. Lovely tribute Richard. I remember when Lifetime was formed and promoters wanted to use Jack’s name prominently on posters, sort of ‘Lifetime Featuring Jack Bruce’ I suppose, but Jack wasn’t having it so a row blew up. You wrote a story about for the front page of MM, down the left hand side as I recall. I saw the reformed Cream at the RAH a while ago now, and Jack looked pretty frail then. His bass work certainly wasn’t though. RIP.

    October 26, 2014
  9. John Pritchard #

    Very sad news. I remember Jack and Dick Heckstall-Smith playing a searing blues set at “The Band On The Wall” in ’79 backed by local boys No Mystery. Fantastic.

    October 26, 2014
  10. paul@tickell.demon.co.uk #

    I’ve always liked Bruce’s song The Consul At Sunset (1971). It’s a tribute to Malcolm Lowry’s novel UNDER THE VOLCANO. I read the sad news of Bruce’s death on BBC teletext last night. On the same page was the news that an unpublished Lowry novel – believed to have been destroyed in a fire – has in fact been re-discovered and will be published. I am not sure what this means but it added to the poignancy of the death of a great musical talent.

    October 26, 2014
  11. Richard Harris #

    A really excellent tribute as so many miss the jazz …

    That Mike Taylor Trio album is a real gem. I always thought with a hint of Cecil Taylor’s Candid ballad playing with that fascinating “stretched” feel on standards. Bruce fits and adds perfectly.

    Great blog.

    October 26, 2014
  12. John Evans #

    He was part of a Mike Gibbs band I saw in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Great music, but way beyond my comfort zone for ear damage.

    October 26, 2014
  13. Bill White #

    Envy you seeing first edition of Lifetime in NYC. But I too saw Cream in a small club(Cheltenham’s Blue Moon) and Lifetime with Bruce in Sheffield. Sensational.

    October 26, 2014
  14. JohnMount1 #

    Glad to see his work with Kip Hanrahan get a nod, there’s a pleasing hint of Mark Murphy in his vocals

    October 26, 2014
  15. Matthew Wright #

    After seeing Cream a couple of times (one being their 1968 Royal Albert Hall farewell) and not being overly impressed (apart from the Pete Brown numbers), it was a revelation to see Jack play firstly at Lanchester Poly in Coventry (1970?) with Larry Coryell, who I wanted to see having previously heard on Voice of America Jazz Hour – a track from Chico Hamilton’s The Dealer and one from Spaces. Mike Mandel was with them and Mitch Mitchell, if memory serves me correct. It was possibly the following year I saw him with Lifetime at Goldsmiths College but I have to admit my attention was taken more by Tony Williams’ incredible playing.
    Soon after I saw him again, I think again at Goldsmiths, this time with Art Theman, Chris Spedding, Graham Bond. The memory isn’t what it used to be, but the point being a recollection of his ability to adapt to the various contexts he found himself in and no matter how exalted the company, always matching it and giving a good account of himself. Prime example – Escalator Over The Hill.
    Didn’t the group with Bond do the Old Grey Whistle Test – was that during your watch?

    October 26, 2014
    • deepindercheema #

      It could well be! Victor Brox who recorded with Graham Bond at Command Studios might know. Jack Bruce and his band appeared on Old Greys on the 5th October 1971 broadcast. Sadly I believe some of these early programmes have been lost.

      October 27, 2014
      • deepindercheema #

        The BFi have received extant copies from the BBC. So if you want to see Chris Spedding with Linda Hoyle then the Bfi will accommodate you.

        October 27, 2014
  16. Richard Harris #

    There’s a great bit of late 60s footage on Youtube of Jack Bruce with Buddy Guy, Heckstall Smith and Buddy Miles. Buddy Guy at his ferocious best but dressed in a formal blue suit and tie amongst all the ‘ippies. A time machine.

    October 26, 2014
    • deepindercheema #

      That was Rock Show a film made by some entrepeneurs using Staines Lino Factory which I assume has been demolished. There is a still on the cover of April or March 1969 Beat Instrumental.

      October 27, 2014
  17. I met him once; at a very early Cream gig in South Shields. He was smaller than me, and I’m not tall at all. Like me, he was from Glasgow. Said he had never had a normal job, had gone to music college and then straight into playing professionally. He was a brilliant pianist apparently so I could never understand why the bass became his instrument. He had recently met Skip James and went on and on about how great he was.
    Of course they were about to record [and may have already done so] I’m So Glad.
    He seems to me have almost wilfully wrecked his own life. He was an intelligent man; why would he do that?

    October 27, 2014
  18. Howard Johnston #

    A very thoughtful tribute. What can you say about Jack Bruce’s music? There is so much of it covering so many genres and with so many different collaborators. It would take days to just list them. A true innovator. Most people think of Cream – and they were the greatest rock band ever – but that was just the beginning. His marvelous solo career is worth studying in depth. I don’t know where to begin – or indeed when to end … so I will just say – buy everything he ever did and got involved with, and then prepare yourself for a truly wonderful experience. And if you cannot afford to do that – then just treat yourself to “Harmony Row” his masterpiece…

    October 29, 2014
  19. I’m not entirely sure that Lifetime’s recordings (‘Emergency’ and ‘Turn it Over’) didn’t do them justice. The sound quality wasn’t optimal, agreed, but the musical skill overcomes any sonic barrier, for me. The (never officially released) Bill Laswell mixes on ‘Turn It Over Expanded’ sound pretty great, and some savage edits are undone, including the expansion of ‘Right On’ (01.49 on the original release) to a magnificent 08.05. This turns out to be a JB bass feature, which is a bonus for any JB aficionado such as myself. Quite why it was dramatically reduced is not clear, but it’s a magnificent example of one of his many skills.

    October 31, 2014
  20. I don’t know about Cream being all that stultifying , since they released only a handful of studio albums and a smattering of live tracks during their existence. They could have grown and changed and evolved, of course, they had the chops and the songwriting talent, but drugs, heroin especially, made it difficult of promising rock bands to remain together during that period. Bruce, though, wanted to do other things and other things he did, with what he had done in Cream being a bright spot in the musical history of the 60s. Not every night, of course, but there were times the collision of what Bruce, Clapton and Baker did were rivetting and transporting and, needless to say, adding something else that hadn’t been done in the annals of rock music. Some of it has aged well.

    August 7, 2015
  21. I still have vivid dreams made up of memories of watching Jack play from a few feet away. In these dreams, he’s my friend and we hang out. Never had that with any other musician. Miss him..

    August 7, 2015
  22. Peter Hamshaw #

    My favourite live band from the 1960s, ie. bands that played the Nottingham Boat clubs during that period, was the Graham Bond Organisation and as a brash young upstart I made the mistake of asking Jack Bruce why they’d recorded Tammy, as it wasn’t anything like their live material. Not surprisingly Mr Bruce said he didn’t know what I meant, of course it was like their live material. I wasn’t so stupid as to pursue the point and backed off, suitably put in my place.

    September 7, 2015

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