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Remembering John Stevens

I’d been working at the Melody Maker only a few weeks in the autumn of 1969 when the drummer John Stevens and the saxophonist Trevor Watts arrived to see me, unannounced, at the paper’s offices in Fleet Street. They’d sensed the presence of a writer sympathetic to their music and they’d brought me a copy of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s new album, recorded for Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade label. I already knew about them, of course, and over the years I saw John play on many occasions and in many different musical environments. His death from a heart attack in 1994, at the age of 54, deprived the London scene of a musician who, his own great gifts aside, had devoted much of his life to encouraging others to express their creativity.

“John didn’t just change my life — he saved it,” the singer Maggie Nichols said at the Café Oto last night, while introducing an evening of hitherto unseen films featuring Stevens in a variety of contexts. They had been put together by the music and label owner Mark Wastell from a cache of videos owned by John’s widow, Anne, and his children, Ritchie and Louise. There is, as Wastell remarked, so little filmed evidence of John’s life and work available to be seen that anything is to be treasured — and these films brought him back to life in full strength.

Four films were shown. I was able to see the first three, each half an hour long. The first, filmed at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow in 1976 on a single hand-held camera in black and white, captured a date on a tour by the trio of Stevens, Danny Thompson on bass and John Tchicai on soprano and alto saxophones. This was the bearded, roaring John Stevens with the bearded, roaring Danny Thompson — together in another incarnation as John Martyn’s accompanists — giving Tchicai the most enthusiastic and empathetic encouragement.

The second film, shot at a club in Stavanger by Norwegian TV in 1991, was a far more polished affair in every way. The music produced by this trio, completed by the American bassist Kent Carter and the Norwegian altoist Frøde Gjersted, was just as impassioned, running through different modes of collective improvisation: time, no time, and the sort of pointillism that recalled John’s famous “click pieces”, when the SME or workshop groups were instructed to use the shortest possible sounds to create their improvisations. This film included a joint interview with the three musicians, during which Carter memorably summarised his philosophy of constant renewal: “If the audience can recognise what we’re doing, it’s already been done.”

A year later, in 1991, Channel 4 filmed John’s new quartet, with the saxophonist Ed Jones, the trumpeter Byron Wallen and the bassist Gary Crosby, performing a Stevens composition dedicated to the then recently deceased Dudu Pukwana, called “Dudu’s Gone”. Not a lament but a celebration, recalling Ornette Coleman’s bounciest medium-tempo tunes, it showcased John’s beautiful time playing, with its strong echoes of Max Roach’s drive and Billy Higgins’s float. The unedited takes we were shown included an interview in which John was asked what it took to play free music. “It’s a freedom that demands high discipline and high articulation,” he replied.

Regrettably, I wasn’t able to stay to see the final episode of the evening, a 70-minute film of John playing and talking with Derek Bailey at Jazz Rumours in London in 1992, released in an edited form on video cassette by the Incus label in 1996. But I left with some more of Maggie Nichols’s words in my head, about the experience of being introduced by John to the practice of free improvisation back in the late ’60s: “It was like walking off a cliff — terrifying and ecstatic at the same time.”

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. sounds wonderful – saw him a number of times over the years – where can the films be seen?

    September 28, 2022
  2. Gerard Tierney #

    A terrific night for lovers of great bass players, as well!

    September 28, 2022
  3. William H Christie #

    I first came across the music of John Stevens/SME in 1969 when I bought the Marmalade label album. I loved this and played it at high volume. When I moved to London from Aberdeen in 1971 I regularly attended the Little Theatre Club and a was always moved by the music of SME. In 1975 I was back in Aberdeen and helped start up a branch of Platform Music there. The first concert we promoted, featuring out of town musicians, was a duo of John Stevens and Trevor Watts. The concert started with a performance by local, would be free jazzers including myself, playing with and under the direction of John and Trevor. Unfortunately “the high discipline and high articulation” required was missing from my efforts leaving only passion which is not enough. The excellent duo performance that followed was well received in a full Aberdeen Art Gallery sculpture court although local pro jazzers were somewhat puzzled if not hostile. I would say that John was evangelical in his approach to spreading his vision and it was, and continues to have an appeal, for those, comparatively few, who have been “converted”

    September 28, 2022

    Nice evening, a timely reminder of a great figure in improvised music. I stayed for the first part of the film of John Stevens with Derek Bailey but, like you, couldn’t remain until the end – trains to catch.

    The band featuring Gary Crosby, Ed Jones and Byron Wallen was recorded at the Crawley Jazz Festival in 1992 and this album, including the Dudu Pukwana dedication, is highly recommended:

    September 28, 2022
  5. Tim Adkin #

    Sounds a great night. Whilst I can’t admit to grasping all that Stevens did (‘The Longest Night’ is the furthest out I ever got) he was always, at the very least, a stimulating and interesting figure. I particularly loved his Amalgam stuff with Watts ( the intense ‘Prayer for Peace’ from 1969 for example)and there was a lovely run of albums in the mid ’70s like ‘Chemistry’, ‘No Fear’ and especially ‘Touching On’ with a pre Lifetime Allan Holdsworth a record I still find wistfully moving. Also fully agree with Graham’s recommendation of ‘New Cool’.

    September 28, 2022
  6. michael gregg #

    Hello Richard,

    It was great to read this article about John Stevens. I don’t live in London otherwise I would have definitely gone to this event. I wonder if it was mentioned about the films shown being generally available at all?

    John Stevens has been a life long hero of mine and that is thanks to you and your input at Melody Maker in the early seventies. Reading around the rock articles I gradually picked up on this intriguing music loosely labelled jazz …. starting with Americans Keith Jarrett and Charlie Mingus but quickly picking up on the incredibly inventive British scene too through the likes of John Stevens, Derek Bailey, Keith Tippett etc

    While I lived in London, a regular trip on a weekend night was from Camden to Stockwell to watch John play with his incredible Away band at The Plough. I even ended up having a chat with him at the bar during the interval and was more than happy to buy him a pint to listen to him talk. I had been told by someone who met him that he was a difficult person but that never came across to me (that conversation sits, hallowed, in my memory alongside a short chat with Lol Coxhill in a lift!).

    I remember a quote I read, from David Toop I think, about how he bumped into John on public transport with his trumpet. He told David he couldn’t afford a taxi to transport his drum kit across town but just had to keep Playing, so the trumpet allowed him to do that at least. A really inspiring musician.

    Years ago I heard rumours that someone was writing a biography of John. I wonder if that ever came to anything. If you know and you have time to reply that would be great.

    Thanks for your wonderful Blue Moment posts.


    Mike, (in Bristol).

    September 28, 2022
    • Thanks, Mike. I have no idea about the existence of a biography project but I’ll ask around. RW

      September 28, 2022
  7. Wish I could have been across the pond for this. Hopefully there are or will be other ways to watch the footage.

    I too recall some bubbling about a biography but the details have escaped my memory.

    September 28, 2022
  8. I wonder whether the current ‘scene’ has, or needs, an equivalent figure to J S? Or Derek Bailey? Or Evan Parker, who seems to have retreated into some sort of semi-retirement. Perhaps the improvisation circuit is now robust enough to do without a single figurehead/ torch carrier?
    I do hope so, as I feel that the grand old figures of UK free improv are slowly retreating into the history books. They have left a massive legacy. (AMM’s ‘ last gig’ the other week at Cafe Oto was a momento mori of the so-called First Generation’s gradual passing, despite their member’s resolve). It is blessing that so many improvisers from that era are still with us today. Thank you Tony Oxley, Paul Lytton.Keith Rowe, Eddie Prevost, Trevor Watts, Barry Guy and so many, many others.

    September 28, 2022
    • Mick Steels #

      I know Evan reads this blog and as far as I know he is still pretty active.
      Saw him in the summer in the unlikely setting of the Leigh Folk Festival where he gave a solo saxophone recital which was fascinating and enjoyable as always

      September 28, 2022
    • I’d like to mention two great improvisers based in Birmingham or just outside: saxophonist Paul Dunmall and drummer Mark Sanders. Both have national and international reputations. In Birmingham they have helped create a healthy improv scene with many young players playing in this style, often with Paul or Mark. Many also play more straightahead jazz and believe that it is all one music

      September 29, 2022
    • Good to hear, Mick. I know that Evan has also appeared at a gig in Faversham recently. My point was more general – that there is a baton-passing going on at the moment, and that the so-called First Generation, such a fantastic group of creative musicians, are, very energetically, getting older. In more mainstream jazz, Sonny Rollins seams to be the last man standing from the immediate post-war generation.
      Whatever, it is most cheering that the likes of Evan, Trevor and Eddie are continuing to play hi-octane improv for us all.

      October 26, 2022
  9. Hello Richard,
    Great to see John remembered. Is there a way to see the films of John you mention. bill smith

    September 29, 2022
  10. i was playing at Bracknell Jazz Festival with The Recedents and I encountered John. As we chatted I noticed a huge scar on his neck. What happened to your neck? It looks like you tried to hang yourself or something. he laughed and said “Ahh I did it ironing my collar.” I paused and thought about it and said “You mean you still had it on when you ironed it?” “Yeah man!!” 🙂

    October 1, 2022
  11. Joe Glaysher #

    I remember hearing of John’s death in a Sydney pub – the legendary Strawberry Hills Hotel. Roger Dean’s Australysis had played their first set and Roger made the announcement over a mic that was still connected to a computer manipulating the output to the PA, adding a degree of poignant humour to the event.

    October 3, 2022
  12. John Hollenbeck #

    Thanks Richard for this! After years of trying to acquire John Stevens book, Search and Reflect from the US, I was so delighted to walk into a London music store and pick it up about. It is a important and unique document! I agree with Tony…I’ve had to pleasure to hear Mark Sanders and he is an incredible “free” musician who is always a joy to hear!

    November 7, 2022

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