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The fast life of Buddy Featherstonhaugh

Buddy Featherstonhaugh

Buddy Featherstonhaugh’s New Quintet at Butlin’s, Clacton in 1957. From left: Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), BF (baritone), Les Watterson (bass), Bobby Wellins (tenor) and Jeff Todd (drums).

When Buddy Featherstonhaugh died in 1976, aged 66, the tuppence in his pocket was just about all he owned. Five divorces had seen to that. But what a time he had, from touring the world with his own jazz group to becoming the first British racing driver in 10 years to win a continental grand prix. And a slow reverse of fortune couldn’t change him. In the words of one of his daughters, “He always wore a cravat and spoke like a lord.” Right to the end his suits were beautiful, his shoes polished, his nails immaculately trimmed; his habit of smoking Golden Virginia roll-ups, made with a pocket machine, offered one of the few signs that his was a different kind of life, one with several dimensions.

He was one of a group of mid-twentieth century men – among them the trumpeters Johnny Claes and Billy Cotton, the trombonist Chris Barber and the saxophonist and club-owner Ronnie Scott — in whose lives a love of racing cars shared space with a devotion to jazz. As a saxophonist, Featherstonhaugh had toured Britain in 1932 with the band of Louis Armstrong, the biggest name in jazz. Two years later, when he drove a Maserati to victory in the GP d’Albi in 1934, it represented a feat none of his fellow jazzmen could match behind the wheel.

Rupert Edward Lee Featherstonhaugh – which he pronounced the way it looks, not as “Fanshawe” — was born in Paris on October 4, 1909, the son of an English marine architect and his Scottish wife. His grandfather, George William Featherstonhaugh, a geologist and geographer, had emigrated to America, married an heiress, and was instrumental in creating the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, the first in New York State, before being appointed the first US government geologist. Later he recrossed the Atlantic and became the British consul in Le Havre.

Buddy, as his grandson would become known, was the last of the line, standing to receive an inheritance of around £200,000. He grew up at the Old Mill House in Clewer, outside Windsor, and was educated at Eastbourne College, where he had his own boat, learnt the clarinet and wore monogrammed shirts. (Later owners of the house in Clewer included the actor Michael Caine and the guitarist Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin, whose drummer, John Bonham, died there in an upstairs bedroom in 1980.) He attended his first race meeting at Brooklands at the age of 10 and in due course learnt to drive in father’s 1924 Red Label Bentley, which at some point he raced at Brooklands. At 18 he had the first car of his own, a boat-tailed one-litre Fiat, followed in quick succession by a four-cylinder Bugatti, a three-litre Sunbeam, an eight-cylinder Bugatti Type 35, a Eustace Watkins Hornet Special and a 1.5 litre Alfa Romeo, which he raced at Brooklands, winning two races in a single afternoon in 1932. There was, quite clearly, money to spare in the family, and Buddy knew how to use it to have fun.

His skills as a saxophonist were even more precocious. At 18 he had his first professional engagement, with the singer Pat O’Malley at the Brent Bridge Hotel in Hendon. In 1928 he joined the band of the violinist Jean Pougnet before passing through the ranks of many of the great dance outfits of the day, including those led by Bert Ambrose, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson and Spike Hughes (who wrote a tune, “Buddy’s Wednesday Outing”, to feature him). He visited France with Hughes’s Cambridge Nightwatchmen, played a season in Monte Carlo with Bert Firman’s band, and joined Billy Mason’s orchestra, broadcasting three 90-minute sets per week from the Café de Paris.

It was with Mason’s band that he toured in 1932 with Armstrong, who was welcomed by British audiences despite being received by the Daily Herald’s Hannen Swaffer, one of the most celebrated journalists of his day, with a review that takes the breath away today: “Armstrong is the ugliest man I have ever seen on the music hall stage. He looks, and behaves, like an untrained gorilla. He might have come straight from some African jungle. His singing is dreadful, babyish, uncouth… he makes animal noises into the microphone.”

During that historic tour Armstrong stayed at the Old Mill House, and later Featherstonhaugh wrote in an article for the Melody Maker: “The biggest thrill I got from Louis Armstrong was not from his singing nor from his wonderful solos, not his magnificent tone on dizzy top notes, but just from the one occasion on which we played over some of the splendid arrangements which he brought with him. It was his ‘swinging’ of the trumpet lead that stirred me profoundly. He was my ideal of the perfect first trumpet, and my enthusiasm made me play better, I am sure, that I have ever done before or since.”

Not even the scourging pen of Hannen Swaffer could hold back the tide of the jazz age, and in 1933 Buddy Featherstonhaugh and his Cosmopolitans made their first recordings, “The Sheik of Araby” and “Royal Garden Blues”, for the Decca label. While appearing with Bert Firman’s orchestra at the Monte Carlo Sport Club that year, Buddy managed to combine his two enthusiasms by competing at the wheel of an Alfa in the kilometre sprint along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and the hillclimb at La Turbie – although, as he recalled, someone spiked his efforts in the latter by putting sugar in his fuel tank. The spring and summer of 1935 he recorded as a member of Mason’s band backing the trumpeter Valaida Snow, led his own band for several weeks at the new Coconut Grove nightclub on Regent Street, and took time off in July to marry his first wife, Jeanette Paddison, punting along the river to St Peter’s Church, Staines and earning a picture in the Daily Mirror with the headline “BRIDEGROOM GONDOLIER”.

The following year he was among the cream of British musicians recruited by Benny Carter, the great American saxophonist, trumpeter, arranger and bandleader, to form a new London-based band, which recorded for the Vocalion label. Featherstonhaugh was among the featured soloists, who also included the trumpeter Tommy McQuater, the trombonist Ted Heath and the altoist Freddy Gardner.

Meanwhile his parallel career on the race track was earning him renown. In 1934 the wealthy young Whitney Straight gave him a trial in a four-year-old 2.5 litre Maserati and signed him up to his new team. After coming second in a five-lap Brooklands handicap, Buddy set off for Albi, where he faced a field depleted by the holding of two other big races on the same day, at Livorno and Dieppe, but including several of the latest three-litre Maseratis. Averaging 89.04mph in his obsolete car over 30 laps of the triangular 9km circuit of Les Planques, he beat his team mate Hugh Hamilton in Straight’s new Maserati, which had lost the lead after going on to seven cylinders, and the Bugatti of Pierre Veyron. Featherstonhaugh thus became the first British driver to win a pukka continental grand prix since Henry Segrave’s victory in a Sunbeam at Tours in 1923. Through this feat, the journalist Dennis May wrote in The Motor, he had “imperilled our national let’s-be-good losers tradition.”

To celebrate his victory, his mother commissioned the watercolour you see below. The artist she chose was H. J. Moser, whose illustrations were regularly featured in Speed, the magazine of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, and other motoring publications of the 1930s. It’s currently in the hands of the Pullman Gallery in London (details below).

Buddy Featherstonhaugh painting

H. J Moser (1904-1951): “R. E. L. Featherstonhaugh, Maserati 8C – 2500, 1934”

The victory in the Grand Prix d’Albigeois, however, did not turn him into a superstar of the racetracks.  For 1935 he bought the winning Maserati from Straight but apparently could not afford to keep it properly fettled. He entered the Dieppe Grand Prix in a later Maserati belonging to the Swiss driver Hans Ruesch (later to become renowned as the author of The Racer, the best of all motor racing novels), and qualified seventh in a high-class field, between the Bugattis of Robert Benoist and Earl Howe. But he could end the race only 10th out of 11 classified finishers, nine laps behind the Scuderia Ferrari-entered Alfa Tipo Bs of René Dreyfus and Louis Chiron, who finished first and second. In a 500-mile race at Brooklands he shared a big red Duesenberg with the future superstar Dick Seaman, but they were forced to retire after 72 laps when the fuel-tank retaining strap broke. Partnering Jock Manby-Colegrave in an MG Magnette in the International Trophy, he took fifth place; a year later he repeated the achievement in the ERA that had once belonged to Seaman. The highlight of 1936 came in another fifth place in the RAC International Light Car Race at Douglas, Isle of Man, won by Seaman in his famous black Delage.

There was practically no racing for Featherstonhaugh in 1937. Dennis May’s report on the Albi victory three years earlier had noted that “outside these pages he is better known as the head man of the Buddy Featherstonhaugh Sextet than as a racing driver,” but now there was very little musical activity, either, although there were occasional appearances with the bands of Hugo Rignold and Gerry Moore. Instead — telling Pat Brand 30 years later that he was frustrated by “not being able to play the music he wanted to” — he concentrated on establishing himself in the motor trade, setting up an Alfa Romeo dealership in Mayfair under the name Monza Motor Service. Nevertheless he accepted an invitation to drive Ruesch’s fast Alfa 8C-35, a proper grand prix car, at Crystal Palace, where a binding brake sent him off the road, and at Donington, where the Alfa left the track during a practice session, somersaulted twice and was wrecked.

War called him away from the Alfa dealership and into the RAF, where he took the rank of sergeant. He had wanted to become a pilot, but although the wearing of spectacles did not stop him racing a car, his defective vision barred him from flying. Instead he entertained the troops at the head of a series of ensembles, including the Bomber Command Dance Band and the RAF Rhythm Club Band. The trumpeter Kenny Baker and the drummer Jack Parnell were among his colleagues as they broadcast on the BBC’s Home Service from venues including the Criterion Theatre at Piccadilly Circus. Here he is leading the Radio Rhythm Club Sextet in 1944, playing Benny Goodman’s “Soft Winds”. And here’s Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp”.

When peace came, he celebrated by touring the UK with his seven-piece band and made a fleeting appearance playing the clarinet with his Sextette in the opening minutes of Appointment With Crime, a British thriller made at Elstree Studios, directed by John Harlow and starring William Hartnell, Joyce Howard and Herbert Lom. A six-day tour of Iceland and a long residency with a quintet at the Gargoyle Club in Dean Street, with Tommy Pollard on piano and John Hawksworth on bass, prefaced a retirement from the scene. During “five almost musicless years”, as he put it, he concentrated on the motor trade — in Warren Street, Mayfair, Chalk Farm and Earl’s Court — and a sporadic and low-key return to competition, including an appearance at the Brighton Speed Trials. One interviewer described him as “tall, loose-limbed… distinguished by a rather drawly habit of speech, punctuated by zestful bursts of laughter freshening sometimes to gale force. Has no gift for the cogwheels and doesn’t personally molest the insides of motorcars.”

He recruited another band in 1951, playing in London’s western suburbs before moving to Manchester, where he worked in a musical instrument shop and appeared with such bandeaders as Ray Allen, Sonny Swann and Harry Pook in local ballrooms, including the Ritz and the Broadway Baths. A return to London saw him providing arrangements for the Johnny Dankworth Seven and joining the drummer Basil Kirchin’s band, now — at Dankworth’s suggestion — playing baritone saxophone. In 1954 another move, this time to Edinburgh, saw him playing with Vic Abbott at the Fountainbridge Palace and Johnny Black at the Locarno, and with his own octet. Back in London at the end of 1955 he did stints with the bands of Tommy Whittle, Malcolm Mitchell and Carl Barriteau, but also formed a new quintet with which to explore his interest in the latest forms of jazz, taking him away from the task of providing music for dancers into more cerebral areas.

By the autumn of 1956 the quintet had a settled personnel and included two young stars of the British modern jazz scene, the Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and the Scottish tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins. The group recorded two EPs, “Buddy Featherstonhaugh New Quintet Vols 1 and 2”, for Pye’s Nixa label, produced by Denis Preston. They toured the Middle East (with Duncan Lamont depping for Wellins), and spent the summer of 1957 at Butlin’s holiday camp in Clacton on Sea, resolutely declining to satisfy the demands of their younger listeners for something resembling the new sounds of rock and roll. Instead they attempted to convert the audience to the sounds of Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. The second disc featured an early Wheeler composition, the perky “Goldfish Blues”. “Buddy Featherstonhaugh has slipped into the modern idiom as easily as a duck takes to water,” one critic wrote, but jazz in its more progressive form was rapidly losing its commercial appeal.

“The moment I heard bebop,” he remembered, “I realised that jazz was very far from dead. I saw it as a logical and enjoyable development of what had gone before — although it was apparently incomprehensible to many musicians who should have known better. We’d developed a nice line in modern three-part collective improvisation, and we came confidently back to town expecting the clubs to fling wide their doors. They didn’t.”

The quintet toured British Army bases in Germany and appeared in a jazz gala at the Royal Festival Hall, but Featherstonhaugh explored the jazzman’s plight in another Melody Maker article. He listed the problems behind the music’s diminishing appeal: “1. Same old faces. 2. Same old cliches. 3. Obvious and well nigh insulting indifference on the part of too many of the musicians – e.g. lack of punctuality, lack of any effort to entertain and look happy, general lack of appreciation that they are being paid to do something which they profess is their greatest desire: to play jazz with no restrictions.”

As work became scarcer, he drifted back into the motor trade. He loved to visit the Steering Wheel Club in Shepherd Market, where he encountered friends such as Stirling Moss and Graham Hill, and he was devastated by the death of Mike Hawthorn, who had become Britain’s first world champion only a few weeks earlier. There were occasional jazz-club appearances as a soloist with local rhythm sections, and in the early 1960s he led a band on the Orient Steam Navigation Company’s liner SS Orsova as it sailed to Australia.

In 1966 he was interviewed by Pat Brand of Crescendo, the British jazz and big-band magazine. “It is difficult to get at Buddy Featherstonhaugh,” he wrote. “One has to be something of a contortionist to avoid scratching the gleaming Volvos, Vauxhalls, Volkswagens and Vanden Plas which tend to obscure him in the Earls Court motor showrooms he runs today.”

The marriages were coming and going – except for the final one, to Vera, which lasted. There would be three sons and four daughters; he was a loving father, if a trifle unpredictable. Michele, one of the daughters, was presented with an Alfa Giulietta on her 17th birthday: “A lovely little car, but it was gone the next day. He’d sold it for a profit.” (She recalls going out for Sunday afternoon drives: “He drove like a racing driver. But he also had the chauffeur’s skill of making any car feel like a Rolls-Royce.”) Ian, one of the sons, now lives in Canada, where he restores art deco furniture using the technique of French polishing taught him by his father, who had learnt it as a hobby from his own father.

Living in Essex in his final decades, he loved to drink whisky and make model aeroplanes and talk about his favourite musicians, from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. According to Sara, the youngest daughter, “He always lived in the past. He talked about the good life and the things that had happened to him. He wasn’t really a good dad. We were brought up in a very Victorian way: he didn’t get to know us and he didn’t really want to. We hardly saw our half-siblings, except maybe once or twice. But outside that he was the funniest man you could ever meet, always with a story to tell you.”

His last job seems to have been with a Honda dealer in East Grinstead. “It probably ended in a tiff,” Michele said. “It often did. He couldn’t take orders.” He had many acquaintances but few real friends in his later life, she remembered. “He was hard up: his careers hadn’t earned him any money. I don’t think he really knew how to provide for his family. If he was hard up, which was the case most of the time, he’d just go off and come back some time later with lobster and champagne for mum. Not for us…”

When Linzie, another of the daughters, died in a car crash in Jersey in 1976, aged 25, a depression settled on him. Soon afterwards prostate cancer moved to his brain. He died in St Peter’s Hospital, Covent Garden on July 12, 1976. The funeral was held at Holy Trinity church in Abridge, a small Essex village.

The inheritance had vanished decades earlier. The divorce settlements had accounted for various houses. The recordings remain, some of them sounding surprisingly fresh, alongside a few photographs and a handful of faded cuttings from newspapers and magazines. Sara was 12 years old when he died; there must, she says, have been a side of him she’d love to have known.

* This is an expanded version of a piece I wrote in 2018 for The Classic Motoring Review and is republished by permission of the editor.

** Some of the recordings with Benny Carter can be found on Benny Carter: The Music Master (Proper Records). The two Pye Nixa EPs are contained in a Vocalion CD titled Jazz Today, featuring tracks by Featherstonhaugh, Harry Klein and Vic Ash, released in 2010. The interview with Pat Brand is in the July 1966 issue of Crescendo. The photograph of the quintet was provided by my friend Matthew Wright, who wrote about it in the February 2018 issue of Jazz Journal.

** The painting of Buddy and the Maserati at Albi by H. J. Moser is for sale at the Pullman Gallery, 14 King Street, St James’s, London SW1 (www.pullmangallery.com). The quoted price is £14,500.

Jimmy Cobb 1929-2020

Jimmy Cobb

Jimmy Cobb swung. That’s what he did, with a poise and a grace inherited from Kenny Clarke. He died from lung cancer in New York City on Sunday, aged 91, the last survivor of the seven musicians who played on Kind of Blue. The cymbal splash — however inadvertently and uncharacteristically heavy — that launched Miles Davis into his solo on “So What” seemed to open not only the album but a whole new world of feeling.

Drummers are praised for having “good time”, meaning they keep the beat steady. Of course Cobb had good time. Like his unshowy finesse, it was a quality that served him well throughout a long career. Great singers (including Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan) and soloists loved him for it. But Cobb was also a drummer who knew that time wasn’t a static thing, tied to a metronome.

I first noticed that when listening to the old bootlegs of the Davis quintet’s tour of Europe in the spring of 1960, and particularly on various renderings of “So What”, which habitually stretched from the 9min 25sec of the previous year’s studio version to around a quarter of an hour. You couldn’t miss how the tune had been speeded up. In the studio, on March 2, 1959, it had been taken at a relaxed 35 bars per minute. By the time they played it for a TV show that April, with Wynton Kelly at the piano in place of Bill Evans, it had accelerated slightly to 38.

A year later, on concert stages across Europe, they were kicking off the tune around 20 bars per minute faster than the original. More important than that, however, it was ending up even faster. At the first show in Paris on March 21, over the course of 13 minutes, it went from a brisk 56 to 65 bars per minute. At both concerts in Stockholm the following night it went from 60 to 68.

Does this mean that Cobb wasn’t doing his job? Of course it doesn’t. He and the other four — Davis, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers — were doing what they needed to do. Doing what the music required. Doing what it took, in that moment, to swing. RIP, Mr Cobb.

* The photograph of Jimmy Cobb was taken by Ted Williams, whose work was collected in Jazz: The Iconic Images of Ted Williams, published by ACC Editions in 2016. The European concerts are on Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour, released in 2018.  Kind of Blue is in your collection.

In Underground London

Underground London 2

I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in recent days from listening to Underground London, a three-CD set that attempts to recreate, through a mosaic of recordings, the feeling of being a certain kind of person in London in the first half of the 1960s, someone either growing out of, or who had been a little too young for, the full beatnik experience in the 1950s, but looking for similar sensations in a changing time: free speech, free jazz, free verse, free love.

The first disc starts with Ornette Coleman’s “W.R.U.”, ends with Jimmy Smith’s “Autumn Leaves”, and includes Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading “Dog”, Allen Ginsberg reading “America”, a track from Red Bird, the jazz-and-poetry EP Christopher Logue made with Tony Kinsey, and György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères”. The second opens with Jimmy Giuffre’s “Jesus Maria”, ends with Albert Ayler’s “Moanin'”, and includes Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Jog”, Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody, and the Dudley Moore Trio playing the theme from Beyond the Fringe. The third opens with Cecil Taylor’s “Love for Sale”, ends with Thelonious Monk’s “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie” and includes Davy Graham and Alexis Korner playing “3/4 AD”, Aldous Huxley reading from The Visionary Experience, the MJQ playing “Lonely Woman”, Luciano Berio manipulating Cathy Berberian’s voice in “Visage”, and “A Rose for Booker” by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with Charles Lloyd.

Add in Stockhausen, Don Cherry and John Coltrane, Annie Ross, John Cage and David Tudor, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy and Joe Harriott, and you get the idea. And to set up the mood for the sort of extended listening session the set deserves, I’d suggest candles in Chianti bottles, something vaguely cubist on the wall, the Tibetan Book of the Dead on the coffee table, and a black polo-neck sweater, or perhaps a chocolate-brown corduroy jacket. And if the party is going well, maybe a Beatle or two, in an adventurous mood, will drop by on the way home from Abbey Road.

But it’s not really a joke, or a caricature. There’s a lot of completely wonderful stuff here, some of it revealing new qualities when isolated from the context of its original full-album setting (an underrated virtue of anthologies or compilations). And practically everything is on the edge of something, some new discovery, some unexplored territory worth taking a risk to reach. How exciting was that?

* The photograph of Allen Ginsberg outside the Royal Albert Hall was taken in 1965 by John Hopkins and was used in the poster for the International Poetry Incarnation held on June 11 that year. It’s included in the booklet accompanying Underground London: Art Music and Free Jazz in the Swinging Sixties, which is on él records, via Cherry Red. 

Ron Rubin 1933-2020

pic3

Among many distinctions, the bassist Ron Rubin, whose death on April 14 was announced in the Hampstead and Highgate Gazette, was playing with a trad jazz band led by the banjoist Ralph “Bags” Watmough on the opening night of the Cavern Club in his native Liverpool in 1957. He went on to a long career in the mainstream and modern idioms, with the bands of Humphrey Lyttelton, Sandy Brown and Al Fairweather, Tony Coe, Bruce Turner, John Picard, George Melly and John Chilton, Tony Milliner and many others. He played with such visiting Americans as Will Bill Davison, Billy Eckstine, Red Allen and Ray Nance, and in the freewheeling spirit of the time he was also briefly a member of Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men and the New Departures jazz and poetry group.

One gig about which he had mixed feelings was his collaboration with the brilliant but ill-fated pianist and composer Mike Taylor, on whose second and final LP, Trio, he appeared in 1967. Rubin played with Taylor at various times between 1962 and 1968, notably at the Little Theatre Club and Ronnie Scott’s Old Place, the two crucibles of the “new thing” in London in the late ’60s, and his diary entries provided the author Luca Ferrari with valuable information for his valuable biography of the pianist, Out of Nowhere.

Rubin recognised Taylor’s talent, but he was uneasy about the avant-garde. He was even less comfortable when Taylor, his hitherto conservative personality and appearance transformed by LSD, started turning up for gigs barefoot and declining to play the piano, preferring a broken clay drum and some sort of flute. Taylor’s friends, such as the trumpeter Henry Lowther, feared he had lost his mind. In 1968 three of his tunes were recorded by Cream for Wheels of Fire, with lyrics by Ginger Baker, who had been his trio’s first drummer. The following year his body was washed up on the Essex shore. The coroner gave an open verdict, but suicide of some sort was assumed. He was 31.

The point of this, anyway, is not to rehearse the Mike Taylor legend. Trio is one of the great albums of British jazz, a document of such originality and confidence that it can still astound, and Ron Rubin was a part of it. Alongside the drummer Jon Hiseman, he appears on all but one of the eight tracks. He is the only bassist on “All the Things You Are”, “Just a Blues”, “The End of a Love Affair” and “Abena”, a wonderful ballad. He is joined by Jack Bruce on “While My Lady Sleeps”, “Two Autumns” and “Guru”. Bruce is the only bassist on “Stella by Starlight”. So, not exactly a trio, but never mind.

As so often happens with music on the cusp of a new movement, the standards are the listener’s way in. I suppose if you were to form a triangle with the young Cecil Taylor, Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans at its points, Mike Taylor might be somewhere in the middle, although he was no plagiarist. This was high-tension music, operating at a demanding intellectual level, requiring great commitment and creativity from all its participants, and Ron Rubin’s strong, assured and inventive playing was a big part of it, whatever his own feelings may have been at the time. (He was disconcerted, for example, when Taylor’s refused to give him the changes for “The End of a Love Affair”, which he didn’t know, telling him to play without them.) I hope he came to understand the esteem in which it is held today.

* The photograph of Ron Rubin with Mike Taylor in the early ’60s is from Luca Ferrari’s Out of Nowhere: The Uniquely Elusive Jazz of Mike Taylor, published by Gonzo Multimedia in 2015. Both Mike Taylor’s albums, Pendulum and Trio, were originally released in Columbia’s Lansdowne Series. The latter was reissued on CD in 2004 in Gilles Peterson’s Impressed Re-pressed series but is no longer available. (Pendulum — on which Rubin doesn’t appear — has never been properly reissued; the two vinyl copies currently for sale on the internet are priced at £1,280.01 and £1,372.95.)

Roland Kirk and friends

Roland Kirk poster

I found this flyer the other day in a box of old stuff. It’s from 1963, and it reminds me of a few things. The first is that this Roland Kirk concert was in Nottingham and not in Leicester, as I wrote in an earlier piece (now corrected). The second is that his tour was organised by Ronnie Scott’s, where he had been performing. The third is that there were some interesting musicians to be seen and heard that night.

Stan Tracey was the house pianist at Ronnie’s, then still located in Gerrard Street, from 1960 to 1967, by which time it had moved to Frith Street. After a sticky patch in the ’70s he went on to a long and distinguished career as a composer and bandleader, leading to the award of an CBE in 2008, five years before his death at 86.

Malcolm Cecil was an excellent bassist (and early member of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated) who migrated to the USA, took an interest in synthesisers, and palled up with Bob Margouleff, a man of similar instincts. Together, as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, they released Zero Time in 1971 before going on to provide the crucial synthesiser expertise on Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, thus helping to shape the direction of music in the 1970s and beyond.

Johnny Butts was a very fine drummer who played with the Emcee Five in Newcastle (alongside Ian and Mike Carr) before moving to London and contributing to the groups of Ronnie Ross, Humphrey Lyttelton, Tony Coe, Dick Morrissey and Gordon Beck, and the Tubby Hayes Big Band. He died in a road accident in Bermuda in 1966, aged 25.

Brian Auger was a useful young bebop pianist with Tommy Whittle and others before switching to the Hammond organ in the year he made this tour with Kirk. In 1965 the Brian Auger Trinity was joined by Julie Driscoll, Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry to form the Steam Packet, a very fine live band who never had a proper recording session. The Driscoll/Auger version of “This Wheel’s on Fire”, a Bob Dylan/Rick Danko composition circulated on the original Basement Tapes publisher’s acetates, is on anyone’s list of great ’60 singles. Later Auger formed Oblivion Express and moved to California, where he still lives, aged 80.

Irish-born Rick Laird had left Australia for London in 1962 to study at the Guildhall School of Music and quickly became a first-choice bass player on the London scene, playing with many visiting Americans at the Scott Club. In 1966 he won a scholarship to the Berklee School in Boston, played with Buddy Rich’s big band, and switched to bass guitar. In 1971 he was recruited by John McLaughlin to help form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with whom he toured and recorded. Later he toured with Stan Getz and Chick Corea. More recently he has taught bass and pursued a second career as a photographer.

Phil Kinorra was a 20-year-old drummer whose nom de batterie was made up, in a touching display of hero-worship, of bits of the names of three of London’s finest modern jazz drummers of the time: Phil Seaman, Tony Kinsey and Bobby Orr. His real name was Robert Anson, he was born in Nottingham (so this gig was a return home), and he also appeared alongside Graham Bond and Johnny Burch on Don Rendell’s wildly exciting 1963 Jazzland LP, Roarin’. In the mid-’60s he adopted a new identity and led a mod-soul band called Julian Covey and the Machine, who recorded “A Little Bit Hurt” for Island in 1967 and whose constantly shifting personnel included the organist Vincent Crane (later of Arthur Brown’s band and Atomic Rooster), the guitarists Jim Cregan, Dave Mason and John Morshead, the ill-fated bassist Cliff Barton and the definitely not ill-fated bassist John McVie, and the saxophonist and flautist Bob Downes. When psychedelia beckoned, Anson/Kinorra/Covey metamorphosed into Philamore Lincoln, writing “Temma Harbour”, recorded by Mary Hopkin as the second follow-up to “Those Were the Days” in 1969, and releasing The North Wind Blew South, an album of what would now be called Sunshine Pop, on Epic in 1970. He left the music business later in that decade and seems never to have returned.

Quite a lot of history for one tatty bit of paper, which I stuck up on my bedroom wall as a 16-year-old and then carried around from place to place, from one life to another, for almost six decades.

Henry Grimes 1935-2020

Henry Grimes 2

Henry Grimes has laid down that dark green double bass for the last time. One day someone will make a feature film based on the life of a man who appeared at the end of the 1950s, appeared as a 22-year-old playing with Thelonious Monk in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, played on some pivotal recordings of the ’60s avant-garde (by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders, among others), and then disappeared at the start of the 1970s and was long presumed dead before he was found in Los Angeles, having spent 30 years working as a cleaner and a construction worker, sometimes homeless and knowing nothing about about the events that had occurred in jazz in the interim. Encouraged to return to activity, he spent the best part of 20 years playing as though he had never been away. Now he has died in a Harlem hospital, aged 85, from the coronavirus.

The photograph above is of the green bass that was sent him by William Parker, shipped from New York to LA as part of his rehabilitation. This was one snowy New York night in January 2016 at the Stone, on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street, where Grimes was appearing during a four-night season devoted to various line-ups curated by the saxophonist Matana Roberts. She had invited the man she described as “an inspiration for ever” to join an improvising quartet with two lesser known musicians, the guitarist Kyp Malone and the drummer Mike Pride. Together they produced an exceptional set, bound together by Grimes’s strength and wisdom.

Those were the qualities he’d shown at Cafe Oto a couple of years earlier, playing alongside the drummer Chad Taylor and the guitarist Marc Ribot in the latter’s wonderful trio. There was also space for him to play a solo improvisation on the violin, his first instrument in childhood, filling the room with energy while maintaining his sphinx-like countenance.

It’s worth remembering that when Charles Mingus decided he’d rather be playing piano, he entrusted Henry Grimes with his seat in the band, and with his bass. Luckily, there are plenty of recordings by which we can remember him. Some are from the first phase of his career: Taylor’s three boiling tracks on Into the Hot, followed by Unit Structures and Conquistador; Ayler’s mighty Spirits and Spirits Rejoice; Sanders’s gorgeous Tauhid; the 1963 recordings with Sonny Rollins’s quartet (including Cherry and Billy Higgins); and Cherry’s own trio of sublime Blue Note albums, Complete Communion, Symphony for Improvisers and Where Is Brooklyn?.  From his renaissance there are a couple of great albums with Ribot, Spiritual Unity (an Ayler tribute) and Live at the Village Vanguard, and an album of solo bass and violin improvisations from 2014, The Tone of Wonder.

Thank you for all of it, Mr Grimes.

* Barbara Frenz’s Music to Silence to Music, an excellent biography of Henry Grimes, was published in the UK by Northway Publications in 2015, translated from the German by J. Bradford Robinson.

Chris Barber turns 90

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Chicago, 1959: Muddy Waters, St Louis Jimmy Oden, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson

Chris Barber is 90 today. Few people have had a more profound impact on the course of my generation’s musical tastes in the six and a half decades since he encouraged his banjoist/guitarist, Lonnie Donegan, to continue the habit — started when they were both members of Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen — of breaking up an evening of New Orleans music with a skiffle turn in the intervals, thus leading directly to “Rock Island Line” and all else that followed.

That was no fluke. Barber had broad taste and was a lifelong proselytiser for great music and great musicians. He loved the blues, and in the late ’50s he brought Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters to Britain. The legend goes that purists turned up to hear Muddy sing the “authentic” Delta blues on an acoustic guitar and were scandalised when he plugged in his Telecaster and let rip with the electrified Chicago version. Luckily, at least as far as history goes, the purists were in the minority. Barber also brought over Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, thus helping to shape the tastes of a generation who would soon become Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Blues Breakers and thousands more.

Barber’s own ensembles veered gently away from the strict New Orleans format, adding an electric guitarist and extra horns (including saxophones, anathema to traddies). Later Paul Jones was often the featured singer with the Big Chris Barber Band, which I last saw playing in the park in central Baden-Baden on a sunny summer afternoon during the 2006 World Cup. On that occasion the bandshell was only 100 yards or so from the five-star hotel where the wives and girlfriends of the England team were staying, staked out by Fleet Street’s paparazzi, but I don’t recall any of them leaving their poolside loungers to listen.

Last year Chris announced his retirement. On his 90th birthday, I’d like to thank him for all he did, directly and indirectly, to guide so many of us towards the music that changed our lives. And, of course, to wish him many happy returns.

Lee Konitz 1927-2020

Lee Konitz William Claxton

One of the things we value most about jazz is the way it encourages — even relies on — the expression of individual character. A musician’s “sound” (a combination of factors, including tone, phrasing, attack and harmonic sense) is as personal as a fingerprint. Learning to differentiate between them is one of the tests and pleasures of being a young fan. Lee Konitz, who has died at the age of 92 from the effects of the coronavirus, had a more identifiable sound than most right from the start, but what was different about him was that he never allowed it to harden into a series of familiar gestures. Instead he showed a willingness to allow his style to evolve naturally as time passed.

There was a good example one night in 1992, when Gerry Mulligan arrived in London with a version of what is thought of as the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet, containing several original members (with Lew Soloff playing Miles’s role). Konitz had joined up for their European tour, and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall it was noticeable that the altoist was the only one who, when his solos came round, did not in any way attempt to reproduce his work on the original recordings 40-odd years earlier. His timbre had thickened and his lines no longer flew with the blithe adroitness of someone who could play whatever lay under his fingers, but there was a deeper kind of thought in every weighted phrase.

He was the most open of musicians: a career that began with Claude Thornhill and Lennie Tristano ended in collaborations with Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson. En route he played with an astonishing cornucopia of musicians, from Warne Marsh and Chet Baker through Jimmy Giuffre, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Elvin Jones, Henry Grimes, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Gary Peacock, Bill Frisell and countless others. He played with Charlie Parker, on tour with Stan Kenton in 1953, and with Ornette Coleman at the 1998 Umbria Jazz Festival. He was great in a formal setting, playing Gil Evans’s charts with Thornhill’s big band or Miles’s nine-piece, and he could be even better with an unfamiliar pick-up rhythm section, using the most mundane of formats to explore the extensions of melody and harmony.

During an earlier visit to London, in June 1983, on an otherwise perfectly ordinary night in a perfectly ordinary jazz club, in front of a perfectly ordinary audience, he produced one of the most extraordinary jazz performances I’ve ever heard. Here’s what I wrote about it a few years later, in the introduction to Jazz Portraits, a book of photographs:

On this night, a few evenings into a fortnight’s season that was part of a typical American jazz musician’s summer spent moving between the clubs and festivals of Europe, Konitz was working with three British players: Bob Cornford, a classically trained composer and pianist; Paul Morgan, a young double bassist; and Trevor Tompkins, a highly experienced drummer. Within a month of this engagement, the quiet, unemphatic Cornford, who revered Béla Bartók and Bill Evans in equal measure, would be dead of a heart attack at the age of 43, his immense promise unfulfilled, his gifts revealed only to a handful of his peers.

Konitz, like all of Tristano’s pupils, was known for his reliance on the chord sequences of standard Broadway ballads. They had been good enough for Lester Young and Charlie Parker, Tristano’s twin avatars of improvisation, and they were good enough for Lee Konitz. But this set on this particular night began with what seemed like a free improvisation: brief snatches of elliptical melody, angular and discontinuous, connected to each other only by the most tenuous logic. Or so it seemed. But gradually, with Cornford, Morgan and Tompkins following every step, the saxophonist’s phrases began to form more explicit links, even starting to describe familiar shapes. Slowly, as if from a pale mist, a tune emerged.

The process described in that paragraph may have taken five minutes, or it may have taken fifteen. No one was keeping score, and one of the special properties of improvisation — and not just jazz improvisation — is that it can take hold of chronological time and distort it: speeding it up, slowing it down, bending it, stopping it altogether. Now Konitz briefly ruled time, making it obey his commands as he lingered over the revealed contours of his design, sprinting forwards and pulling back until he judged the moment right to unveil the unmistakable shape of a standard.

Imagine a three-dimensional jigsaw, made out of glass, assembling itself in mid-air. Such was the quiet strength of Konitz’s creative conviction that his partners in the rhythm section never felt the lack of specific directions or signposts. When the tune of “On Green Dolphin Street” finally emerged as a more or less complete entity, it was the product of an organic process. Unlike most improvisers of his generation, who take the material and reassemble it into something of their own, Konitz had reversed the process.

A dozen years later, it was impossible to recall specific phrases from a piece of music that disappeared into the air as soon as it had been played. But the sound and the shape of the music, and the quality of absolute uniqueness that they gave to this apparently mundane event, were etched indelibly upon the memory.

Today I’ll listen to Konitz on Gil Evans’s recasting of “Yardbird Suite” for Claude Thornhill in 1947, to his participation in Lennie Tristano’s “Intuition”, the first attempt at pure collective improvisation in modern jazz in 1949, to his sound colouring the texture of the Davis/Evans version of “Moon Dreams” in 1950, to this “All the Things You Are” with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet at the Haig Club in LA in 1953, to this “All of You” with Sonny Dallas on bass and Elvin Jones on drums from 1961, and this “Alone Together” with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden from a great Blue Note trio album of the same name, recorded in 1996.

* The photograph of Lee Konitz was taken by William Claxton and appeared in Jazz Portraits (Studio, 1994). Andy Hamilton’s book Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art (University of Michigan Press, 2007) is highly recommended.

Mike Westbrook’s ‘Citadel / Room 315’

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One day in 1974 Mike Westbrook came into the Island offices in St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith, to play me a tape of a concert he’d given in Södertälje with the 16-piece Swedish Radio Jazz Group. He’d been commissioned to write an extended work for the ensemble, with John Surman as a featured soloist. He called the piece Citadel / Room 315.

I was keen, and we started to make plans. Then something got in the way, and it didn’t happen. So instead of releasing the live version, several months later Mike went into the studios with a band of UK-based musicians including Kenny Wheeler and Henry Lowther on trumpets and Malcolm Griffiths on trombone, as well as Surman, to record a version that was released the following year by RCA, who’d put up the money.

That recording is now rare, which makes it even better news that the Swedish concert is now being released for the first time, with Westbrook’s blessing, under the title Love and Understanding, borrowing the name of one of the suite’s 11 sections. Hearing it for the first time in 46 years, I was delighted to find it every bit as exceptional as I’d thought back then.

In a manner typical of Westbrook, it ranges through a variety of approaches and moods, from the meditative to the wildly exultant, engaging the emotions all the way. The long “Love and Understanding” might be described as an essay on boogaloo moods, evolving from a slinky funk to a streetwise strut, taking in the “Oh Happy Day” riff and brassy TV detective-series brass fanfares en route. “Pastorale” begins in the way its title suggests before mutating into solos over the “Grazing in the Grass” motif, played by Westbrook on electric piano — another kind of pastorality, I guess. From the gentler passages, Surman’s soprano on “Tender Love” is particularly exquisite.

What also distinguishes the recording is the quality of the Swedish musicians. The solos from Jan Allan and Bertil Lövgren (trumpets), Arne Domnérus (alto and clarinet), Lennart Åberg (soprano and tenor), Lars Olofsson (trombone), Rune Gustafsson (guitar), Bengt Hallberg (piano) and Georg Riedel (bass) is exceptional, as is the drumming of Egil Johansen. They don’t go in for the sort of free-for-all shout-ups to which Westbrook’s British bands were prone, but I can’t imagine anything more invigorating than Åberg’s soprano wailing over the last section of “Love and Understanding”, immediately followed by Allan’s beautifully control of diminuendo as the section ends, or Lövgren’s gloriously lyrical delivery throughout “Pastorale”. The acapella trio for Domnérus’s clarinet and the bass clarinets of Surman and Erik Nilsson that opens the long “Sleepwalker Awaking in Sunlight” is a complete joy, as is Gustaffson’s liquid bebop guitar solo which follows it.

This makes it even more extraordinary that the reason for the cancellation of the proposed Island release was that a couple of the Swedish musicians were unhappy with their solos, didn’t want them preserved for posterity, and wouldn’t sign clearance forms. Listen, and try to guess who they might have been. It’s impossible.

In all, then, this is definitely one to add to the list of the great recordings of Westbrook’s important extended works of the past half-century, from Celebration through Marching Song and Metropolis to On Duke’s Birthday and The Cortège and many more. And in this case, to say the least, better late than never.

* Love and Understanding is released as a vinyl double album and a single CD the My Only Desire label (myonlydesirerecords.com). The photograph of Mike Westbrook is from the sleeve of the RCA version of Citadel and was taken by Eric Blum.

Wallace Roney 1960-2020

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In terms of the richness of his tone and the fluidity and inventiveness of his phrasing, Wallace Roney — who has died at the age of 59, a victim of the Covid-19 virus — stood somewhere between Booker Little and Ambrose Akinmusire in the lineage of jazz trumpet. And it was a tribute to his prowess that in June 1991, when Miles Davis surprisingly accepted the Montreux Jazz Festival’s invitation to perform the music Gil Evans had written for him in the ’40s and ’50s with a 46-piece orchestra, it was Roney who was chosen to stand alongside the frail featured soloist, taking over his parts when necessary.

The photographs above are some of those I took during the brief rehearsals. Roney’s commitment to the task was as obvious as his feelings for Davis. The success of the concert was more emotional than substantial. The orchestra, conducted by Quincy Jones, was packed with great musicians and did a fine job, but Davis’s diminished powers were evident. Roney’s help was vital to ensure that the great man was not embarrassed, and in his own solos, such as that on “The Duke”, he managed to pay appropriate homage to the genius alongside him while retaining his own character. Eventually, too, Davis was able to gather the strength and confidence to do himself something close to justice, and you’d have to think Roney’s close support had something to do with that. Those of us in the audience were simply astonished and profoundly grateful to have been given the chance to hear much-loved music that we never imagined we’d hear Miles play live.

A few years earlier at the Royal Albert Hall I’d seen Roney taking the place of Freddie Hubbard in VSOP, as the near-reunion of Davis’s second great quintet was called, alongside Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. He shone there, too. But it was with Tony Williams’s own quintet in the late ’80s that he found what I think of as his perfect setting. With Bill Pierce on soprano and tenor saxophones, Mulgrew Miller on piano and Ira Coleman on double bass, playing Williams’s fine compositions (like “Geo Rose”) in a series of fine albums for Blue Note, this group offered a perfect restatement of what might be called post-hard bop, pre-fusion values. When I saw them at the Jazz Café in London, I was thrilled not only to see and hear the great Williams not only playing acoustic music again but surrounding himself with proper heavyweights, of whom Wallace Roney was unquestionably one.