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.”