JJ 11/63: What’d I Say, by Steve Voce

Sixty years ago Steve Voce evoked a jazz weekend in London with a vibrancy that transports the reader to the time and place. First published in Jazz Journal November 1963

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Roland Kirk. Photo by Val Wilmer

All Done With Mirrors

In all my sixteen years (I started at eighteen months) of active jazz listening, I have never witnessed anything so in­credible. You wouldn’t believe it unless you could see it, and then you have to pinch your eyeballs a few times to make sure you haven’t got triple vision. The manual and mental dexterity involved in the production of this hard-driving jazz (which incidentally makes hay of all the barriers between modern and other jazz forms) must be the result of some supernatural intervention. This man must be dealing wholesale in the power of dark­ness.

If you missed Roland Kirk at the Ronnie Scott Club, I would recommend that you have a drink, comb your hair and go away and slash your wrists.

Scott’s comment that Kirk approaches genius is a most modest one. Embodied in this gentle young man is all the progress that one could reasonably expect the combined sax players of the world to make in the next ten years. If you think I’m laying it on thick, find some­body that was there, and they’ll agree with me.

Last month I mentioned that I wouldn’t be able to get to London for Roland’s visit. As the time approached and I kept playing “We Free Kings”, the thought got too much for me. So, with some inspiration, I got down to work.

I sold the house. I got the wife a good job washing dishes. I got my young son a newspaper round. I got the two girls out on the Penny-For-The-Guy racket, working in the Christmas carols when­ever they could manage it. The result was enough bread to enable me to make it without selling the firm’s car (my attempts to sell the New Brighton ferry boat to Dick Goodwin failed only at the last minute when someone told him they’d invented the Mersey Tunnel and he sobered up).

So I arrived in London and deposited myself on the Traills, who feed me, keep me out of trouble and change my nappies when necessary. First stop was Basie’s concert at the Finsbury Astoria, where Sinclair wanted to tape an interview. I left him to it, and went with Mrs. Traill to stand in the darkened wings to hear the band (whose material had improved immensely as the tour progressed). When the lights went up a little I found that I was leaning on Sarah Vaughan with one of my shoes firmly planted on Quincy Jones’ foot. The rubbing in the small of my back turned out to be the front quarter of James Rushing. By this time I hadn’t had enough to take advantage of such exalted company, so I carefully edged out before anyone mistook me for Woody Herman or J. S. Bach.

My precautions proved unnecessary, for Quincy Jones turned out to be one of the most approachable of people, completely modest and fascinating to talk to. For those of you who, like me, were despondent about the financial failure of his jazz big band, there is apparently another album on the way and, by picking and choosing his work carefully, Quincy is operating the band in a way which he finds successful in every respect.

The concert ended and, leaving Mrs. Traill with Count Basie, I went with Grover Mitchell and some friends to give it one in an Irish pub over the road which had all the architectural glories of St. James Infirmary. Grover sprinted rapidly through a series of double brandies which left me trailing behind doing an impersonation of “The Lost Weekend”. Mitchell, who made his name with Ellington, Hampton, etc., before joining the Count, is delighted with the Basie band, and indeed there seems to be a new spirit throughout the group.

Grover also had a large band in San Francisco, which was finally taken over by Earl Hines in 1962, retaining the trombonist as his musical director.

‘Roland began hooking up sax slings, looping on the siren and the penny whistle and sticking one horn inside another until he finally looked like a telephone switchboard onto which a small aircraft has just crashed’

But, to return to my lost weekend. Next stop was Ronnie Scott’s, suitably crowded for the main attraction. Scott’s must be one of the best-equipped clubs in the country. Somehow the traditional jazz club scruffiness has been done away with and one escapes the feeling that this is just a room used for playing jazz in. Well managed by Pete King, one gets respectable service – indeed the steak which I ate at some unearthly hour of the morning was one of the best I have had for some time. This place should be five-star in the A.A. guide to jazz clubs.

Brian Auger’s trio, which played very well throughout the night, was on the stand when we went in. Pete King took us through to Roland’s dressing room where he was doing something to what appeared to be an amputated and reeassembled T-model Ford, but what was actually THE manzello (there can’t be another one).

When the time came for his set, Roland began hooking up sax slings, looping on the siren and the penny whistle and sticking one horn inside another until he finally looked like a telephone switchboard onto which a small aircraft has just crashed. He has a cheerful and good-looking face which, surmounted by a beret, beamed over the top of what, if he will forgive the phrase, looked like a cart-load of rejects from Steptoe’s yard. There was an impressed hush (noticeable at each set) as he mounted the stand and began laying his weird collection out as he wanted it. The equally strange assort­ment of listening musicians (through the night it ranged from Sarah, Quincy and Lennie Felix to Martin Downer from the Charlie Galbraith band) had already begun to drift in.

One final clank as he hitched up his horns, two foot-beats and a nod at Stan Tracey and straight into a tenor-stritch marathon which set the pattern for the whole night.

The two- or three-in-one bit is perhaps the most impressive visual jazz I have ever seen. Certainly one’s enjoyment of the records is enormously enhanced by having seen it done. The speed and sureness with which Kirk leaps at the multiple harmonies is almost up to an Olympic standard of athletics and the physical gyrations involved must alone take peak fitness and years of practice.

Kirk could have made his name on the strength of his tenor-playing alone. Certainly there are influences – Coltrane, Thompson and Byas amongst them, but the wild jazz element in Kirk goes back earlier than such sophistication – he is a jazzman who could equally be enjoyed by modernists and all the people who have written letters about the tenor-player on that Bessie Smith record. During the night (he didn’t finish until 4.30 a.m.) he played some most sensitive tenor, albeit embellished at the appropriate moments with a belch or two of stritchery and manzellotry. Body And Soul and You Don’t Know What Love Is were two that particularly stay in the mind. Body, with all the warmth and meatiness of the classic Hawkins version, had the reedless tenor treatment. This process, which I have rather presumptuously tried to explain in a previous column, is far more complex than I had thought, and indeed I had the basic principles all wrong. I now have a much clearer idea of how to explain it: I don’t know how in hell he does it.

The end product is something like very good Rex Stewart, and, appropriately to such a ballad, Kirk’s treatment amounted more to mainstream jazz than anything else. In fact, throughout the evening, his playing frequently reminded me of the directness of Buddy Tate. Although his work is far more complex, he has that same sure authority and de­termination of purpose. In the same way that Thurber used every single word to its maximum impact, so Kirk is with sounds. Even his occasional complicated rushes of notes were directed with such drive that what would elsewhere have sounded incoherent took on a logical form. So also with his many interjected quotes which, one suddenly realises, are devices for changing mood or space for thought. The streams of sound never let up for a moment and there are never any gaps or unsure grasping after an idea.

‘The most fantastic event of the evening was reserved till the last. Seated at the piano, Roland held a note on the manzello for about five minutes and played some knocked out blues piano which made Mose Allison sound like Liberace’

I have always had doubts about the role of the flute in jazz. The snorting, bucketing instrument which Kirk handles so easily is a long way from the fairies-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden trench into which most modern flautists (Wess and Shihab excluded) seem to have dragged its fellows. Anyone familiar with the records will remember the vocal mutters which round off any Kirk flute perform­ance. He has now perfected the ability to play flute and sing a vocal at the one time. Indeed, I believe if you put a piece of bread under his beret while he does it, he makes very good toast. Among the many flute features was You Did It, You Did It which alone is worth the price of the We Free Kings LP, and several interesting new numbers from the Domino LP (American Mercury).

But the most fantastic event of the evening was reserved till the last. Seated at the piano, Roland held a note on the manzello for about five minutes (he has, as you might suspect, perfected a way of breathing in and out at the same time, which enables him to hold a note for an indefinite period) and played some knocked out blues piano which made Mose Allison sound like Liberace.

“If this was my house,” Kirk told the audience, “you could stay here all to­morrow and the next day, but I’m afraid it isn’t, and we have to go now.” No audience ever got more for their money.

It seems unfair to mention Stan Tracey’s accompaniment to Kirk only in a con­cluding sentence, because he played with matching enthusiasm to everything which Roland did and generated an enormous amount of feeling in each of his solos. On this showing I prefer him to any other local modern pianist I have ever heard so far.

Where’ve You Bin?

I had been worrying about the fate of the mad type-setter from Jazz News who vanished so dramatically some time ago.

He’s alright, and apparently has got another job.

Recently the Melody Maker published a photograph of a swarthy Hot Lips Page over the caption “Eddie Condon”. Then, when they started this new glossy thing (poor Max and Bob – it must be hell in there) with three photographs of the Beatles per page, there was a picture of a sultry and very fancyable blonde. The caption?

“Quincy Jones.”

Welcome back, feller.

Ding Dong Dobell

We don’t really appreciate the small record company men like Carlo Kramer (Esquire) and Doug Dobell (77 Records) who not only earn their living out of jazz, but also add considerably to it by recording music of a higher standard than most which is made available to us.

I refuse to join the morbid ones who will no doubt make him famous now that he is dead, but the great Pete Brown’s last record (77 LA 12/8) will no doubt now assume the importance which it had deserved when first issued.

The latest Dobell (77 LEU 12/6) is by Archie Semple and includes nine quartet and four quintet tracks recorded in 1957-58 when Archie was on a kick which sounds very like Ed Hall of the ’forties and is of course none the worse for that.

This is an important issue, because it contains many good things which are unlikely to be repeated – the great com­bination of Archie with Fred Hunt, the best Dickie Hawdon I have ever heard, and some of those electric moments (which are like nothing else I know) when Semple takes off. There is an impeccable mellowness about the choice of numbers, a study of which would be rewarding to some of the record executives who think that everyone will stop buying records if they break from the fast-slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement of tracks.

Everyone should give this one to everyone else for Christmas.

Excuse Me While I Wipe Off My Face

Re-listening to that Washboard Rhythm LP has failed to support my earlier assertion that a tuba is present for the Clarence Williams tracks. As a conse­quence of this crass carelessness on my part, I wish to apologise to that much maligned tuba-tracker, Brian Rust. How­ever, I think I detect a tenor sax, which isn’t in the personnel listing. . . .