JJ 04/64: Dick Morrissey, interviewed

Sixty years ago John Shirley interviewed the young saxophonist he thought a deserving successor to Tubby Hayes. First published in Jazz Journal April 1964

Dick Morrissey. Photo by Bruce Fleming

Ever since Egbert took the throne of England in 827 A.D. there have been kings and heirs on this island. The kings come first, either by right or by force, and they are followed by their heirs, who generally speaking make improvements beyond their predecessors’ records. But until the kings die, are killed, or abdicate for some other position, the heirs must bide their time in the background – awaiting their chance for acclaim.

These rules are usually applied to regal personages, but they are no less apt for Dick Morrissey, the young British tenor saxophonist who in 1963 stands on the threshold of what could be a remarkable career in the realm of modern jazz. Fresh from a year of playing in India he is well-equipped with talent, enthusiasm, confidence and spirit – a quartet of qualities that should serve him well. Al­ready he is a deserving successor to the throne of Tubby Hayes, so when and if the latter moves to the United States, he may well become the King of British Modern Jazz.

Morrissey is, so to speak, a local lad. Born and raised in Sutton, Surrey, he was a schoolboy Dixieland enthusiast, in love with the music of Buck Clayton and Sandy Brown. Aged 22 he has been blowing the saxophone for only three years, but while still a schoolboy he led a traditional group on clarinet. A sym­pathetic family has watched him progress through a selection of instruments ranging from the clarinet to the saxophone, and taking in violins “which I trod on”, piano accordions, bugles, piccolos and flutes. Once he played in a skiffle group – “but never on guitar”.

Like so many musicians on the scene today he was converted to modern jazz through the sounds of Charlie Parker, brought to his notice by tenorist Peter King, living up the road in Tolworth. From that day onwards Dick began changing the line-up of his Dixieland group to fit in better with the modern pattern.

‘It all started with Charlie Parker. He was a genius, that’s all there is to it’

“When I was at school everything was Sandy Brown or Humphrey Lyttelton,” he confesses. “I just never heard any other type of music. But when I eventually got round to some ‘Bird’ I really pricked up my ears. I joined Peter King and Gus Galbraith, and we really made a swinging group. But it all started with Charlie Parker. He was a genius, that’s all there is to it. You can’t get away from the fact.”

From school Dick Morrissey entered the ranks of the jewellery trade, taking up an apprenticeship with a local firm. “I’m afraid the usual thing happened. It just couldn’t last. Travelling back and forth to Coventry on semi-pro gigs I kept being late for work. I took the initial step I suppose and left – but I could see the boot was coming my way before very much longer.”

One of the most important factors that determined his exit from “the trade” was the promise of a year-long engagement in India. Morrissey turned professional six months before the trip, but even before that plans had been laid and arrangements completed for him to go to India with a group, led by Ashley Kozac on bass and completed with pianist Harry South and drummer Lennie Breslaw. This en­gagement provided the testing ground that launched Dick Morrissey well and truly into the front-line of British jazz.

“It was the Trincas Restaurant in Calcutta, I shall remember it as long as I live . . . They served meals during the day and used it as a night club after dark. Our arrangement was to play three times a day – every day – in two-hour sessions. When they had an English band out there they really thought it was a big deal. I’m afraid they were inclined to flog us a bit, still it was worth it. Generally our audiences were composed of English people and Anglo-Indians, who have been brought up in European fashion. But we didn’t make much headway with the Indians themselves, on the average they were completely indifferent.”

Morrissey’s journey to India provided him with a unique and God-sent op­portunity to get to know his instrument completely and obtain professional prac­tice at the same time. Equipped with only one Tubby Hayes LP he was able to sow the seeds of individual develop­ment, experimenting with a varied repertoire as he went along. And here too he came face to face with the hard discipline and determination that creative activity always demands. He didn’t see much of the country, his saxophone pads all but turned inside out in the heat, and depression engulfed him many times. “But it was worth it,” he echoes. “Taken all in all I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It was extremely good musical experience, broadening my outlook no end.”

While in Calcutta he and Harry South worked on the idea of forming a regular group when they returned to England. Dick got his clarinet out of cold storage, and because of his few restrictions was able to experiment in other fields of music, not always compatible with the sounds of modern jazz. He explains: “We had a group in mind from the start, and as the days went by we formulated more definite plans. I suppose we were lucky in some ways – Harry had worked with Jackie Dougan in the old days, and he told me they’d had a ball. So we knew who we wanted drumming. Of course, we collected Phil Bates back in England.”

Towards the end of 1962 the group returned home to a slightly more settled atmosphere and Dick Morrissey’s dream of a modern jazz quartet became a reality. “We wanted to get away from just the sound of a tenor and rhythm group. There’s still a lot to do. We are all planning this on a long-term investment, so we don’t want to fail. Of course, it’s difficult to say how we can improve ourselves, only time can really tell. We all enjoy ourselves immensely, and I think that puts us on a good wicket.”

Today, the Morrissey quartet exists on its driving enthusiasm and mutual admiration rather than its versatility. Its leader has no plans for doubling on other instruments, as Tubby Hayes has done. “I’m not particularly in love with any other sound,” he says. “I think the only thing I’d do for a change would be revert to the clarinet. Anyway I have no time just now. I’ve got my hands full as it is.” And unlike Tubby Hayes, he has only met with failure when trying arrangements for the band. “I’ve had a go, but without too much success. My ideas never sound as good as Harry’s. His talent has been vastly underrated.”

‘I like the MJQ, but to me they just don’t swing’

Dick, at 22 the baby of the group, is full of energy and enthusiasm, and his varied musical tastes are a reflection of his diverse personality. His appreciation stretches from Buck Clayton on the one hand to Ludwig Van Beethoven on the other. In between those extremes fall a host of names including Sonny Rollins, Ronnie Scott, Vic Ash, Wolfgang Mozart, Tubby Hayes, Bob Efford, Stan Getz and Horace Silver. “I like the M.J.Q.” he adds, “but to me they just don’t swing.”

“I can get a certain amount of pleasure out of any music, even ‘pop’. If it moves you it moves you. I like Mozart’s horn solos, and some of the powerful works of Beethoven. I guess that’s why I’m not too keen on modern classical composers. To me they don’t seem to have any melody.”

With this passion for melody and theme in music, Morrissey seems already out of place in the world of modern jazz, with its emphasis on the impromptu and spontaneous expression. But he reconciles the two ideas with ease. His basic love is for uncomplicated sounds which burst out of his inventive spirit. “If you’ve got a good reed and a solid backing, there’s no worries. Today I have the right guys with me, so we blow hot and fast. All the excitement comes out from the group. We live every number together.”

Certainly Dick Morrissey’s group is alive and kicking, with more than usual vigour. Held together by the musical ability of Harry South it produces one of the most exciting sounds to be heard in British modern jazz today. In charge of the quartet, Dick Morrissey is the personification of his group’s excitement. In the course of a number he is never still – always jumping from foot to foot, urging his sidemen on with whoops of glee, or letting off steam by clapping and stamping his feet.

‘The ‘pop’ scene has had a terrible effect on jazz. Brubeck’s the only man whose really got through the barriers’

But all the time he is watching his audience appreciation. “We want to try and build up some sort of definite following, get on television eventually – that’s a wonderful medium because you reach such a vast audience. Trouble is, so many kids don’t give jazz half a chance. They seem to think that it never pays, and you only blow for kicks. They’re always so busy following rock. The ‘pop’ scene has had a terrible effect on jazz. Brubeck’s the only man whose really got through the barriers, but he must have had just the right publicity. Our real audiences probably begin at about 18 years of age.”

Morrissey and his group are not out to kid themselves that success comes quickly or easily. They want to play first-class jazz, and working away in London and provincial clubs they are building a solid foundation.

Dick Morrissey has only been blowing for three short years, but even at this stage his roaring, powerful tone is shout­ing for recognition. If anyone is near abdication Dick is as likely as any to be next in line, and with a fair share of luck and good fortune he may be King one day.