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SIMON SPILLETT provides an overview of the major British saxophone stylists from the early 1950s through to the 1970s, a period when British jazz grappled with the bebop sounds that emerged from the United States, and then came to create its very own school of stylists ...

1950-1970 : AN OVERVIEW


British jazz musicians had barely got over the impact of the swing era in the late 1940s when the appearance of a new development within the music entered the picture. The slow machinations of the post-war record industry meant that this new music - dubbed 'bebop' in acknowledgement of its off-kilter stop-start rhythms - was slow in filtering through to the austerity ridden London of the time. The gauntlet thrown down by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie provided a whole new set of challenges to the local jazz trumpeters, who had spent the past five years or so carefully manicuring their Harry James licks only to find them instantly rendered obselete. Altoist Charlie Parker's innovations daunted saxophonists similarly, especially his incredible technical dexterity. Previously the alto had never been the front-runner in the saxophone race, but Parker altered the equation dramatically; and the English altoists, who had chiefly drawn upon the sweeter side of the instrument's nature (as represented by the legions of insipid Jimmy Dorsey influenced dance band players) now found themselves fighting a tremendous uphill struggle to come to terms with Parker.

Now forgotten players like Johnny Rogers and Alan Doninger were among the first to get to grips with the vernacular of the new music, although their efforts, like those of many immediately post-war altoists, were hamstrung between the idioms of swing and bebop. It was only after the establishment of the ill-fated Club Eleven venture in 1949, which provided this country's first exclusive haven for modern jazz (as well as its first front-page headline detailing a drug bust), that real breakthrough was made - principally by Johnny Dankworth and Ronnie Scott. Both men had been lucky enough to have heard Parker and Gillespie in New York, courtesy of the quaintly titled "Geraldo's Navy" operation which provided musicians for transatlantic passenger liners.

Nevertheless 'anglicising' bebop created problems; or, rather, attempts to perform the music exactly as the American model created problems. Even though performers like Dankworth and Scott had grown up musically during the traumatic years of World War Two, their music, like that of all other British jazz men, reflected little of the angst ridden characteristics of Parker and his contemporaries. The simple impasse of the 'Britishness' of what then passed for the local jazz scene impeded much of the emotional development of this generation of London jazz players. Unlike Parker, Dankworth and Scott had never really worked in a big swing band, and they therefore lacked the headstrong desire to move beyond the constrictions of one jazz form to another. The type of bands Dankworth and Scott apprenticed in were sometimes little more than overblown extensions of the 'palais band' tradition - which operated peculiarly both as a money making source of education, and as an artistic prison upon those performing in it. Even Ted Heath's band, of which Scott was for a time a star member and the closest Britain had yet come to having its own showy swing band, often teetered perilously close to the brink of the kind of nauseously saccharine attitudes which were beginning to consume popular music in the immediate post-war years.

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No-one was yet thinking of playing the Americans at their own game, for no-one was yet proficient enough to do so; but also no-one had as yet envisaged a European musical independence free of America's leadership. Consequently the 1950s was a decade of emulation and eventual consolidation of the musical revolution that the beboppers had ushered in towards the close of the Second World War.

Read Simon Spillett's essays on Tubby Hayes, British jazz pianists, British jazz trumpeters, and West Indian jazz musicians in London.

Derek Humble, like John Dankworth, was another English altoist much taken by Lee Konitz, and had a similar mix of reserve and cool eloquence; later in the sixties, as lead alto with the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland big band, his sound and approach toughened considerably.

- the first moderns

The quite separate developments of John Dankworth and Ronnie Scott more or less encapsulate the two routes down which modern British jazz was to travel well in to the decade. By the time of the launch of his first 'Seven' line-up in 1950, Dankworth's alto playing had all but abandoned any Parker-like pretension in favour of the limpid cool-school urbanity of men like Lee Konitz. The tone was light, the phrasing nimble but never 'clever-clever'. The more acute critics were apt to describe it as "couth, kempt and shevelled;" the more dismissive as "spineless." With the establishment of the first in an illustrious series of big bands in 1953, Dankworth relied less and less upon his own soloing, and his instrumental skills took a back seat to his composing and arranging talents. Just as it informed his instrumental work, the ghost of dance band legacy similarly haunted his writing.

Ronnie Scott & Tubby Hayes [photo copyright BRIAN J. DAVIES]

Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes

Ronnie Scott, on the other hand, fought a titanic struggle with his repeated attempts to maintain large bands which operated almost exclusively jazz-based policies, a much harder undertaking than might have been imagined back in the halcyon days of the 1950s. However, unlike Dankworth, his playing was always central to the groups he fronted, not surprising as he was the most competent of all the first generation British modernists; and if the local scene as yet lacked any real innovators, it was not short on individuals, of which Scott was undoubtedly the most prominent. Emulation of the existing American role models was still not only acceptable but enviable, and few musicians were as accurate in their absorbtion of the latest trends. During his Club Eleven period he resembled players such as Wardell Gray and Allen Eager, and by the early 1950s he had taken up the mantle of Stan Getz, then in the first flush of his romantic musical development and favouring a soft light tone and a severe but lyrical approach to phrasing. Eventually Scott countered the Getz influence with a much more muscular tone, and as the 1960s arrived he was balancing his interest in the white tenorist with his fascination with the work of Sonny Rollins and Hank Mobley, both of whom worked for him after the opening of his own nightclub in 1959.

The passion and commitment that Scott conveyed as an improviser had always been remarkable, but the tell-tale signs of an obviously fickle allegiance to any one style began to manifest itself by this time. Indeed the running of his own club, and its intitial policy of almost exclusively booking American tenor saxophonists, may have been Scott's undoing. As late as in his forties, Scott's head was still being turned by some of his guests, and consequently there were periods in which his enthusiam for Getz would wane towards Mobley, and from Mobley to Joe Henderson or George Coleman. This ambivalence speaks as much for Scott's own lack of confidence in his own musical abilities, something that was as unfounded as it was unshakeable, as it does for the quality of his guests.

During his last decade, even younger musicians like Bob Berg affected his outlook; and at this point Scott could have been forgiven for doing what few older jazz musicians do - to learn from someone younger. The enthusiasm for the art of improvising was never far from the surface of Scott's music, and could not be masked even by his legendary wit. Some of his best work can be found on recordings with Sonny Stitt and the Jazz Couriers. A rare album made under his own name, The Night Is Scott..., made in 1966, is probably the best place to get acquainted with this self-effacing yet remarkably consistent improviser.



Scott Legacy
The Jazz Couriers [1951-58]

The First and Last Words
The Jazz Couriers [1957]

The Couriers of Jazz
The Jazz Couriers [1958]

Besides Joe Harriott, there were other Jamaican-born saxophonists making a mark in British jazz during this time. Harold McNair, equally gifted on both tenor and alto as well as the flute, was one - although ultimately he made more money as folk icon Donovan's accompanist than he did out of jazz before he died tragically in 1971; Wilton "Bogey" Gaynair was another, a powerful blues-hewn tenorist who eventually settled upon a life of session music contentment in Germany. McNair's eponymous 1968 RCA album is recommended, whilst Gaynair's near legendary 1959 Tempo session Blue Bogey has been reissued recently on CD and reveals a player with a sideling approach to hard bop orthodoxy.

- transatlantic equals

Of the saxophonists active on the London jazz scene in the 1950s, by far the most impressive as far as the synthesizing of current American influences was concerned were tenorist Tubby Hayes and altoist Joe Harriott.

Tubby Hayes was something of a boy prodigy, having turned professional at the age of sixteen and having led his own band at twenty. His early work was tempered somewhat by vestiges of a dance band apprenticeship, but Hayes had the ability to reflect accurately the latest trends in American jazz without ever sounding like one particular player. His technical confidence too was unique amongst British modernists, and lacked any of the often hit-and-miss indecision heard locally; this enabled him to tackle the ridiculously fast tempos favoured in hard bop without any sense of panic or hysteria. Inevitably this virtuosity brought Hayes and Ronnie Scott together, Scott being the only other British player who could match truly the technique and intensity of Hayes blow for blow. Their co-operative quintet, The Jazz Couriers, operated for two years at the close of the 1950s, and produced arguably the most confident sounding British jazz records of the decade, none redolent of the usual faintly apologetic characteristic of much of what was then being played in London's clubs. The best was recorded fittingly for an American label and received the reversed title of The Couriers Of Jazz.

Tubby Hayes, The Swing Giant volume 1In the early 1960s Hayes's reputation grew to the extent that he was playing regularly in the United States, recording with players such as Clark Terry and Roland Kirk, and being hailed as a genuine equal to the best saxophonists that worked across the Atlantic. The advent of the avant-garde and a series of illnesses changed him towards the end of the decade, forcing him to reconsider his approach. Towards the end of his life he was incorporating rock-rhythms and free improvisation into his world and taking interest in new players, like the tenorist Joe Henderson; but the core of his musical expression remained rooted in the work of the players who had exerted great influence over him in his formative years - Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins. His death in 1973, after years of health difficulties, robbed British jazz of its untitled head, and had he lived his dominance may well have waned or disappeared completely, but to have witnessed him consolidate his earlier triumphs with a deeper maturity would have been fascinating.

Hayes made countless records, both with his own groups and with others, but his greatest work is contained on two albums: 1959's Tubby's Groove on the Tempo label - a truly authentic slice of hard bop mastery, and a quartet effort to rank with the very best of such recordings made by Rollins and Getz - and Mexican Green, released by Fontana in 1967 - a gripping account of Hayes coming to terms with both the harmonic changes of John Coltrane and the free improvisation of Ornette Coleman, which contains also his signature and virtuosic bop playing.

Joe Harriott originated from the West Indies and came to the United Kingdom in 1951. For much of the remainder of the decade he worked with drummer Tony Kinsey's musical (if polite) quartet before forming his own quintet. His group's first records reflected his interest in hard bop, and Hariott's own playing - an emotive and stinging mix of the methods of Parker and Sonny Stitt with his own brand of Caribbean fire - convey an understanding of the motives and mechanics behind bebop, despite being learnt second-hand. Set beside the work of fellow alto players like Johnny Dankworth and Derek Humble, Harriott was hot property.

In 1960 he began to experiment with his own kind of free improvisation, independent of Ornette Coleman's efforts, and critics and fans of his previous music found this hard to take. Although his Free Form album received a five star rating in the prestigious Down Beat magazine - an endorsement virtually unheard of for a British jazz product at that time - it marked the beginning of the end for Harriott. His old fans deserted him and the critics were lukewarm, attitudes that did little to halt Harriott's increasingly frustrated sense of disenfranchisement. Similarly his slightly later marriage with Indian classical music, his Indo-Jazz Fusions, met with bemusement, even though it came at the same time that the Beatles were heralding the West's artificial procurement of all things sub-continental. Harriott died in 1972, exhausted but well aware of the importance of his innovations, which would ultimately serve others far better than they had him. Indeed, a short while before his death, he acknowledged that his free form ideas had come a decade too soon, a fact underlined by the likes of Dudu Pukwana and Mike Osborne, by then both exploring musical areas in which Harriott himself would have been happy.


The Swinging Giant vol 1
Quartet / Quintet [1955]

The Swinging Giant vol 2
Quintet / Jazz Couriers [1956]

The First and Last Words
The Jazz Couriers [1957]

Tubby Hayes Portrait

The Couriers of Jazz
The Jazz Couriers [1958]

The Eighth Wonder
Quartet [1958]

Night And Day
at Ronnie Scott's [1963-66]

Tubbs: A Tribute
Quintet [1963]

Quartet In Scandinavia
Quartet [1972]

Blue Hayes
2 CD set [compilation annotated by Simon Spillett]


Cool Jazz with Joe
[on Bop' In Britain 2, 1954]

Swings High

Joe Harriott Genius
Joe Harriott / Michael Garrick [1960s]

Black Marigolds
with Michael Garrick [1968]


Blue Bogey

Ronnis Ross was by no means the first modern jazz baritone saxophoniist in Britain. That position fell to Harry Klein, who had switched from the alto in the early 1950s. Although his tone reflected the ubiquitous influence of Gerry Mulligan, Klein's general approach was less freewheeling, and his improvisatoing concentrated on a choppy articulation and an over-reliance on cliched devices for negotiating chord sequences. His finest hour on record came in 1960, by which time he had managed to throw off a great deal of the previously characteristic reserve that marred his earlier work, when the group he co-led with tenorist Vic Ash made the Tempo album The Five Of Us: Klein's snorting soloing threatens to steal the show.

- the mainstream modernists

Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott led the small pack of modern jazz saxophonists in this country in the 1950s and had undeniably established a benchmark of technical accuracy that was hard to match. Many of the other saxophonists operating locally chose far less intense routes to pursue.

The Scottish tenorist Tommy Whittle, who had replaced Ronnie Scott with the Ted Heath band, was one such noteworthy player. Whittle's small groups during the period concentrated on the middle ground, which American musicians like Zoot Sims occupied and which was to become known as mainstream. Sims was a particular influence, easily discernable from the light feathery swing Whittle favoured, but his later influences included the soul-jazz tenor man Stanley Turrentine. A spell as a 'society' bandleader took Whittle away from jazz in the early 1960s, and the scene to which he returned found little room for him. In the 1970s, he played with Benny Goodman, and latterly his style has reflected the touch of an even earlier figure, Don Byas. Now in his seventies, he remains one of Britain's busiest veteran jazzmen.

Rendell-Carr Quintet Live At AntibesOf the big band apprenticed tenor saxophonists who emerged into prominence in the 1950s, Don Rendell's musical development was undoubtedly the most fascinating, largely because of his total preparation to pursue new avenues, even when a safer option lay open for him. Rendell had graduated from the rather sterile setting of the Johnny Dankworth Seven and had gone on to lead a series of well crafted small groups. His original inspiration was Lester Young, and in his own way he matured into as confident and convincing a stylist as any of the American 'brothers' who shared his passion for Young. Rendell also expressed great interest in using home grown resources, in the shape of compositions either by himself or his sideman, which in the mid-1950s made his group something of a rarity amongst British jazz units.

In 1961, after a decade of building the kind of reputation that led to him touring with the bands of both Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, Rendell did an elaborate and incredibly brave about-face. He had heard John Coltrane on a Miles Davis album and also in concert with his own group, and the effect was cataclysmic. Gone were the polite facets of Rendell's playing, to be replaced by a sense of inexorable exploration that was surprising for a musician of his experience. New horizons required new musical partners and Rendell's 1960s bands included at various times pianist Michael Garrick, altoist Graham Bond and regular partner trumpeter Ian Carr. From then until today, Rendell has pursued this barrier breaking, and for a while in the 1970s it seemed that he alone amongst his generation of British improvisers was prepared to sacrifice what he already knew in order to exchange ideas with younger musicians. His skill as a musical communicator also opened educational doors for Rendell during this time, and he has established a reputation as an enthusiastic teacher on various jazz faculties and courses.

The Rendell-Carr quintet records, long promised for reissue, are probably the best place to gauge the level of Rendell's mid-career playing renaissance, whilst his earlier efforts on the Tempo and Nixa imprints are valuable documents of his route through the music.

An early Rendell discovery was Ronnie Ross, who had begun his career as a tenor saxophonist before switching, at Rendell's request, to the baritone. Ross was as close to Gerry Mulligan as any jazz baritonist, and the settings in which he found himself in the 1950s directly reflected this; Rendell's Jazz Six patterned itself on the Mulligan Sextet, and Ross himself led a carbon copy instrumentation of the American's pianoless quartet featuring Bob Brookmeyer, with Ken Wray taking the valve-trombone role. A tour opposite the Modern Jazz Quartet brought Ross to John Lewis's attention, and as a result Ross was not only guest with the MJQ, but recorded with the pianist and the Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra on Lewis's suite European Windows in 1959. The free jazz revolution deeply offended Ross's musically cultured sensibilities in the next decade, which came ironically at the time when he was producing some of his finest work - such as the rare World Record Club album he recorded in 1963 with his long-time collaborator, pianist and vibraphonist Bill Le Sage. A retreat to the world of session musician was increasingly necessary from then on, and he received widespread acclaim (and nothing more than a flat session fee!) for his famous cameo solo on Lou Reed's A Walk On The Wild Side in the 1970s.


Meet Don Rendell
Quartet / Quintet / Sextet [1954]

Don Rendell Jazz Six [1958]

Quintet [1961]

Just Music
Quintet with Barbara Thompson [1974]

Live At the Avgarde Gallery

Touch Links of Gold
BBC tapes [1980/82]

If I Should Lose You
Don Rendell's Big Eight [1990/91]

What Am I Here For?
Quintet [1993/96]

with Rendell/Carr Quintet :-

Rendell/Carr Quintet Live From the Antibes Jazz Festival

Shades of Blue / Dusk Fire

Live In London

Phase III / "Live"


Meet Don Rendell

Skidmore's replacement in the Lyttelton band in 1960 was Danny Moss, a tenorist who, despite having had a lengthy association with Johnny Dankworth's band, was actually more out of the swing school led by Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. With Dankworth he had frequently been partnered by Art Ellefson - a player of choppy eloquence who sounded much like Zoot Sims, but who nevertheless failed to break through into wider fame and was eventually to return to his native Canada. Moss himself emigrated to Australia but still returns regularly to the United Kingdom to tour.

- the neo-classicists

Joe Temperley was another baritone convert. For most of the 1950s he worked on tenor in both commercial big bands and small combos headed by the likes of Dizzy Reece and Tony Crombie; but, with the continued presence of Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, it was difficult for other British tenor players to create an impression. A chance job as dep with the mainstream Humphrey Lyttelton band in 1959 led to his permanent recruitment as baritone saxophonist, an instrument on which he had doubled only briefly, but which he had convinced the unsuspecting Lyttelton into believing was his principal instrument. From then, Temperley matured into a world-class mainstream player, one undoubtedly touched by Mulligan's example, but with an engaging rough edge to his tone that was uniquely his. Eventually by the late 1960s he moved to the United States, where he worked with Woody Herman, Charles Mingus, Buck Clayton and others, and where he has latterly anchored the Lincoln Centre Big Band headed by Wynton Marsalis.

The Lyttelton band into which Temperley entered was a veritable hot bed of mainstream saxophone talent, when he joined a reed team of Tony Coe and Jimmy Skidmore. Skidmore's career had stretched back to before the Second World War, and he became one of the first convincing British jazz saxophonists gifted with an unpretentious swing-based style that took in the best, from Coleman Hawkins to Zoot Sims. This adaptable voice meant he was comfortable in settings as diverse as the modernistic Ralph Sharon Sextet and Humphrey Lyttelton's group. If he lacked anything it was the drive to push himself to become the star he genuinely was. The recording of the Hawkins-associated shibboleth Body and Soul, which he made with Lyttelton in 1960, remains a classic.

Tony Coe shared Skidmore's adaptability, and when with Lyttelton underwent an amazing stylistic development. His alto playing always suggested swing stars like Willie Smith, but on tenor perhaps only Paul Gonsalves came anywhere close to what Coe was attempting. Building outwards from the mainstream settings in which he frequently worked, Coe began to experiment with atonality and bitonality in his improvisations, and his advanced outlook drew him and fellow maverick Kenny Wheeler together in the late 1960s. By this time Coe's workload was getting ridiculous; gigs with Johnny Dankworth, with his own quartet, with Wheeler and others went alongside frequent session dates and recordings and appearances with the international Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band, wherein Coe successfully vied with fellow tenors Ronnie Scott and Johnny Griffin. In 1966 he was offered a job with Count Basie's band, and, although this was never realised, one cannot imagine that it would have stimulated Coe's musical inquisitiveness.

He remains a truly sui generis player, one able to turn the tradition inside out when performing standards. Unfortunately, like as with others of his generation able to play both abstract and structured music equally well, Coe has been forced to work more often than not in continental Europe, and he is seen all too infrequently in Britain. Nevertheless his sound is known to millions through his tenor solo on Henry Mancini's Pink Panther movie score.

Undoubtedly the most singular of the players who operated in the broad church of mainstream was the alto saxophonist Bruce Turner, a genuine eccentric who had reviled his contemporaries by largely ignoring bebop, studying with Lee Konitz, and then forming a 'Jump Band,' the kind of groovy swing group that had made stars of Louis Jordan and Earl Bostic in the 1940s. Critical brickbats flew at Turner for doing this, but anyone who bothered to listen would have heard a beautifully integrated alto style that married the best of swing era methodology with the less pretentious aspects of bebop. Further controversy haunted Turner when he joined the band of Acker Bilk in 1966 - jazz suicide, the purists thought - but again Turner remained resolutely himself and largely untroubled by other definitions of jazz. Tribute to this catholic yet individual outlook came in the late 1970s, when bassist Dave Green utilized Turner's considerable talent on his Fingers Remember Mingus album, a project which paired Turner with the outrageous Lol Coxhill on soprano sax, and which found him playing the music of Ornette Coleman with the same dedication as he had played middle-period swing.

Innovations in British Jazz 1960-1980Read the first volume of Innovations in British Jazz by John Wickes, his survey of British jazz of this period.

Mike Pearson's Conversations in British Jazz includes interviews with Peter King, Ronnie Scott, Evan Parker, Art Themen, Trevor Watts, Barbara Thompson, Don Weller, Don Rendell, Bobby Wellins and John Surman.

Alan Robertson's Joe Harriott: Fire In His Soul; read our review of this book.

Dick Heckstall-Smith's Blowing The Blues.


Humph Returns to the Conway


Swingin' Till the Girls Come Home

Some Other Autumn



- the Tubby Hayes legacy

The high technical standards that Tubby Hayes had achieved by the late 1950s affected a younger generation of British jazz saxophonists, which rose to prominence as the 1960s dawned.

Tenorists Dick Morrissey and Stan Robinson directly reflected Hayes' immaculate dexterity and broad forthright tone, and were perhaps the last British tenor saxophonists to be hailed as major talents while still favouring, initially at least, little more than consolidation of work by the then current American heroes. Morrissey's debut album It's Morrissey, Man!!, from 1961, is a thoroughly convincing slice of hard bop artistry, over which the shadow of Hayes and the Jazz Couriers, as much as that or Rollins, Griffin, Mobley and Zoot Sims, loom large. Morrissey differed from the previous generation of British saxophonists with his affinity to the blues, the same unlikely affinity which was then affecting other English musicians of a similar age in other fields of music, from Eric Clapton to Georgie Fame to the Rolling Stones. An early indication of this was the 1966 LP that vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon cut with Morrissey's quartet.

Both Morrissey and Robinson worked with the pop group The Animals on a special big band project during the mid-1960s, and Robinson toured with various 'beat' groups before returning to jazz. It was Morrissey however who took the bolder step of pursuing funk and soul during the 1970s, first with If and the Average White Band, and then a group co-led with guitarist Jim Mullen. Throughout the remainder of his career he marked a profitable course crossing the line between jazz and more popular idioms, working with Alexis Korner and Georgie Fame as well as with more exclusive jazz artists, and his path illustrates how the modernist of 1960 swiftly moved in to the mainstream of 1980.

Altoist Peter King's arrival in the London jazz world of the late 1950s was confirmation of the ever-improving standard of British performers. Previously men like Dankworth and Derek Humble had never come within a country mile of assimilating any of Charlie Parker's fire-breathing urgency. The only alto player in Britain who had, Joe Harriott, owed much of his aggressive playing attitude to the kind of personal harangues to which Parker would have related directly, and which would never have manifested itself to performers whose disciplines and lives were so quintessentially middle-English.

Peter King changed the equation. Firstly he had technical skills on the saxophone - even at nineteen when he turned professional - that were close to those of Tubby Hayes; secondly he had a complete command of the bebop language and reflected little of the awkward transition between swing and bop experienced by many of Ronnie Scott's generation. This gained King widespread praise at the time, and he was hailed as a 'new star' after his appearance at the opening night of Ronnie Scott's club in October 1959. Nowadays it would not be at all cynical to wonder how it had taken Britain over a decade to come up with a musician who could genuinely match the technical and motivational level of his American counterparts from a decade earlier.

Britain did not know what to do with King, and after a spell with the Dankworth band he spent most of the 1960s working in cabaret settings with vocalists like Annie Ross, often on tenor rather than alto in an attempt to escape the nagging Parker tag which Sonny Stitt had also thought would never elude him. Only in the 1970s did he receive more opportunity to be heard, and, almost incredibly, he would have to wait until the 1980s to head his own record date. King has never stood still musically, to his credit, but the bebop label still hangs on him, despite the fact that his work these days (as on the stunning Lush Life CD) reflects more of the later obsessions of John Coltrane rather than those of Parker. He remains a world-class virtuoso, but he also remains in Britain, which despite whatever may have been written to the contrary still presents an impasse for musicians of his generation.

- tribute to 'Trane

Not only did Peter King's achievements at last authenticate that a British musician could assimilate the language of Charlie Parker, they also underline the ten-year time difference between the aspirations of post-war jazz in the United States and the British product. They also came in sync with the beginning of the rise of another polarising American saxophone god, John Coltrane. Coltrane's influence touched eventually every British modern jazz saxophonist during the 1960s, from the occasionally fashion conscious Tubby Hayes to direct disciples like Alan Skidmore. Son of Jimmy, Alan Skidmore in particular has remained faithful to Coltrane, in a way that only a performer who grew up during the period when the American player's influence was omnipresent can. His work over the last thirty years has been a joyful celebration of the characteristics of Coltrane's middle period, taking in both modal playing and the rapidly dense harmonic sequences that were introduced on the Giant Steps album. As this article is being written he is touring with a 'Tribute to 'Trane' package co-headed with Peter King, and previously he has worked with Elvin Jones and recorded albums dominated by Coltrane compositions. Tribute to 'Trane from 1988 is amongst the finest of his recordings; while After the Rain from the late 1990s has him exploring, with orchestral accompaniment, some of the love songs that were part of Coltrane's repertoire in the 1960s.


Once Upon A Time



- breaking the mould

Bobby WellinsThat the majority of London jazz musicians during this period were still content to look towards America for their inspiration led to the unfair neglect of some of those genuinely original talents who had begun to appear. Tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins is chief among them.

Wellins is a rarity among British reed-men. He received the typical dance band training that most of his contemporaries had gone through, but he then eschewed the comfort of the session world to concentrate on improvisation. His first recording, made in 1960 under the leadership of drummer Tony Crombie, is startling. Already in evidence are the qualities which make Wellins stand out: the keen wounded tone, the long slow vibrato, the tactical use of space - highly novel coming at the time when most saxophonists aspired to the lightning dashes around chord sequences made by Tubby Hayes - and his amazing ability to disguise a song's harmonic framework by avoiding hackneyed cliches.

Stan Tracey's Under Milk Wood Jazz Suite

This resilience and independence drew Wellins and pianist Stan Tracey together in the early 1960s. The pair pioneered free form improvisation (independent of Harriott or Coleman's models), and begun to illustrate that home grown resources could be as relevant as the American blues-rooted tradition. Wellins drew upon his Scottish ancestry and composed an impressive large scale free-scape Culloden Moor; while Tracey's Under Milk Wood suite, featuring Wellins, was, arguably, the first truly independent British jazz album. The haunting majesty of Wellins' solo on Starless and Bible Black from this session has been commented upon before, and deservedly so, although this has tended to sideline his incredible invention throughout this eight part work; A.M. Mayhem appropriated the blues in a way that no other British jazz artist had done before, and was an improvisation of stunning creation.

However, familiar extra-musical problems blighted his career in the 1970s, and only of late has he gained the recognition he deserves. He has continued to work with Stan Tracey, as well as releasing a series of 'song book' projects which concentrate on interpretations of the work of artists such as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, all of which are recommended.


The Satin Album

Under Milk Wood
with Stan Tracey [1965]

Mirroring Osborne's intensity was the exiled South African Dudu Pukwana - a Joe Harriott for the 1970s - whose musical assertiveness was often a reflection of his personality. Pukwana, along with fellow South African exiles, did a lot to 'loosen up' British jazz in the 1970s, pushed it closer to its African roots than would have been thought possible a decade before, and created a melting pot where very different inspirations and disciplines were forced to find common ground.




- a truly English expression

As the 1960s progressed it became impossible for the clique centred on Ronnie Scott's club to retain its hold on the course of British jazz. Indeed there was even shock at the arrival of a new wave of British improvisers, as though their predecessors had envisaged a never-ending existence of their own dominance.

Just as Hayes, Morrissey and King had taken their cues from the hard bop of the 1950s, these new men were inspired by the recent experiments of John Coltrane and by mavericks like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. The influence of all three could be felt in the work of those saxophonists involved in the group led by drummer John Stevens, The Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Altoist Trevor Watts was perhaps the first saxophonist in this Amalgam's Prayer For Peacecountry to understand the methods of Ornette Coleman, and tenorist Evan Parker made enviable inroads into the often-confusing soundworld of late-Coltrane. However the difference between Watts and Parker from the players of Tubby Hayes' generation, was their ability to go beyond a mere synthesis of their inspirations into the creation of their own musical identity. By the late 1960s, Parker in particular - through his technical skill, interest in multiphonics (simultaneous notes played on a monophonic instrument), overtones and circular breathing - was going beyond what even Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders had achieved. Because of its lack of reliance on the jazz tradition, this was a significant breakthrough that went almost unnoticed; and as the 1970s progressed it became impossible to place Parker within any jazz school, other than that of the European free improvisers, whose methods and rationale often differed substantially from that of their American counterparts. Parker nevertheless continues to see himself as part of the jazz tradition and points out frequently that, by its very nature, tradition must embrace all facets of jazz performance, and not just those favoured by the Wynton Marsalis retro-school. His appearance with various line-ups led by the Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts since the 1980s has made it possible to hear his intense curlicue collages of sound alongside classic stylists like Danny Moss and Peter King, a veritable mini-history of British jazz saxophone development. His boldest move on record, indeed something of a manifesto for his whole approach, was the 1975 album entitled simply Saxophone Solos, which, without resorting to over-dubbed trickery, is a welter of overwhelming sound from his unaccompanied soprano.

John Surman's Westering HomeThis independence of thought was not peculiar to Parker. Baritone and soprano saxophonist John Surman and altoist Mike Osborne made similar independent achievement away from the pervading influence of the Americans. John Surman's achievements were all the more notable for having been pioneered on the baritone, never the front runner in the saxophone family and the instrument that had produced some of the most conservative and reserved musical voices of British jazz. His mastering of the harmonic overtone - the high notes outside the 'written' saxophone range - meant that he could soar well into the range of Coltrane's tenor playing; and this was matched with an intense, passionate sound and a formidable technique. By the late 1960s Surman had become something of a new age Ronnie Ross. He was working with both the best local players and American musicians of similar stylistic tastes, a situation that has not abated to this day. The recordings he made as part of The Trio, comprising bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin besides the Englishman, are perhaps his finest early work. The more pastoral side of Surman appeared when he utilised his home resources, such as his Devonian ancestry and his love of the work of Thomas Hardy, making him a genuinely 'English' performer. Unlike Evan Parker, he probably sees himself as outside the jazz tradition, at least as defined by American parameters. If anything he is more aligned to the European school, particularly to those performers under the aegis of the ECM record label, for which Surman has recorded much of his best work. Indeed, Surman joins Tony Coe as one of the musicians who seem to work less in the land of their birth. But whether his work is on soprano or baritone, or whether leading a brass ensemble or solo, or as a composer, there is little denying the individuality of Surman's approach.

Mike Osborne was Surman's partner in the saxophone section of Mike Westbrook's band of the mid-1960s. A player of immense physicality, intensity and passion, he had been originally a disciple of Jackie McLean, a similar fiery performer who had played with Mingus in the 1950s; but the impression of Ornette Coleman altered his outlook radically. His finest moment on record came in 1970 with the album Outback - a two performance classic which partnered him with trumpeter Harry Beckett, and a record as blazingly alight as anything recorded then in the United States. The dark demons that fuelled his music ultimately were too much for "Ossie," and he has been hospitalized since his mental collapse in the early 1980s.


John Surman
Tales Of the Algonquin
Westering Home
Morning Glory
Upon Reflection
Such Winters Of Memory
Withholding Pattern
Road To St Ives
Adventure Playground
The Brass Project
with John Warren [1993]
Stranger Than Fiction
with John Taylor [1994]
Proverbs And Songs
with John Taylor [1997]


Border Crossing / Marcel's Muse


Prayer For Peace
Amalgam [1969]
Amalgam [1974]
Another Time
Amalgam [1976]
Amalgam [1977]
With One Voice
Trevor Watts' Moire Music [1988]
Dick Heckstall-Smith [photo copyright BRIAN J. DAVIES]

Dick Heckstall-Smith

- maverick

Standing outside of all this - and confusingly sometimes right within it - was Lol Coxhill, a genuine eccentric whose soprano playing seemed to have little connection to that of any other player. Indeed Coxhill is as catholic an instrumentalist as one can imagine, able to fit in with men like Evan Parker and Alan Skidmore in the Brotherhood of Breath, but just as happy to divide his time between theatre arts projects and the saxophone soliloquy - a talent that had blossomed during his time as a street-busker.

Coxhill, perhaps more than any other player represents the total independence that British saxophonists had achieved finally by the 1970s. His 1971 LP The Ear of the Beholder is unlike anything being produced across the Atlantic at this time, and has little connection with any tradition in jazz. The trio recording in which he participated with Evan Parker and the American sopranist Steve Lacy has no suggestion that the two Englishmen are deferential junior partners to Lacy, which reflects the hard won respect that Britain's saxophone improvisers had worked for since the Second World War. Coxhill in particular has never hidden the 'Englishness' of his music, and has made an asset out of the very thing the bebop generation sought to escape.

Ironically it was the revelatory discovery that drawing upon their own traditions - the 'being yourself' which the American jazz musicians had always less of a problem with - that finally evened out the scales for British improvisers.



Coxhill On Ogun

Burt/MacDonald 4 and Lol Coxhill [2001]

Saxophonist Simon Spillett leads his own quartet, which was featured in an article in the January 2003 issue of Jazz Review. He writes for Jazz Journal, and compiles and annotates CD collections for the Jasmine and Harkit labels.

This article is written exclusively for jazzscript.co.uk.

With grateful thanks to Mr Brian J. Davis for his permission
to reproduce photographs of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes and Dick Heckstall-Smith.

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