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Mike Hart Obituary

Mike HartMike Hart, who has died at the age of 84, founded the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – Scotland’s first such event – and, in so doing, consolidated the city’s status as an epicentre of classic, traditional and mainstream jazz. The jazz festival he created may have evolved and mutated over the four decades since it began, but it has kept Hart’s kind of jazz at its core.

An only child born in Inverness, Hart moved to Edinburgh when his father (a former engineer) set up an antiques business later run by his mother. After a brief, unhappy spell in boarding school in England, Hart was educated at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, a breeding ground for trad jazz musicians in the late 1940s when that genre of jazz was enjoying huge popularity. The teenage Hart took up drums and by 1949, was playing in a local band, Gavin’s Gloryland Jazz Band, led by trumpeter Jimmy Gavin.

One night, around the same time, in the West End Café, Hart was invited to sit in with the band led by clarinettist Sandy Brown, a maverick and now legendary figure. As Hart told Graham Blamire, the author of Edinburgh Jazz Enlightenment – The Story of Edinburgh Traditional Jazz, “I nearly fell over but immediately accepted”.

So began Hart’s association with Brown, and the trumpeter Al Fairweather and the pianist Stan Greig who also played in the band. With them, Hart went to London in 1952 where their gigs include the Big Jazz Show at the Royal Albert Hall.

After completing his National Service in the RAF, Hart returned to Edinburgh in 1954 and played banjo in trumpeter Charlie McNair’s band. Before long, he had established his own outfit, Mike Hart’s Blue Blowers, and in 1956 he co-founded what would become one of Edinburgh’s longest-running bands, the Climax Jazz Band which featured Jim Petrie on cornet and which would take Hart into the recording studio for the first time. The late 1950s saw the birth of two more popular bands which he co-led, Old Bailey and his Jazz Advocates and the Society Syncopators.

While his jazz career was bubbling away, Hart – who married his first wife, Moira, in 1960 – supported himself and his family via a number of jobs, including agricultural feed advisor, sail boat skipper in France, variety club producer and tour manager (for the likes of Jimmy Shand and Andy Stewart) and, ultimately, from the mid-1970s, running a successful antiques business with his mother, to whom he was very close.

By this time, he had re-formed and re-launched the Society Syncopators as Mike Hart’s Society Syncopators – and it was this band which Hart took on foreign tours on many occasions, notably to the Dunkirk Jazz Festival, where it was named European Amateur Jazz Champions 1979, and to California’s Sacramento Jazz Jubilee which it visited ten times.

Keen to stage something similar in Scotland, Hart spent a great deal of time with the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee’s director, Bill Borcher. Fionna Duncan, who sang with Hart’s band, recalls: “Bill had a sort of ‘war room’ in his house where he plotted out the programme, moving bands and audiences from one venue to the next using models!” This type of planning manifested itself in the way the Edinburgh Jazz Festival was structured during Hart’s tenure.

Hart brought together a number of local bands plus a couple of well-respected soloists from England and staged a mini festival in a ballroom in the capital in 1978.Its success inspired him to seek sponsorship for the first Edinburgh Jazz Festival which took place in 1979, and featured a variety of semi-professional bands from here and abroad.

But it was in 1980 that Hart began to operate the policy which helped define the festival (re-named the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival): he began to hire individual jazz stars, many of them veterans of the great American bands of the 1930s onwards, who had been sidemen in their youth but were now happy to be more in the spotlight. Such now-legendary players as Teddy Wilson, Doc Cheatham, Harry Edison and Milt Hinton all visited the Edinburgh Jazz Festival during its first decade.

Into the mix, Mike Hart added younger players who were part of the mainstream revival. All these musicians would stay for several days, if not a whole festival, at a time and would be mixed and matched in different line-ups, often featuring Scottish talent in the rhythm sections. Many of today’s leading Scottish players – among them pianist Brian Kellock and bassist Roy Percy – cut their teeth at the EIJF, invariably alongside big name Americans.

When the jazz festival became a limited company, Hart assumed the role of Artistic Director, and later Founding Director. In 1995, he was awarded an MBE for his services to jazz, and he also received a citation from the City of Sacramento in recognition for his work.

Always a figure who cut a dash and who had something of the old-fashioned adventurer and bon viveur about him, Hart threw himself into other passions beyond jazz. He was an accomplished deep sea fisher (a photo of him and the 180lb Blue Fin Tuna which he caught during a trip to Madeira with author and deep sea fisherman Trevor Housby is featured in Housby’s best-selling book). He also enjoyed sailing and racing his wooden keelboat, then he got hooked on flying, learning to fly a single engine Cessna aircraft and gaining his private pilot’s licence in 1985. That passion gave way to driving and owning a Triking wheeler sports car and attending events for enthusiasts. Jazz remained the constant while other interests came and went.

Graham Blamire says: “Mike would never have claimed to be an innovative or particularly original jazz musician but he was a fine player, both as a member of the rhythm section and in his solo work. He could be a volatile and demanding individual with whom to work, but he had vision, energy and determination and, when he wanted, a great deal of charm. He was a major influence on Edinburgh Jazz for a very long time, a leading figure in some of Edinburgh’s best bands, and he left his mark on jazz at an international level through his creation of the EIJF, which will be his enduring memorial.”

Hart, who was twice married and divorced, is survived by his children Susan and Michael, and three grandchildren.

* Michael Warner Hart, founder and original director of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, jazz musician; born Inverness March 23, 1934; died Edinburgh December 11, 2018.

This obituary was first published in The Herald on Wednesday, December 26 2018

Mike Hart, banjo, 1965 at the Manhattan Club

Old Bailey & the Jazz Advocates, 1965, at the Manhattan Club. Thanks to Hamish McGregor (clarinet) for the photo.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2018: 40th Anniversary Jazz Gala

40th Anniversary Jazz Gala, Assembly Hall ****Carol Kidd & Paul Harrison 2

The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival swung into action on Friday, with a special concert as its showpiece event. It’s 40 years since an embryonic version of the festival first took place and, on Friday, it revisited its old gala format with a sort of jazz variety show bringing together Scottish jazz stars who have notched up appearances in every full decade of its life.

Pianist Brian Kellock’s relationship with the jazz festival dates back to even before his official debut there, in the 1980s. On Friday, reunited with drummer John Rae, his trio was in high spirits – though it was the languid Ballad For Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters that stood out.

Tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith, who also cut his jazz teeth in the festival’s first decade, joined Kellock for a trio of tunes – notably a gorgeous Without a Song and a Sweet Georgia Brown that sent sparks flying – which highlighted their rapport and showed how attuned to each other’s musical thought processes they are.

It was disappointing that Martin Taylor, one of the leading jazz guitarists in the world, got a little lost in the mix kicking off a second half which was to be dominated, time-wise, by a gypsy jazz group which only came on the scene a few years ago. Taylor’s meander through Henry Mancini’s bittersweet ballad Two For the Road was a mini-masterclass in the art of solo guitar.

It would have been even more of a treat to hear him play with singer Carol Kidd (pictured above, with pianist Paul Harrison) but she had done her bit, bringing the house down at the end of the first half with two stunning ballads – by Billy Joel and Richard Rodgers – which served as appetite-whetters for her concert next Saturday.

Nobody got more of the spotlight, however, than singer/violinist Seonaid Aitken, who was in her element hosting the show on the jazz festival’s behalf, duetting with its stars and leading her band, Rose Room, through the longest set of the night.

  • An edited version of this review appeared on HeraldScotland on Monday, July 16th

 

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Review: Nigel Clark & Tom MacNiven Quintet Celebrate Bobby Wellins, Glasgow Jazz Festival

Nigel Clark & Tom MacNiven Quintet Celebrate Bobby Wellins, Drygate, Glasgow, Saturday June 23rd ****

Saturday night at the Glasgow Jazz Festival was all about one of the city’s greatest musical exports – the tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins, who died in November 2016 at the age of 80.

The esteem in which he’s held by successive generations of players and the fondness with which he’s remembered radiated through the three-part tribute which featured musicians he worked with in Scotland – notably trumpeter MacNiven and pianist Brian Kellock – and those, such as guitarist Nigel Clark and tenor saxophonist Helena Kay, whom he encouraged when they were starting out in jazz.

Kicking off the proceedings was a compelling documentary, Dreams Are Free, which was not only a lovely portrait of Wellins but also a reminder of how much films can bring to a music festival; for one hour, Wellins himself regaled the audience with his star-studded stories, and spoke extremely frankly about the struggle with heroin which kept him away from playing for a decade and nearly cost him his family.

Gary Barber’s film was followed by an exquisite solo set by Nigel Clark who was mentored by Wellins when they were both working down south in the 1980s and is, like Wellins, a master of ballad. Highlights included Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s O Grande Amor.

Jobim also provided a highlight of the closing set – by an all-star Scottish quintet playing the tracks recorded 20 years previously on Tom MacNiven’s album Guess What?, which had featured Wellins. O Morro/Favela was one of the calmer numbers in an exuberant set which culminated in something of a party atmosphere with MacNiven’s Disciples of the Art of the Off Beat and an unexpectedly rousing take on Blue Monk.

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Edinburgh Jazz Fest Memories: Fiona Alexander

Edinburgh Jazz Festival - 1990s & 2000s coversFiona Alexander, one of the producers of the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, shares her memories of the event. She says:

“My very first brush with the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival was in the late 1980s when the Festival Club was in Edinburgh University Staff Club in Chambers Street. As a newcomer to jazz, I remember being amazed by all the music happening – three concerts running simultaneously on three floors with audiences moving from one space to another. I remember that I heard Lillian Boutté in my early days of jazz exploration and she made a huge impression on me – the musicality, the stories and the humanity.

“I started working with the festival in 1997. We wanted to develop it by adding more contemporary jazz, whilst retaining the established focus on traditional jazz and including the  special musical collaborations only happening in Edinburgh. So the programme featured Acker Bilk, Bob Barnard, Kenny Ball and Carol Kidd alongside John Scofield and Gil Scott Heron. The festival also featured the Mardi Gras, Jazz on A Summer’s Day, a Gospel concert at St Giles, The Blues Festival at the Caledonian Brewery and a late night club with the Alex Shaw Trio at the Caledonian Hotel.

“One of the most exciting aspects of the festival  is developing relationships with musicians and seeing the progress through the years – so the UK premiere for The Bad Plus took place at the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival and they returned several years later with Joshua Redman playing one of the best concerts that I have ever heard.

“There’s a host of musicians who are informal friends of the festival – artists like Scott Hamilton, Ken Peplowski, Mr Sipp and David Berkman – who return to play regularly in new and different contexts. Some of the special collaborations have been very special indeed – the World Jazz Orchestra led by Joe Temperley, featuring Cecile Salvant, playing the music of Duke Ellington for example. The music and the atmosphere were electric. Tommy Smith and Courtney Pine both playing Coltrane – two very different approaches.

2012 065

Joe Temperley with the World Jazz Orchestra, 2012

 

“Who have I been especially pleased to bring to Edinburgh? So, so many people. Hosts of international musicians like Christian Scott, Tia Fuller, Roy Hargrove, Ambrose Akinmusire, but also some really interesting smaller scale projects such as French pianist Baptiste Trotignon playing in Rosslyn Chapel, and young pianists like Aga Derlak and Enrico Zanisi. A host of Scottish jazz projects have been born at Edinburgh – New Focus (Konrad Wiszniewski with Euan Stevenson), Band of Eden co-led by Tom Bancroft and Laura Macdonald, and, coming right up to date, Alison Affleck with the all female Shake Em Up Jazz Band who are playing this year.

“Of course things can go wrong. When dealing with so many people there are inevitably lots of incidents, but one of the main areas of daily concern used to be musical instruments not arriving with bands – the frantic call-round to find a bass saxophone at 4pm for a soundcheck staring in 60 minutes, or I remember taking delivery of e.s.t’s double bass just five minutes before their concert started. Now we more often supply an instrument in Edinburgh for people to use.

“Of course lost luggage also relates to suitcases and clothes not arriving, musicians missing rehearsals and so on. Weather for the outdoor events also give us pause – strong winds affect the stage in the Mardi Gras, rain affects the Carnival. I remember one particularly inconvenient shower on the afternoon of a concert we had planned for Princes Street Gardens – it poured between 2 and 4 pm – then the sun came out and it was a lovely evening. However, we didn’t get the same walk-up and lost a significant amount of money.

“There are various ways in which the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival stands out from other jazz festivals. There is no doubt that the range of music from 1920s to today makes our programme distinctive, as does our creative curation process – we present a lot of ONLY in Edinburgh concerts which we make happen just for the festival – so for example last year we offered 10 concert to Brian Kellock and asked him who he wanted to play with and then presented concerts with Fionna Duncan, The Ear Regulars, Liane Carroll and so on.

“As I hope you’ve gathered we are thrilled across the board – it’s as excting to present BIG Name X as to present a really exciting breakthrough artist and that’s because we love the music. So we are thrilled this year to be presenting the New Wave of Scottish Jazz – Mark Henry’s new commission, to present the first ever duo concert with Martin Taylor and Curtis Stigers and to have a new hub for the Festival with Teviot Row.”

* The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival runs from July 13-22. Visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

Next: Norrie Thomson

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2017: Brian Kellock Meets the Ear Regulars

The concert I enjoyed most at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival was one I wasn’t reviewing for a newspaper – so, instead of taking notes, I took photos (just on my phone) of the first-ever encounter between top UK pianist Brian Kellock and two of the most regular members of the band that plays weekly at the Ear Inn in New York City – Jon-Erik Kellso (cornet) and Scott Robinson (clarinet & saxophone). They were joined by Dave Blenkhorn (guitar) and Roy Percy (bass). Scroll down beyond the slideshow for the set list …

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Brian Kellock (piano), Jon-Erik Kellso (cornet), Scott Robinson (clarinet, saxophone), David Blenkhorn (guitar) & Roy Percy (bass) at the Piccolo George Square on Monday July 17th, 2017

Hindustan

Tishimingo Blues

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans

Some of These Days

I’m Puttin’ All My Eggs in One Basket

Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You

Lady Be Good

I Got a Right To Sing the Blues

Running’ Wild

Creole Love Call (encore)

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Joe Temperley Obituary

Jazz 2012 004Joe Temperley, who has died at the age of 88, was a giant of the baritone saxophone and the first Scottish jazz musician to make it on the New York scene. In a career which spanned seven decades, he worked his way through the best British dance and jazz bands before moving to New York and doing the same there, serving in no less prestigious an organisation than the Duke Ellington Orchestra and, later, its closest modern-day equivalent – Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

That Temperley was regarded as an integral part of that ensemble’s sound and success was obvious even before he was honoured with a concert in his name last year. Wynton Marsalis told one magazine: “It’s difficult to express in words the depth of respect and admiration we have for Joe. And it’s not just about music. It’s also a personal, a spiritual thing. His approach is timeless. And he’s the center of our band.”

In addition to his long association with that band, Temperley was also an educator who taught at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, and was a guest mentor for the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra during his regular visits back to Scotland where he kept up with his extended family and the jazz community here. In the hours after his death was announced on Wednesday afternoon, Facebook was flooded with heartfelt messages from students who had benefitted from Temperley’s teaching.

Until old age and ill health took their toll, Temperley was a big, physically imposing figure who seemed physically to embody the history which he represented; a history that spanned the dance band era, the big bands, bebop – and was peppered with musical and social encounters with such icons as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, in whose final concert he played.

His burly figure, often gruff manner and stern appearance could make grown men – such as his favourite UK pianist, Brian Kellock – quiver in their boots. In the jazz room at Hospitalfield House in Abroath, a large photo of Temperley hangs on the wall behind the bandstand. Its subject appears to glower over in the direction of the piano. “It’s really quite disconcerting,” says Kellock, “even though, once I got to know him, I discovered that he was really a big softie.”

The cumbersome baritone saxophone was an appropriate instrument for a towering figure such as Temperley – but it wasn’t cumbersome in his hands. Famously, he could coax the most tender and romantic sounds out of it (fellow saxophonist and jazz educator Tommy Smith yesterday compared the Temperley sound to “sweet velvet”) – as exemplified in recent years on his chosen Scottish encore, an unaccompanied performance of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose in which the melody was caressed in such a gentle and exquisite way that you knew he was singing the words in his head. It stopped the show every time.

The son of a bus driver, Joseph Temperley was born in the mining town of Lochgelly, in Fife, in 1927. The second youngest of five children, he left school at the age of 14 when his mother secured him a job in a butcher’s shop. By this time, he was already playing cornet alongside his elder brother, Bob, in the Cowdenbeath Brass Band – and it was Bob who bought the youngster his first saxophone, an alto, so he could join his dance band. As Temperley liked to tell it later, he had six months of lessons and then ended his musical education because, by that point, he could play better than the teacher. “All the stuff that I learned, I learned by doing,” he said.

The teenage Temperley formed a band called the Debonairs, in which he played tenor sax. Speaking in 2010, he recalled: “I had a horse and cart and I would go round all the villages during the day, trying to sell meat. Then at night I’d play sax in dance bands!”

When the Debonairs took part in a dance band competition organised by Melody Maker, Temperley’s talent was spotted and he was invited to play with the winning band. At the age of 17, he left Lochgelly for the bright lights of Glasgow where he played at the Piccadilly Club on Sauchiehall Street for 18 months.

During the days, he would augment his earnings by playing snooker. “The guys in Glasgow thought that I was just some country boy from Fife and they would be able to take a few bob off me – but they didn’t know that I had been playing snooker at the Miners’ Welfare for years. The days were quite profitable for me!”

When Tommy Sampson’s band, one of the most popular of the period, came to play at Green’s Playhouse, Temperley went along for an audition and was signed up on the spot. Not yet 20 years old, he moved to London to take the tenor chair in the Sampson band – “the first time I was in a band that was sort of regimented”. He then joined the Harry Parry band, with which he had his first experience of foreign travel, then moved onto Joe Loss’s band, then Jack Parnell’s and Tony Crombie’s (with Annie Ross on vocals) before settling into what turned out to be eight year stint with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, during which he switched to the baritone sax. “That was the start of my professional career,” he later said. “The rest was incidental.”

With “Humph,” Temperley met many top American musicians – Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Anita O’Day. “The first time I came across iced tea was when Cannonball Adderley ordered it,” he recalled in 2010. “I thought: ‘what’s that?’!”

Temperley’s first taste of New York, the epicentre of jazz, was with Lyttelton’s band in August 1959. “I arrived wearing a Harris tweed jacket. It was so hot, I’d sit in the bath all day and only go out at night!’ After returning from three weeks in jazz heaven, Temperley was desperate to get back – and in December 1965 he did so, permanently.

After six months without a gig, Temperley was approached by Woody Herman to join his band for a series of one-nighters, but after two years on the road, he had had enough and returned to New York where he freelanced quite contentedly for several years, with a regular gig with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra every Monday at the famous Village Vanguard club. He met everyone there. “Miles Davis came in two or three times. And Charlie Mingus, André Previn, Bill Evans. People from the Ellington band. Monday night was a big social scene, and some marvellous people came down there.”

In the early 1970s, he worked with Frank Sinatra – an experience he alluded to during An Evening With Joe Temperley, a special duo concert-cum-trip-down-memory-lane he gave with Brian Kellock at the 2010 Edinburgh Jazz Festival. When Kellock interrupted Temperley’s roll call of stars he had met to ask if Sinatra was a nice guy, the audience got a typically frank reply: “The bass player who worked with him for 20 years was leaving the band. As he left, he said to Sinatra ‘I’m off’. And Frank Sinatra replied: ‘I don’t talk to the help.’!”

A change of direction came in October 1974 when the pastor of the Lutheran Church on 54th Street, the church which serves New York’s jazz community, asked Temperley to play at the funeral of Harry Carney, the great baritone saxophonist who had played in Duke Ellington’s band for 45 years.

“I played Sophisticated Lady at Harry’s funeral – and that’s how I got the job replacing him in the Ellington band,” recalled Temperley as he introduced that number at the 2010 jazz festival. Temperley spent ten years in the Ellington band – by now run by Mercer Ellington – before becoming one of the original members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 1990; a gig which he described as being “like a real job with health benefits, dental benefits, a pension”.

Until relatively recently, he was still touring the world with the orchestra. Latterly, he claimed that the only thing that troubled him about the sax was carrying it. Despite his obvious frailty, he turned in a series of terrific and surprisingly robust performances, switching between the baritone and the bass clarinet during a mini tour with Brian Kellock which turned out to be his final visit to Scotland in March 2015.

* Joe Temperley, jazz saxophonist and educator, born September 20 1927; died May 11 2016.
Joe Temperley and meText and photos (c) Alison Kerr, 2016.

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Songs For Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn 1This year marks the centenary of one of the great unsung heroes of jazz history, a man who was also half (and sometimes, arguably, more than that) of one of the greatest musical partnerships of the 20th Century – and the composer of such classics of the jazz repertoire as Take the A Train and Lush Life. His name was Billy Strayhorn.

In late 1938, this quiet young musician in his rather past-its-best Sunday suit was taken backstage in a Pittsburgh theatre to be introduced to the great jazz bandleader and composer of the day, Duke Ellington. As Ellington rested between performances, relaxing on a reclining chair while his valet tended to his hair, the 23-year-old Strayhorn was ushered in.

Strayhorn, Ellington & Preminger

Strayhorn & Ellington on the set of Anatomy of a Murder for which they wrote the score. Director Otto Preminger looks on.

Ellington may not have bothered to open his eyes to take a look at his guest, but by the end of the short visit, Strayhorn – who dazzled Duke with a series of piano performances of Ellington tunes first as the composer himself would play them, and then in his own arrangements – had been wholeheartedly accepted into the organisation.

So began a three-decade relationship that was one of the most fruitful and – according to those who witnessed it – loving in jazz history. From the outset, the refined and cultured Strayhorn, a dedicated Francophile and follower of fashion – who had never really belonged in the Pittsburgh shack in which he was raised – was not so much Ellington’s right-hand man as his alter ego.

Constantly on the road with his band, Ellington entrusted composing and arranging assignments to Strayhorn, who had absorbed the Ellington orchestra sound and was more than happy to devote himself to keeping it up to date with new music, and keeping the royalties pouring in to the organisation which had many mouths to feed.

Bob Wilber, the 86-year-old American clarinettist and saxophonist (pictured below) who was a member of a celebrated small group put together by Strayhorn in the 1960s, says: “He so completely assimilated Duke’s music that often you couldn’t tell in an arrangement which part was Duke and which part was Billy. He was absolutely indispensable to Duke.”

Strayhorn, who had been a frustrated would-be cosmopolite in Pittsburgh – where his sexuality was never discussed but always assumed as gay – blossomed in Manhattan, living initially with members of Ellington’s entourage in the boss’s Harlem penthouse, and spending his days soaking up all the art and cocktails that he could during his non-writing time. “A miniature, black Noel Coward” was how one friend later described him.

As his biographer David Hajdu writes: “In Pittsburgh, who he was had inhibited Billy Strayhorn from doing what he could do; in New York, what he could do enabled him to be who he was.” And what he was was a young gay man who loved the finer things in life, and was able to set up home with his boyfriend secure in the knowledge that – unlike many employers back then – his sexuality, and his openness about it, would not be an issue with Ellington who treated him as one of the family, possibly even better than he treated his own son, Mercer, who also wrote for the band.

Not only did his association with Ellington provide him with the bon vivant lifestyle he had dreamt of, it also gave him an outlet for his artistry and allowed him to flourish as a composer. He may have been composing and arranging for the Ellington outfit from 1939 – and Bob Wilberhave been the author of Take the A Train, a massive hit which Ellington quickly promoted to the band’s signature tune – but Strayhorn wasn’t credited as composer or arranger for his contribution until the 1950s, after a brief period when he had split from the organisation.

Everyone in the band, however, knew that he was a prolific writer of their music – and he was terrifically well liked and respected. Tommy Smith, the  director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra which is performing three concerts this month to celebrate the “Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn” – from such “big”, familiar pieces as Isfahan, Chelsea Bridge and Satin Doll to rare, recent rediscoveries – recounts a story told to him by one-time Ellington trombonist Buster Cooper.

“He told me he was once sitting next to Strayhorn on a plane, and Strayhorn had his briefcase out. He opened it and there was some manuscript there, and Buster was really excited because he thought he was going to get to see what Strayhorn was going to write – they were all in awe of him and never sure who had written what. But Billy Strayhorn lifted up the manuscript – and there was a bottle of whisky there. He offered Buster a drink, and put the manuscript away. Buster never got to see what the music was.”

One song which everyone knew was 100% Strayhorn was the evocative ballad Lush Life, the poetic words and haunting music of which he had mostly penned even before he met Ellington. It’s long been a favourite of jazz singers – and its recent performance by Lady Gaga boosted her credibility with the jazz community because it is, as Bob Wilber points out, “a very tricky song”. Indeed, Strayhorn was incensed by both the arrangement and the fluffed lyrics in Nat King Cole’s famous recording of it.

Annie Ross, the British-born jazz singer, met Strayhorn in the early 1950s when they were both living in Paris – the city he had written about in Lush Life. She says: “We hit it off immediately. He liked the way I sang and he taught me Lush Life. He was a gentle soul. They called him the Swee’ Pea precisely because he was so gentle.”

It might also have been something to do with the love of flowers and nature that he inherited from his devoted mother– a love that is obvious from such song titles as Passion Flower, Lotus Blossom and Violet Blue, which were written as features for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges whose gloriously plaintive sound was the perfect match for Strayhorn’s beautiful but dark-tinged melodies, and sumptuous arrangements.

When, in March 1965, Strayhorn – whose piano playing was usually done in the recording studio or just to entertain friends – was asked to put together a band for a concert featuring his first solo piano performance, Bob Wilber got the call that one might have expected Hodges to get. “I don’t know how he had heard me – whether it was only on record – but he realized that I would be the ideal interpreter for the compositions that he wrote for Johnny Hodges. It was an absolute thrill being called to be in that band – which he named the Riverside Drive Five. I was thrilled to do it.”

One of the tunes performed at the concert and then long forgotten about was Orson – Strayhorn’s portrait of Orson Welles. The music for it was discovered in box stuffed with manuscripts in Strayhorn’s basement long after his death from cancer in 1967. The handwriting on the music helped shed light on Strayhorn’s enormous contribution to the Ellington repertoire and sound, while stacks of his own pieces underlined the fact – long known amongst musicians and Ellington experts – that he had been a brilliant composer in his own right;Billy Strayhorn solo that he alone had composed many of the numbers that had been thought to be collaborations.

Now, in Strayhorn’s centenary year, he will perhaps receive more of the widespread recognition he deserves – and his rarely heard compositions, among them the afore-mentioned Orson, will reach a broader listening public, not least audiences who attend the SNJO’s concerts this month.

* The SNJO (with Brian Kellock on piano) – The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn is at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on February 20, Buccleuch Centre, Langholm on February 21, and at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow on February 22.

* First published in Scotland on Sunday on February 15

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