MIKE WESTBROOK AND HIS ORCHESTRA
'I feel very very strongly about communicating with the audience. And I also feel that the band plays its best at a dance - here communication can be closer than almost anywhere else.' These are the unusual views (in this era of modern jazz musicians who can't play for dancing) of an unusual musician, Mike Westbrook, leader of what Steve Voce has described as 'one of the most remarkable British bands I have ever heard, whose work is fiercely original' (Jazz Journal, August 1964).
As Voce also mentioned, Mike has led a band virtually continuously since 1958. His interest in jazz began, however, while still at school, where he developed a taste for boogie woogie pianists and Fats Waller. In Plymouth, he went to art school (he hopes to become an art teacher this autumn) learned the trumpet, and formed his first band. The group started out as a traditional band, with a line-up of trumpet, trombone and rhythm section, but soon progressed to mainstream, playing in neighbouring art schools, pubs and coffee bars. About a year or eighteen months later, Mike was given the opportunity to start a Jazz Workshop at Plymouth Arts Centre, where weekly sessions were held. The front line was expanded by the addition of tenor and baritone saxes. The baritonist was John Surman, a remarkable musician who, although he is only twenty-one years old now, is the longest serving member of Mike's current band. He had started out as a traditional clarinettist, and joined the band whilst still at school. Mike remembers him arriving for his first session still wearing his school cap!
With a four-piece front line to write for, Mike became very interested in arranging. 'The Gerry Mulligan Sextet records,' he says, 'first showed me what could be done with the line-up we had.' Mike is entirely self-taught as an arranger, and had by this time already written a number of original compositions. The next important step forward for the band was the Plymouth Arts Festival in 1962. Mike himself had already left for London in the spring of that year, but returned for the festival. 'l was approached by the organising committee,' he told me, 'who had decided they needed a jazz band to complete their coverage of the arts. I discussed the idea with Peter Russell, and we mentioned one or two names. Then Peter said, 'Why not do it yourself?' At first the idea seemed ridiculous, but eventually I agreed to try. I think the band must have sounded very rough, but anyway the concert went well. Since then we've done six concerts in Plymouth at various times, and we've managed to build up quite a following in the area.'
Peter Russell, it seems, has acted as a guide and spiritual father to the band. 'He's done all he can to help us,' added John Surman, 'and although, being students, we had virtually no money, he would let us listen to records for hours in his shop.' Mike returned to London, 'quietly starved' for a few months, and was later joined by John Surman and guitarist Keith Rowe from the original band. They held auditions, and of the present band, drummer Alan Jackson and tenorist Lou Gare joined at this time. 'We started off by trying to re-create the band with the same instrumentation as we had in Plvmouth, but gradually more musicians were added. Often this happened more by accident than design - someone would say, 'Have you heard so-and-so?' We usually invited the musician to sit in, and if we liked him, and he liked us, he was in.' In this way, altoist Mike Osborne joined the band in the spring of 1963. The band played a couple of times at the Marquee and had several engagements at the now-defunct Richmond Community Centre jazz club. We were beginning to feel that at last we were making some kind of impression on the London jazz scene,' said Mike.
Things were not entirely satisfactory, however, and when they were offered the opportunity to run their own place on their own terrns the idea seemed very attractive. The Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill was offered them, and although the venture was a great success musically, financially it was a disaster. Recently the band has been playing two sessions weekly, at the Royal College of Art, and the ICA Gallery respectively. They also do quite a lot of out-of-town jobs. 'We would like to play at clubs in London, but it's very hard to break in,' says Mike. 'Generally speaking, though, we get a better reception out of London. London audiences tend to be rather blasé and indifferent. This is even true about students. There used to be a big following for jazz among students, but nowadays all they want is pop. It can be very disheartening.'
'I particularIy remember one session in a suburban club,' said John Surman, 'where we couldn't get any kind of a reaction at all. I started making the most awful noises possible, but no one even put their hands over their ears. I've never never known any audience to be so indifferent.'
At the other end of the scale was the amazing reaction they got at Dartington Hall. They played at this experimental college in February of this year, doing a concert in the afternoon and a dance in the evening. 'The students had not been exposed to live big band modern jazz before, and they were rather sceptical at first, particularly the music students. They wondered whether we could play our instruments, I suppose,' laughed Surman. The students listened to the concert, and liked what they heard very much. The dance went even better. 'We played one number,' recalled Mike, 'a sort of calypso, that went on for about three quarters of an hour. The musicians were wandering through the dancers, playing as they felt, reacting to the dancers in the most exciting way. We gave something to the audience, and they gave a lot to us.' This was communication on its highest plane - the interaction between musicians and their audience so that both give something and both gain something. 'The band always feels less inhibited playing for dancing. Of course, we can't play exactly the same sort of things we do at concerts, and we play more standards. But I always find it difficult to compromise. Very often if we try to play things that will please the audience we get less of a reaction than if we pIay things we enjoy doing. So where do you draw the line?' ended Mike.
On hearing the band (as I did twice at the ICA) I was struck first of all by the very high standard of musicianship displayed, and by the band's youthful appearance. At 29, Mike Westbrook himself is the oldest member. All the others are in their early or middle 'twenties. Five of the band are classically trained, John Surman (baritone and soprano saxes); Henry Lowther (trumpet - replaced, since I heard the band, by Alan Ellis); Mike Osborne (alto sax); Ken McCarthy (piano); and Tom Bennellick (French horn and tuba). Although all the band would like to play jazz full time, only Osborne and Bennellick are fully professional musicians (in the sense that they earn their living playing music). To these two should be added the name of Alan Cohen, who does some arranging for them, though much of his time is taken up doing pop arrangements for Joe Loss. The only other members of the band not so far mentioned are bassist Lawrence Sheaff and trombonist Malcolm Griffiths.
On neither occasion that I heard the band were the conditions ideal but nevertheless I heard enough to convince me that this is a band that not only has tremendous potential, but also has a background of solid achievement. When it swings, as it does most of the time, it swings very hard indeed. Much of the credit for this goes to the powerfully adept drumming of Alan Jackson. Most of the tunes, on both times I heard the band, were originals, though from the first session I remember a remarkably unHamptonish Flying Home.
Stylistically, the band is hard to pin down. On first hearing, the name that came most readily to mind was Charles Mingus. 'l think you're right to some extent in saying we sound like Mingus,' Mike agreed. Then as if to prove how wrong I had been, the second time I heard them they didn't sound a bit like Mingus. In fact, of course, the band sounds like nothing but itself. The biggest proportion of numbers in the band's book (of about 100 arrangements) is by Westbrook himself. His most ambitious work that I heard was Departure, a fifteen minute work that includes a middle section of compIetely free improvisation by the whole band We never know quite how that bit's going to work out, but tonight it went very well, I thought,' Mike told me. Another highly successful arrangement of Mike's was This Is The Thing, in ¾ time. It featured the remarkable Henry Lowther. lf Henry was widely heard, he would be frightening a lot of trumpet players - and not only in this country. It is a great pity he has left the band. He has everything - sound, technique, imagination and a fine sense of dynamics.
Besides Westbrook, the other main arranger is John Surman, who has been writing just over a year. According to Westbrook, Surman's academic training is reflected in his writing, and he tries above all to be original. Guitarist Keith Rowe is the first avant-garde guitarist I have heard, and he is an entirely convincing and exciting exponent of the genre. Altoist Mike Osborne is a hard-driving and powerful soloist not unlike Jackie McLean, who is apparently one of his favourite musicians. Tenorist Lou Gare can be an intensely moving and passionate soloist, though occasionally he lapses into a jerky and unswinging way of phrasing.
By far the most impressive soloist, however, is John Surman. He has chosen to play perhaps the two most difficult members of the saxophone family, soprano and baritone, and plays them both superbly. His baritone playing is tremendously gutty and swinging, whilst his soprano work is supple and moving. The other soloists were not prominently featured, but five outstanding soloists should be enough for anyone thinking of going to hear the band – or should I say four now that Henry Lowther has left.
After the second concert, I asked Mike about his favourite musicians. 'Duke mainly, and more recently, Mingus. I feel an affinity with Mingus, and I see in him an artist whose every performance is a defiant affirmation of the true iazz values. At a time when iazz is being widely betrayed, compromised and abused in the public's mind, I think that the jazz musician must constantly clarify his artistic position in positive terms. This is not time for mincing matters if the music we love is to retain its identity and dignity. I also admire Duke and Mingus for their ability to use a group of musicians to explore themes that extend beyond the music itself. Duke I like too because he always tries to gauge what the audience wants from him. We try to do this too, and I think we've been reasonably successful.
'The band's future plans? We're doing six weeks at a club in Looe, Cornwall, then next autumn we have an option to continue the ICA sessions. Our most important engagement was on August 4th, when we did a telerecording before a live audience in Plymouth, for Westward Television. We would like to make a recording, but nothing has turned up so far.'
Any enterprising record company executive reading this, who wants to record the first original British big band, can contact Mike at PAR 1528. Those in the Westward Television area can expect to see the band on the box, and there is also a possibility of a network showing for the programme. I hope it will serve to bring this outstanding band to the attention of the wider audience it deserves.