Open Letter

ITV was tolerated rather than encouraged in our house.  Coronation Street was OK because it was ‘your mother’s programme’.  Other than that, World in Action was allowed and so was Weekend World but generally speaking ITV was frivolous, commercial and probably Tory biased.  I only got away with Tiswas because at that time on a Saturday my dad was on his allotment.

One day in 1978 my mum took me to the doctor for some reason.  As we walked home along Trentham Road a lorry went by.  It took a bump in the road badly and from its back spewed three or four dozen red packets of Typhoo tea.  As if by magic, about twenty little old ladies appeared from nowhere, armed with tartan shopping trollies and along with my mum, began clearing up the spilled tea.  The job was done in seconds, before the lorry had time to clear the corner of the road and disappear out of sight.  In spite of the fact that it came free, it was an unsatisfactory few weeks tea drinking in our house because we were a PG tips household.  It was much the same with the TV, we were a BBC family.  ITV was for other people.

The thing was, I didn’t resent my dad for his control of the TV.  I watched a lot of things many of my contemporaries at school didn’t.  Yes Minister, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Panorama, James Burkes Connections and stuff on BBC 2 that was probably not really appropriate for my age.  But it was good.  Challenging and a little beyond me, perhaps but good.  This liberal attitude from a man who left school at 15 and never ‘progressed’ beyond skilled labourer class continues to inspire me.  My dad wasn’t a snob, he just wanted a bit more from the idiots lantern.  So the arrival of Channel 4 was a boon to him.

At its inception, Channel 4’s remit was to provide public service TV that was innovative and experimental, appealed to a culturally diverse community, and was educational and less London-centric than the existing BBC and ITV provision.

One of my dad’s favourite C4 shows was a daily magazine fronted by the great Mavis Nicholson.  It was a high brow affair by today’s standards of daytime TV, covering film, TV and book reviews, art criticism and music.  It was on Mavis on 4 that I first saw the French guitarist Biréli Lagrène and the London Big Band collective, Loose Tubes.

Time plays tricks on the record buyers mind.  I can’t remember which came first, that exposure to Loose Tubes courtesy of Mavis or being introduced to Bill Bruford’s Earthworks album by Alex Nayar.  It doesn’t really matter, but whichever way around I acquired Earthworks and Loose Tubes’ last record, Open Letter, I eventually made the connection that two of the personnel on Earthworks, Django Bates and Iain Ballamy, were also original members of Loose Tubes.  The acquisition of Iain Ballamy’s first solo album, Balloon Man must have come after one or the other.

The next but less obvious connection to me at the time was the label.  All these artists were signed to a label called Editions EG.  Others in the Editions EG stable included Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, Penguin Café Orchestra and Human Chain.  It was that sort of label.

In my early record buying days the label was just the paper bit in the middle.  Some had a comforting familiarity; Jet Records skyscraper and searchlights, the visual bit of most of my ELO collection, the late 1970s Island Records label known as ‘day and night’ that my first John Martyn albums were pressed with and of course the Apple Corps label.  But it didn’t matter to me that my Let it Be came with a plum coloured Capitol label.  But when I realised that Editions EG was that sort of label my relationship with it and other labels began to change.

From my observation, any form of discussion-in a pub, a classroom, in online threads-on any subject from umbrellas, genocide, cats and Keynesian economics to breastfeeding, is almost always brought to a head with the emphatic statement ‘…and that’s how Nazi Germany started’.

I have never been one for clubs.  I was not a scout or a member of a football team.  I have never troubled MENSA with membership requests.  The freemasons will not seek me out because they know I share Groucho Marx’s view that I wouldn’t want to join a club that would consider having me as a member.  It is the liking for a collective thinking around a few defined issues that troubles me.  That and the uniforms, the insignia, the rituals and the marching.  The fact is that’s how Nazi Germany started.

But Editions EG was that sort of label.  It’s pretensions towards art and a certain intellectualism appealed to me as a callow youth.  Here was a club I could belong to quietly and smugly, imagining myself as one of a few who were clever enough to know about Editions EG.

Open Letter is a big record by a big band.  The eight tracks were recorded by 21 musicians, most of whom were in their 20’s when Kind of Blue and Time Out producer Teo Macero produced their final studio album.  “These guys are interested in real composition,” he’s quoted as saying, “Real melodies, not just being super hip. I haven’t seen a young band in the US that wants to do things like that.”  Coming from the man who produced two of the most influential Jazz records ever, this is high praise indeed, especially when one considers the fact that home grown British Jazz had always been considered an inferior, derivative relative of its American counterpart.  But I’m not sure anyone should have been too surprised by Macero’s positive comparison.

Just to be absolutely clear.  Jazz is, by birth, American.  Whenever I find myself on the verge of an anti-American rant about this or that insipid, stupid or offensive bit of transatlantic cultural imperialism, I remind myself, there was also Charlie Parker.  Jazz is also clearly black in its original ethnicity so one could continue the Charlie Parker argument down the ‘no slavery, no jazz, blues, soul, rock ‘n’ roll’ and so on route.  But that’s probably how Nazi Germany started.

During both world wars, white Europeans had fought alongside white and black Americans.  The Europeans heard elements of American culture, including Jazz and Blues.  During the Second World War, the BBC was reluctant to broadcast much in the way of American music preferring a diet of George Formby, Gracie Fields and of course Vera Lynn.  Late night slots given over to dance bands were few on the home front and where they were available the music was led by white bandleaders such as Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey.  If you were interested in the developments in Jazz in the US, you were hard pressed to find many reliable sources.

Things didn’t improve much for the British jazz enthusiast immediately after the Second World War either.  Since the mid 1930’s the Musicians Union had held opposition to American musicians performing in the UK.  This is often described as a ban, though it wasn’t quite as clear cut as that.  US musicians did perform in Britain through exchange concerts, with the likes of Stan Kenton and Louis Armstrong passing each other mid-Atlantic but to listen to Modern American Jazz, the British fan needed deep pockets to buy imported US pressed records.

In 1947, at the age of 20 a talented London born tenor saxophonist called Ronald Schatt cashed in his savings and took a boat to New York City to find out what all the fuss was about in American jazz.  In the depths of post war austerity and rationing, before the slow rebuilding of the bombed East End was even underway, this young man risked what little security he had just to hear some music.  I suppose one might say that because of the austerity and the rationing and the bombed out shit tip the East End was, getting on a boat to anywhere, for any reason was to be preferred.  But this wasn’t a getting-away-from-it-all-for-a-bit holiday.  If anything, it was a pilgrimage.  At that point, the Street (52nd Street, between 5th and 7th Avenues) was still the beating heart of Jazz.  The drummer Shelly Manne said, “It was like a history of jazz on one street… It was really healthy for musicians. If you were a jazz historian, you could have gone down there and seen and heard, with your own ears, the evolution of the music, right there on the street, and it all made sense.”  This was why Schatt was there.  He returned to London intent on establishing a club like the ones he’d visited on the Street; the Spotlite, the Yacht Club and the Three Deuces, where he’d seen the Charlie Parker Quintet with Miles Davis, then gone next door to listen to Davis again, this time blowing with Dizzy Gillespie.  Schatt would return to New York several times over the next few years, this time playing his way on Cunard Liners in the on board dance bands and calling himself Ronnie Scott.

Ronnie Scott wasn’t the only player on those trips with Geraldo’s navy, so called after the bandleader who also ran an agency placing musicians on trans-Atlantic ships.  Many other musicians in his London based circle signed up for the voyage in order to spend their shore leave listening to the pioneers of Modern Jazz first hand.  Once Scott had established his now legendary Jazz club along with fellow tenor player Pete King, his objective became one of bringing the best of US Modern Jazz to the UK.

British Jazz lore has it that Ronnie Scott and Pete King broke the Musicians Union ban on US players.  The pair decided to take on the Union in order to book American artists for the club, at that time in its original home at 39 Gerrard Street, Soho.  King was the negotiator with the MU and the American Federation of Musicians and secured a deal whereby the Tubby Hayes Quartet played the Half Note Club in NYC in exchange for a month long Zoot Sims residency at Gerrard Street.  Other giants followed; Johnny Griffin, Freddie Hubbard, Roland Kirk, Sonny Stitt until Ronnie’s became the ticket in town.  What was it that made this music so worth all the trouble?

I share my birthday with my friend Chester, my mum’s friend Albert, Nigella Lawson and my wife.  At 85, Albert is the oldest of us Epiphinites being born on 6th January 1927.  As Albert celebrated his 12th birthday somewhere in the soot blackened streets of Stoke on Trent, a German émigré called Alfred Lion was recording a performance of two boogie-woogie pianists, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, in a rented studio in New York.  Blue Note Records was born.

Lion championed Jazz and Jazz musicians.  His aim was to make the best recordings of the best players and give them the best opportunity to shine.  With other collaborators in the business-Francis Wolf, Max Margulis and later the legendary engineer, Rudy van Gelder-Lion and Blue Note provided the artists in their stable with enviable working conditions, flexible recording sessions, input into the recording process, booze and uniquely, two days paid rehearsal time.  As Bob Porter of Prestige Records said “The difference between Blue Note and Prestige is two days’ rehearsal.”

As Jazz changed and developed, Lion was keen to adapt.  While bebop originator Charlie Parker never recorded for Blue Note, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Fats Navarro and James Moody all did.  And Blue Note took big risks.  Avant Garde classics like Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and Ornette Coleman’s the Empty Foxhole were recorded by van Gelder for Blue Note.  This independence of creative thinking engendered originality and while a lot of the work was not a commercial success at the time many Blue Note recordings are among the most important and influential in all Jazz.

This is not to say that other independent labels did not play a significant role in developing the form; Prestige, Verve and Riverside all had their parts to play. So too did Impulse, actually a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount Records but founded by the independent minded Creed Taylor, who signed John Coltrane in 1960.  A Love Supreme, Impressions and Kulu Se Mama among others were all recorded on Impulse.

In the preamble to his song Oedipus Rex, Tom Lehrer talks about ‘Rock and Roll and other children’s music…’ It is worth remembering that at the time, Jazz was popular music.  But altogether more youth orientated acts, together with the growth in radio and TV, were changing listening habits.  Commercial pressures began to place a strain on Independent labels to create hits, but competition from Elvis, Buddy Holly and Bill Hailey was fierce.  By the time the Beatles released Help! Alfred Lion had sold Blue Note to Liberty, Prestige had diversified into more commercially viable soul jazz acts, Verve had gone to MGM and Riverside had been bankrupt for two years.  Many would say it peaked in 1957 with the release of Kind of Blue, the Shape of Jazz to come and Brubeck’s Time Out, but the golden era of modern jazz was over.  Meanwhile, back in London Ronnie Scott’s had been open for six years and a steady stream of ace American players were dropping by.

For the first seven years, Ronnie’s was served by Stan Tracey as resident pianist.  Like Scott, Stan had made his way to New York in the crew of Geraldo’s Navy and like Scott, he spent his free time on 52nd Street listening to Bird, Dizzy Gillespie and influentially, Thelonious Monk.  Once he had his feet under the piano at Ronnie’s , he found himself doing nightly sets with the likes of Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz and Lucky Thompson, many of whom were on a longer European journey.  The post war period saw many American Jazz musicians in self-imposed exile in Europe, among them Bud Powell, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster.  For most it was about the money and the treatment of the players, for decently paid, regular work was to be had; while for others it was about politics and race.  For a lot of them, these would have amounted to the same thing.  For some it was a chance to wipe the slate, clean up and start again after leaving behind a scene which had more casualties than Manchester Royal Infirmary in a year of Saturday nights.  For all it was an opportunity to disseminate the music away from the restrictions of the increasingly larger recording companies to a receptive and attentive audience actively seeking to engage in something to lighten the post-war gloom.  This was the workshop of Stan Tracey’s apprenticeship at Ronnie Scott’s.

Tracey recorded many albums from the late 1950’s onwards as both leader and sideman on various labels.  In 1965 he recorded Jazz Suite Inspired by Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood for Columbia which he would reissue on his own Steam records label in the mid 1970’s.  British labels like Vogue and Esquire carried UK artists as well as being the imprints for American jazz in Britain.  Later, labels like Ogun appeared, releasing the work of Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, a London based big band collective which featured Dave DeFries who would crop up later on Open Letter.

Between 1940 and 1965 American Jazz was subject to radical developments through bebop, hard bop, modal jazz and free jazz.  And British jazz was going through the same changes.  The idea that British jazz was and is just a poor imitation of its American superior is absurd, simplistic and if you were feeling sensitive, just offensive.  I love John Fordham’s assessment of Stan Tracey’s playing in the sleeve notes to Playin’ in the Yard as being like ‘half way between barrel house and somebody splitting bricks…’ because I can’t help but think that Monk would have played like Stan if only he’d grown up in Southwark.

What makes British jazz uniquely British is, I believe, its development in a more independent minded creative environment.  Stan Tracey and others set up their own labels to promote their music outside of the commercial constraints of the record industry whose hunger for hits drove so many Americans away to Europe or down the road to jazz funk and dinner music.  Whilst no guarantee of commercial success, the independence of Ronnie Scott’s and initiatives like Steam Records provided British jazz  musicians with a creative sense of home, where they could experiment with the form and try new directions.  The steady stream of American originators pitching up at Gerrard Street and later Frith Street to play at Ronnie’s was so much more fire under the cauldron but what was being cooked up was an eccentrically British stew.  It is this thread, this connectedness to young Ronald Schatt’s experience on the Street back in 1947 that Teo Macero recognised over 40 years later when he worked with Loose Tubes on Open Letter.  The inheritors of the philosophy of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf were not Liberty or United Artists, they just bought the Blue Note name.  The flame crossed the Atlantic with Zoot Sims’ first trip to Ronnie Scott’s, where Stan Tracey fanned it nightly at Gerrard Street.  Labels like Ogun, Steam Records and later Editions EG fed it and the improbably large Loose Tubes whipped it up into an almighty conflagration of reeds and brass that led the audience at Ronnie’s out into the Soho night to go Dancing on Frith Street.

I have clear and certain pre-school memories of being unable to read.  I would arrange my soft toys as a class and ‘read’ to them from the Big Red Thick Book (real title the Children’s Enquire Within Upon Everything, a Daily Mail publication from the 1930’s).  Reading didn’t appear to require words to be spoken aloud; I’d seen my dad do it with the Daily Mirror.  In my imaginary classroom with me as the teacher my soft toy pupils didn’t seem to mind.  But once one can read, it’s impossible not to.  People might choose not to read novels or newspapers or published work of any kind but as long as they have been grounded in the alphabet and can assemble the abstract symbols to make words, they cannot help but read.

Once one has learned the way of particular record labels the knowledge cannot be unlearned.

I am a regular visitor to the blog of a jazz collector. It’s very nicely done with lots of thorough research about different jazz labels, artists and the minutiae of matrix codes, the combination of letters, numbers, symbols and words you can see in the run out groove or ‘deadwax’ on a vinyl record.  The blog concerns itself with American jazz from the mid 50’s to the late 60’s.  It’s well written and presented and entertaining too.  It’s also smug as hell and getting to be a bit of an irritation to me.

Let’s call him jazzblogger so as not to identify someone who can’t defend himself.  Jazzblogger has spent an awful lot of money on his hi fi.  I’ve no argument with this.  Most people do not spend nearly enough on their playback equipment.  Jazzblogger also spends a lot on records.  This is because jazzblogger insists on only listening to first pressings of records.  Reissues and second pressings are no good to him.  Jazzblogger would also have us believe that there is no point in anyone listening to anything other than first pressings.  There are sound technical reasons for this argument.  First pressings are closer to the original source recording.  In a record pressing plant, a negative metal master disc, with ridges rather than grooves, is used to make a number of positive ‘mothers’, essentially a metal (usually nickel) record.  The mothers are then used to make a number of negative ‘stampers’, with ridges rather than grooves (like the master). It is from this stamper that the positive (that is, grooved) record you buy in the shops is pressed.  With each creation of a mother, the master deteriorates slightly and with each ‘moulding’ of a stamper, the mother deteriorates slightly.    In theory the best audio quality is gained from the first pressing because the closest record to the source of the original recording is one made from the first stamper, made from the first mother.

I don’t dispute that jazzblogger is right in his assessment about the superior audio from a first pressing, but at what cost?  First pressings of most pre-Liberty Blue Note records will set you back the price of a car.  If you factor in the cost of a turntable of sufficient quality to reveal the difference you might as well chuck in a caravan too.  I would rather have heard Thelonious Monk play on a battered church upright piano than never have heard him play a Steinway Grand but Jazzblogger has made me cautious about retracing some of my Blue Note and other jazz vinyl.  Was my copy of Money Jungle an inferior French pressing, or worse still, a South Park, a vinyl record in name only, having been mastered and pressed from a CD?  I might not have a £6,000 turntable but doesn’t Kind of Blue have to be listened to as an original first pressing, even on the Thorens?  Jazzblogger certainly thinks so.  This great music, he insists, deserves only the very best.

In his notes on Stan Tracey’s 1967 From Jazz with Love, Peter Clayton wrote:

There’s a well substantiated story that tells how a pianist who happened to be in the audience at Ronnie Scott’s old club one night was invited (some say challenged) to sit in. As the guest slid onto the bench to take over from the regular pianist, Stan Tracey, he was rather disconcerted to hear Stan, indicating what looked in the dark to be about an octave and a half of keyboard, whisper warningly: ‘From here to here they don’t work’. 

I love this story; it’s a real jazz story.  I’d heard the account before but couldn’t remember who was involved, inventing the memory that it was Duke Ellington handing over to Earl Hines.  It’s possible that I was mixing it up with Frank Zappa’s account of his disillusionment with jazz after he saw Duke borrowing a few bucks from the stage manager after a gig.  Among the defining characteristics of jazz are its roots in the blues, improvisation and its place as a form of protest for the excluded and under-represented.  Certainly in the early part of the 20th century jazz was the opportunity for young black men to express themselves with a degree of artistry and skill positively comparable to any music being made by the white establishment.  I don’t say it’s wrong, but it does seem incongruous that certain records by those artists now command very high prices as trophies for collectors whose expenditure on a turntable would represent half a year’s salary for a lot of jobbing musicians even today.

Open Letter was one of the first jazz records I bought, along with albums by associated artists like Ian Ballamy, Human Chain and Earthworks, all British, all on Editions EG.  I was 20 and I was trying jazz out.  I didn’t know about Blue Note or Ronnie Scott and Pete King’s negotiations with the Musician’s Union, or about free jazz or the fact that John Coltrane was held by some people as the Second Coming with Charlie Parker in the role of John the Baptist.  I came very late to Tubby Hayes and to Stan Tracey and his Steam Records label which only pressed 1,000 of each title, making them all first pressings and ‘rare’ by record collecting standards.  I’ve retraced Open Letter, Earthworks and Balloon Man as well as my first Andy Sheppard records.  I’ve started buying Stan Tracey albums on Steam wherever I see them and rarely pay more than a fiver for any of them.  There must be other people in the club that I belong to, the club that knows that the real bastard children of bebop are all here in British jazz.  I’d happily debate it with jazzblogger but I know how it would end up.

‘…and that’s how Nazi Germany started.’            

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One thought on “Open Letter

  1. Pingback: Down in the Village…well, Neck End | BevansMusic

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