Article by Jim Godbolt
Copyright (c) 2002 The JARS - Jim Godbolt
composer, arranger, leader, STAN TRACEY, a truly significant figure
in British jazz, talks to Jim Godbolt -
When I first rang Stan to fix this interview he wasn't in the best of tempers. 'Here I am, writing the sleeve notes for a CD with one of my compositions on it and the pianist has screwed up the melody. Do I mention this in my notes?', but he was in fine humour when he and his wife and Business Manager, Jackie, came to my flat. Or, to put it another way, he was genially acerbic. Two hours went very quickly.
JG: Was your family musical?
ST: My mother played on the clapped-out old piano we had. She played the black notes only. She also took up the violin and was artistic in so many other ways.
JG: What was your father's job?
ST: He was the general factotum in a club called Jack's in Orange Street. It was a watering hole for variety artists like Naughton and Gold of the Crazy Gang. He wasn't musical.
JG: Your first instrument was the accordion. Did you have lessons?
ST: The shop I bought it from gave lessons. I had a few, they were into tangos. I learned how to play La Campersita. It was my party piece.
JG: Would you play the accordion these days?
ST: No fear! No bloody fear!!
JG: Glad to hear it! I hope you don't mind my saying that I think your first instrument an abomination in jazz. I have thought so ever since I heard Cornell Smeltzer squeezing away on Accordion Joe with Duke Ellington. What a contrast between him and the rest of the guys!
ST: It's ghastly! It's bad enough being a second class citizen as a jazz musician, but the moment you strap on an accordion you're a third class citizen immediately. IMMEDIATELY.
ENSA JG: In 1943 you joined ENSA when you were seventeen. Any names with you then that we would know?
ST: No, Ensa was full of old variety acts who were grateful for the opportunity to work. It was a good war for them.
JG: When did you first start to play piano?
ST: One of the guys lugged a portable gramophone around and I heard 78s of Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis. I was determined to be a boogie-woogie pianist. It was then I was escorted into the RAF.
JG: Escorted! I take it that you ignored that little note from His Majesty ordering you to attend a certain depot or barracks under pain of imprisonment if you didn't fancy it.
PETER SELLERS, TONY HANCOCK and BOB MONKHOUSE
ST: Not quite. I gave my digs in Ashford, Kent, as my permament address and it took them a year or so to catch up with me. I was in Carlisle when two RAF policemen heavily indicated that I went along with them. The ENSA manager persuaded them to let me see the week through. I was, after all, doing my bit playing the accordeon for our brave boys. When I got to the RAF Station, Padgate, I was given a grilling, but I wasn't punished. Apart from being in the RAF for two years, that is. I was supposed to be drafted to India as a telephonist, but I didn't fancy that and applied to join the Ralph Reader RAF Gang Show and ended up in Cadogan Gardens, West London, in the same office as Peter Sellers. He was the office boy, although he was in the RAF. Tony Hancock produced the show. We toured Egypt, Cyprus and Palestine. I played on a wreck of a mini-piano that was never tuned.
JG: That must have stood you in good stead for another wreck, at Ronnie's in Gerrard Street, from the late 1950s.
ST: Certainly did. It was in the RAF that I met up with Bob Monkhouse and accompanied him on broadcasts. I had chummed up with a baritone singer called Barry Martin and we intended to go on the halls as a double act - a sort of hip Bob and Alf Pearson. We went to every agent in the West End, including Bernard Delfont, but no-one wanted to know. By this time I'd heard Dizzy, Parker and Monk, but was still on accordeon when I played with Eddie Thompson in 1950.
JG: With a gig fee of a pound, fifteen shillings or maybe two pounds?
ROY FOX ST: Oh, I don't know about TWO quid. That was roughly what I was supposed to get when I went on tour with Roy Fox. The tour was a disaster. This one-time household name and millionaire was old hat, leaving a trail of dud cheques and not paying the guys. He would pay one of us a couple of quid, and borrow one of then back to keep another guy quiet.
JG: That was another world. You would have travelled on a coach which, with driver, cost 1/6d per hour. Digs 12/6d a night. Sometimes less.
(Here, Stan and I tried to recall if he and I had been in the same coach on a disastrous tour of Kenny Baker's Band with Tubby Hayes in the Lowlands in 1950/1. It was organised by a promoter called Duncan McKinnon - Drunken Duncan - the only man to have been carried into his own promotion, but our memories failed us. Perhaps, one day, Kenny Baker will refresh our memories.)
I toured with Tony Crombie, then with guitarist Malcolm Mitchell,
who billed himself as 'Merely Sensational', and Basil Kirchin, 'The
Biggest Little Band In The Land'. There was talk of me joing Eric
Delaney, but he'd heard that I then liked a smoke, and told someone,
'I wouldn't touch him with a barge pole'. A while later a cheery voice
came on the phone asking me to join his band. It was Delaney. Quick
as a flash,I enquired. 'Found a barge pole, then?'. End of telephone
In February 1957 I went on a tour with Ronnie Scott to America as part of the first Anglo-American band exchanges. We played in vast stadiums in a rock 'n roll show that included La Vern Barker, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and The Schoolboys. We played one number every night - whilst people were looking for their seats. As Ronnie put it, 'They needed a British be-bop band like they needed a synagogue in Damascus'. Those exchanges were a farce. We were just tokens in the charade.
At our appearance in a genuine jazz club, the Blue Note, New York, the show started at nine. We were on at eight. We had to sign a piece of paper purporting that we received the same money as Eddie Condon was receiving in the UK. I've been living on it since.
Later that year I joined Ted Heath. There wasn't a lot of solo space. It was OK financially, but stifling, and Ted was a very stiff and autocratic leader. For my solos I was presented with Frank Horrox's solos written out. I said, 'I can't read this flyshit', and, grudgingly, Ted let me do my own thing. He liked to hear the same solos all the time.
JG: You must have been reading music by then.
ST: I was reading by the time I left.
JG: Did you ever think of following the footsteps of Britishers Joe Saye, Ralph Sharon, Derek Smith, and Dill Jones by trying your luck in the States?
ST: Not for one minute! I realised how long it had taken me to establish whatever reputation here and the thought of starting all over again in a huge country where they already had one or two tasty players - no thanks.
JG: I'd like to ask how it was that Duke Ellington as a pianist influenced you. Most of the so-called modern school were into Bud Powell; very few found Duke a mentor.
ST: My first profound influence - once I had decided I wasn't going to be a boogie-woogie player - was Thelonious Monk, but it was not until I was in my early thirties that I cottoned on to Duke at the keyboard.
JG: Both The Duke and Thelonious are very percussive players, which is obvious in your style. Nobody could describe you as a pretty player.
ST: No, the world isn't like that.
JG: You became the pianist at Ronnie's, almost from the time it opened at Gerrard Street.
ST: Yes, I was the resident idiot.
JG: It has been well documented that you led the trio accompanying a succession of great US musicians, and that you had the odd tiff with some of them. Like Stan Getz, for instance. There was the occasion when Getz acted up, and your retort was 'Bollocks'.
ST: Oh, yes, quick as a flash. I got on well with most, especially with Ben Webster, Zoot Sims and Sonny Rollins, but not with Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson or Don Byas.
JG: You received a memorable accolade from Sonny Rollins, who said, 'People over here don't realise just how good you were'. You must have found that flattering.
ST: I was more surprised than flattered.
JG: The piano at Gerrard Street caused you a lot of problems.
ST: Yes, but not as much as it caused Steve Race the night Roland Kirk invited him to sit in, having heard that Steve had likened him to clown Charlie Cariolini. I warned Steve about the keys that didn't work, but, unintentionally, this compounded his floundering when Kirk deliberately gave him a hard time. He didn't like being compared to a clown.
JG: You were at the club for 6 years. Why did you stick it out?
ST: Because I enjoyed it. It was great playing with those giants, but very hard work. Six nights at the club, maybe a Sunday concert, and no holidays, and people were surprised that one took the odd - er - aspirin.
JG: Out of all your albums 'Under Milk Wood' has been the most critically acclaimed. Are you still earning royalties on this?
ST: Very little. My belief is that three fans bought the original release and everyone else taped it. Seriously, it has sold only 10,000 copies in four issues. I've made a lot more out of other albums.
JG: The two with Acker Bilk, for instance?
ST: I got paid a straight £200 per session for these.
JG: How did you get on with Denis Preston, the producer? A hard, unfeeling man, in my view.
ST: I kept my distance, but I enjoyed talking to him about the Duke. He was very knowledgable about Duke. I got on a lot better with Acker - a very down-to-earth-no-bullshit guy.
JG: How did you feel about the phenonemonal success of Trad, whilst most modern musicians at that time were struggling?
ST: No sour grapes. It was a fact of life then and you can't buck against that. But I liked listening to the uniforms!
JG: Talk about your drummer son, Clark. This may be difficult for you. You have been quoted as saying that had been looking for a drummer that suits you all your life and there he was in your loins. Perhaps I can make it easy for you by saying that nobody would believe that you would have an inferior musician because he is your son. Nobody could accuse you of nepotism. Tell me what you like about his playing.
ST: He has great time, he swings, he listens, he embellishes, he underlines, knows when to let up, when to keep it simple. The only other drummers with whom I've been at ease are Phil Seamen, Tony Crombie and Ronnie Stephenson.
JG: I've just given you a cup of tea. Sorry I didn't take the tea bag out. Not into tea drinking. You refused a drink, but you were once a soak.
ST: Not because I liked the taste. I drank to get high, but not any more. I avoid pubs, they make me uneasy.
JG: In the New Year, you are changing your instrumentation. Bringing in the young Gerard Presencer for Art Theman after all these years.
ST: I loved the years with Art, but I had to make a change, even though I'm old enough to be Gerard's grandfather. In fact, my grandson, Ben, Clark's son, six years old, is nearer to Gerard's age than mine, but it's great to be working with such a fine young player. The records I made with him recently are being issued on John Jack's Cadillac label in March.
JG: You have received a number of awards.
ST: I'm afraid they mean nothing in terms of work, but its nice to be recognised. Not quite the same as a full date sheet, but you can't have everything.
JG: Do you ever ponder on the difference between your talent and creativity and the financial rewards?
What's the point? At my time of life I'm fairly at ease with what
I've done, what I am doing and what I hope to do.
On this note Stan and Jackie had to excuse themselves. As is usual with chats as enjoyable as this there was much more said than we have space for, but some of Stan's comments, highly enjoyable, were quite unprintable. It was indeed a most entertaining couple of hours.
© JARS & Jim Godbolt (1996)