Article by John Fordham
Copyright (c) 2002 The Guardian - John Fordham.
Stan Tracey is one of the greats of British jazz - but 40 years ago he almost packed in the piano to be a postman. As he celebrates his 75th birthday, John Fordham looks back on his ups and downs.
Saturday March 23, 2002 - The Guardian
Stan Tracey's piano-playing is one of the most immediately recognisable sounds in British jazz, full of thudding, flat-fingered chords, runs as jarring as a potholed road and episodes of unexpected tenderness. In 1960 it provoked one of the few examples of an American jazz star publicly praising a British counterpart, when Sonny Rollins asked: "Does anybody here know how good he really is?"
It seemed not. Only a few years later Tracey almost gave jazz up to become a postman. In more than 40 years his playing has never earned him more than the average wage. But fees for compositions have recently improved his standing with the bank, and other rewards have come his way. Tracey, a pragmatic individual with no patience for ceremony, is now an OBE, an honorary D Lit, an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music, and a fellow of Leeds College of Music. His work as an orchestral composer and piano-player is known all over the world. His 1965 masterpiece Under Milk Wood is probably his most acclaimed work, but he has also composed some of the most creative homages to the Ellington orchestral style written since the Duke's death.
Now Tracey is about to embark on his 75th birthday tour, but when his career began the British modern jazz scene looked and sounded very different. When the relaxing of Musicians' Union rules allowed a flood of American jazz stars to work London club seasons for the first time, he was new club owner Ronnie Scott's first choice to accompany them.
Tracey's six-and-a-half years as house pianist at Ronnie Scott's was to be a turning point in a musical life that had professionally begun at 16, as an accordion player with the Entertainments National Service Association (Ensa) at the end of the second world war. He had fallen in love with an instrument in a shop at the end of his road, and his mother persuaded his father to buy it. At 14 he took his first jobs - factory work, as a Fleet Street messenger boy, and then in Ensa with the accordion.
"I couldn't play very well," he says, but they were desperate. You more or less only had to be able to hold your instrument. We pretended to be a Gypsy accordion band, bandannas and bell-bottom trousers and all that. Then I was stationed in London at the Central Medical Establishment, where I met Bob Monkhouse, who became a good friend." For his part, Monkhouse says: "I knew he was a musical genius in 1947. He could hear any melody once, and instantly play a dozen brilliant improvisations on it."
Tracey then joined the dance-band of Vic Ash, and came into close contact with the glamorous American jazz world they all aspired to join when the band toured the country in support of the swing star Cab Calloway.
"He was a great entertainer but not a very pleasant man," says Tracey.
"Vic was supposed to meet him at 10 for a game of golf one day, and showed up at five past. Calloway was apoplectic. 'It's only five minutes,' Vic said. Calloway asked him, 'How would you like to hang by your dick for only five minutes?' Some of those big stars were like that - they wanted you to jump through hoops. I came across it again sometimes when I was house pianist at Ronnie's."
Tracey graduated from the accordion to the piano through a devotion to boogie-woogie, "which I thought was just total music then, better than anything". Then he encountered Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, his two main influences.
In 1957 Tracey met Jackie Buckland, the woman who was to become his third wife. She was working at Decca Records and, with her encouragement, he began recording as a leader. But his style was still unfocused, his repertoire mostly standard songs. Until, in March 1960, he began the job that changed all that.
Ronnie Scott's Club was then a year old, housed in a tiny basement in London's Chinatown. The long freeze on importing American musicians had thawed - so London fans and players could now meet, hear, and touch stars such as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon. Accompanying them night after night, Tracey was ecstatic, "like it was Christmas every day". He constantly scribbled snatches of melody, ideas he would hear in, say, Sonny Rollins. He was, at last, receiving an education, at a jazz academy better than any college. And he began to develop as a composer. He started to write tunes, then orchestrations, suites, extended pieces. Tracey would pore over them on the night bus going back to Streatham in the small hours, get home and continue to work, pulling the fragments into shape. He got on with some, but others would give him what he would describe as "the old dig in the ribs" in the music, telling him to stay off their patch.
In 1965 Tracey and his regular saxophone partner, the lyrical Scottish tenorist Bobby Wellins, made Under Milk Wood with a quartet, and it was to be Tracey's most famous recording - an evocative collection of sparky, sidelong themes. Starless and Bible Black, a piece of rippling tone-poetry for the piano and Wellins's softly hooting sax, remains one of the all-time great jazz performances.
The success of Under Milk Wood brought a burst of new recording opportunities for Tracey with big bands and small groups in the 1960s. Then, at the start of the 1970s, the bottom fell out of the straight-jazz record market with the coming of fusion, and the pianist - exhausted by the Ronnie Scott years, and recovering from the booze and narcotic habits so widespread on the Soho jazz scene of the time - came close to pulling out of music altogether. But in 1972 a new generation of British jazz musicians brought him back from the wilderness. The pianist began working with this group of newcomers, including saxophonists John Surman and Mike Osborne, and fellow pianist Keith Tippett - musicians who were all a very long way from Tin Pan Alley. Tracey felt challenged, stretched and extended by those experiences - even if he does confess to playing God Save the Queen all through a squalling free-jazz collective improvisation one night with nobody else noticing.
From the mid 1970s to today, Stan Tracey's musical horizons steadily expanded. He found outlets for his mixture of musical bolshieness and romanticism in an astonishing variety of ensembles, and in creative partnerships with gifted soloists including trumpeter Gerard Presencer and saxophonist Art Themen. Thelonious Monk's last saxophone partner, Charlie Rouse, said in the 1980s that recording with Tracey was the nearest thing he'd experienced to working with Monk himself. The 75th birthday tour will recall the music of his sextet Hexad, of his Ellingtonesque big band, of the powerful, punchy octet he has led for 20 years, and his own inimitable unaccompanied piano. For this tour, Tracey is also exploring a first for him, collaborative composition. He and his drummer/composer son Clark have jointly written a new commission called Continental Drift. It is a celebration of their globetrotting as musicians, together and separately, over the years.
"It doesn't sound like me, and it doesn't sound like Clark," Tracey says. "He works very differently from me, composing with a computer in his room, while I scribble on paper while I'm watching the telly. But something different's come out of it, something that has surprises for us both in it. That's what keeps me interested after all this time. After all, I wouldn't have been in it for the money, would I?'
© THE GUARDIAN & JOHN FORDHAM (2002)