Sholto Byrnes meets the quiet man of British jazz -
Published: 25 June 2006 The Sunday Independent Copyright (c) 2006 The The Sunday Independent - Sholto Byrnes
Stan Tracey: The godfather of British Jazz
At Ronnie Scott's in the Sixties, Stan Tracey was playing with the greats one moment, and nursing his addiction to heroin the next. These days, the 79-year-old keeps his awards under the bed and lets his piano do the talking. Sholto Byrnes meets the quiet man of British jazz
Stan Tracey is soon to lead a large band and choir through Duke Ellington's Sacred Concert at St Paul's Cathedral. There's just one thing, he tells me. He's not awfully fond of churches. "I can't hack them," he says. "They're all so... doomy. From the outside they look doomy, and when you get inside it's all" - he raises his hands and crinkles his face - "fwooooh". "What about the priests' outfits?" calls Stan's wife Jackie from across the room. "You know," says Stan, "if I put on that same gear and walked down St Albans high street, I'd be laughed away. You put on this material cut in a certain way, and a funny shaped hat, and you look serious enough. But underneath, you know they're wearing Y-fronts or jockey shorts. That's what I see."
Seventy-nine-year-old Tracey is sometimes known as "the Godfather of British jazz", and has a string of honours, from doctorates to the OBE, to his name. He's a reluctant don, though, who keeps his many awards in a drawer under the bed rather than on the walls of his St Albans flat. "When you've been through a thousand awards ceremonies, they don't mean much, really," he says.
Being a bit laconic is one thing. One aspect of his self-effacement astonishes me, though. Tracey is one of the foremost interpreters of Duke Ellington's music (as well as of Thelonius Monk's), so I ask him how he felt when he first met the Duke. "I didn't." What? "I never met him," says Stan, his no-nonsense tone not varying in the least. "I had the opportunity a couple of times. But what do you say? Hello? He says, 'Hello'. I say, 'I play piano too'. He'll say, 'How wonderful. Bye bye.'"
"It was like that with Monk," adds Jackie. "Monk was there at the bar, and Stan was there with Clark [their son, a well-known drummer and leader in his own right]. But Stan never approaches anyone. If there's a party, he'd rather not be there. And if he is there, he's in the corner where no one will see him." "It's because I don't have the eloquence," says Stan. "Not true," says Jackie, "It's because of your bloodymindedness. You can't be bothered with it all." Stan acquiesces. "It's all like the bishop's hat to me," he sighs.
Instead, for 60-odd years, Stan Tracey has done his speaking from behind the piano, a position from which there has never been any doubting his eloquence. After spells as a pianist, vibraphonist and arranger with the likes of Cab Calloway and the Ted Heath Orchestra, Tracey became the house pianist for the newly-opened Ronnie Scott's Club in 1960. He stayed for eight years, accompanying all the great American visitors such as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Ben Webster. Sonny Rollins, with whom he worked on the soundtrack to the film Alfie, was so impressed by Tracey that he famously asked: "Does anybody here know how good he is?" In 1964, Tracey's quartet recorded a suite based on Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood; it is still regularly performed today, and is regarded as a high point of British jazz composition.
As successful as Tracey was musically, his health suffered during his time at Scott's. Not only was he often required to play double sets - with the name act, and then leading his own group - but he was also addicted to heroin. "I kept it from the kids when he was going cold turkey," Jackie tells me. "It was a hard time, because he didn't earn anything for a while." So hard that Tracey seriously thought about giving up the jazz life in the early Seventies, and retraining as a postman instead. His addiction is long in the past, though, and the couple can look back on that period now without rancour. "My grandson knows all about naughty granddad," says Jackie fondly.
Given that Tracey will turn 80 this December, his playing is simply astounding. Listening to recent recordings on the Trio label, one would imagine the pianist to be a man 30 or 40 years younger. Tracey's trademark pugnacity ("when he thumps down an open fifth in the left hand he issues a challenge, and the jut of the Tracey profile tells you it's not one to be taken up lightly," I observed at his 75th birthday concert) is undimmed; nor is his clattering yet tender approach to ballads, such as his recent recording of Monk's "Pannonica". I ask him where his energy comes from. "From the music," he replies. "You don't see it indoors," interjects Jackie; and it's true that Stan has not appeared exactly full of beans during our conversation. "But you see his stamina on stage." She tells me that at a recent festival in Vicenza, Tracey performed 10 sets in three days, a schedule which would tire a man half his age. "He was still going at one in the morning. That's the way he works."
I ask Tracey how he feels about being considered a grand old man of jazz. What's it like, for instance, playing with musicians so much younger than he is? "It's hardly surprising, given my age," he says dryly. "No, I don't think about it. I don't consider age at all. I think about what's coming out of a guy's horn."
His own playing was not always universally applauded. In 1969, Benny Green described Tracey as: "One of the most controversial of all British musicians, a player whose work is characterised by jagged rhythmic effects and the calculated dissonance of the devoted harmonic adventurer". He chortles. "You see, I couldn't say that if I tried," he says. "Is that the piece where he said that my music often went to the precipice of ugliness, and sometimes fell over it? That's my favourite Benny Green quote." It is from the same article, so I ask Tracey what he made of it when he first read it. "What I think about any criticism I had: Hey-ho. What are you going to do? It's not going to stop me."
Stan Tracey seems to be one of the most stoical people I've ever met. Nothing is important to him, really, apart from music. It's his wife Jackie who has fought the inevitable financial battles on his behalf (amazingly, Tracey has only briefly ever been represented by a major label, when he was on Blue Note in the early 1990s). Stan has just played his music. I ask him why it was the Ellington band, rather than, say, Count Basie's orchestra, that grabbed him so forcefully early on. "I first saw him at the Apollo in Harlem in the early Fifties," he remembers. "I can still see the picture of the band in my mind. They were all on swivel chairs. It was quite a boot." He smiles at the memory. "Count Basie's band was a tremendous swing band, they had great tight arrangements, but with Ellington you had the swing plus the depth of music. It was a little bit more profound than most other bands."
What about the Sacred Concert that he is soon to perform at St Paul's, I ask. By this point I'm hardly surprised when Tracey tells me that he's never seen it. "They televised it live from Coventry Cathedral in the days of black-and-white television," he explains, "and I settled down to watch it. But my daughter, who was about five, wound me up and wound me up. So in the end I stormed out of the room and stayed out until it was over."
He has, however, performed it many times, even if the first occasion, when Tracey was called in at a day's notice, was something of a disaster. "It was littered with celebs, that was what was wrong with it," says Stan of the 1982 performance, also in St Paul's. "There was Rod Steiger, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Tony Bennett, the Swingle Sisters, Jacques Loussier. It just didn't fit. And Rod Steiger kept on referring to Duke Wellington." He shakes his head again.
No such A-list names will mar next month's concert, which will be the first time Tracey has performed the music on its own, as opposed to it being part of a church service. This time it will be, as Stan puts it, without the "religious verbals".
In conversation, Tracey's somewhat terse responses could be taken as evidence of grumpiness. When I ask him if he had Ellington's religious music in mind when he wrote his Genesis Suite, for instance, he cuts me off. "Finishing it was what I had in mind," he says. But I think he's just not too hot on small talk, and that the most natural medium of expression for him is through music. "It's something wonderful to be involved with, it gives me great pleasure," he explains, when I ask him why he chose to be a jazz musician. "It's my only interest, really. It's one long voyage of discovery, if you look at it in those terms and don't just settle for the view that looks fine from here.
"There's no end to it," he says simply. "There's always something new." That's as full an account as Tracey needs to give verbally. The proof and the eloquence come, as they always have, from behind the piano.
Copyright (c) 2006 The The Sunday Independent - Sholto Byrnes