Stan Tracey: True-Grit Brit
By Jack Massarik
In London he's known as the patriarch of jazz piano, the godfather of British modern jazz and similar epithets that you earn only by being a significant player for a very long period of time. Stan Tracey first hit New York in 1951, when he took a dance-band gig on an ocean liner in order to hear Charlie Parker. This month he brings his music proudly back to the city which inspired it, but now as a distinguished elder statesman who turns 80 in December and has probably worked with more saxophone greats than any other pianist in jazz history.
A resourceful and ballsy improviser, Tracey brings a lifetime of experience to the gig and a remarkably open mind. His story is typical of the wartime generation who honed their jazz skills not in an ivy-walled music conservatory but on the bandstand in front of drinking, smoking and paying customers. His first instrument was a shiny chrome piano-accordion he picked up at age 12. During his early teens he listened to Ellington records, switched to piano and was playing in local London bands when Adolf Hitler put everybody's plans on hold. Drafted into the Air Force at 19, Tracey played troop concerts in Germany and the Middle East. US musicians serving in Europe during the war would talk about the new jazz being played in New York and when the fighting finally ended, London musicians grabbed lounge jobs on transatlantic liners to sample bebop live. Tracey hopped over on the Queen Mary in 1951 and headed straight for Birdland. "We heard everybody, he said. "Bird with strings, the Parker-Gillespie quintet with Max Roach, Miles Davis too and the full Ellington Orchestra up at Small's Paradise.
On a second visit in 1957 Tracey worked at the Half Note with a Ronnie Scott quintet including trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar. It was a Musicians' Union exchange deal involving the Dave Brubeck quartet's visit to England. "They put us on at 8 pm, when only the waiters were around, he recalled. "The main band started at nine. Then they booked us onto a coast-to-coast tour with an all-black R&B package headed by Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. Big stadiums at places like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Louisville and San Diego. But again we'd always go onstage early, while the crowds were still drifting in. Yeah, we ate a lot of humble pie.
But while in New York, Tracey caught Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, an unforgettable experience. Nearly half a century later, Monk's influence is still unmistakably evident in his playing, but more through a process of osmosis than crude plagiarism. He will invest Monk tunes like "Crepuscule with Nellie or "Bright Mississippi with distinctive ideas of his own, but he does hear time in a Monklike way - not as a smooth wave to be coasted like a surfboard, but as a percussive, self-propelling force created by the player's own jagged momentum. He's been playing that way ever since Scott opened his first club in 1959 and quickly installed Tracey as leader of its house trio, a gig that lasted eight years. A good all-rounder with excellent chord voicings and big-band experience with Ted Heath, Tracey had no problem with the visitors' charts, but when the blowing began his open-ended approach to group dynamics occasioned some flak from visiting American headliners.
These were usually tenorists, since Scott himself played tenor sax and all his favourites were other tenormen. Among the galaxy of stars he booked were Don Byas, Al Cohn, Eddie "Lockjaw Davis, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Coleman Hawkins, Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, Zoot Sims, Sonny Stitt, Lucky Thompson, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster - all in their playing prime. Most were a dream for Tracey to work with, but a few gave him a hard time, or at least tried to. Thompson and Byas created particularly bad chemistry for Tracey, but he never backed down. "I didn't take bullshit from any of them, he later said. "For the most part they were nice guys, but there were a couple who thought it was just them thrilling the crowds, that the music was secondary.
Other superstars, conversely, were more than happy to make music with Mr Tracey. "Does anyone know how good he is? asked Rollins, probably the most unpredictable sax-player of his generation and certainly the most physically demanding. Always noted for his phenomenal stamina, Rollins would emerge from the bandroom blowing his tenor at full blast and after a marathon set would depart the bandstand the same way. It was about 2:30 am on one such night, as the group was staggering offstage, drenched in perspiration, that Scott picked up the mic, held up his free hand and cracked one of his best gags. "Thank you, he told fans who were crowding round the bandstand, baying for an encore. "Thank you for the Sonny Rollins Quartet. They'd love to play some more for you, but unfortunately that's all they know.
A magical period, but tough on the system. Tracey took a two-year break when it ended, detoxing from booze, pills and worse. It nearly killed him, but those punishing years of dancing with giants, two sets a night, six nights a week, were an inspiration. After the late sets he would totter out into the Soho dawn, physically drained and hurting for sleep, but with his brain still buzzing with music. He started carrying manuscript sheets in his pockets and, as the all-night bus to Streatham trundled across the Thames, Tracey crouched up there on the top deck, getting those ideas down on paper. Some of the compositions sketched out that way became Under Milk Wood, a quartet suite based on poet Dylan Thomas' classic verse-portrait of a Welsh village. It featured bassist Jeff Clyne, drummer Jackie Dougan and Bobby Wellins, a lyrical tenorist from Glasgow whose mournful sound was ideal for the music's Celtic mood. Recorded in 1965, it's still in print and remains the best-known and biggest-selling of Tracey's 40 albums.
During the '70s, that long-hair decade of economic crisis for acoustic jazz stars, Tracey flirted tentatively with free jazz. While Miles and Weather Report were filling stadiums with post-Hendrix electronic jazz rock, Tracey was cutting abstract duo albums with altoist Mike Osborne (Original, 1972; Tandem,1976), reedman John Surman (Sonatinas, 1978) and fellow pianist Keith Tippett (TNT, 1974). He enjoyed some of these sessions, but later admitted: "To be honest there was always a little part of me that was not confident about what I was doing. Friends told him that the night before Paul Gonsalves died, the great Ellington tenorist had watched Tracey free-associating on TV and remarked that he was disappointed to find him playing that kind of music.
So eventually Tracey returned to the mainstream fold and wider recognition started to come his way. In 1986 the Queen pinned the OBE (Order of the British Empire) ribbon on his chest. The British Council arranged for him to tour mainland China, the first jazz star to do so, and in 1997 he played in Hong Kong on the night the colony was handed back to the Chinese. An hour-long TV special about him was screened in 2004, the same year that BBC-TV made Jazz Britannia, a two-part documentary about postwar jazz in the UK. Its main purpose was to chart the influence of immigrants from former colonies in India, Pakistan, Africa and the Caribbean, but jazz-starved young viewers also showed unexpected interest in London's original modernists. Tracey was suddenly hip again, back onstage with Wellins to revisit Under Milk Wood, neo-bopping with the amazing Peter King, for 50 years a world-class altoist, or leading a big band through his own expert arrangements. Right now he's busier than ever. After this month's New York concert, he has major shows lined up in Vicenza, Italy, St. Paul's Cathedral in London and English summer festivals in Brecon and Appleby.
Behind every successful jazzman, of course, is a remarkable woman, in this case Stan's wife, Jackie. Since the day they met in his agent's office, she has singlehandledly kept his career on course, steering it through the shallows when jazz was crowded out by rock and pop. She found him gigs and founded the record company Steam that marketed his albums. Not least, she presented him with a son Clark, who grew up to become his favorite drummer. No doubt mindful of all this, Stan recently dedicated a lifetime-career award to her, ending his speech with the memorable line: "And she also bakes a fish pie to die for.
· Stan Tracey - Jazz Suite: Under Milk Wood (Columbia - Steam/Jazzizit, 1965)
· Mike Osborne/Stan Tracey - Original (Cadillac, 1972)
· Stan Tracey - (Return of) Captain Adventure (Steam-Ten to Ten, 1975)
· Stan Tracey - Genesis and More... (Steam, 1989)
· Stan Tracey - The Last Time I Saw You (Trio, 2004)
· Stan Tracey/Evan Parker - Crevulations (Psi-Emanem, 2004)
Jack Massarik is Jazz Critic for the London Evening Standard newspaper
2005 AAJ Interview
Bottom: Russ Escritt