Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond by Colin Harper

Colin Harper By

Sign in to view read count
Exclusive extract adapted from Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond
By Colin Harper. Published (UK and US) March 26, 2014 by Jawbone Press

"British jazz is awash with young talent which, given a healthy set of circumstances and a fair share of work, could produce a generation of outstanding musicians." —Bob Houston, Melody Maker, January 1967

"As a job with security and prospects, being a jazz musician is just about on a par with shooting Niagara Falls in a barrel. Worse, in fact, because one of the greatest problems for a young jazzman is to find somewhere to play at all." —Bob Dawbarn, Melody Maker, January 1967

Nobody goes into jazz for the money. In the 21st Century, people in Britain with jazzward inclinations can go to university and do a jazz course, get funding for a jazz doctorate, cast around for gigs at publicly subsidised arts centres and festivals and apply for Arts Council bursaries for compositional retreats or other projects. Various grant-awarding charities are also available for the proactive musician to pitch at. Back in the 1960s, all of the above resided in the realms of fantasy. Bassist/composer Graham Collier became, towards the end of 1967, the first jazz recipient of an Arts Council bursary (£400 towards a large ensemble piece, "Workpoints"). It was not quite the announcement of a gravy train newly arrived at the station of Cashstrapped-under-Ronnie, but it was a much reported novelty and in retrospect an important moment for British jazz.

Trad trombonist George Chisholm, a jazzman at heart but a breadwinner through his involvement with BBC Television's Black & White Minstrel Show, found himself relinquishing the dark side (Light Entertainment) in October '65. He wanted to try and rescue his soul, and his career as a jazz musician, but he was aware of the cost: "If you say, 'I'm going to stick to my beliefs and play nothing but jazz,' you would end up in Leicester Square selling matches," he said at the time. "I'm sorry to say it but it's true."

Things, nevertheless, were beginning to change, however slowly and precariously it might have seemed at the time. 1966 had seen two developments which were pivotal for jazz in Britain: the opening of the Little Theatre Club, in January; and the opening of (Ronnie Scott's) Old Place in September. A significant array of world-class musicians and composers from John McLaughlin's generation—including John himself—would hone their craft, galvanise their confidence and forge their identities in these twin crucibles over a relatively short period of time.

As Ronnie Scott's biographer, John Fordham, observed: "It was a forcible reminder of how unlike New York London was (and how unlike itself in the busy clubland years of the Second World War) that the presence of two such venues in one of the world's great capital cities should seem like any kind of a luxury."

Or, as Ian Carr reflected in his classic Music Outside in 1973: "It is a sobering thought that the development, even the continuation, of jazz in Britain has often relied on the chance generosity of a few remarkable individuals."

In Britain, nobody owed jazz a living; and very few were given one by it.

In the first week of January '66 the Melody Maker could report that, on the one hand, Ronnie Scott's house bassist Rick Laird was forsaking Britain for America but, on the other, John Stevens was opening a new venue, the Little Theatre Club.

"Musical policy won't be self-consciously hip," said John. "We want to give people a chance to play their own music. Personally, I like everything, blues and standards. Some beautiful things can be done with standards. But I think there is a lot of restriction in jazz. As soon as you count '1-2-3' you've set one restriction—of meter."

To an extent, John's club would address some of the home truths which Rick was offering on his departure for a period of study at Boston's Berklee College:

"There's nowhere else to work," he explained. "If I were to leave Ronnie's and stay in Britain it would be a step backwards... The biggest trouble here is lack of opportunity for the guys to play... and there's not the competitive spirit either... [which] is good for the music. I think it's needed... Very few of the established musicians here sound like they're developing. It sounds as if they're stuck in a thing. The lack of opportunities is the cause of that."

The first evening at the Little Theatre Club promised the young talents of John Stevens, bassist Jeff Clyne and pianist Mike Taylor along with the more venerable trumpeter/flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler and saxophonist Bobby Wellins. There would be no generation divide at the club: all were welcome. Nevertheless, the club became heavily associated with the free form experiments of Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME), consisting initially of Stevens, Clyne, Wheeler, trombonist Paul Rutherford and saxophonist Trevor Watts.

London's free improvisation fraternity may have been small, but its media coverage was strong. Certainly, by 1966, even casual music fans had at least a caricature notion of what 'free jazz' was. A series of spoof letters appeared in the Melody Maker during the year, regarding the adventures of one Fred Scuttle, who first appeared in February with a 39-chorus rendition of "My Funny Valentine" wherein he played 67 varieties of kitchen utensils, often simultaneously, in 33/16 time.

By April '66, it was being reported that an SME LP, Challenge, had been privately recorded and that Andrew Oldham was expressing an interest. Stevens' hope was that Challenge would appear on Oldham's label Immediate in the UK and CBS in the USA.

"If all this goes off right it will be a great thing," he said, at the time, "but I'm trying not to get too excited and bank on things because I have been disappointed enough in the past."

He was right to be cautious. Despite an SME concert broadcast on BBC radio's Jazz Scene on June 5 1966, by October even John Stevens, an almost indefatigable force of, in Ian Carr's words, total commitment... [who] inspired many disciples and created, for the first time in this country, a solid avant-garde movement," was feeling drained:

"We've just got to get out of this depressing environment so we can do what we want musically," he explained.

John Stevens was moving to Copenhagen with his family; his musical associate Trevor Watts was to follow. Challenge would be released on a small label, Eyemark, in November, distributed by EMI. A new version of the SME, featuring Kenny Wheeler and drummer Laurie Allan, would continue at the Little Theatre Club. The pace of change always seems slower at the time than in retrospect. And the grass is always greener on the other side. By the end of January 1967, Trevor Watts was back in London, and the Stevens family were to follow.

On Friday September 9 1966, with Ronnie Scott's Club having relocated to larger, more upmarket premises on Frith Street, his old place became the Old Place. The lease on the Gerrard Street premises still had 18 months to run and Ronnie was keen to give it to the younger generation of players in London as somewhere to gig, practice, experiment and develop. Ronnie had asked John Stevens to give up the Little Theatre Club and manage the new venue:

"He made this offer because if nothing was going on at the premises the landlord... would take possession of the property, and the Scott Club wanted to hold onto it so that it could be turned into a Chinese gambling club. Ronnie said to me, 'I don't know how long it'll be—it could be two weeks or six months. That's the chance you'll have to take...' I refused to take it on because we had a place which might go on forever and it felt strong to me... Anyway, I said I wouldn't do it, and the funny thing was that two weeks later it was, 'Good old Ronnie!—Opening the first club for young musicians and really encouraging them!' There was a list of people who would be playing there, and my name was on it!"

There may have been self-interest in Ronnie's apparent generosity, but as it transpired the Old Place lasted the full term, until May 25 1968: music was happening six nights a week, with an all-comers jam on Mondays. The Little Theatre Club continued as a place for exploring the outer reaches, and would do so—as John Stevens rightly surmised—well into the following decade.

In the view of one commentator, "Musicians constantly migrated between the two venues... feeding ideas back and forth in a dialectic of healthy interaction."

In more prosaic terms, however, musicians were getting £3 a gig at the Old Place and maybe a few shillings at the Little Theatre; fairly solid groups would coalesce at the Old Place, while the Little Theatre remained more a place for individuals to come together in looser groupings for music more characterised by spontaneity than formal practice.

Doug Rouse and John Jack were the men to whom Ronnie entrusted the Old Place. By the beginning of 1967, Doug could tell the media that the venture was commercially shaky but musically very successful. A number of hugely talented, creative musicians were playing there regularly—names which would forever be associated with the place, like pianist/bandleader Mike Westbrook and baritone saxophonist John Surman.

Having seen the old-school modern jazz scene crumble almost overnight with the onslaught of the R&B boom in 1963-64, for Westbrook, and no doubt for many others of his generation, "the years before the Old Place got going were like dark ages, really."

Westbrook's band played the all-nighter at the Old Place every Saturday for its 18-month duration:

"In the early days of the Old Place there was a tremendous feeling—it was packed out and you really had to make it," he reflected, in 1973. "Somehow we did... Even then we couldn't earn a living. We got something like a fiver each for playing all night... All through the period at the Old Place I was earning my living by teaching art... [But] suddenly there was a British jazz scene and it had a focal point, and I think it's a tragedy that even that was under-appreciated [by audiences at the time]."

Another attraction at the club was South African pianist/bandleader Chris McGregor, whose group were resident on Tuesdays during its early months:

"McGregor's is the only really avant-garde group we present," said Rouse, at the beginning of 1967. "He seems very sincere about what he is doing and I don't exactly like to ask him for an explanation as to what it's all about. Anyway, I must be getting used to it. I don't get these terrible headaches anymore."

McGregor had arrived in Europe with the Blue Notes, a racially mixed band from South Africa at a time when such a thing was not a viable proposition under the apartheid regime, in 1964, causing a sensation at the Antibes Festival in France. At the end of April 1965 they debuted in London with a week at Ronnie Scott's. After that, it was a year of limited, hard work, with a couple of London pub residencies, until immigration status was confirmed. The distinctive, refreshing playing style of the Blue Notes, particularly trumpeter Mongezi Feza and alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, created great interest among the London players. A month's residency at Copenhagen's Montmartre Club in 1966 ultimately led to John Stevens' and Trevor Watts' ill-starred emigration plans, but more profoundly it affected the South African players in their musical directions.

"[Free improvisers] Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp had just been at the club," McGregor later explained, "and Don Cherry and JC Moses, and Cecil Taylor was there for a month or two. That music was very much in the air..."

Notoriously, in November 1966 Albert Ayler—a US saxophonist of that moment, far beyond Coltrane in his unshackled approach to music—had been filmed in concert by the BBC at the London School of Economics. The film was then erased without a single transmission. It was, one must presume, a bridge too far for the public service broadcaster. For McGregor, the inspiration to progress—in the context of a new group, which eventually became the Brotherhood of Breath—had arrived just as the Old Place was opening for business.

"Every instrumentalist at some stage in his career has to find out what his limits are," he reflected. "The interesting thing is that as soon as you start doing that you increase your scope. You find out that your limits are really nowhere!"

It was an ethos and realisation worthy of John McLaughlin: constant aspiration, perspiration and epiphany. Although neither recordings nor any references in contemporaneous print reflect it, John recalled to Walter Kolosky, in Power, Passion And Beauty (Abstract Logix, 2006), that he had played with and had been "very impressed" by Dudu Pukwana and some or all of the other South Africans. Presumably, this playing was in loose collaboration at the Old Place or Little Theatre Club.

"That place was a place of letting out steam," said Blue Notes' drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, of the Little Theatre Club, "because we couldn't let steam out at any of the jazz clubs... It was 'show me yours and I'll show you mine,' kind of thing— sharing ideas, all music, music, music, music, music, really."

Of the Old Place, John McLaughlin reflected: "This was really a Godsend that Ronnie gave us... I remember playing with John Surman down there. That's where I formed my first band, on account of the meetings that were happening at the Old Place."

That 'first band' would coalesce, though only for a moment, in 1968 and would include John Surman, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Tony Oxley—a lineup that, with one change (due to Holland's relocation to New York), would record John's first solo LP, Extrapolation.

"I got into Ayler, who I feel is very beautiful, and Gary Peacock, the whole thing," John admitted, in 1975. "Don Cherry's Complete Communion, Archie Shepp, Pharaoh [Sanders]... But at the same time as the intensity was there, true, at a certain point they lost discipline. Who am I to criticise, you know? But just for me, there was some indulgence there. I mean, I'm sure I'm guilty of it myself, but it's something I want to become better and better [sic]. However chaotic the music may seem, the discipline has got to be there. And I want to feel more pulse—it doesn't have to be time—so long as pulse is there the way you want to feel it... For me, Cecil Taylor is one of the most revolutionary musicians of the 20th Century. I love the spirit in his music. That's all I really go for in music anyway is a person's spirit."

In January '66, the Melody Maker ran a discursive piece headlined, "Is the New Wave just a passing fad? Or has 'jazz' become another meaningless word?" Bob Dawbarn's view, for the prosecution, was: "No one can question the right of musicians to experiment. But we do have the right to ask whether their chosen path is worth following."

Bob Houston's view, for the defence (with caveats), was more forgiving:

"If jazz can cover Louis Armstrong right through to Gil Evans, it's a poor imagination which can't stretch from Gil Evans to Sun Ra and still feel that the term 'jazz' to describe their music is meaningful. No one in their right mind would suggest that the plunge into stream-of-consciousness solos which Albert Ayler indulges in, or the sheer exhaustiveness of a Cecil Taylor improvisation are the only directions in which jazz can develop... [M]any critics now accept John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman as vital contributors to jazz when only a few years ago they were bemoaning the fact that they were killing the music they loved. The real danger to the New Wave is that its critics and supporter [sic] are getting it out of proportion."

John Stevens had a much simpler way of looking at things. "I'm sure there are a lot of charlatans," he conceded, "but people can always tell. If they like it, it's probably good."

Adapted from Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond, by Colin Harper. Published (UK and US) March 26 2014 by Jawbone Press

Post a comment


View events near London
Jazz Near London
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop Amazon


All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.