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

Colin Harper By

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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.


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