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

Colin Harper By

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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."

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