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Brian Auger's Revolution In Jazz

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Earlier, when I was about twelve years old, my brother had given me this big old radio with tubes and a dial. I used to lay awake at night and listen to the different European stations. One evening I came upon the Stan Kenton theme on the American Forces Network in Germany and learned that they were doing an hour of amazing jazz every night. From that radio, I got turned on to people like Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
This interview first appeared at All About Jazz in November 2000.

Born and raised in London, Brian Auger came up through those crazy years in music. The 1960s were all about change. Things were being done in jazz that hadn't been considered earlier. Lifestyles and values were changing too, and that was affecting society all over the globe. Auger was cited by Melody Maker magazine back in 1964 as a rising star jazz pianist with a lot going for him. Details of his career and a wide selection of audio samples are available at his website. Don't miss the expansive photo archive.

Oblivion Express was formed in 1970. In a very short time, they had released 8 albums. The band's success has continued all these years, and last month Oblivion Express released Voices Of Other Times. We met to discuss the album and his other projects.

All About Jazz: Was piano or organ your first musical interest?

Brian Auger: Piano was. My dad had a player piano in the house with piano rolls that ranged from classical and opera music to show tunes and ragtime. I was about three years old when I became fascinated with this thing. It had a big pair of pedals on the floor that you had to use to drive the whole mechanism. I learned how to put the piano roll in, and I used to hold on to the keyboard and move those pedals to make the music. I spent a lot of time doing that, and when I got a little bigger and could sit down at the keyboard, I found that I could remember the patterns the mechanism had been making. I was able to play along with the melody, an octave higher. From about the age of three, this player piano had held my interest.

I came from a working-class English family that didn't have the means to send the children off to lessons. There wouldn't have been any reason to do that, however, since the profession itself didn't figure in any plans. It just wasn't done. At about the age of eleven, I received a scholarship to a grammar school in London and met a few others who played drums and upright bass. We had a big family, so I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music through the years. My oldest brother's about twelve years older than me. He had a jazz record collection that he had started in his teens. I had been listening to all kinds of music. By the time I was about seven years old I could hear a tune on the radio and play it by ear. I was playing all these jazz records by Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Buddy Rich, and also people like Big Bill Broonzy and Fats Waller. I was fascinated by all these American players.

I remember going around whistling, extemporizing over a blues sequence, without knowing what I was doing. Eventually I realized that I could play what I was hearing on the piano. The whole jazz thing started for me when I was very young. By the time I got into my teens the first records from the Blue Note catalog and West Coast records (people like Shorty Rogers and Gerry Mulligan) were released in England. Naturally, I got a hold of as many of those as I could. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were "it" for me. That was my "something to aim at." When I was about 16, the first bands that I performed in we were playing in pubs were doing Messengers material.

Earlier, when I was about twelve years old, my brother had given me this big old radio with tubes and a dial. I used to lay awake at night and listen to the different European stations. One evening I came upon the Stan Kenton theme on the American Forces Network in Germany and learned that they were doing an hour of amazing jazz every night. From that radio, I got turned on to people like Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

I played at Ronnie Scott's club in London and was kind of a jazz snob. In the '60s I saw the advent of a kind of R&B band. At that time the rock movement was taking shape in England. I'd be playing in a club, and a band like Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames or Alexis Corner or John Mayall would come on. And then there were a lot of rock bands that would come along. We saw the inception of The Who. It was a mix. What occurred to me was that here was this young audience, and there was a big following for this. They were my age. It made me look at the jazz thing in a different way. I very much liked the new rhythms: the rock rhythms and R&B rhythms were very exciting. I also thought that that was something that would come along in its own time. Suddenly, there it was. I found the rhythms very exciting and began to think that I'd like to use that rhythmic base while continuing to hang on to my jazz changes and extensive jazz solos. There wasn't really anybody who had as much knowledge and experience in jazz as I did. I won the Melody Maker jazz polls around 1964. Just before that, I decided that I'd try to take this amalgam of jazz and rock and R&B; put a bridge between the two separate worlds: jazz and rock & roll and R&B. Later on, I went through a band called the Steampacket with Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart and Julie Driscoll.

AAJ: The same Rod Stewart?

BA: The same Rod Stewart. Yeah, before anybody knew him. I was on the road with them for about two years. I ran the band. That did really well. We ranged over just about everything: jazz, gospel, Chicago blues, R&B, Motown style, folk. Coming out of that experience, about 1967, I still had a focus on this idea of building a jazz bridge. I started a band called the Brian Auger Trinity with Julie Driscoll, who came with me from the Steampacket. That was really an attempt to figure out which ones of all these different styles of music were relevant to what I wanted to do at that point. We put out our first album, Open, and it was kind of a shock to Europeans. All of a sudden we found ourselves the first rock & roll band we weren't really that at all to top the bill at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1968 and the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1968. They'd never had anybody like us before. It was a different kind of jazz. It was a young movement coming from England. Along with myself, and my other friends in England coming from different areas, we became "the British Invasion."

In 1968, we constantly found ourselves on a jazz festival stage with people hurling insults at us. These were the purists. There was this thing. It was a year of changing attitudes. I had to remind everybody that we now had a mixed audience. In Berlin, about a hundred people out of an audience of over 3000 stood up and booed before we had even started playing. I just went out on stage and I said, "Look, we may be dressed in a way that the jazz guys aren't. We're not wearing Ivy League suits or any of those things, but if you have an open mind... You're supposed to be jazz people. Then, I would like you to listen to what we play. Then, if you don't like it, you can boo. Keep an open mind about this. You don't know what we're going to play yet."

There was this big "fight" with people booing and people cheering. Fortunately, we had records on the charts at that point, and so our fans won out. We had a great time. That particular evening, the Elvin Jones Trio played first, the Gary Burton Quartet played second, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band played third and we played last. I was thinking, "How in the hell can we follow Dizzy? He's my idol." Later, those guys came up and spoke to us. They told us how much they liked what we'd done. There were really open about it. They liked it.

It was an amazing time. The Trinity lasted until about the end of 1969. I made one more album with the instrumental components of Trinity: Befour. Then, I wanted to start a new band and bring it along like a school where we'd develop this music. With records being released like In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, I realized that we'd been doing that on our own and that it had value. There were signs that this was a wave of music, being influenced by rock & roll, and that it was going in the direction that we were going. Even people like Miles, who's one of my biggest idols of all time, was being affected by these new rhythms. It was a rhythmic thing that was happening. Miles was still Miles, man. Those guys who played with him were the best.

I did a version of "Maiden Voyage" in 1969. Mine was a jazz-fusion version of the song. It became known in the early '70s as jazz-fusion not jazz/rock or rock/jazz. Herbie Hancock's Headhunters was started in 1973. So we were about four years ahead of that situation as it started to hit over here. Chick Corea and a lot of people followed. A lot of people on the jazz scene realized that there's a wide world out there of young kids who would like to be included in jazz, or have jazz explained to them. A lot of artists wanted to appeal to a much wider audience.

AAJ: Were you playing the organ at that time?

BA: Yes. I started playing the organ about 1965, just before I started the Steampacket with Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll and Mickey Waller on drums. He went to the Faces. And I added Vic Briggs on guitar. He eventually went to the Animals after the Steampacket. The organ put out a lot of volume, so I switched over to an electric bassist and a heavy, rock drummer.

In the early jazz trio before I started playing organ, I had Rick Laird playing the upright bass. Rick later went with John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. John was an old friend of mine from about age eighteen. We'd do gigs together on weekends. There were a lot of people from that time who made their mark in music.

AAJ: You played harpsichord on "For Your Love"?

BA: Oh, that's right. I was managed at the time by the same guy who was managing the Yardbirds. One afternoon, I got a call from one of the guys in the Yardbirds the bassist, Paul Samwell-Smith I think it was—and we knew each other from being in the same office a lot of the time. This was the London scene at that time. The whole mania thing hadn't started yet. Nobody was really famous. Everybody hung with everybody else. We'd all go to one another's gigs, sit in and jam. So I got this call saying, "Brian, what are you doing?" I answered, "Right now?" He said, "Yeah." Well, since it was about two o'clock in the afternoon, I told him that I wasn't busy at all. He asked me to come on over to a recording studio. They wanted me to play on a single.

So I went over to Portland Place. The recording studio is across the road from the BBC. They were rehearsing this tune, and showed me the music. I said, "Fine. Where's the organ?" They said, "We don't have an organ." I said, "Ok, where's the piano?" They said, "We don't have a piano. We've only got this." In the corner, with the cover draped over it, was this object. We pulled the cover off, and there was this harpsichord.

AAJ: Did they realize the sound that it would produce?

BA: I don't think anybody did. That's all there was in the studio. They said, "We want you to have an intro on this and just play it." I took the chords of the tune and laid them out in an arpeggio fashion for the beginning. And then we just took the tune. We were finished in about two hours. Little did I know that that thing would go to number one. They were very happy about it. It was at the time when Jeff Beck had just joined the Yardbirds. Eric Clapton had left maybe a week or so earlier. Anyway, that was it.

AAJ: Let's clarify this. Fusion is the fusion of what?

BA: I played jazz. The rhythm is more or less straight-ahead. One rhythm. Jazz is played at different tempos, depending on the mood. But the rhythm is constant. [sings a ride cymbal beat]

With fusion, we're fusing funky R&B and rock rhythms to that. Rock has a variety of different rhythms. R&B drummers and bass players do these amazing lines, funky as hell. When I first heard Bernard Purdie on record, I was blown away. [sings a rather difficult and complex drum intro] When we all heard that, we went, "Oh my God!" It was the approach we were looking for. A new way of playing the rhythms that we wanted to play. A lot of our first drummers were Bernard Purdie freaks: Robbie Macintosh, who was in the Oblivion Express; Steve Ferrone. All those guys were influenced strongly by Bernard Purdie. Purdie made it possible for me to think about what I was writing.

On the first album I did, I wrote a Bernard Purdie lick on a track called "Break It Up." I asked my drummer to play that. A lot of European drummers fell in love with that kind of beat. Funk-based R&B rhythms, plus some rock stuff from the English side of things. I'm overlaying jazz chords. I'm telling the musicians in England, "You don't have to be restricted to those three or four chords." My aim was a rhythmic side that would attract rock & rollers along with a harmonic side drawn from jazz.

As with any of the arts, once you understand something on a different level, you don't go back. Your taste is moved upwards, and you crave another step. People would come over to me and talk about Eddie Harris and Herbie Hancock. These were people who hadn't been introduced to jazz before. Now, they liked what they'd heard and wanted to learn more.

AAJ: How has your music grown since the late '60s?

BA: As a player, I try to get better all the time. I feel that I'm playing better than ever before. I'm really beginning to understand music, as never before. I feel that I know what works for an audience. The studio's not "it" for me. That's just a way to get your music out there. But playing live is still the ultimate for me. To read the pleasure on people's faces. That's what it's all about. Communication on different levels. A musical journey.

I get a lot of email from all over the world. That kind of feedback means a lot to me. We're attracting a much younger audience now. Especially in Europe. There is this Acid Jazz thing that has started. It's basically the funkier side of old jazz tracks. You go into a club in England and they're dancing to "Sidewinder." They love it. They like all those Blue Note things that aren't quite straight-ahead jazz. There's a bluesy feel that is quite essential. I was always attracted to that myself. We recorded "Listen Here" about 25 years ago, and here we are in a discothÚque in New York with younger kids dancing to it now. I also recorded Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance." It led me to changes. The feedback did too. I went from being a rock musician who played top 40 stuff in a band to playing beyond myself. It worked. Knowing that the people liked it made the difference.

AAJ: Do you feel that the popularity of Acid Jazz fits your music?

BA: Sure. It's a new generation. Acid Jazz is dance music. It's all about rhythm. DJs are taking samples from a record and looping it. These loop tracks become dance tracks. On top of that, bits and pieces get overlaid. The DJs are making it up as they go along, so there's a lot of spontaneity. We use loops. "Soul Glow" has a loop. It gives a particular feel. You could play it on a smooth jazz radio station. I wouldn't call Kenny G smooth jazz. I call it pop music with some kind of embellished solo element to it. Radio stations play this innocuous stuff that goes on all day, and I don't get a lot from that. The elements of jazz have a fire to them. They have a different spirit. They're not packaged to go into a particular radio slot.

Radio has changed so much now that it has forced a lot of artists to adopt narrower values. When I first came to the United States, there were these tremendous radio stations and great DJs. They were much more open, not controlled by the labels. Today, it's absurd that so few jazz radio stations exist. The biggest U.S. contribution to the arts is jazz. That's it. That has influenced all the music of the Twentieth Century. I don't know whether its having come from minority roots that developed in bordellos and drinking houses should make a difference. One tends to look askance at jazz, and that is part of the reason. Europeans don't. In Europe, jazz is considered on a par with their own classical composers. They look on jazz as American music, with an element of Americana in it. When you get to solo, you're free. Isn't that what America is all about? I do not understand why jazz is not revered and the jazz artists aren't helped along more than they are in this country. They're much more likely to be respected in places like Japan and Europe than they are in their own country. Consequently, a lot of the music you hear on the radio is something that you could step into an elevator and hear. It would suit that environment. It's not how I see music.

AAJ: What about Kenny G? The success. How does that influence the jazz artist's musical direction?

BA: I don't really think it does. Clive Davis probably heard this guy play and realized that he's a good player. The way he plays naturally would lend itself to be able to sell multi-millions of albums. A wider audience would accept that. So what? It's not connected to what I'm doing. It's a different area of music. I can see that other artists would look at what he's doing and maybe make a change.

But it comes down to the goals people have in their hearts. Some people want to be famous. Others want to play well and just keep on playing better. Still others want freedom as an artist. Some want to sell millions of albums and be rich. There are all kinds of different drivers.

AAJ: What drives you?

BA: I've always been a bit of a maverick. I've always gone my own way. I was managed until about 1970 and got out of the contract because I found that they were putting too much pressure on us when we were recording. What we did record was very successful anyway. But I don't like it when the manager decides that he wants to add two oboes to a track or something like that; silly, crazy stuff like that interferes with the artist's music. Sorry, I've spent years learning my craft. If it doesn't make sense, a lot of energy is going to go into arguing. I've always fought for my own freedom and have gone my own way. For some of the people in the music business, this is interpreted as being out on a limb. Some would say that I'm hard to get along with. I'm just trying to play some great music and to entertain people. I like to mix it up and appeal to different generations. They're MY ideas. The music is timeless.

Today, we're recording my eldest daughter Ali. Savannah sings in the band and Karma, my son, plays drums in the band. Ali is a big Sarah Vaughan fan. That's her idol. She loves Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae and Billie Holiday too. So we've decided to do a jazz album of standards. We've chosen a few: "Skylark," "Good Morning, Heartache," "Here's That Rainy Day," "Speak Low" and "Just Friends." All these great standards. I approached it as a different thing for me. I did the arranging. We've added a trumpet player. Karma is playing drums. Dan Lutz, our bassist, is playing upright bass for this one. I'm just playing piano. Larry Williams is playing trumpet. He's a Freddie Hubbard devotee. Ali's done a tremendous job on the vocals.

AAJ: There wasn't too much parental pressure in this, was there?

BA: Not at all. I've never pressured any of my kids to come into the music business. The way things are, I've always told them that they need to look for something that would allow them to look after themselves. Fortunately for me, they haven't taken my advice.

Without Karma's help, I'd be hard-pressed. He runs the band, gets the gear together, serves as engineer on all the albums, manages the logistics, and all. Without his help there would be no Oblivion Express currently on the road in its present form.

AAJ: The life of a musician is tough on the family. How did you manage to keep the family so close in spite of your career choice?

BA: My wife, Ella, and I met in Italy in 1967. We got married in 1968. Ella has done such a tremendous job on the kids over the years. From the time the kids were young I always called them from the road. Before we moved to America, they couldn't quite figure out why it was dark where I was, but still, light where they were. They would always ask me about it over the telephone. So, at home, we had to have this discussion where we took the world globe and a flashlight and pieced it out. The time of day and the seasonal weather was a big deal every time I'd call. If I were out for four or five weeks, I'd be sure to send them postcards. We always had contact. Ella provided a wonderful home for all of us.

The children were all born in London. We moved to the States in 1975. Then we were up in the [San Francisco] Bay area for about seven years. So they went to school up there. Then, we decided that we wanted to expose our children to the other side of their culture, which is Italian. My wife's from Sardinia. So we spent two years in Europe: Sardinia, Rome, Milan, and England. They spent a year in Italian schools and a year in England. Eventually, they wanted to come back to California. This had quite an effect on them. Karma finished high school and college here, but the two girls wanted something different. They both started high school here and then completed their high school programs in Italy. They were able to stay with their Grandma in Sardinia. It gave them a broad base of subjects: law, philosophy, the history of art, mathematics, French, English and biology. Everything was in Italian, so they read, speak and write Italian fluently. Their Grandma did a great deal for the girls, too, by teaching them to cook and all. They're very well rounded

AAJ: As a musician, how did you manage to remain a good role model for your children?

BA: I don't know. I think it's because I've always tried to treat them as adults. We've always been very open. There's a thing about the Italian society, a code of conduct. It's not left open how you behave. It's instilled in you. You could behave badly. But if you want to behave well, then there are rules. You greet people, carry on conversations, dine, and entertain with particular pride. The Old World thing. A lot of American families don't have that. Our kids know.

Savannah and Karma tour with the band. We'll be in Europe next month. Ali's new album should be finished by next week. We'll be doing another Oblivion Express album. We have our own studio with a 24-track analog sound. We generally put our percussion into digital format to crisp it up. We do it all here. Karma engineered the album, mixed it, and produced it.

Savannah wants to do an album on her own. I'd like to do a straight-ahead Hammond organ album. I have a lot of archival material that I may release. When I have time, I want to do an album of Duke Ellington compositions, an album of Mingus material, one of Miles' stuff, one for Coltrane's things, and one for Thelonious Monk. There's plenty on the horizon.

AAJ: Thanks for sharing your time with All About Jazz.

BA: Thank you. Music is our international language. The pop culture exploded in the 1960s to start that whole ball rolling, where suddenly you could go to a concert in Japan, and they already had your records. With all these terrible conflicts going on around the world today, music remains as one element that can still serve to unite different people. On Voices Of Other Times, I put one song on there, "It Burns Me Up," to say that we should look at what is going on around the world. It's crazy, because we're all the same. A very wise man from India said, "There's only one caste. And that is the caste of humanity. There's only one language, and that is the language of the heart. There's only one religion, and that's the religion of love. There's only one God, and He's everywhere, always, and in everything." We have to get past these clashes where culture collides. I got a few negative comments from "It Burns Me Up," as the peace and love thing from the '60s. To me, that is the message from the '60s that I carry through to the present day. I don't see it as nostalgia. I see our world going down that road eventually.

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