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Giant Steps: Diverse Journeys in British Jazz


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Jazz Warriors wasn't an influencer. It was a collective for black people.
—Gail Thompson
The following is a revised excerpt from "Chapter 3: Full Force Gail" of Giant Steps: Diverse Journeys in British Jazz by David Burke (Desert Hearts, 2021).

In the 1980s, a new generation of black British musicians began to reconfigure the country's jazz scene, changing the face -and sound-of what had previously been a largely mono-cultural medium. Jazz Warriors collective was the proving ground for players such as Courtney Pine, Orphy Robinson, Dennis Rollins, Gary Crosby and many others. Among the organisation's founding members was saxophonist Gail Thompson, a formidable character who also led her own ensemble, played in Charlie Watts's big band and almost joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, before multiple sclerosis truncated a career in its prime.

Thompson was a trailblazer. Yet she's conspicuous by her absence from most histories of British jazz, which is a travesty. Several of her peers—men, of course—have been awarded for doing their not insignificant bit. Nothing wrong with that at all. But isn't it about time her seminal contribution was similarly acknowledged, however much she herself tries to downplay it?

"I don't think I was a great player. I don't think I had any real chops. The only reason I got to the top was because I was black. I had novelty value. And I exploited that. There wasn't anything special about me. I didn't play in a special way. Why didn't Steve Williamson have my career? Why didn't Phillip Bent have my career? Why didn't all these other people have my career? Because they weren't a novelty. There was the whole Jazz Warriors and me, the only woman. Gail Thompson as a band leader is unique. There's never been a black woman band leader in Europe. Nobody's ever taken my crown. But if I was a white woman it would not have had the same appeal."

Now Reverend Gail Thompson, chaplain at London University's School of African Studies, that other life -her jazz life -was, as she points out, "33 years ago -all the things I did, I did by the time I was 30."

Her accomplishments in the life after that life have been equally impressive. She became director of Mick Jagger's music company, co-founded Musicworks, a centre for musicians that started out in her house before eventually occupying a three-storey warehouse in London (employing 20 staff and catering to some 3,000 students), ran workshops in Africa, Belgium, Germany, Russia and Canada, and launched a charity.

"I'm enjoying what I'm doing now much more," says the former self-confessed hooligan who swapped hedonism for heaven and put MS firmly in its place.

"I've learnt how to do something new. If something needs doing, I'm going to do it. If someone's hungry, I'm going to fill their belly.

"I spent ten years studying to become a minister. I'm a reverend, but I'm not a pulpit reverend. I'm not going to preach damnation at you. A community chaplain is somebody who helps everybody, whether they're gay or whether they're Muslim, whether they're Hindu. You don't have a preference. It's like, 'Do you need something? What can I do for you?' That's what Jesus did -help people, heal people. He didn't do anything else. That's what I lean on. That's what I want to do and that's what I do."

Thompson attributes her fortitude in overcoming adversity to both a mother with redoubtable spirit and, in her words, a devastating childhood.

"My mother and father came over here from Trinidad when they were 24. They came to study. My dad went to Oxford. My mum was a teacher but she had to be a nurse, because that's all black women did in those days. When he left Oxford he started a business and was very successful. We had three houses. Now a black man having three houses in the sixties was pretty good. He was a lawyer and an accountant. Despite the fact he was a great business person, he didn't let on where he was getting most of his money from. And as it turned out he was doing things -it's called embezzlement. He went bankrupt. And he went away for eight years. We went from having all this wealth to having nothing."

Music wasn't much solace to Thompson during those difficult formative years. Then she found jazz.

"One day my mum gave me some pocket money to go to Woolworths and I heard this sound. And I thought, what is that? They showed me the sleeve and it was Stan Getz. Every time you heard the saxophone in rock'n'roll it was horrible, nasty. But I heard this sound and thought, that is it, I'm going to play the saxophone. So I took the clarinet back and brought a saxophone home from school. My mum went crazy. 'Gail! You're a woman, Gail, and you're black!' But I wasn't having any of it."

She was seduced by the sweet, lyrical tone Getz drew from the tenor.

"Oh, it was beautiful. It was spine-chilling, really capturing. And I stopped. Don't forget, I was only 13 or something, listening to this sound. And you either like jazz or you don't. Jazz isn't something you learn to like. So I heard this saxophone played properly for the first time and realised I wanted to play it, I really wanted to sound like that."

But it was another tenor player, Ben Webster, who would become Thompson's real hero and whose subtone style—a soft, breathy timbre produced in the lowest range of the instrument with low volume—she would adopt. After leaving school, Thompson's playing evolved during a stint with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, before she helped to establish the Jazz Warriors.

"The reason it was set up in the first place was because of Loose Tubes," she says, referencing the all-white outfit which included Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, Julian Arguelles and others.

"I remember asking somebody in Loose Tubes, 'How come there's no black people in your band?' And they said to me, 'Oh, they're great jazzers, but they can't read.' We just thought, 'No!' So all the black musicians came together and that was Jazz Warriors. It wasn't an influencer. It was a collective for black people."

A collective that could never contain someone as singular as Thompson. By her own admission she's not a timid person.

"I make myself known. I've got a loud voice and you know that I'm there."

There was also the gender thing. As the sole female in the Jazz Warriors, and as a minority in a male-dominated jazz environment, she wasn't, she feels, taken seriously. Which accounts for why she always had her own bands.

"I never played with anybody. The only people I played with as a side woman was Charlie Watts and Art Blakey. I'm good at standing at the front. My big bands, they were full of really good musicians, all A-listers like Jim Mullen, Laurence Cottle, Andy Mackintosh, Ian Shaw. 22 pieces, proper big band. We did BBC broadcasts, the lot. "All I wanted was to go out and play music with my own bands. Everything else was a plus. That was a plus. I got to be what I wanted to be under my own terms, no under somebody else's terms. I wouldn't work for somebody else, I never worked for somebody else. If I started with other people, being their side woman, it takes away the whole leadership thing from you, doesn't it? The only time you want to play with somebody else is when it's with Art Blakey, it's when it's with Charlie Watts.

"Being a leader is just what I am. I am born that way. It's self-belief. That's what I was given by my mother. I'm a tomboy. Being a tomboy gives me that resilience, it gives me that strength. If I had a skirt on and high heels, it would change my persona. You have to be as you look. But they want timid, they want ladylike, they want opposite to what they are, they don't want the same as them. If I walk in there in jeans and a frumpy jumper and look the same as them, talk like them, act like them, they think it's wrong. Most men are like that, whether they're in jazz or not."

Thompson's burgeoning reputation brought her to the attention of Art Blakey, who wanted to break up what had long been an all-boys' club by recruiting her to the Jazz Messengers. She, along with fellow Warriors Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson and Philip Bent, was invited to appear with the Jazz Messengers at the Shaw Theatre in Camden Town during the 1986 London Jazz Festival, before which gig she encountered her new boss' "wandering hands."

Thompson recalls, "I sat on his knee and all that. I thought it was great to sit on Art Blakey's knee, but he had other ideas. I'd heard about his reputation anyway. He was definitely a fondler, but I didn't' feel threatened or upset. It was just kind of funny. I just said, 'Art, move your hand!' It was give and take. I'm not going to get up and slap him. If he had gone too far and put his hands where he shouldn't, I would have slapped him, yes. I thought, I've got to do this, I cannot let a situation like this pass. I've got to sit on his knee."

All good clean fun. And let's be honest, most of us would have gladly sat on Art Blakey's knee. Besides, this was a momentous night, arguably the apotheosis of Thompson's career up to that point. She wasn't to know it was also the night the curtain would be brought down prematurely on that career. Her recollection of the instant it ended, remains vivid.

"It happened on stage. We were playing "Moanin'" and I was playing the saxophone solo and I could feel my face explode. I can actually point to the second I got MS. But the horrible thing was, the following week I was going to play the Hollywood Bowl with Charlie Watts. When you play with Charlie Watts you know the place is going to be packed. And I couldn't do it. Never played again. Can't play again. My fingers got worse, no dexterity."

Thompson was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis, the secondary progressive kind. The worst kind. The kind that only gets worse.

"They took five years to diagnose me. I had my jaw reshaped. I had everything done, thinking, I've got to change this. And then one day some bright spark said, 'By the way, you know you've got MS?'"

Thompson is phlegmatic about it now, insisting she was phlegmatic about it then. I'm not entirely convinced though that her heart wasn't broken.

But she insists, "I'm the sort of person, if something happens, it happens for a reason. It's not a deliberate thing I say just to appear a certain way. It's the way that I am. If it doesn't work out there's always something else you can do which will be of more benefit to others. The thing about music, musicians are—me included—very selfish and tunnelled. Music wasn't the thing in my mind. It was something I could do, so I did it. When I couldn't do it, it didn't really bother me. There's always a future somewhere else. And I had all this stuff going on, top of my game, top of the tree. And it was yanked away in one second. All those years of practice from the age of 14, gone, finished."

Thompson threw herself into Musicworks. She identified a need in her community and so she addressed it.

"I saw a lot of people who were unemployed, who wanted to play music and couldn't afford the lessons. They needed somebody to teach them. Had the MS not happened to me, Musicworks wouldn't have happened. If I was still playing the saxophone nothing I do would ever have happened."

Others took notice. Promoter Harvey Goldsmith asked her to become director of National Music Day, a festival dreamed up by Mick Jagger.

In her South London local one night, she and her drinking buddies hatched a plan to drive a 13-tonne Mercedes truck to Africa. They bought it in Germany, kitted the vehicle out and travelled through France, Morocco, Algeria, the Sahara Desert, Burkina Fasa, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Tanzania and Kenya.

"I went to Africa to find myself," says Thompson. "It was cleansing. I can't play saxophone, what am I going to do? Let me just drive away and enjoy myself. I wanted to find out what I was going to do with myself. What was my future?"

That future was one she couldn't have predicted, a future revealed through a classic tale of redemption. Thompson fell hard to earth—inevitable, really, given how voraciously she'd committed herself to the pursuit of decadence—before gaining the grace of God, a deity not previously on her radar.

"I wasn't a Christian, I was a hooligan. I was a drug addict and alcoholic. The Lord discovered me when I first had MS. He took me away from everything. My day consisted of waking up, building a spliff, ecstasy, cocaine, ten pints a day, easily, plus whiskey. I was in this wheelchair thinking, what am I going to do? It just built up. Worst of all, the guy living next door was a drug dealer, so he used to throw it out the window for me! Fresh supply every day.

"I was literally shaking all the time. I had a 24/7 carer. I couldn't hold a cup, I couldn't brush my teeth. That was really bad, it was bad. I was blind at one stage. The day after I lost my chops I was blind. When I woke up I thought I was still dreaming or out of it. Went back to sleep again, woke up again, nothing. Blackness. But apparently that's what happens when you get MS for a couple of days. I could only see in black and white for a year—a bit like a dog!"

Thompson saw the light in Wales, where she'd gone with her mother for some respite.

"It's just one of those things. You can either go through it and not come through, or go through it and stay there. But I didn't do it, it was the Lord that done it. I was in this hotel and there was nothing in the rooms. My mother went out to have some dinner or something. There was only one thing left in the room, a Gideon Bible. And there's me, this hooligan, who's got drugs in her bag, I've got all my stash in my bag, so when my mum went out I thought, it's time!

"I pulled down this Gideon Bible from the shelf and it opened at Psalm 52. I read it and burst into tears. Everything in the psalm was exactly what I was going through. My mum came in the room and said, 'What are you doing with that?' So I put it back on the shelf. And then she went out of the room again, I pulled out this Bible again and it fell on the same psalm. I said, 'Oh, God, just help me.' And that was it. I was brought back, I wasn't shaking, I didn't want any booze, I didn't want any drugs. It's supposed to be progressive, but the Lord has other ideas. I didn't know I had a calling in my life. That's the last thing I thought. There's me, a saxophonist drinking and taking drugs. The last thing I thought was that I was going to be a minister. Do I look like a minister to you?! Some people still don't believe me, but anyway, that's up to them.

"I never thought, right, when I get back, I'm going to stop smoking. When I got back I didn't want it. On the way home I wasn't shaking. Literally, the trees were green all of a sudden.

"It's a calling. God just does it. He just says, 'I want you now, that's it, you're coming with me, you're one of mine now.' I was begging to go to church. I was taken to this place, some kind of symposium or something in Derby, and all the way down I kept saying, 'I want to be baptized, I want to be baptized.' Don't know anything about baptism, don't know why, I just kept saying it. I went in the wheelchair and I was still kind of a bit shaky and all that. I asked the pastor to pray for me. So he stood me up between two people and then I just went, fell over. It was a proper bang. And when I was on the floor it was like being burnt. It was like this fire underneath me. I was screaming and screaming and screaming. Then the pastor said to me, 'Get up,' so I did.

"God has given me faith. I didn't have to develop it, I didn't have to learn it. He just said, 'Right, have some faith, Gail, I've got some work for you to do.' And after that happened, how can you say no? I stood up and started walking around the room."

And out of this miracle -the miracle of faith -was conceived Reverend Gail Thompson. That other Gail Thompson, the game changing saxophonist with the foul mouth, beer in one hand, spliff in the other, was consigned to the past.

"I don't have an ego. I never boast. A lot of people don't even know what I did. I don't tell people until they found out for themselves. And they're shocked. But I don't want them to see that. I'm a reverend minister. I want them to see me as I am now. And by the way, yes, that was what I did 30 years ago. I've had MS longer than I haven't. Basically, my past life has been shorter than my present life.

"Jazz was taken away from me. It wasn't a thing I did. And it saddens me when I hear it. Not because of what I've lost, but the fact that I can't do that and I enjoyed doing that. I love jazz and I always will. But ballads, they take you back. You can't help but be taken back, not necessarily to what might have been, but to that time. You know when a song reminds you of your first love, and when you hear that song ten years later it will still remind you of her? It's the same thing. When I listen to jazz I listen to the music inside, it's the changes, what I learnt all those years. Don't forget, I played sax from when I was 13 to when I was 29. It's a huge chunk of my life."

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