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Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

Maxim Micheliov By

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AAJ: Please describe the scene in more detail.

HR: Do you mean in London? I mean, you see, in Britain, in England particularly that time, if you had any ambitions in terms of developing your play you had to really go to London. There weren't too many players out in the country. This was my problem because then I was a kid in Huddersfield I've done everything you want to do. By the age of 14, I was playing with guys who were in their thirties. Local musicians but I could see that I had to get out of there in order to develop.

And, of course, the university thing it was a different set of circumstances because I had to earn some money during the summer which meant doing some commercial music. But that was valuable—it taught me never to do that, never even think of doing that as a life time occupation.

There were different little cliques although there was interaction. A little theater club was one point of reference to all of that, that was for developing free music up there. People like John Stevens, Evan (Parker) played there. Barry (Guy), of course. That's how I first met Barry. He did a lot of the Little Theatre club. And that was for free playing. John Stevens was a central focus there. He was undoubtedly a catalyst. And Trevor Watts was very important with that. They used to work there six nights a week often not getting paid. They were incredibly dedicated. The club didn't start until 10:30 at night because there was that Little Theater happening earlier. The only problem from my point of view was that the piano was lousy. That piano was really bad but suppose you learn something from that—how to master bad piano playing.

Then there was Ronnie Scott's old place, which was left over from Ronnie's moving to bigger premises on Frith Street. And they lasted for a year-and-a-half at the least, and it was very generous because he didn't have to do this. He just gave it over to the younger guys to present themselves in this club. That was my first place where I've started getting known a bit.

And the people whom we know today were just starting out. I've mentioned John and Trevor, Evan and Barry. Tony Oxley was a resident drummer at Ronnie Scott's but he was also quite important in free music, but again, he liked conventional playing and regular gigs and also free music. Derek Bailey of course—all these people started out that time. And then John Surman emerged and he was playing with Mike Westbrook. I am going to miss people out there. That's just for example.

Yes and Keith Tippett, he emerged slightly later than the rest, in about '69, but that's important. And South Africans: Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza—they were very important because they injected something totally different into the London scene. Reverting to my earlier words, that was another little camp. Never the less, people did interact a lot. We did gigs together, there wasn't segregation.

The thing we all had in common—we were all starting out in our early to mid-twenties, that age group. And the attitude was as I said earlier: "let's try and see what happens if we do this or that..."; to get unusual combination in that area. It was a very active thing.

The problem was in terms of exposure. In that period, the last half of the '60s, there was a very active rock scene. Because in Britain there was the emergence of... I am going to give them more publicity but I have to say this—The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who. Bands like that were emerging and they were quickly becoming international superstars. And all the music magazines and the music press were writing these guys up.

AAJ: Did you have interaction with the musicians of older generation?

HR: Not as much. You get this of course every time when the new generation comes up. I have to resist that myself. When you get older you think—who are these guys who are just started out? You can expect a bit of resistance. I would say it's a natural thing. But, for example, I've already mentioned Ronnie Scott. He left his old place over to young musicians; it was charity, almost. He didn't have to do that. So he was interested. I think Ronnie and people like that realized that something is going on. But obviously they were entrenched of their way of things. And of course there were some great players in their generation. Like, for example, Tubby Hayes. Who, in terms of playing bebop, was a fantastic saxophonist. So there wasn't all sweetness in life but I think that happens each time a new generation comes up. At this very moment as we speak maybe there's a 17 year-old genius somewhere out there. We haven't heard of him yet.

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