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Loose Tubes: Tomorrow Night is Your Last Chance Ever

Bruce Lindsay By

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We had a rule that any decision could be vetoed by one person, and it could be a nightmare, but a very beautiful nightmare.
Twenty years after legendary British big band Loose Tubes played its farewell gigs at Ronnie Scott's Club in London, its first live album, Dancing On Frith Street (Lost Marble Records, 2010), became Jazzwise magazine's Archive Album of 2010. In the intervening decades, the band's members had spread across the British and international jazz scenes to become some of the most influential players around. The quality and power of the music on the album served as a welcome reminder of the impact of Loose Tubes on the mid-'80s jazz world.

Two of the most influential and successful Loose Tubes members—keyboard player and composer Django Bates (pictured above right) and saxophonist Mark Lockheart (pictured above left)—spoke about the band and its legacy in separate interviews from their respective London homes. Both men have fond memories of their days in this extraordinary ensemble. While both musicians have gone on to award-winning careers—Bates won the 1997 Jazzpar Prize in Denmark, while Lockheart was Jazz Musician of the Year at the 2010 British Parliamentary Jazz Awards—they have continued to work regularly with other ex-members of Loose Tubes, maintaining links that now go back almost 30 years.

Loose Tubes, formed in London in 1983, was the brainchild of composer and bandleader Graham Collier. Before it split in 1990, it released three albums, toured extensively and played more television shows than most current jazz bands can dream of. Despite this activity, Loose Tubes is not a band that left much in the way of a visual record: there are few photographs of the band in performance; an online search for band videos was, at the time of the interviews, fruitless, and none of the band's three studio albums are available on CD. This lack of any sort of Loose Tubes archive is surprising, given the band's high profile, but the advent of Dancing On Frith Street may signal a change on the way.

The Birth of a Band

Bates mentions Collier's role in the band's genesis immediately: "For me, it all began when I got a call from Graham Collier, a jazz composer from a generation older than me, who I knew from his various bands with people like Harry Beckett and Alan Skidmore. He called me out of the blue, told me he was setting up a big workshop band, and asked if I was interested in coming along to play the piano. And I said, 'No.'" Bates laughs at the memory, but his initial response was based on experience: "All my experiences of playing in big bands had been quite unrewarding. But he insisted that this was something different compositionally and that I should come along."

Bates relented and joined the band, realizing at the first meeting that there was huge potential in the ensemble. He's honest in his appraisal of his change of heart: "Selfishly, I saw this huge potential as a writing palette where I could bring new compositions and try them out. And that's what I did: the next week I turned up with a piece, I think it was 'Eden Express,' and it took things in a different direction. From that point on it became our band, something with a real personal character."

Lockheart was another one of the first members of Loose Tubes, having also been approached by Collier, and shares Bates' memories of those early weeks: "I already knew Graham," says Lockheart, "and he asked me to come along and play. The first lineup all knew each other in some way. I was playing with (bassist) Steve Berry and (guitarist) John Parricelli in a quartet called Let's Eat. I'd played with Django a bit as well, in a band called The Humans, which eventually became Human Chain. So there were all these little bands within a band, as it were. We started off with Graham's compositions. Then after a couple of weeks, Django brought in a couple—including 'Yellow Hill' (on Dancing On Frith Street) and 'Eden Express,' I think."

The band's name emerged from Collier's administrator, Colin Lazarrini. As Bates recalls "He became the band administrator... and decided we needed a name. Some of the suggestions related to how we could get funding; some were pretty corny, like 'Top Score,' reflecting the 20 people in the band. Then someone, possibly Colin, suggested Loose Tubes: 'tubes' because there was so much brass in the band, and 'loose' because of the band's approach ... a studied looseness, you could say." The name stuck, but Bates now admits, "I never really liked it."

The band's name helped to indicate its sense of fun, at a time when much of the scene was taking the music rather too seriously. The band's organizational structure also marked it out as distinct from the usual big band, for Loose Tubes was never formally under the leadership of a single individual. Indeed, the band is often referred to as democratic, and even anarchic. "Colin," says Bates, "was committed to the idea of the band as a democracy, and it really was completely democratic. We would rehearse every Monday, which we did almost throughout the whole life of the band, and decisions would be discussed and voted on at great length. We had a rule that any decision could be vetoed by one person—I don't quite know how that happened—and it could be a nightmare, but a very beautiful nightmare. It was so amazing to have these conversations, but sometimes the results weren't so great because decisions would get watered down."

Even decisions about set lists could take on epic proportions. As Bates recalls, "Set lists are a crucial part of forming a gig: some people were good at it and some weren't, but everyone had to have their go. So you could do a gig that was flawed from the very beginning." As Lockheart remembers, "Some people thought of Django as the leader— his writing stood out—but it was always democratic, as regards deciding what tunes to put on an album or to play at a gig. We would have terribly long band meetings, voting on everything, and by the end there was no way of making difficult decisions."

The band lasted for over seven years, with relatively few changes of personnel for a band of that size: both Bates and Lockheart (pictured right) were still members at the end—"the bitter end," as Lockheart calls it.

Gigs, Radio and TV

Despite its popularity, surely a band of that size was economically a bit of a non- starter? "Pretty much," responds Bates, "although when I worked out the royalty pool for Dancing On Frith Street so that everybody who was in the band would be rewarded, even if they weren't on the recording, I was surprised how few people were in the band and how many were in it for the whole of its life." The band wasn't a full-time job for its members, who in many cases had high-profile roles in other groups. Both Bates and saxophonist Iain Ballamy, for example, were in Bill Bruford's Earthworks. "It was quite difficult at times," Bates remembers. "There would be a Loose Tubes gig at a festival somewhere, and there would also be the chance to tour Germany or America with Earthworks. We were too young and naive to work out how to deal with that, and some quite difficult choices were made."

Loose Tubes worked extensively, despite the need to make choices, and for a jazz group it did an appreciable number of television broadcasts including top pop music shows such as Channel 4's The Tube. "We were on the same week as Sting," remembers Lockheart. "We played three tunes. We were in the foyer of the building, and Sting was in the main auditorium." The band was always happy to take opportunities as they arose, an approach that Bates thinks is also due to its lack of pretention: "We were never precious about where we'd be seen. ... We made sure promoters knew we were happy to do our thing in any situation. There was also some luck involved; we arrived at a time when there was space for a big ensemble to do that, and we had the power of our numbers."

The band also appeared on a long-forgotten daytime national television show called Mavis. Lockheart's mother still has a recording of the show, and others: "My mum's got four or five TV things—The Tube, Mavis, and a couple of others. There's about five or six different TV things altogether, including Wogan (at the time, one of the most popular national television shows in Britain)."

The band's willingness to take opportunities led to the incident that gives its name to the live album, as Bates recalls: "We arranged to meet outside Ronnie Scott's club (on Frith Street) at about 7 o'clock. Everyone arrived outside, and we were so excited to be there that we took out our instruments and started playing on the street. Soho being the sort of village community type place it is, there was a real buzz of excitement about this—the band playing on the street as the audience went in to the gig."

Both Bates and Lockheart have their own ideas about Loose Tubes' longer-term legacy, on each of them as players as well as on the wider jazz scene. Bates is happy to discuss the wider scene: "One example is the F-ire Collective. Barak Schmool, a major part of it, always cites Loose Tubes as an influence." As for its influence on his own development, Bates says emphatically that it was "very big." He adds, "After Loose Tubes ended I quickly started a new band, but it wasn't democratic. It was my band. I called it Delightful Precipice. We had a great time before things changed. Large groups have always been part of my life since Loose Tubes ... but I did drop some of the Loose Tubes things that I saw as a hindrance, like having four trombones. I always saw that as like having four front doors on your house."

There's another very personal impact that Bates acknowledges: "I was very introverted before Loose Tubes—really focused on my music and what was going on inside my head. Loose Tubes dragged out that more extrovert side. It also taught me that I could take this music much further than I had ever dreamed."
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