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Mike Osborne: Force Of Nature - Part 1-2

Barry Witherden By

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One of the most interesting and, certainly in the early-70s, most surprising bands Osborne was involved with was SOS, a trio comprising him, Surman and tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore. Although ostensibly a saxophone trio, the sound was augmented by Surman's subtle and creative use of synthesisers, whilst Skidmore sometimes played drums. In 1974 S.O.S appeared at the Paris Opéra, playing their own music for a Carolyn Carson ballet, Sablier Prison. I was during that period that Osborne began to show signs of mental distress, and on his return to England received the diagnosis of schizophrenia. He spent some time in hospital, and after that he only occasionally played in public. In 1982 he went back to Hereford, where he was often hospitalised and, finally, lived in care. He never played in public again.

Anyone who has had a relative or friend affected by dementia or some other condition that slowly but steadily steals their personality will know the grief of long drawn-out goodbyes. For Osborne's fans, the 25 years between his retirement from public performance and his death seemed very like that experience. We are all too familiar with the premature deaths of great artists, and the fruitless pondering over the "what ifs"—what if Charlie Parker had lived longer?; what would he have made of fusion or free jazz?; would John Coltrane have pursued the more reflective path of Expression rather than the apparent ferocity of Meditations. And so on. No doubt aficionados of all arts do this sort of thing—but in this instance the "what ifs" applied to someone still alive but unable to perform or, indeed, latterly not always able to recognise and communicate with visitors.

I saw Osborne play in numerous contexts, and have most of his official recordings plus as many airshots as I was able to capture from radio onto reel-to-reel tapes or cassette, but it was never enough. No matter how often you heard him, it was a fresh, energising and slightly alarming adventure. I have said, above, that he was a passionate and urgent player. It is difficult to describe him without one or other of these words. Westbrook says "His great strength. His single-mindedness, his total passion for playing jazz also made him vulnerable." Barry Guy, who played with him at some of the weekly sessions Osborne frequented at the Peanuts Club near London's Liverpool Street railway station, told me "Ossie was an extremely passionate player with a very special delivery and sound. His demise was so sad to hear about -a wonderfully creative improviser slowly fading from the scene, part of which he was the architect of. I guess we all hoped that he would return to the stage to continue his musical journey." Evan Parker said, "He was a passionately committed musician. His appetite for playing was voracious. He will never be forgotten by we who had the pleasure of playing with him." Dave Holdsworth who worked alongside him in Westbrook's Concert Band and, later, in Osborne's small groups, says "Mike's playing always produced music of total integrity, imbued with searing passion, risk-taking and surprise, and an almost destructive sense of urgency."

One of the last times I saw him play live was at the 100 Club on London's Oxford Street in May 1976. He was participating in a special evening celebrating Stan Tracey's music. He and Tracey, working as a duo, had produced so much splendid music, but it was a disappointing, even distressing session. After the set ended Ossie stepped off the platform and stood like a statue, glaring towards, but possibly not "at," the man standing behind the hatch of the Chinese food counter. Punters passed round Osborne, glancing obliquely at him and no doubt wondering, as I was, whether to speak to him. Also like me, they might have been vaguely aware of his ill-health and issues with drugs, but unaware that he was suffering from schizophrenia. He looked very ill, and I was strongly reminded of a photograph of Charlie Parker I had once seen, in which he looked paradoxically plump yet wasted.

This was especially shocking since, just five weeks earlier, I had heard him with his regular trio, and he was on fine form then. In fact, his decline was by no means constant or consistent. Later recordings, including a session recorded in April 1981 by his quartet featuring Holdsworth, showed him improvising imaginatively and coherently, all his forces under control.


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