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Mike Westbrook: Art Wolf at 75

Duncan Heining By

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You've got to mean it and you've got to be good because among musicians there's a great equality. There's a huge love of the music and a desire for a world in which it can be a really powerful force for good.
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine a jazz composer who began with Duke Ellington and then moved on through Charles Mingus. He soon encompassed rock music, Kurt Weill, Rossini, the traditions of English church music and the pastoralism of Vaughan Williams and Holst, but still found a place in his music for The Beatles, European political cabaret and The Great American Songbook.

And what if his inspirations ranged from painters like Paul Nash, Caspar Wolf and J.M.W. Turner to Lorca, William Blake, Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon and Bertolt Brecht, and his subject matter took in war, life and death, the decline and fall of European culture, the Ballet Russes choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, man's fall from grace, the '69 moon landing, the Greek muses and the irresponsible song of the little Sedge Warbler. Now add that he's performed everywhere from street corners, political demonstrations, factory canteens and geriatric hospital wards to circus tents with acrobats and fire-eaters to West End theatres and some of Europe's finest concert halls.

Doesn't really sound like one guy, does it? Actually, it's two cats but that's two other stories we'll come back to later. But answer me—how does that sound to you? A bit difficult, a bit too much trouble? You need to try harder. Then maybe you're saying to yourself, "That's cool—heavy but cool," and "Who is this guy?" and you don't mind the jazz police coming around taking names. Well, I'm talking about Mike Westbrook and I'm talking about Kate Westbrook, his musical partner of nearly forty years.

It was fifty years ago today that Sergeant Westbrook taught the band to play—not quite, but not far off either. It was down in Plymouth, in glorious Devon in the early sixties that Westy started his first band. Westbrook turned 75 this year and can look back over a career that began in that miraculous era of British music that saw the creation of some of the finest pop, rock, folk, jazz and contemporary music ever. And his music was right at the cutting edge of British jazz.

Perhaps the second line from The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967) could almost apply in Westbrook's case too:

They've been going in and out of style
But they're guaranteed to raise a smile.


Somewhere along the line in the music business, "cutting edge" got confused with the vagaries of fashion. Yet, for Mike and Kate Westbrook, the core of their music has remained constant in its commitment and challenge. It's time to throw ephemera aside and talk about art and, for want of a better word, politics.

In the late fifties, Mike Westbrook was teaching painting in Plymouth. A longtime jazz fan, trumpeter and would-be composer, he put together a sextet that included guitarist Keith Rowe, later a core member of AMM. It was Rowe, in fact, who recruited John Surman. The saxophonist was just sixteen, and had just graduated from clarinet to baritone sax, as he told me in 1998, "It was a bit of a shock really because I was a bit of a mouldy fig at the time and I didn't really know about modern jazz. But frankly, I don't think they did either [laughing]!"

The story goes that Surman turned up at the first rehearsal still wearing his school cap. For Westbrook, the saxophonist's arrival would prove an important opportunity, as he explained, "It really was a great day when John Surman joined the band and I then had four horns. That unleashed a whole range of possibilities and I was able to move from straight-ahead arrangements to writing original material."

Westy moved to London in '62 and was joined a year later by Rowe and Surman in forming an 11-piece band. Out of this emerged the first London-based sextet that played Ronnie Scott's Old Place every Saturday for 18 months, and provided the basis for the Westbrook Concert Band. The band at the time included Keith Rowe, Surman, Henry Lowther on trumpet (soon to be replaced by Dave Holdsworth), Mike Osborne on alto, Lou Gare (another AMM recruit later replaced in 1966 by Dave Chambers, and then George Khan) on tenor, Alan "A.J." Jackson on drums, Lawrence Sheaff on bass, trombonist Malcolm Griffiths and Tom Bennellick on French horn and tuba. Several of these, of course, became important figures in their own right. Forgetting for a moment Surman and Osborne, it's truly hard to imagine British jazz without A.J., Griff and Dave Holdsworth. Indeed, Westbrook's bands over the years have always contained some of the finest of fine talents.

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