Overshadowed by the worldwide domination of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, a creative jazz scene flourished in London in the 1960s. Young musicians converged on the city from all over the British Isles, pushing the music in new directions. At the epicenter, Ronnie Scott’s jazz club opened in Soho in 1959. When the club moved in the summer of 1965, owners Ronnie Scott and Pete King retained the lease on what came to be known as “The Old Place,” which briefly became an important laboratory for adventurous jazz. Rooms within, above or adjacent to pubs presented jazz, as did an upstairs rehearsal space for plays known as the Little Theatre Club, which hosted avant-garde jazz. At the same time, blues was exploding in popularity, Caribbean and South African musicians added to the mélange of sounds and rhythms, and fusion merged jazz with rock and world music.
Five decades later, a handful of artists who made a deep impact on the jazz world discuss their experiences on the London jazz scene of the 1960s. - Bob Weinberg
NORMA WINSTONE With her crystalline voice and impeccable technique, Norma Winstone established herself as a most unconventional jazz singer. Although she started out singing jazz standards in her native London, Winstone, 78, became swept up in the creative tsunami of an adventurous age. Attracting the attention of avant-garde bandleaders such as John Stevens, Neil Ardley and Michael Garrick, Winstone challenged conventional notions of the female vocalist. With her former husband, pianist John Taylor, and trumpet player Kenny Wheeler, Winstone formed the groundbreaking trio Azimuth in the ’70s. In recent years, she’s crafted sublime recordings for the ECM label that find her at a pinnacle of her expressive powers. Winstone reminisced about the London jazz scene during a Skype chat from her longtime home on the English coast.
[caption id="attachment_24954" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]
Norma Winstone: “I’d go to these places and say, ‘Can I sit in?’ And I’d sing a couple of tunes. And they generally looked a bit skeptical, like, ‘Oh, God, here we go.’ But I often got gigs out of that.”[/caption]
My first appearance at Ronnie Scott’s was in November ’66. That was brought about because of [drummer] John Stevens. I sat in with his trio at the Charlie Chester club, and John said, “Right, I’m going to tell Ronnie Scott about you.” And he was as good as his word. Ronnie gave me four weeks, which is what they used to do then.
There were lots of jazz pubs at that time that featured trios, and they’d have a guest, mainly singers. I’d go to these places and say, “Can I sit in?” And I’d sing a couple of tunes. And they generally looked a bit skeptical, like, “Oh, God, here we go.” But I often got gigs out of that.
I started with a friend of mine at a club on the East End, which was — we didn’t know it at the time — owned by [organized crime figures] the Kray twins. I knew a guy that worked behind the bar, and he said, “Oh, yeah, you can have the room” once a week. So we started to do that and the bar would fill up with men in big overcoats. We had a trio, and every week we would offer guests. [Trumpeter] Ian Carr was one of the guests we booked, and I sang with the trio, as well. And he said, “You should sing with the New Jazz Orchestra. I’ll introduce you to Neil Ardley,” which he did. Neil Ardley would transcribe a lot of Gil Evans’ music and he wrote lots of other things, as well. The experience of being able to sing with a big sound like that behind you is quite something. That was a great experience.
Michael Garrick was the pianist with the New Jazz Orchestra, and he gave me some songs [and lyrics] he had written. I went along to a gig he was doing with his sextet. I sat in and sang one of the songs, and was about to go join the audience, and he said, “No, just stay on the stand and join in the next piece.” I didn’t know the next piece; it was a thing without words. I just listened and he said, “Take the solo.” So I took a wordless solo, which I hadn’t really done before, except singing free music. And at the end of the evening, he said, “One of the saxophonists is leaving. Would you like to join the band and sing the saxophone parts?” For me, it was a great chance to do something which integrated me into the band.
John Stevens was organizing various spontaneous happenings [with his Spontaneous Music Ensemble] and he asked me to join in. That’s where I first met Kenny Wheeler. And Dave Holland used to come to some of them before he went to join Miles Davis. I had no idea what to do; I just joined in. It was great training. I think it affected everything else that I did, because you have to have your own ideas with free music. I mean, you’re reacting, but you have to contribute something.
There was an audience when free music started happening, and there would be other audiences for the standards. I would fall between the two, because I did both. And then, when I started to work with people like Kenny Wheeler, that music wasn’t free and it wasn’t standards. It was his music. And of course it did find its audience, but I think it was a little difficult for people to understand.
You always have to be careful when you’re thinking about [the past] that you’re not just sort of looking through rose-colored glasses. Because you were young, everything seemed better and more happening. There still is a lot going on [in the London jazz scene]. But at that time, it seemed to be particularly individualistic.
MIKE GIBBS Born in Zimbabwe, trombonist and composer-arranger Mike Gibbs attended Berklee School of Music in Boston before making his way to London in 1965. Gibbs had been heavily influenced by modern jazz writer-arrangers Herb Pomeroy and Gil Evans, as well as New Music innovators such as Gunther Schuller and Iannis Xenakis. Gibbs found fertile territory in London. Incorporating rock sensibilities and electric instrumentation, he attracted the attention of vibraphonist Gary Burton, who hired him to write tunes for his quartet. Currently living in Málaga, Spain, Gibbs, 82, remains in demand. He was wrestling with orchestration for a suite that was to be performed by Charles Lloyd when he talked about his London days via FaceTime in September.
[caption id="attachment_24956" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]
Mike Gibbs: "Something emerged. A lot of stuff was by chance. I don’t think it was consciously by design.”[/caption]
I had met [British bassist] Graham Collier when he was a student at Berklee. Although I didn’t know him very well, when I arrived in London I called him up. He had a band with trumpet, saxophone, a rhythm section and a French horn. And within the first week, he had dropped the French horn and hired me. Graham would rehearse once a week with Kenny Wheeler, [trumpeter] Harry Beckett, [pianist] Karl Jenkins and [drummer] John Marshall, and we had a gig occasionally. There really was a sort of social community, and many musicians played in many bands.
[Saxophonist] John Dankworth and I hit it off really well, and I worked for him for years, playing either movie scores or concerts at Ronnie Scott’s, mostly with [vocalist] Cleo Laine, but also with a big band. Kenny Wheeler was in that band. Chris Pine was in that band, and because we both played trombone, we often got hired together. The way we made a living in those days was studio work, and he and I often got hired together, because we blended well.
I got to play in the last year of Ronnie Scott’s Old Place on Gerrard Street. But then it moved to where it is now, and I played there often with Dankworth’s band and my own band. Gary Burton was one of the regulars there, and he was playing my music. I wouldn’t call it rock, but it became fusion. Then when I formed my own band, it was a lot of music that I had written for Gary. I got labeled with being the instigator of [fusion], but I was only arranging the tunes that Gary played, or he asked me to write in that vein.
When people look back on that period, they can say, “Oh, this began then,” but I don’t think people were aware of “forging a new sound.” I don’t think it was that kind of concept. Something emerged. A lot of stuff was by chance. I don’t think it was consciously by design. We borrowed from each other, we were inspired by each other and not only by the music.
EVAN PARKER Saxophonist Evan Parker found kindred musical adventurers when he arrived in London in 1966. While he had been studying botany at Birmingham University, the Bristol native had an epiphany after hearing Cecil Taylor in New York City and dedicated his life to exploring free jazz. Parker joined John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble and became a fixture at the Little Theatre Club, a hub for experimental music. At 75, Parker continues to refine his remarkable command of his instrument with uncompromising recordings on Clean Feed and Intakt. Parker shared his reminiscences of the London jazz scene by email.
[caption id="attachment_24957" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]
Evan Parker: "I think there was a conscious desire to find something new that could be seen as a natural continuation of the free jazz that was already known to all of us.” Photo: George Thomas.[/caption]
I was introduced to John Stevens by [lyricist and illustrator] Alfreda Benge at the Royal College of Art diploma show in 1966. I was lucky to meet John. Through him I met all the other players who were looking to play free at that time.
The Little Theatre Club was up four or five flights of stairs from a doorway in a yard off St. Martins Lane, the border between Soho and Covent Garden. It held maybe 30 or 40 people at most. Stevens was the key figure who found the place and negotiated with the leaseholder. It was essentially set up as a rehearsal space and try-out place for plays in the early part of the evening — the equivalent of off-off-Broadway — but crucially, also had a bar with a late license.
The other main place was the Old Place on Gerrard Street, now deepest Chinatown but back then in transition. It was the original Ronnie Scott’s, which still had some time on the lease after they moved to Frith Street. Ronnie and Pete [King] passed it over to John Jack to manage for the younger players to use. The scenes for each overlapped, but the Little Theatre Club tended to be on average a little further out musically.
I met [guitarist] Derek Bailey at the Little Theatre Club, and we started to play some duo things. I think there was a conscious desire to find something new that could be seen as a natural continuation of the free jazz that was already known to all of us.
MIKE WESTBROOK Pianist and composer Mike Westbrook was studying painting in Plymouth in 1958 when he formed his first band, which included teenage saxophonist John Surman. He and Surman moved to London around the same time and assembled an 11-piece band that also included saxophonists Mike Osborne and Lou Gare; Kenny Wheeler played on some of his projects, as well. His recordings with his Mike Westbrook Concert Band incorporated strong influences of Ellington and Mingus, as well as contemporary sounds and even anti-war messages, as on his 1969 LPs
Marching Song, Vols. 1 and 2. Westbrook, 83, discussed this heady time via email.
[caption id="attachment_24959" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]
Mike Westbrook: “The American influence was all-pervading. Hard bop dominated the scene. Each new album from the States was seized on avidly, and musicians tried to emulate what they heard.”[/caption]
Ronnie Scott’s and The Marquee Club presented modern jazz every night and American soloists were appearing regularly. In addition, there were plenty of weekly jazz venues around town. But things were changing, politically, socially, culturally. Modern jazz had got into a rut, and fresh ideas had yet to make their mark. Alexis Korner’s sessions at the Marquee did more than anything to turn audiences on to the blues. Soon the only jazz night at the Marquee was Sunday, but then that went over to R&B. Other clubs followed suit. My band had started to do interval spots at the Marquee and other venues. Now we had to find alternative places to play, usually pub rooms, like Mike Osborne’s Peanuts Club in Bishopsgate.
During the residency at The Old Place, I formed The Concert Band to play large-scale works. We rehearsed and performed at The Old Place, made our first albums, broadcast, appeared opposite Dizzy Gillespie in the 1968 Newport in London Festival and won the Melody Maker Big Band Poll.
The American influence was all-pervading. Hard bop dominated the scene. Each new album from the States was seized on avidly, and musicians tried to emulate what they heard. Everything Miles Davis did had an immediate effect. Likewise Coltrane. The same with Mingus. Ornette Coleman opened things up for everyone.
In the course of a lot of playing at The Old Place, I found myself pushing further, and somehow getting my influences into perspective. I was finding I had something original to say, relevant to my own experience and to the times. Having been to art school and being self-taught as a musician, I perhaps had wider references to draw on. This was a time of Pop Art, of finding images in one’s surroundings and one’s own culture — in my case, European. It was a natural evolution, not a decision to differentiate my work from the American. In fact, my roots in American jazz have always been important to me and are always acknowledged in my work.
JOHN SURMAN Saxophonist John Surman came to London from his native Devon in 1962 to study at the London College of Music. While, in his words, “jazz was whispered very quietly” in the halls of academia, Surman sought out jam sessions and gigs with compatriots such as fellow Devonian composer-bandleader Mike Westbrook. Surman immersed himself in the sounds of London, playing with Jamaican and South African musicians, as well as with blues bands. After releasing a handful of records on the Deram label, Surman formed an influential trio with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin. In recent years, Surman’s recorded highly regarded albums for ECM. He shared memories of the London jazz scene in a recent FaceTime chat from his home in Oslo.
[caption id="attachment_24961" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]
John Surman: “By the end of the ’60s, the bubble had burst. People fragmented. Rivalries came up. Some kind of made it, others drifted away.”[/caption]
The avant-garde explosion had hit by the [early- to mid-’60s]. Ornette had been around, and we’re hearing Coltrane, and [Archie] Shepp was around playing. But there were all these other influences. [Blues artist] Alexis Korner was broadcasting, so everyone was very well aware of the blues. And there were quite a lot of players that were crossover [blues-jazz] players like tenor player Dick Heckstall-Smith, [drummer] Ginger Baker and organist Graham Bond. So you’ve got this blues stuff that’s starting to move into the Stones and Jimi Hendrix, and this kind of fusion stuff is starting to happen. Around 1965, [pianist] Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes arrived from South Africa, then suddenly there’s another element.
The community I lived in was particularly a West Indian population. I spent a lot of time with those guys, hanging out, doing what a lot of people did in the ’60s, which I don’t do these days, [smoking] what we used to call “jazz cigarettes.” [Jamaican culture] was a great influence, and jamming with those guys was great, another rhythmic feel.
As European [jazz artists], we were learning the trade: get the fundamentals in place, find out what this music had to say. Self-evidently, we weren’t from the Deep South. But we might still have something to say about oppression, because it’s there in all societies. The other realization that dawned on some of us, when you listen to Gil Evans, you say, “Well, he listened to a lot of Ravel.” And you listen to Bill Evans’ harmonies, and you say, “Well, there’s a lot of Debussy in there.” This is our culture.
By the end of the ’60s, the bubble had burst. People fragmented. Rivalries came up. Some kind of made it, others drifted away. Although there was a great explosion in the music, there wasn’t a great explosion in the financial situation. The survivors moved on. But it was, for jazz, an interesting time, because things really changed. The electronic stuff, the funk, the fusion blew apart all the free stuff and everyone went, “Whoa, where do we go now?”