By Clark Tracey

Equinox Publishing. 331 pages. £39.95/$49.95. ISBN 978-1-78179-353-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Thinking back to the British jazz scene of the 1950s and 1960s it seems obvious that most local musicians were looked on as inferior, in terms of originality and invention, to the Americans we could hear on record and, after a certain point in the 1950s, sometimes in person. Most jazz fans, of the modernist persuasion, bought 78s and then LPs of recordings by musicians from New York or the West Coast. And they flocked to the concert halls and clubs where American stars were appearing. British jazzmen got a look in as the supporting groups, or played in pubs and small clubs. No-one was ever likely to get rich, or probably even earn enough to survive comfortably, playing bebop in Britain.

The life of pianist Stan Tracey is illuminating in this respect. He did establish himself in some ways as a leading figure in British jazz, though it took some time before the BBC, colleges and universities, and arts associations and the like recognised his talents, and even then the facts seem to show that he hardly worked often enough, and attracted high-enough fees, to guarantee living in luxury, or anything like it.

Tracey was born in London in 1926. His father wasn’t musical, though his mother had some creative impulses and could dabble at the piano and with a violin. There wasn’t a radio in the house, but Tracey recalled hearing the Harry Roy band on a neighbour’s set and, more importantly, a record of the Andy Kirk orchestra. As he later said, “It was quite a bit different from Harry Roy and the other dance bands we heard on the radio. It was magic, sheer magic. I couldn’t get enough of it”.

Never a particularly good scholar, Tracey took more interest in what was happening on the streets, and in local cinemas and theatres. He became interested in acquiring an accordion, persuaded his parents to buy him one, and when he was sixteen he joined ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), an organisation which toured army camps and similar locations. It was during this period that he began to take a serious interest in jazz. Some of the American films of the 1940s featured various big-bands, and a few of Tracey’s fellow-performers had records by Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton. What really attracted his attention, and persuaded him to think in terms of switching to piano, was hearing examples of boogie-woogie.

His work with ENSA didn’t mean that he was excused National Service in the armed forces, and between 1946 and 1948 he spent two years in the RAF. When he returned to civilian life, he began to work with Bob Monkhouse, and also formed a small group, the Tracey-Martin Quintet (Barry Martin was a singer) which toured around army bases in Germany for eight weeks. Tracey had some experience of the odd-job life of a musician when he was with ENSA, and was soon to gain more in ensuing years as he played in pubs and clubs around London and elsewhere.

It wasn’t a way to make much money, and of one group that he worked with, he said: “I enjoyed playing the music so much that getting a little money at the end was ok. It paid the bus-fare”. But the dark side of this sort of activity was illustrated when Tracey spoke of one of the other musicians: “Not having anywhere to sleep and only occasionally eating fish-and-chips, he eventually died. He was a very good musician but Tommy was into booze”.

By 1949, Tracey had got to know young modernist musicians like Johnny Dankworth, Bill Le Sage, Eddie Thompson, Harry Klein, and Ronnie Scott. In 1950, he made his first records, playing the accordion and accompanying pianist Eddie Thompson. He also worked with drummer Laurie Morgan’s bop group. Bebop had established a firm foothold in Britain by this time, and young musicians were keen to play it, but there were few opportunities to do so on a regular basis, apart from in London and even there it was largely a matter of small clubs and occasional gigs. It was still necessary to take jobs with bands that might not play bop but did, perhaps, offer an opportunity to at least go a little beyond purely commercial sounds.

The main activity for the new sounds was in the clubs, and Tracey recalled The Fullado, and the Club Eleven, and the enthusiasm among the musicians and fans: “There was a different feeing abroad at the time about the music. You know, the people who listened to the music and the people who played it. There was an excitement which isn’t here now”. Quite a few young jazzmen took jobs working on liners crossing the Atlantic to New York so that they could listen live to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Lester Young, and many others they had previously only heard on records. Tracey was among them.

Tracey toured and recorded with the Kenny Baker group in the early 1950s. Baker was an outstanding trumpeter, and though he couldn’t be described as a bopper he did have an open-enough mind to hire musicians like Tracey and the young tenor-saxophonist, Tubby Hayes. It was Hayes who introduced Tracey to the delights of marijuana: “It was in that sextet that I had my first smoke, through Tubby Hayes. He turned me on in a place called Goole on the first night of the first tour”.

It was in 1952 that Tracey recorded with some musicians who were very much a part of the British modern jazz scene. Jimmy Deuchar, Ken Wray, Derek Humble, Harry Klein, Victor Feldman, and Lennie Bush were present on numerous recordings in the 1950s, especially when they worked with Ronnie Scott’s orchestra, and I can recall seeing them in clubs and at dances. The fact that Tracey was present at the 1952 recording session says something about his acceptance into the world of British jazz.

It would be possible to carry on writing about Stan Tracey’s musical wanderings, which are set out in some detail by Clark Tracey. He went on the road again with Kenny Baker, earning good money, and played with and arranged for the lively Basil Kirchin band. He’d also provided arrangements for other bands. And he was seen and heard in the London jazz clubs with Tubby Hayes, Dizzy Reece, and others. All this activity didn’t necessary ensure a steady income: “I didn’t have any financial ambition. Break-even was reward enough. Play for nothing, play for a pound,play for two pounds….really, that’s all of us wanted to do, was to play. Didn’t think about being ripped off. We got so much pleasure from playing”

The money factor did have to come into focus, though, especially as Tracey had domestic responsibilities, so he joined the commercially-successful Ted Heath orchestra. Heath had a very disciplined band which played a popular blend of dance music and novelty numbers, and made occasional nods towards jazz. My own memories of seeing the band during summer seasons in Blackpool in the 1950s don’t honestly run to saying the Stan Tracey occupied the piano chair. I have a feeling that Frank Horrox was probably there on one occasion in the early-1950s and probably Tracey later in the same decade when I encountered the Heath organisation again.

One thing is certain. Tracey said that the money was good, and the band travelled in some style, which made a change from the way that most jazz groups crammed into cars and vans to get to gigs, but he was wasn’t keen on the music: “I found the money terribly attractive, but the music….I mean, it was a good commercial band. We played nice arrangements, if you like those kind of nice arrangements”. According to Clark Tracey his father “had engaged in over eighty recording sessions”,  which must have had been financially lucrative, but as Tracey himself put it when discussing his period with Heath : “When you’ve played ‘Hot Toddy’ four hundred times, you get to know why it’s time to pack it in”.

He left Heath, and did what he really wanted to do, “immerse himself more thoroughly in the thriving London jazz scene”, working with Ronnie Scott, Bobby Wellins, Leon Calvert, and Tubby Hayes.

It’s from around this time that Tracey began to make a name for himself, primarily perhaps through his work at Ronnie Scott’s Club, where he was the leading member of the house rhythm section that backed the many American musicians who appeared there. His comments on their attitudes and behaviour are enlightening. Don Byas and Lucky Thompson were, if not exactly hostile, somewhat cool in their feelings about British rhythm sections. Stan Getz was “a great tenor-saxophonist but not a nice guy”, though Tracey said he was “very exhilarating to work with”. Al Cohn and Zoot Sims were pleasant to work with, and Sonny Rollins, who became a personal friend, thought Tracey was an excellent pianist. Some others, unnamed, “didn’t like being accompanied by a white British pianist”.

I’ve pulled just a few names from the book, and Tracey’s years at Scott’s are intriguing to read about. As well as being forthright when discussing the idiosyncrasies of musicians he worked with, he was also honest about his drug problems which eventually spiralled into full-scale heroin addiction. He did finally kick the habit, largely thanks to personal will-power and the strong support of his devoted wife, Jackie. It’s obvious that, throughout the time they were together, she provided a bedrock of assistance that enabled him to give all his attention to music. As Clark Tracey notes at one point, his father had few interests outside music, though he did care for his wife and children.

Once he left Scott’s and began to perform with his own groups, he had quite a distinguished career, appearing at festivals and clubs in various places around the world. He was commissioned to write suites as Arts Associations and similar bodies began to dominate activity around the country. The best-known and most successful of the suites was the one based on Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, and it’s the one that has lasted, whereas the others – The Crompton Suite, etc. – probably died with their originator. Or so it seems to me, though I have to admit to a general dislike of jazz suites and other attempts to make jazz “serious” and respectable in the eyes of the officials. 

It’s interesting to note that, despite becoming better-known and being accorded a certain amount of respect outside jazz circles, Tracey was often close to being financially insolvent. It was a fact that he was often paid less than a comparable classical musician would have received for an appearance at a festival or on the radio. And jobs weren’t always forthcoming, especially when pop music began to dominate everywhere.

Phrases like “work dried up for several weeks” and “work was generally still thin” are scattered around Clark Tracey’s listings of trips to Poland, China, Australia, and performances at festival and in concert halls in the United Kingdom. Stan Tracey still had to take relatively low-paying jobs in pubs and local jazz clubs. There is a poignant description of him, not long before his death in 2013, standing outside a venue in Brighton, where he’d appeared with his trio, waiting for the promoter to come out and pay him. It could almost have been a scene from sixty years before when he was just a young, unknown musician taking any work that came along.

Some people criticised Stan Tracey because they thought that he was just imitating Thelonious Monk with his angular phrases and dissonances, but I think he always had his own identifiable style which differed from Monk’s in its rhythmic values. He probably owed something to the American pianist’s work, but could never be said to have directly copied it. Musicians recognised Tracey’s originality, and when tenor-saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who had toured extensively with Monk, said that playing with Tracey was “the closest experience to playing with Monk he’d ever had”, he meant it in a complimentary way. I think he was referring to the stimulation he received hearing Stan Tracey’s provocative probing and prodding as he accompanied Rouse and soloed.

The Godfather of British Jazz is a book that will fascinate jazz fans. It includes extensive notes and a useful discography.