Henry Lowther is guest curator of the first Legends Festival, organised by Birmingham Jazz, which takes place in various venues around Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter from Friday 17 to Sunday 19 July. The focus of this year’s festival is that quintessential jazz Legend, Miles Davis. Henry and I threw a few Qs and As back via email.
Q The main Legend the festival is focussing on is Miles Davis. I understand you met him. What was he like? Do you feel his playing has influenced your own?
A I was introduced to Miles Davis in 1969 by Dave Holland, the Wolverhampton-born bass player who was in Miles’s band at the time. I was in Los Angeles on an American tour with the Keef Hartley Band, a rock band, and we were playing a week in the most trendy rock club in L.A. in those days, the Whisky A Go Go. At the end of that week Miles commenced a week at Shelly’s Manne Hole, a jazz club in Hollywood, and so I went there to hear Miles’s band.
Dave introduced me to Miles as a trumpet player from England and despite Miles’s reputation as a hostile and difficult person he was warm and friendly to me and in fact showed some interest in what I was doing. This was undoubtably because my band was playing to about a thousand people nightly and he was only playing to 50 or so and I’m sure he would rather have been playing the Whisky A Go Go.
I remember him asking me if I played solos in the band I was with. At that time trumpets were uncommon in rock bands and trumpet solos even rarer and if there were trumpets they were usually confined to just playing ensemble parts and riffs. Miles at that time was thinking hard about his direction. His band was getting further and further into extreme free music and he was losing his audiences. Long gone were the days of Kind Of Blue and Sketches Of Spain. At the time I met him he had already recorded the seminal Bitches Brew album but it had not yet been released.
Miles was undoubtably an early influence on my playing but Miles’s playing is inimitable and nobody on a trumpet can ever sound like him. Gil Evans once said that Miles was that rare thing, “a sound innovator. He changed the sound of the trumpet.” I think the biggest influence Miles may have had on my playing is just that he showed me that the most important thing is to try to make your technique invisible and I haven’t managed that yet!
Q You played in the band of one of Miles’s chief collaborators, Gil Evans. Tell me a bit about that experience. Are there any particular insights into jazz – arranging, composing or in general – that you gleaned from Gil?
A Gil Evans was a very sweet and gentle man but terribly disorganised and chaotic. He was confusing and so bad at directing the bands that I played in that John Surman had to take over on some occasions. By the mid 1980s Gil no longer seemed to have any interest in the kind of arranging and orchestrating that had become his trade mark. (In his life Gil Evans composed relatively little music. He was mostly an arranger and/or orchestrator.) In general he wasn’t bothered anymore with neat and tidy arrangements, he really just wanted to leave the music open, as in a jam session, with everybody blowing over mostly rock beats and on one chord.
Through Scott Stroman, who used to run the jazz course at the Guildhall School of Music and is director of the London Jazz Orchestra, I’ve now had the privilege of playing Miles’s part in performances of all three of the wonderful albums that he did in collaboration with Gil Evans. Doing that certainly give me a unique perspective on Gil’s writing and it was interesting to hear that music as played by musicians other than those on the original recordings. It still sounds the same and still sounds like Gil.
Q The other Legends celebrated in this weekend festival are ones with Davis links, among them Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley. Does Britain have its own jazz Legends? Who would you nominate for this category?
A Britain certainly has its own jazz legends. There are many musicians who are either not with us anymore, or who are perhaps no longer active, that are still regularly spoken of with various degrees of affection or otherwise. This can be for different reasons, sometimes for their playing and sometimes because of their character. (Miles Davis, when once described as a legend, said that he wasn’t a legend because he was still “doing it”!)
I could nominate dozens of British jazz legends of my own but the legends that come up regularly in conversations between myself and others are, I would say, Joe Harriett, Tubby Hayes, Stan Tracey, Kenny Wheeler, and perhaps the most legendary of them all, Phil Seamen!
Q Your own musical history shows an eclectic mix of styles of music, from blues and jazz-rock through to working with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Do you think versatility is key for the modern jazz musician? What kind of music do you like to play when you have a completely free rein?
A I don’t think from an artistry or creative point of view that it’s necessary for a jazz musician to be versatile, as a musician only needs to to do what they do, but versatility is certainly a great and even necessary asset for a musician if they want to earn a living from music.
If you look at many famous and great musicians from jazz history, were they all versatile? Was Thelonius Monk versatile, for example? I think not!
Regarding myself, I have indeed played in all sorts of different situations and I have enjoyed most of it. A lot of what I’ve done was because of the need to earn a living but that never meant that I didn’t care about what I played. Bryan Ferry once, somewhat unkindly, described studio session musicians as “musical mercenaries”. Well, if there are musical mercenaries out there, I’ve never met one. All musicians, in my long experience, are proud and totally committed to whatever they play and they all do it to the best of their abilities, always.
Given a free rein these days I just want to play my first love, jazz, both straight ahead and also more contemporary music.
Q How has life changed for the British jazz musician over the last 50 years? What were the golden ages (if there were any)?
A By and large I think that life has changed very little for British jazz musicians over the last 50 years. Although jazz was never a popular form of music I do think that it’s even less popular now than 50 years ago but there are always exceptions, musicians who do seem to achieve a certain degree of popularity. But they are very few. Another aspect of this is that many jazz musicians 50 ago years could support themselves by doing studio work but that option is hardly possible now. One other thing that’s changed is the growth of full-time jazz courses in music colleges and the amazingly well trained and educated musicians that are now emerging from them.
I don’t think there ever was a golden age for British jazz but if there was it would have been around the late 1950s through to the late 1960s. At this time people like Tubby Hayes, Phil Seamen, Joe Harriett, Ronnie Scott, Dick Morrisey and Stan Tracey were very popular. And the Trad heroes were even more popular, Humphrey Lyttleton, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber, Kenny Ball and Monty Sunshine among them. This was also the time of the Trad versus Modern jazz wars and, at the same time, big bands like those of Ted Heath and John Dankworth were drawing audiences everywhere. Also it was possible at this time to go and hear great American musicians who toured across Britain then. I saw in the De Montford Hall in Leicester in the early 1960s, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Benny Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and others. Thinking about all that now perhaps it was the golden age after all and that certainly couldn’t happen now!
Q Tell me a bit about Still Waters. What prompted the group name and what can listeners unfamiliar with the band expect to hear?
A I thought of the name of Still Waters just because I like the imagery of water. The band was originally formed after Dave Green (The resident bass player in the Legends Festival of course!) and myself talked about a band that we would like to play together in. Our intention at the time was to mix some gentle pastoral music with contrasting and more dynamic music, often by going into free improvising areas of music. And because Dave and I both love the jazz tradition too we do, sometimes, play a straight ahead standard. And that more or less describes what listeners can expect to hear!
- Find out more about Birmingham Jazz’s Legends Festival here.
- Find out what Henry likes for breakfast, together with many other jazz breakfasts, here.