An unabridged interview with Alan Wakeman

Published by
Gearbox Records
July 1, 2020
Published in
Album Review

Recently, Alan Wakeman was interviewed by Martin Chilton for London Jazz News, where he discussed the context surrounding The Octet Broadcasts. You can read the subsequent article here. His unabridged answers are copied out below.

Who were your jazz heroes when you first started listening to music?

When I first became aware of jazz it was during the British Traditional Jazz revival of the early sixties, consequently I became a big fan of Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber etc. My listening habits changed when I was introduced to my Uncle Peter’s jazz record collection during family visits to his home in Portsmouth. Here I was suddenly made aware that the musicians I’d been listening to were copying the music of black Americans who were recording thirty years before or earlier. I was quick to recognise, despite the ancient sound quality of the recordings, an authenticity about the Americans’ playing and a very different feel. So Louis Armstrong replaced poor old Kenny Ball et al (although I still think Chris Barber’s version of ‘Ory’s Creole Trombone’ better executed than Kid Ory’s).

My childhood friend from about the age of ten, Roger Amis, – sadly no longer with us – became a fan of the music at the same time but, being much brighter than me, quickly moved on to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Only after some intense persuasion did he succeed in hauling me on board and into the second half of the Twentieth century; then the inevitable road to Coltrane lay open.

What are your best memories of playing iconic London venues such as 100 Club and Ronnie Scott’s back in the day?

Memories of iconic venues? Well I visited these places many times before I played in them, so playing in them for the first time would have been a thrill. I remember every time I stood on the stage at what was the Hammersmith Odeon I would say to myself, ‘I saw Duke Ellington stand on this very spot!’ Playing these venues for the first time was a thrill but there after they were just smoky cramped venues with noisy bar areas. Musicians at the bar (especially at the 100 Club) were the biggest culprits for making a racket – that often included me. The 100 Club on a Monday night (the modern jazz evening) and Ronnie’s during the week (when musicians either paid next to nothing or got in free) were regular meeting places for the non-working music fraternity. My first wife’s parents were jazz buffs who owned a printing company and did all the printing of posters and flyers for Ronnie’s for free, so my mother-in-law, Audrey, was always exercising her right to free entry to the club and occupancy of her favourite table, I was often afforded free entry myself. In fact one evening in the club, Audrey introduced me to her favourite pianist, Bill Evans. Miles Davis once sat next to me in there (I’d been playing in the ‘Upstairs’ room), which was the only time I ever heard his voice; I’d seen his band play twice and he never uttered a word.

What’s your most vivid memory of touring Bulgaria with the NYJO?

My trip to Bulgaria for The Ninth World Youth Festival was my first trip abroad, my first flight and my first tour with a band – a taste of things to come. It was also the first of many culture shocks: I landed behind the Iron Curtain practically in the third world. We stayed in supposedly a block of ‘luxury’ flats which were still being built. The ones still under construction were held together by wooden scaffolding and brick deliveries to the site were by donkey and cart driven by ladies dressed from head to toe in black. And impending unrest was evident in the country by the odd tank or two in the street. The culmination of the festivities was marked by a ‘grand’ march past in a sports stadium in Sofia by the representatives of the various nations’ youth. The NYJO rendition of ‘When the Saints’, lead by writer and critic Dave Gelly on clarinet, being somewhat dwarfed by the Russian entry resembling a Moscow May Day rally. Apart from that, I’m afraid I don’t remember much about the gigs.

The Octet sessions – with drinks and joints beforehand by the experienced musicians – sounded very laid back – was that a good way to set the atmosphere for improvised jazz?

Listeners to the session will have to decide for themselves whether or not imbidement before the broadcast was a good move or not; musicians usually laugh more – if that’s possible. From my own experience, the best frame of mind for attempting to play jazz is to be able to forget where you are and your surroundings, who you’re playing with, what time of day it is, how much you’re getting paid, everything you’ve ever learnt and give yourself completely over to the music.

To achieve this sometimes a drink or medication beforehand maybe some help.

In the liner notes you talk about the “Ellington concept of the musicians making the music” – could you expand on how that worked in these sessions?

Writing for jazz ensembles has always necessitated leaving space for improvising.

If you can present a musician in an atmosphere he feels at home in, he’ll sound at one with everything that’s going on. Ellington expanded on the small band concept of freedom within the ensemble to presenting complete arrangements dedicated to one musician and his exclusive approach. I just tried to carry on the tradition – freedom within a ‘helpful’ structure.

Did you have a preference of playing tenor, soprano sax or clarinet?

I started at school on the clarinet, but I rarely touch it now. My cousin, Rick, fixed up for me to have his ‘school’ clarinet when he got his own and gave me my first lesson in his back garden – poor neighbours! But when I became more interested in modern jazz, I gravitated towards the alto saxophone switching to tenor when I was around 19, and then acquiring a soprano when I joined Graham Collier’s band a couple of years later. A lot of people have singled out my soprano sound over the years but I can do more on the tenor than the soprano allows, so I guess I’m more comfortable on that, but in common with many other jobbing saxophonists I’ve played my fair share of alto and baritone as well.

‘Can you explain how Indian music inspired Chaturanga?

I did a British Council funded tour with Graham Collier of India early in 1979 and was astounded by the extent that the arts and culture pervaded the life of the country and became enamoured of the shehnai playing of Bismillah Kahn. So when the idea of writing a suite based on a chess game (inspired mostly by the titles of famous chess moves) was suggested to me by old friend and jazz aficionado, Alan Giddings, who also helped realise the funding for it via the Arts Council, and it was discovered the origins of the game lay in a variation of it called Chaturanga dating from the 4th century, the birth of chess had to be reflected in the music with a morning raga. And although I did my best to get notes out of the shehnais I brought back with me from India, I still managed a better job of sounding like a shehnai on the soprano saxophone.  

Was it strange going from playing with pop singer David Essex to making jazz. What was David like and what were his best qualities as a singer?

I first met David Essex in around 1973 when I was asked by Jeff Wayne to go and transcribe some songs. It meant a journey to the other side of London (The East!) via the North Circular, during which my windscreen shattered – I should have recognised the omens. I recall the words of Sherlock Holmes who said he never travelled east of Whitechapel without a revolver. Anyway, I remember arriving outside his terraced house (David’s not Sherlock’s) with a motorbike and an old convertible Mercedes parked outside and, on entering, falling over cardboard boxes stacked in the hallway. David apologised saying, ‘Sorry, fan mail’. And I thought, ‘Who is this bloke? The songs I took down were for his first album which was being recorded the following day; nothing like good preparation, is there? His second album, recorded the following year, I played on. A lot of the stuff I played with David over the years (some 17 of them) involved skills acquired as a ‘jazzer’. My jazz writing also came in useful when knocking out brass arrangements for his sessions, admittedly with slight adjustments. David’s favourite drummer (he was a drummer himself) was Joe Morello and he always got excited when he recognised a jazz face on his sessions: ‘Kenny Wheeler was on today!’ etc. As a singer, he had a powerful voice and he knew how to sing ‘proper’ but he always did his best to sound like a Londoner and not someone from LA. And he often wrote songs that reflected his upbringing and the sense of humour it engendered. David’s insistence that he perform his own material probably went some way to limiting his World Wide appeal. John Reid, Elton John’s manager, was at one point poised to take over and launch David and the band in America, following up on his 1973 American chart success with ‘Rock On’. But it failed to come to anything.

Did you and cousin Rick Wakeman inspire each other? When was the last time you performed together?

Yes Rick was an inspiration. From an early age, he’s 18 months younger than me, all I remember is him playing the piano. So once I got interested in jazz and wanted to learn to play, he was mister encouragement, starting, as I said, by fixing me up with the school clarinet. Consequently there were three Wakemans in the Drayton Manor School Orchestra, my brother, Keith, was on the violin. We were, of course, indispensable, where would the orchestra have been without us? – In tune, I imagine. As soon as I started playing, we put together a jazz band which played in the school concert, a first at the time, Mr (Mike) Westbrook, the art teacher, was on valve trombone. During music college days, Rick rowed me into a gig he had every weekend at a working men’s club in Wembley, which eventually ran for 18 months. When this finished we drifted apart, he was determined to be a pop star and I was determined to play modern jazz in dingy dives for no money. Well, which would you choose? This was probably the only time I inspired him – with my no-brainer!

You played live music in something of a golden age – what are your thoughts on how jazz and live music will recover from the impact of this pandemic?

Even thinking about the problem depresses me. I can’t see that small venues which are the life blood of jazz, will be having live music in the foreseeable future. Maybe the odd singer/guitarist or pianist could socially distance himself in the corner of a pub, but if there are no punters crammed in how can that even pay?

It sometimes feels as if the opportunities to play jazz to an audience, in spite of the gallant work of enthusiasts up and down the country, shrink year upon year.

Trying to think about the rest of Europe as a possibility for future work is pretty much out of the window for most and the bigger venues here without help will face years in the wilderness.

And with that thought, here’s to record companies still willing to take a chance and keep the music alive…

What would you like a modern audience to take from these concerts now they are available to be bought at last?

I would hope that, like me, any audience, modern or otherwise would enjoy the extraordinary musical invention of the players involved, the quality of the BBC recording, the excellent commentary from two great jazz devotees, the faith of the producers and the far sightedness of Gearbox to make these performances available in such a wonderful quality format which fully reflects that ‘Golden Age’ you spoke of.

I hope also in these recordings, the generosity and enthusiasm the musicians showed me on both occasions comes across – live and well.

Order The Octet Broadcasts by Alan Wakeman HERE

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