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Clark Tracey Interview

19 March 2014 | Guy Smith

“Does anyone here realise how good he is…?!”

Those were the words of American saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins referring to Stan Tracey, the pianist in his backing band, when Rollins played at Ronnie Scott’s in the 1960s. The answer then would surely have been “no” but fifty years later the legacy left by this great musician is unquestionable.

Stan Tracey died in December 2013, aged 86, leaving behind a reputation as the Grandfather of British jazz and an outstanding composer and innovator. Someone who didn’t dwell upon past glories, was constantly touring and released new music right up until his final year.

His final album, The Flying Pig, based on his father’s experiences in the First World War, was as fresh and vital as anything he had recorded. The live premiere of this recording was at Clark Tracey’s jazz club in Welwyn in June 2013. Stan had to leave the stage halfway through the show due to illness but not before he had displayed his wonderful technique and an ear for melody that neither time nor illness could diminish.

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London Calling caught up with his son Clark Tracey, himself a renowned Jazz musician, as he prepares for the Ronnie Scott’s tribute show to his father later this month.

London Calling: The show at Ronnie’s is a fitting tribute to Stan as many of his alumni will be there. Will it be an emotional night?

Clark Tracey: In a lot of ways for many people. Playing his music now feels like a fitting memorial whereas last year I was finding it very difficult to play, it was very emotional. James Pearson will be playing piano in a quartet, selections from Under Milk Wood. Then there is an Octet with Steve Melling on piano and finally a big band with James Pearson on piano. Bobby Wellins will be there, Art Themen too.

LC: After the Ronnie’s show are there any further concerts planned?

CT: We have been asked to play the London Jazz Festival in the Autumn. We are also playing the Brecon Jazz Festival in August. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Under Milk Wood so we are considering touring that [album] next year. It will hopefully be with Bobby Wellins on saxophone and Steve Melling playing piano. There will also be an anniversary edition of the CD released on ReSteamed.

LC: The Flying Pig is a wonderful album and a lovely concept. It sounds timeless – it could have been recorded in 1963 not 2013.

CT: He played so well on it, the energy and enthusiasm was incredible. It sounds timeless because that’s the way Stan worked. He never enjoyed writing, it was an arduous task and he was incredibly self-critical. He hated things that seemed contrived. The album came out very quickly, as soon as we returned from France [researching Stan Tracey Senior’s time in France during WW1] he started writing Ballad For Loos.

LC: Are there any archive or unreleased recordings due for release on ReSteamed?

CT: There will be the third volume of the Ben Webster at Ronnie Scott’s sessions. There’s a recording with Freddie Hubbard also at Ronnie’s that could be released. We are reissuing much of Stan’s Steam Records output and some of the Lansdowne recordings from the mid-60s. There are several other things under consideration such as a 40-minute suite that has not been released before.

LC: Did Stan have any regrets musically?

CT: He didn’t start practicing properly until later in his life and felt that he could be technically better. Other than that, nothing at all. I think he would have happily done it all again.

LC: As you said, Stan was famously self-critical, was he happy with the catalogue of music he left behind?

CT: He never thought about it. His philosophy in life was to always move on, he never looked back. It’s a great way to be. He didn’t value possessions either, always throwing things away!

 

LC: Is a biography likely in the near future?

CT: I am putting together a biography at the moment as Stan wasn’t interested in doing an autobiography until his final year. I think he would approve that I’m doing it. Stan kept detailed diaries and they have every gig he did from the age of 16 onwards, right up until he started playing at Ronnie’s in 1960. Every day is filled with something, it’s incredible how busy he was at that time. So the book is very chronological at the moment and I’m talking to [saxophonist] Simon Spillett about it as he is a great historian of British jazz.

 

LC: I noticed that the obituaries for Stan weren’t restricted to the broadsheets. They appeared everywhere from the Daily Mirror to The New York Times. I think this shows the huge impact he had on the musical culture of Britain.

CT: That meant such a lot to me. Even The Malaysian Times! If he could have seen it he would have been knocked out. He was a very humble man and would be shocked if someone recognised him in the street.

LC: What did Stan listen to for pleasure?

CT: Obviously he always enjoyed Ellington and Monk but he also loved classical music – Ravel, Debussy, Bartok and Stravinsky – as well as traditional African and Indian music.

LC: Did Stan ever meet Thelonius Monk?

CT: No.They were in the same room twice but never met! Stan was very shy and didn’t know what to say to him. I’m the same, I was asked to interview Roy Haynes and I couldn’t even tell him I was a drummer. Elvin Jones too. Art Blakey was great but I knew him from an early age through Stan so that wasn’t difficult.

LC: Is jazz in a good state of health at the moment? Is it difficult to attract a younger audience now?

CT: It’s a tough one. The audiences can be ‘a certain age group’ but then they keep coming. As the years pass the audiences are still there so there is a demand for the music. There are many great young musicians at the moment, such as the players in my band*, so I don’t worry too much.

* Clark is well-known for developing young musicians. His current band are: Henry Armburg-Jennings (trumpet), Harry Bolt (piano), Daniel Cassimir (bass) and Chris Maddock (saxophone).

LC: Has anyone played Herts Jazz recently who has really impressed you?

CT: Reuben James. Unfortunately I had to replace him in my band as he is so in-demand now. He drew the biggest audience this year at the Welwyn concerts. He is a great performer.

LC: So who is the next Stan Tracey?

CT: Reuben is destined for Jamie Cullum-land I think. Other than him, I’m not sure.

LC: Was being a musician always going to be your destiny? Did Stan ever try to put you off?

CT: No, he didn’t put me off. Growing up in that environment was incredibly exciting and didn’t feel strange at all as the musicians were already friends. So going to gigs when I was young and then playing gigs when I was older was an easy step to make. Learning my craft was the hard part, and that never stops, but I still enjoy it.

A celebration of Stan Tracey is at Ronnie Scott’s on Thursday 27th March. Tickets are £35.00 - £50.00. For more information please click here.

Herts Jazz is at the Hawthorne Theatre, Welwyn, Hertfordshire on Sunday evenings at 7.30pm. Click here for listings.

Stan Tracey’s final album The Flying Pig is available on ReSteamed Records.

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