I’m always amazed how versatile people involved in jazz tend to be. People with fewer boundaries between their different activities. At the weekend I got talking to John Mole. He is a much-published, award-winning poet and a publisher himself. He has written book reviews about jazz for the TLS. And has written the libretto for a community opera based on the life of St. Alban, (photo above) which gets four performances in a church in Holborn next week. We talked about all sorts of things, and in particular the much-missed Bruce Turner.
John Mole has kindly written this recollection of Bruce Turner for us – I’m guessing there must be quite a few more stories out there! :
Writing poems and playing jazz have always gone together for me. Both celebrate ‘the sound of surprise’ and involve accident, risk and discovery through improvisation. I never quite know how it is all going to turn out, and that’s what keeps the toes – and the poetic feet – tapping. Things could go wrong, but as Miles Davis once said ‘If you’re not nervous, you’re not paying attention’ and Earl Hines couldn’t have put it better when he explained how he would always search out new ways of negotiating with familiar standards, and ‘when you see me smiling, you know I’m lost’.
Surprise and a happy accident once found me giving a poetry reading at the Sow and Pigs pub at Toddington in the company of the guitarist Esmond Selby and one of my boyhood heroes, Bruce Turner who had come to live locally. Bruce was, of course, the alto sax player who – on joining the Humphrey Lyttelton band back in the mid 1950s at the height of the trad jazz revival – was greeted by placards announcing ‘Go home, dirty bopper’. Unfazed, he soon became an essential part of Humph’s development from New Orleans revivalist to a more loosely swinging mainstreamer.
Hoping I might summon up the courage to ask if I could sit in on the last set, I had brought my clarinet along. During the interval, Bruce came over to chat about the poems I’d been reading. ‘Dad’, he began ( ‘Dad’ being the ironically-hip way he addressed everybody ) ‘your poetry reminds me of John Keats’. Quite why it did this wasn’t made clear, but I felt that, on the whole, he approved.
Then came that final set, and Bruce and Esmond seemed happy enough for me to join them, so we played a few standards in easy keys with Bruce shooting off marvellously, as he always did, at every musical angle while I stuck closer to the melody. At least it didn’t turn out to be what is known in the business as a ‘trainwreck’, and as we started to put away our instruments Bruce leant over to me and whispered confidentially, ‘Dad, you play like John Keats too!’ It was one of the nicest, if back-handed, compliments I have ever received.
And here’s more about next week’s opera:
The opera tells the story of Alban, a doctor and family man, living in Roman occupied Verulamium (later St Albans) when, one night, he is interrupted by a knock on his door. The decision Alban makes that fateful night begins a chain reaction ending in the destruction of a man and the heartbreak of his family. The dramatic and fast moving story is told using intimate scenes of family life interspersed with great crowd choruses in market places and court rooms, with the audience joining in at the climax of the opera.
Alban the Opera is performed nightly at 7.30pm at St Alban the Martyr, Brooke Street, London EC1N 7RD from Wednesday 20 to Saturday 23 October.
Tickets cost £16 (£8 for children under 16) and can be booked over the telephone on 0844 412 4317 or in person from the Peacock Theatre WC2 or Sadlers Wells EC1.
We don’t write much about St. Alban’s. But here’s an angry piece I did about licensing for the Telegraph.