|Michael Roach at Cheltenham 2013. Photo credit: John Watson|
Goin’ To Kansas City! Alyn Shipton writes about the Buck Clayton Legacy Band, the singer Michael Roach (above), and previews the band’s appearance on the opening day of Music in the Garden at Wavendon:
Back in the 1980s, when I was working in New York, one of my projects was to try to gather up the life stories of as many of the swing and early jazz pioneers who were still around, and get them published. It was just the moment when the generation of men and women who had first forged jazz were still around to tell their tales, and in the end I did books with (among others) Ellingtonian clarinettist Barney Bigard, New Orleans veteran Danny Barker, territory bandleader Andy Kirk, Goodman alumnus Art Rollini, bebop drummer Roy Porter, and Decca’s house pianist Sammy Price. All of them — except Barney, who died before the project was finished — became friends. However one musician became not just a friend, but a mentor: trumpeter, arranger and bandleader Buck Clayton. When he died, he left me a collection of his music, and in 2004 I formed a band with German saxophonist Matthias Seuffert, to play Buck’s compositions and keep his memory alive. In the last nine years it has gone from strength to strength, with a CD Claytonia about to appear, and a successful tour last year with Gwyneth Herbert doing the Peggy Lee repertoire, with charts by the likes of Billy May, Jack Marshall and Quincy Jones, written for a band of just this size.
But there’s one thing I knew was missing. In my New York days, at Buck’s behest, I went down to Fat Tuesday’s to hear Big Joe Turner singing the blues with Jay McShann. There’s a spine-tingling thrill hearing a K.C. blues shouter projecting over a band and singing his heart out about lost love, too much time spent drinking, or just the beauty of the moon shining through the trees. I knew that this was a kind of music I wanted to play with the band, not least because Buck had written some splendid charts not only for Turner, but for Little Jimmy Rushing and Jimmy Witherspoon. Yet there was a big problem. Since Humph toured in the sixties with all three of those aforementioned blues singers, nobody has specialised in this repertoire.
Quite by chance, blues expert Paul Oliver introduced me to a country blues singer called Michael Roach, who had moved to the UK. He’d grown up in Washington D.C., and at the very time I was collecting the tales of elderly jazz musicians, Michael was out meeting the pioneers of the blues. He learned this music from the likes of Henry Townsend, John Jackson, and — significantly Jay McShann and Sammy Price. So, earlier this year I called Michael and asked him if he’d like to try his hand at singing the K. C. blues with the band. To my great surprise, he not only agreed, but told me his family used to have all the records by Buck’s band with the great blues singers, and he knew the music well. So, our trombonist Adrian Fry and trumpeter Menno Daams updated charts by Buck and Ernie Wilkins to fit our nine-piece line-up, and we launched the show at this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Cheltenham just happens to be Michael’s adopted home town, and the art-deco Daffodil was just the place to revive the ambience of K.C. speakeasies. It seems the Gloucestershire Echo thought so too, as their critic wrote: “Hallelujah! The Buck Clayton Legacy Band delivered [and] the naturalised Cheltonion has a fine feel for authentic phrasing and rhythm – plus a high sense of humour.”
We’ll be playing this programme again as often as Michael’s own touring schedule allows, but the next outing is on the opening day of Music in the Garden at Dame Cleo Laine’s house, next door to the Stables at Wavendon.