Today would have been Stan Tracey’s 87th birthday. Andy Boeckstaens remembers him:
“OK, here we go….” Stan Tracey would say, immediately before he launched his band into the first tune of a gig. At a time when many will be assessing Stan’s place in history and discussing his legacy, I would like to share a few memories of the 50-odd times that I saw him, some of which will have been enjoyed by others.
I became aware of Stan early in 1978, when his octet played a set to support the Gil Evans Orchestra on the London leg of its first British tour. I didn’t go to that February performance at the Royal Festival Hall (an inexplicable blunder for which I have never forgiven myself) but heard Stan for the first time at the 100 Club on 13 March in a quartet alongside Art Themen, Dave Green and Bryan Spring. The other set that night was a performance of Murder In The Air with poet Michael Horovitz and saxophonist Lol Coxhill. It is a measure of the affection and regard with which the pianist was held that all four survivers from that gig were present at Tracey’s funeral more than 35 years later.
Under Milk Wood was performed at Wembley Conference Centre on 9 November 1978 (the 25th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’ death). I was ignorant, then, of the seminal recording from 1965, but entranced by Tracey’s atmospheric music and the touching, hilarious poetry recited by actor Donald Houston. This was the first time that I saw Clark Tracey, who – at 17 years of age – had recently replaced Spring at the drums.
I was present at a couple of gigs that were recorded for posterity. The first was Stan’s “Golden Jubilee” concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 30 November 1993. This presented him solo, in a duet with Gerard Presencer, and with a quartet, a sextet, an octet and big band (highlights were issued as Stan Tracey Live at the QEH on Blue Note 7243 8 31139 2 7). At the Bull’s Head on 7 December 2006, the magnificent “Tracey/Wellins Play Monk” was recorded. As the name implies, it was an all-Monk programme with Bobby Wellins, together with regulars Andrew Cleyndert and Clark (ReSteamed RSJ 104).
In the years after his tenure as house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s, Stan’s appearances with American stars became infrequent. There were gigs and a recording with Sal Nistico, and shows with Bud Shank and Art Farmer but since the 1980’s Stan worked almost exclusively with his own hand-picked groups that spanned the generations and comprised the cream of the British crop, from Alan Skidmore to Nadim Teimoori.
Stan was an important part of the Charlie Watts Orchestra that appeared at Ronnie Scott’s in 1985 and 1986. The big band was a blast, of course, but it is easy to forget that the support sets every night were provided by a small group drawn from the ensemble of over 30 musicians. Once, it was a sextet of Stan with Don Weller, Ted Emmett, Jim Lawless, Ron Mathewson and John Stevens; another evening, Stan with Emmett again, Stan Sulzmann, Lennie Bush and Bill Eyden. The music they produced was sheer bliss.
Handicapped by shyness (and mindful of Stan’s reputation for reticence and occasional prickliness) I didn’t meet him until a record signing in 1993. I decided to talk about his composition “One For Gil” [Evans] which appeared on Portraits Plus, his first recording for Blue Note (0777 7 80696 2 1). By then, I had learned quite a bit about its subject, and mentioned that I was interested to hear of Stan’s admiration for the American arranger. Perhaps sensitive to the (unstated and unintended) allusion to those who accused him of copying Monk and Ellington, Stan explained, politely but firmly, “Just because you like someone’s music, it doesn’t mean that you have to sound like them”. Stan was very much his own man, and a regular feature of his gigs – usually the first tune – was to fashion a piece of music, without a rehearsal, from nothing but his own will and the empathy of his sidemen. He was fond of standards like Bye Bye Blackbird, and gigs often included selections that no-one else seems to do, like Mr Gentle, Mr Cool (Duke Ellington) and Playin’ in the Yard (Sonny Rollins).
His own writing brought another dimension, and usually contained just the right mixture of composition and space for improvisation, delivered by carefully-chosen sidemen. A favourite of mine in this vein is Dream Of Many Colours (from Senior Moment, ReSteamed RSJ 108) with Simon Allen. Stan himself was always at the heart of these tunes and – whatever the size of the group involved – the audacious leaps, thrilling runs, rhythmic confidence, dissondance and resolution, the unusual harmonic progressions, were unique and unmistakable.
He did not relish the passing of the years, yet Stan frequently chose to play on his birthday and generally selected music that was wryly appropriate, such as Old Folks. These concerts often involved stars like Guy Barker and Peter King and were a highlight of the British jazz calendar. I am privileged to have heard ten of them (including those marking his 70th, 75th and 80th birthdays). In the middle of a complex drum solo, it was commonplace for Clark to blend in a rhythmic and melodic Happy Birthday, which Stan would acknowledge with a smile or a nod. Sometimes the gig would end with an unaccompanied Little Man You’ve Had A Busy Day and I like to think that that was Stan’s way of thanking his son in return.
On 9 September 2005, Stan was booked to play at the Bull’s Head with Don Weller, and it was to be recorded. But the star hadn’t turned up. After frantic phone calls were made, Weller announced that Stan was stuck in (Friday-night) traffic, and the show started without him. By the break, still no Stan; it seemed inevitable by then that he wasn’t going to make it. So the second set continued as a piano-less trio. At 10.40, the back door of the jazz room burst open, and in came Stan, ravaged by a journey from St Albans that had taken about four hours. He exclaimed, “M25, M4…..what can I say? The other piss-off is that the piano was specially tuned for tonight”. For the 20 minutes that remained, Stan pounded the hell out of it.
Stan Tracey’s music enriched my life, and I feel extremely fortunate to have witnessed so much of it. Thoughts are now with his beloved family, especially Clark who has played a central role in his father’s life and music. As the humanist celebrant said at Stan’s funeral, to which the family were kind enough to extend a completely open and inclusive invitation, he will live on in the memories of everyone who knew him; and his wonderful music will outlive us all.
That's a most insightful, respectful, measured and affectionate tribute, Andy, which hits just the right note (forgive the word play).