INTERVIEW: Stan Sulzmann (70th Birthday Tour with Neon Orchestra, 22-27 Nov)

Stan Sulzmann and Neon Orchestra at the 606
Photo credit:Matt Pannell

Saxophonist/composer/arranger/educator STAN SULZMANN, one of the central figures in British jazz, will celebrate his 70th birthday this November by going on tour with his Neon Orchestra. He talked to Kathryn Shackleton about hearing Dexter Gordon as a young teenager, about his first steps into arranging (“I got a Fake Book, stuck a pin in the table of contents, and did an arrangement of that piece”), about the inspiration he derives from the younger generations of musicians coming through, and looks forward to the birthday tour in late November:

LondonJazz News: What are your memories of getting into jazz as a child?

Stan Sulzmann: My dad always had the wireless on and played piano and accordion at endless parties and pub outings. We listened to Earl Bostic and that was like the pop music of the time. Ted Heath was another good blowing band on the radio, and occasionally there would be a bit of Dave Brubeck or MJQ, which I loved.

LJN: What made you play the saxophone?

SS: At school I really wanted to play an instrument but they had run out of French horns and flutes, which were the instruments I was interested in. It was not until I was 13 that my Dad took me to the Selmer shop in Charing Cross Road, and he was so generous that he traded in his accordion for a lovely old Selmer Super Action tenor sax for me.

LJN: How did you learn to play jazz?

SS: I used to take two trains and a bus for two hours to get my sax lesson at the weekend. My teacher was a very good musician who did summer seasons for Max Jaffa, played great swing clarinet and booty sax. He played off the melodies and didn’t really teach jazz but he was the one who taught me good technique. For two or three years I would sit in my bedroom with a mono Dansette record player and play along with second-hand jazz records – I had no idea what I was doing but that’s how I learned to play.

My family moved to a place near Wimbledon where I hooked up with some other young players at school and there was a Palais ballroom in Merton where I got a job while I was still at school busking top 10 hits for £2 a night! That was a great way to see musicians that were coming through. I remember being really impressed by Glenn Hughes, the great baritone sax player with Georgie Fame, and seeing Zoot Money’s band and Bill LeSage.

The first American that I saw play live when I was about 13 was sax player Dexter Gordon. My dad took me to see him at Ronnie Scott’s. I sat in that tiny little club and there’s Dexter right in front of me with Stan Tracey. It was heaven!

Bill Ashton started a band for schoolkids at the Marquee Club in London, which later became the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. That started the journey for me… I met bass player Chris Laurence, percussionist Frank Ricotti and drummer Bobby Worth there. Bill Ashton cajoled people like bandleader Tubby Hayes to come along and we were always a bit in awe of those big guys! We’d never dare to ask them for a lesson or anything!

LJN: What were your experiences as a young player starting out in your career?

SS: Bill Ashton put me forward for a job on the cruises to New York and that meant that I was hearing incredible music in New York by all the greats. I saw Basie’s band, and I remember a great double bill with the Miles Davis quintet and Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet at the Village Vanguard.

John Dankworth had just started teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, at that time, so I went there to study sax and flute in the day, but by that time I was married with a child and I was working, playing with John’s band at Ronnie Scott’s in the evenings. It was crazy! I got a call one night at 3am and it was Pete King from Ronnie Scott’s. He asked if I had a passport and at 8am I was off with sax player Tony Coe to a studio in Cologne to play in Francy Boland’s band. Art Farmer and Kenny Clarke and Herb Geller were sitting opposite me, and the guest musician was Stan Getz! To hear him play live… he had a huge beautiful sound that permeated through the room.

LJN: As a leader you have your own duos, quartets and a big band. What do you get out of playing in these different formats?

SS: Most of it is about the relationships you develop with people. I had a good 15-20 years with piano player John Taylor and you build up a real empathy. I met pianist Nikki Iles in northern England and really liked her playing. Nikki and I like to play tunes, and I like the freedom in a duo of not having to have a gig too mapped out.

I first met legendary trumpet player Kenny Wheeler on a pop record session in a cheap studio in Denmark Street. Hearing him play, my mouth hung open – he was a fiery, incredible player who left you breathless. John Taylor and I made a duo recording of Kenny Wheeler pieces, and being John, he could never just play the tunes, you had to break them down and mess about with them. John would really stretch you. I think Ken was thrilled that we had made a record of his music.

My Neon Orchestra represents the more formal side of playing and I’m using all those years of experience with playing with fabulous bands like Allan Ganley’s Big Band and the NDR Big Band.

LJN: You always fly the flag for younger players, including them in your Neon Quartet, teaching at the colleges and going to see them play in gigs.

SS: Yes. The Neon quartet came about because I love being in touch with young people like Gwilym Simcock, Kit Downes, Jim Hart and Tim Giles because they stretch me.

You learn so much just listening to young players. That’s why I like teaching. I love being around young people. It’s a two-way thing. You might be showing them things but you also get to see their world of music too. The older you get the more you realise that there is little in the world that is totally new, though. For me you can’t lose the history. I still love Louis Armstrong and when I listen to him or Ben Webster I get a tear in my eye.

LJN: How do you go about composing and arranging music for your bands?

SS: I never wrote anything until I was 40. I was in awe of all these fantastic writers. I joined Noel Langley and Scott Stroman’s Friday workshop band, where you wrote things and tried things out. Kenny Wheeler used to go along. This gave me a band to write for. The first time, I got a Fake Book and stuck a pin in the table of contents and did an arrangement of that piece, because the biggest problem is where to start. We wrote the scores by hand in those days and it took hours but eventually I built up enough music so that on my 50th birthday we did a charity gig for Great Ormond Street Hospital, playing my arrangements.

LJN: What are the plans for the Neon Orchestra tour and what are you especially looking forward to?

SS: I’m excited about the gigs coming up as part of my 70th birthday tour, not least because I’ve written three new pieces which will be premiered at these gigs. This is also the first time I have had funding to spend some time rehearsing the orchestra. Another reason to look forward to it is because I get on well with each person in the band, I think they are all great players, so it will be a good social occasion too. And it is a real treat as well to have my son Matthew in the band for the first time. After the tour I intend to carry on writing and in the future I’d love to play my music with one of the European radio big bands, if I get the opportunity…(pp)

Kathryn Shackleton is a programmer at Watermill Jazz 

Stan Sulzmann’s 70th birthday tour with his Neon Orchestra is supported by Arts Council England


22 Nov – London Jazz Festival, Purcell Room.
23 Nov –  Sheffield Jazz
24 Nov –  Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
27 Nov –  Watermill Jazz, Dorking


Nick Smart – MD
Dave Whitford – bass
Sarah Williams – bass trombone
Tim Giles – drums
Alex Munk – guitar
Nikki Iles – piano
Matt Sulzmann – saxophones
Stan Sulzmann – Band leader/saxophones
Pete Hurt – tenor saxophone
Josh Arcoleo – tenor saxophone (not Watermill)
Martin Hathaway – alto saxophone
Alex Hitchcock – saxophone (Watermill only)
James Allsop – saxophone/bass clarinet
Mark Nightingale – trombone
Mark Bassey – trombone
Gordon Campbell – trombone
Henry Lowther – trumpet
Tom Walsh – trumpet
James Copus – trumpet
Noel Langley – trumpet (not London)
George Hogg (London only)
Johnny Mansfield – vibraphone 

Categories: Features/Interviews

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