Under the leadership of drummer Clark Tracey, Herts Jazz has become one of the strongest in the British, volunteer-run jazz club circuit. Tracey spoke to John Fordham about how the club developed and about its 2019 Festival.
It’s a long-running grumble in British jazz circles that while funding and sponsorship readily meet the overheads of privileged musical arts – opera and classical particularly – the creativity of the nation’s jazz scene is widely thought to be safe in the hands of willing volunteers, happy to run it paid or not. But despite being a Cinderella art-form since public jazz-funding tentatively began in the 1960s, UK jazz has independently and creatively blossomed nonetheless – and with it, of course, that raft of deadpan gags that make all kinds of hard going easier, like the much-loved “how do you make a million out of jazz? Start with two million”.
One of the most enduring and ambitious enthusiast-run operations on the British circuit is Herts Jazz, which currently presents some of the best players in the land on 40-odd Sunday nights of the year at St Albans’ Maltings Arts Theatre, and this September stages its ninth annual Herts Jazz Festival at Bishops Stortford’s Rhodes Arts Complex. Clark Tracey, the dynamic drummer and bandleader son of the late and legendary Stan Tracey and for many years a Hertfordshire resident, has been Herts Jazz’s helmsman for almost a decade – steering the weekly club nights since 2010, and the Festival from its inception the following year. Since then, the latter has expanded to feature film nights and international guests alongside treasured British artists, from 79-year-old former Stan Tracey saxophone powerhouse Art Themen, to prizewinning young trumpeter/composer Laura Jurd.
“About ten years ago, the committee that had been running Herts Jazz since 1969 felt it was getting on a bit, and Brian Benton, the key figure in it, had sadly died,” Tracey recalls. “They’d achieved an amazing amount, starting at The Bell pub in a little village called Codicote – Humphrey Lyttelton’s saxophonist Jimmy Skidmore was a local, and led the house band there – and building it up with British stars including Tubby Hayes, Ronnie (Scott) and my dad, and then visiting Americans from Sonny Stitt to James Moody and Benny Golson, but also up-and-coming musicians hardly anybody had heard of – including the band I had then with Guy Barker and Jamie Talbot, who were hardly out of NYJO (the National Youth Jazz Orchestra) at the time. That made The Bell dear to my heart. These things were almost unheard-of for an out-of-town jazz venue. So when the committee wanted to stand down in 2009, I thought ‘let’s see what it’s like trying to run a club. Especially this one.’ That encouragement to young players was something I’d always wanted to continue if I ever became a promoter.”
Reluctantly, the beloved Bell had to be abandoned in the mid 1980s when it was turned into a motel, and Herts Jazz began the first of several moves to venues around Welwyn – of which the longest-lasting was the Campus West arts centre, where Clark Tracey and a new committee oversaw expansion of the club’s membership and attendances, drawing audiences from all over Hertfordshire, and way beyond its borders. That upswing continued with a subsequent move to The Maltings Arts Theatre in St Albans, the club’s home today, and the ambitiousness of September’s festival reflects that growing confidence. Fourteen shows fill the weekend, including mercurial pianist Gareth Williams’ demonstration of his skills as a quick-change silent-movie accompanist, Clark Tracey’s Mingus and Art Blakey tribute groups, and elder statesman Art Themen’s sax partnership with 2018 BBC Young Jazz Musician prizewinner Xhosa Cole (billed as Zoza Kole). Laura Jurd’s acclaimed Dinosaur ensemble and John Scofield/Mingus Big Band saxophone soloist Seamus Blake are among the most high-profile of the guests.
“The Friday film night was the idea of one of our team members who’s in the Cambridge Film Club, and after a slow start our audiences are catching on to it now,” chuckles Clark. “This year’s silent is Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr, and the second half is a new version of a great documentary about the British drummer, lawyer – and priest – Spike Wells. Gareth Williams is the perfect improviser for silent films. Something else is going on upstairs with him, he has a totally bonkers imagination. He doesn’t prepare, we just run the film and he does amazing stuff to it. And the Mingus/Blakey night, for which I’ve put together two groups interpreting a couple of classics, Art Blakey’s Moanin’ and Charles Mingus’ Ah-Um, is a special project for me and my co-leader, Arnie Somogyi on bass. This is the first time we’ve properly combined it, Arnie’s devotion to Mingus and Monk from his Jump Monk band, and my history with my Blakey Tribute Band. And, since this is the 60th anniversary year of Ronnie Scott’s Club, it’s perhaps also a bit of looking out for Ronnie and Pete (King) – who put Art’s bands on for so many years, and who were so good to me. I don’t get to play there much now, but those memories are very special.”
Are Herts Jazz committee meetings taking encouragement from the media stories of recent times, that a new British jazz revival is underway, triggered by the connections between the jazz tradition and contemporary ingredients like hip-hop, grime and electronica? “Well, I always hear Stan’s voice about things like that,” Clark Tracey drily observes. “‘Every time I hear there’s a jazz boom,’ he used to say, ‘I know the phone’s not going to ring.’ In other words, great musicians, whatever their qualities, can just go out of fashion overnight. But change is essential, of course, and open mindedness. Sometimes I think audiences are more broadminded in continental Europe – I’ve played clubs with my band in Europe where we’ve been welcomed even though they’ve never heard of us, and the audiences are very mixed in age, gender, everything. I had an email from one of our regular punters the other day, saying ‘we admire what you’re doing, but we’re not coming any more – we don’t like avant garde jazz’. Well, we don’t put on avant garde jazz, as I understand it. I think what they meant was ‘we don’t like original material’. But Herts Jazz can be about covering great landmarks, like Blakey’s or Mingus’ classic albums, and presenting good new music and new players too. As long as I’m involved with it, I definitely want to be doing both.”
The 2019 Herts Jazz Festival is at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford, from September 27-29. Box office: 01279 710200, email: firstname.lastname@example.org