Happy 90th Birthday BRIAN BLAIN. On this happy day, which will end with a birthday gig by Liane Carroll at Lauderdale House, we present accolades and anecdotes from friends and colleagues, to mark a milestone in a career which has brought an irreplaceable and still continuing contribution to British jazz.
SEBASTIAN SCOTNEY: The inspiring thing about Brian Blain is that, as he celebrates his 90th birthday, he continues to be such an active and joyful advocate for jazz in the UK. With undimmed enthusiasm, he still continues two active roles: he is responsible for programming Thursday night jazz at Lauderdale House in Highgate, a role he has had since the mid-1990s; he also contributes articles, mostly reviews, to this site.
It is now all of 25 years since he retired from the Musicians’ Union, having worked there since 1965. He recorded a detailed four-part interview for the British Library’s Oral History of British Jazz which tells his story in depth. (These recordings are unfortunately only available to Higher and Further Education Institutions).
Brian’s active interest in music now goes back more than seven decades. “I became hooked on country blues, blues and jazz when I was at school. The bug had bitten,” he remembers. The memories of his early experiences as listener are of appreciating the quality of the musicians he heard, of always wanting to have a proper understanding. He remembers that the place to go to hear really good quality jazz players when he was growing up was not in the clubs but in the dance halls. Again those vivid memories: “I had my first encounters with what we used to call modern jazz in ball rooms. At the Sale Lido next to Stretford I remember a band with (trumpeter) Kenny Baker and a young Tubby Hayes.
And when I asked Brian Blain that question which people interested in jazz are perhaps asked the most often. What is the kind of jazz he likes best. He thought about it. And, then before the memories started to flow, he replied to the question slowly, carefully: “I think I have grown along with the music.”
JOHN CUMMING: Seems like I’ve known Brian for ever… but I believe the first time was sometime in the late ’60s, when he turned up in Edinburgh with the original Keith Tippett Sextet. The gig was at Edinburgh University, and I was one of a bunch of renegades on t’committee of the University Jazz Club. I dimly remember Brian, and quite probably a few others, crashing on the floor of my rather small flat. Drink was almost certainly taken into the night, and in the course of proceedings, I discovered that Brian and the Melody Maker writer Christopher Bird were one and the same. Which made a lot of sense – Brian’s commitment to the scene, and his ability to communicate in words what was going on musically at the time, was immensely important in spreading awareness during a decade where jazz in Britain was creating a dynamic of its own – as was a natural enthusiasm for making things happen, through promoting the music on the ground. Hence camping out on the floor of my front room…..
I got to know Brian much more after I’d moved south. His work for the Musicians’ Union was immensely valuable in connecting the work of the Union to the practical world of promoting music, and the Union’s big band workshops and house band became an essential fixture at the Festival I ran at Bracknell in the ’70s and ’80s, adding immensely to the event’s atmosphere by introducing the sheer enjoyment of making music as an end in itself into the fabric of the weekend.
Brian also inveigled me into other areas of the Union’s live activity. I recall spending a particularly rain-sodden day, probably sometime in the early ’80s, stage-managing a Union-organised gig for Rock for Jobs that, as I remember it, welcomed to London a team of young unemployed people who’d walked from the north east in an echo of the 1936 Jarrow March, in protest at the Thatcher government’s employment policy (not much change there, then…). The Union Band were there of course, as well as sundry politicians and Union leaders, Billy Jenkins’ hilariously anarchic duo with saxophonist Ian Trimmer, and an amiably fatigue-clad – and rather good – reggae band fro the Midlands. And that was and is typically Brian – his commitment embraces causes that you want to be part of, and when the call comes, it’s always worth it – even when it means trying to keep the electricity supply to a lorry trailer stage dry in the face of a steady drizzle…
And of course, the story continues. One of the most recent times that I’ve seen Brian was sometime last year at Lauderdale House at an ARQ gig, still shifting microphones, welcoming the audience, and introducing the band. Welcome to your tenth decade, Brian! And Happy Birthday!
CHARLES ALEXANDER: Brian Blain was my boss as Chair of the Jazz Centre Society from 1973 to 1982. Brian He had the vision to support the emerging jazz talent of the time such as Keith Tippett and Mike Westbrook and to develop good relations with the funding bodies. This was a period of expansion of the UK jazz scene during which the funding of the JCS went into live music promotion at club and concert level with financial support from the Arts Council of Great Britain and several of the Regional Arts Associations. The strength of the current UK jazz scene has its roots in his commitment to widen its audience and opportunities for its performers.
KEITH AMES, MUSICIANS’ UNION: Brian’s role in supporting and promoting live music, especially jazz in the UK, cannot be over-estimated. His unstinting efforts from the 1960s onwards have been appreciated by numerous musicians and many colleagues across the UK. Brian played a key role in the launch of the Union’s famous ‘Keep Music Live’ campaign and he was appointed in January 1965 to run the MU’s ‘Campaign for the Advance of Live Music’. He later became responsible for the Union’s public relations and music promotion, in addition to being editor of the MU’s magazine, Musician, for three decades until 2004. He was extremely helpful to me when I took on the mantle of editor and I have always enjoyed my conversations with Brian, during which we usually discuss at length the state of the industry and the grassroots scene in particular. So many owe a debt of gratitude to a true gentleman, knowledgeable Union stalwart and highly-respected pillar of British jazz.
ROGER BEAUJOLAIS: What I love about Brian is his positivity and his enthusiasm for music. It’s unusual to find someone of Brian’s age who is genuinely interested in hearing what’s going on musically today. He may not like it (although he often does) but he will give it time and, because of his vast knowledge, will be able to see elements from the past that have been an influence. He asks a lot of questions and is on a mission to find out all the details about everything. This makes him great company. I’m sad that we haven‘t seen so much of each other since I moved out of London. Happy Birthday Brian!
JOHN ETHERIDGE: I’ve known Brian for over 40 years – we met in Newcastle in mid 1970s. Over the years we’ve had intense conversations about the jazz world and music. Always concerned and enthusiastic but also opinionated (as everybody should be!) – for instance, I remember him saying how much he disliked the soprano saxophone! He has always been deeply concerned to be supportive and do right by everybody. I remember how distressed he was when a certain eccentric sax player had insulted him and he wanted to make amends… let it go was my advice. He would be a great champion of certain players… Back Door were a particular favourite of his and he has always been prepared to stick his neck out while promoting at Lauderdale House. Good on you Brian – let’s look forward to the next ten years !
JOHN FORDHAM: When I was editing the late-lamented Jazz UK magazine 20 years back, I regularly used to curse Brian because not only was his copy not emailed, he couldn’t type it either. Swathes of handwritten scrawls would turn up, needing hours of deciphering and keying in. If it had been anybody but him, the relationship would never have survived, or been such fun. But Brian has always had fascinating angles on jazz many fans don’t – real empathy with players as a selfless promoter and a former Musicians’ Union staffer, ability to hear jazz from wider class and cultural perspectives because he’s a tireless autodidact, and love of jazz stories and jazz people that comes from a rare warmth and gregariousness.
CHRIS HODGKINS: Brian’s support for jazz in the UK has been unstinting, unswerving and selfless. The UK jazz scene owes Brian a debt of gratitude that is incalculable. If the establishment had any sense they would award him a peerage.
PAUL KELLY, SWANAGE JAZZ FESTIVAL: Brian has been one of those unknown pillars of British jazz seemingly around forever. He was the Chair of the Jazz Centre Society when I joined it as its Midlands Administrator in Autumn 1978. I have seen Brian sporadically since then, most recently at Swanage Jazz Festival where he has proved a knowledgeable and amiable compere. So, happy 90th Birthday Brian! And may that pin-sharp critical brain and long knowledge of the jazz scene continue to inspire us and make us think for many more years to come.
CHRIS LAURENCE: I wish Brian a very happy 90th, and thank him for all the hard work and enthusiasm he has injected into the British jazz scene. He has run the “Jazz in the House” at Highgate’s Lauderdale House for many years, providing world class jazz in a wonderful intimate setting! My quartet have had the privilege to perform there on many occasions, and always feel welcomed by Brian and the enthusiastic audience he encourages to attend!
GEORGIA MANCIO: What is star quality? I’m voting Brian Blain: charisma, the ability to be both timeless and absolutely in tune with the age, and a passionate and undiminishing commitment to communication, advocacy and excellence. Thank you BB for all your support, chats, rants and laughs over the years: keep shining because we need your light.
RICHARD MARCANGELO: I first met Brian when I was asked by a bass player friend (Rob Burns) to participate in the Musicians’ Union Rock Workshops as drummer in the band. This was in the early 1980s. We immediately struck up a great friendship. At that time I was co-leading a band called Out-Bar-Squeak which had a very modern jazz edge and was quite radical for its time. Brian got us on the bill of a Ronnie Scott’s Sunday show, and from that we got booked at the club for a season opposite Chico Freeman. It was very successful and later led to a second season opposite Freddie Hubbard. All down to Brian. Brilliant. We are still great friends.
CHRISTINE TOBIN: I consider myself extremely lucky to have been on the UK jazz scene during the ‘Life of Brian’. Put simply, he’s an incredible human being with the stamina of a horse! His passion and lifelong dedication to UK jazz is inspiring and educational by example. He never minces his words, always tells it exactly as he sees it and will stick his neck out for what he believes is just. He has nurtured and supported many musicians and I am privileged to be amongst them. Also, he developed a thriving jazz gig in North London at the beautiful venue, Lauderdale House, which he continues to run. Finally I’d like to say that he’s a bloody good laugh and I always enjoy the merriment, witty sparring and general good fun I have when I see him. Happy Birthday Brian. I love you ♥️.
RiCHARD WILLIAMS: Whether as a Musicians’ Union officer or under the nom de plume of Christopher Bird in the Melody Maker, Brian Blain was a true and devoted friend of the more adventurous forms of jazz in Britain during an important period in its evolution. He was an enthusiast and a proselytiser, generous and open-minded, always seeking to understand what the musicians were doing and – since he was well aware of the difficulties inherent in the career they had chosen – to help find ways of enabling them to do it. All of that remains true as he enters his 10th decade. Many happy returns, dear Brian, and may your football team continue to bring joy from East Manchester to a corner of North London.