Mike Westbrook at 85 – the Citizen Jazz interview

There are quiet heroes. Mike Westbrook is one of them. Since the early 1970s, the English pianist, composer and horn player has been offering elegant, rich and intelligent music that is off the beaten track, always with his wife Kate by his side. Passionate about theatre, infusing his music with an uncommon theatricality, Westbrook celebrates his 85th birthday this year and never seems to be satisfied, multiplying projects, desires and collaborations with a rare greed. The plethora of Mike Westbrook’s discography has often been mentioned in Citizen Jazz, on the occasion of his recent birthday or the re-release of his most impressive milestones.

To look at the Englishman’s discography is often to be sure of coming back changed, so immense are the ideas, the choices and the intelligence of the subject. From William Blake to Duke Ellington, we knew that this interview – rare in the French-speaking media – could only be rich. Offering the floor to Mike Westbrook is like settling down in the heart of a luxurious and very democratic library, the knowledge and memories always come by themselves. A meeting with a humanist and radically free musician. An engineer of bridges, and not only London Bridge: between music, eras, cultures. Between theatre and jazz too. A true artist apart. Interview for Citizen Jazz by Franpi Barreaux.

Mike Westbrook. Drawing/design by Cecile Mirande Broucas

Franpi Barreaux: Your musical career has lasted more than 50 years. What are the best memories of all this time?

Mike Westbrook: I have had the good fortune to travel and play music in all kinds of situations, in different countries, working with wonderful people. Every performance is memorable, not just the ‘grand occasions’. Small-scale gigs in jazz clubs are equally important. And for a jazz musician the most memorable performance is always the next one.

Out of many highlights here’s one example: in 1983 Phil Minton, Kate and I with Chris Biscoe, Chris Hunter and Tony Marsh played the William Blake songs at the Jazz Church, St Peters, in New York. On that occasion I had the opportunity to play the late Billy Strayhorn’s Steinway. Our trip coincided with the anniversary of Ellington’s birthday, April 29th. Several radio stations were broadcasting Duke’s music all day long. It was playing on the radio when we went round to tea with Gil Evans. Out of that experience came my composition On Duke’s Birthday.

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FB: When we look at your orchestras, we can identify faithful musicians, and you dedicate albums to dear musicians who have passed away. Can we consider that you think of your band as a troupe, in the sense of theatre? We are thinking in particular of Chris Biscoe, Pete Whyman and Phil Minton, but also Dominique Pifarély…

MW: The continuity of the relationships with musicians is essential. But the musicians all have independent careers and are not involved in every project of mine. There has been a sequence of bands, the instrumentation of each varying according to the music performed. Rarely has this been a standard jazz line-up. Basically we have built up a pool of sympathetic musicians who have worked with us in many different combinations, from trio to big band. Those regularly involved with Kate and me include Phil Minton, Chris Biscoe, Pete Whyman, Alan Wakeman, Dominique Pifarély, and more recently Roz Harding, Billie Bottle, Marcus Vergette and Coach York.

FB: Let’s talk about theatre: From The Cortège to Mama Chicago, your music is often very theatrical, even operatic. Is telling a story important in your creative process? Does Platterback have a special place in this context?

MW: I tend to think of every performance as a theatrical as well as musical experience, even when there’s no coherent theme or story. I have composed for stage musicals, notably Tyger, a celebration of William Blake by the poet Adrian Mitchell, for the National Theatre Company in 1971. Also occasionally for TV and films. Kate and I have written several operas and theatre pieces, as well as jazz oratorios combining poetry, music and spectacle. In the 1970s I worked extensively in alternative theatre, writing for everything from large scale multi-media events and circus-style shows to street music. It was out of this that the Brass Band was formed. Kate and I began writing themed shows for the Brass Band.

We used the term ‘jazz cabaret’ to describe loose assemblages of diverse material – songs, poetry and improvisation. With Mama Chicago in the mid ’70s we started writing more integrated shows, with original music and lyrics. These we performed and toured, usually with a band of five or six musicians, sometimes as a duo, or with the trio, occasionally with a full orchestra. Some pieces involve actors. Past productions include Platterback, a story of five characters on a train journey, The Serpent Hit, a political fable, Bar Utopia, a big band cabaret, Cuff Clout, Kate’s neoteric Music Hall, and the recent Paintbox Jane, which is based around the painter Raoul Dufy.

Jazz cabaret remains a favourite mode of work. Currently with Kate’s Granite Band we perform her environmentally-themed piece Earth Felt to the Wound. With The Westbrook Quartet we present Love Or Infatuation, a cabaret based on the Hollywood Songs of Frederick Hollander.The music for most shows is available on CD.

The Uncommon Orchestra. Photo credit Robert Burns

FB: We have the feeling today that a new generation is rediscovering you, especially since the re-release of The Cortège. Some time ago you recorded The Uncommon Orchestra with young musicians. Your music feels timeless, how do you explain it?

MW: I would like to believe that our music communicates with the younger audience, but I am not sure that it does! There are offshoots of jazz that can become very popular, but as well as an entertainment jazz is a serious art form. However, once you get hooked, you want to get deeper into it. To be experienced to the full, jazz really demands a lifelong commitment. However it is true that there are many young musicians now studying jazz and keen to play. I am fortunate because over the years new musicians have often come into the band, bringing energy and fresh ideas. The Uncommon Orchestra is an example of this. It began as a community-based project ten years ago, a real mix of the generations, from seasoned veterans to students and even kids at school. The Orchestra is now recording albums and playing major jazz venues.

FB: What do you think of the current British scene?

MW: This is not an easy time for the arts. Jazz has tended to exist on the edge of the cultural spectrum, valuing creative freedom and independence. Over recent years audiences have declined. Jazz musicians seem to hover between high art and popular entertainment. In fact it should be both. Jazz is vulnerable to cuts in arts funding. The pandemic has been a near disaster for all the performing arts and the restrictions on foreign travel imposed by Brexit are a tragedy for many of us whose work in Europe was more important to us in many ways than work in the UK.

But the musicians love to play jazz and there is a public for it. There’s no lack of talented musicians and composers. They will always find places to play. After the hiatus of Covid perhaps it’s time for jazz musicians to take charge of their own destiny, so that once again the scene is artist-led, not enslaved to fashion and commodification. I believe that jazz is the music of hope.

FB: You’ve always been an artist outside of trends and categories. Nevertheless, what is your view of the ’70s in Great Britain and especially the Canterbury Scene, as you have Lindsay Cooper among your musicians?

MW: It must have been a desire for freedom of expression that drew me to jazz. I wanted to find my own path, make my own mistakes and not subscribe to any orthodoxy. Being self-taught I had to learn as I went along. There has been one challenge after another, and it’s still going on. My generation were lucky to come up at a time when social and cultural barriers were coming down. As an artist one had the space to find one’s own voice. Originality and innovation were the thing.

I never wanted to get trapped in any particular style. I was never a fan of the Canterbury school and self-styled ‘progressive rock’, though I know they have a big cult following. I found what was happening among my contemporaries on the jazz scene more exciting. However, The Orckestra (sic) with the Brass Band, Henry Cow and Frankie Armstrong was an interesting collaboration, more political and social than musical, though we did find some common ground. Writing arrangements for the ensemble, my first time for cello and bassoon, got me back into bigger-scale writing. When Kate and I wrote The Cortège we asked Georgie Born and Lindsay Cooper to take part.

Kate and Mike Westbrook. Photo credit Roberto Priolo

FB: Your wife Kate Westbrook plays an important role in your music, which also leads to numerous incursions into poetry. What is your relationship with literature?

MW: When we met in the early ‘70s Kate, a painter, was teaching part-time at Leeds College of Art, then at the forefront of avant garde theatre and performance art. I had given up my day job to become a full time musician. I had no regular band and was mostly working with alternative theatre groups, notably Leeds-based Welfare State with whom Kate was also involved.

When we decided to live and work together, although fairly established, Kate as a painter, me as a composer, we needed to find a new direction for the music. This came unexpectedly from Street Music: the rejection of big bands, rock groups and a restrictive jazz scene in favour of music-making at its most basic – a small acoustic group playing whatever its members wanted to play anywhere they were asked to play. With two vocalists in the group, songs were always in the repertoire, notably settings of Blake and theatre songs by Brecht/Weill. Then, with Mama Chicago Kate and I started to write original shows for the band, as described above. Mama Chicago had its French premiere at the Angoulême Festival. The band started touring abroad, especially in Europe and in 1979 formed the nucleus of the Orchestra that performed The Cortège, a work that included settings of European poetry, sung in the original languages. The poems in this and similar ‘European’ compositions, were chosen by Kate. Her knowledge of literature was crucial, as were her own lyrics, and her interest in singing in the languages of the countries in which we performed. We became song-writing collaborators. Over the decades we have generated a variety of music for voice, from cabaret songs to opera.

FB: Duke Ellington is a key musician in your discography, as in your various interpretations of IDMAT. What is your relationship to Ellington? More broadly, what are your major musical influences?

MW: My father introduced me as a teenager to Ellington, and a 10 inch LP of Duke’s 1940s band was my bible for many years. I still have it, very worn and scratched. This was the beginning of a discovery of the whole history of the jazz that has been my main inspiration. At first I tried to copy what I heard, but as I got into my own thing the music of Duke, Strayhorn and others, became absorbed into my musical bloodstream, rather than being a direct influence. That presence has always been there, but I have only played Ellington material infrequently and have not consciously studied his methods. I am simply a fan.

Over the years my musical horizon has broadened. I have become more aware of the western classical tradition. Piano music has been particularly important to me, from Chopin through to Debussy, Ravel and, a particular favourite, Satie. For me the piano is a bridge to all kinds of music. Theatre music has also been important to me. Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale had a major impact, and also the work of Brecht and Weill, Cole Porter and other Broadway composers, and currently the Hollywood music of Frederick Hollander.

FB: You recorded your own version of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album at the end of the ’80s. Can you explain the process? How do you adapt McCartney’s or Lennon’s music to make it your own?

MW: In 1988 a festival in Bologna held a tribute to The Beatles. I was invited to contribute. I had never played their music, and didn’t own any of their records. I had heard Sergeant Pepper…, and realised something important was going on there. But it was not part of my world. Nevertheless I decided to attempt to write something and, as we toured around Europe in the minibus, I bought a Beatles cassette at each motorway stop. I built up a list of some of the most attractive ballads, which might lend themselves to a jazz interpretation. However with the uneasy example of people like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald attempting to swing this sort of material, I realised that it was necessary to try to understand the idiom. I had a list of nice tunes, but no structure.

Then one day I woke up with the realisation that I had to do a version of the whole Abbey Road album. My first step was to write a score of everything that happened on the album. I then worked on it as I would on any material, trying to find my way into it. I found that some of the songs needed to retain their original structure. Others could be extended, themes repeated, sometimes re-harmonised, and were open to improvisation. Always, I hoped, with respect to the Beatles’ concept. I added more and more pages to the score.

The band line-up was a variant on the Rossini band with which we were touring. Then Phil Minton joined Kate on vocals. Brian Godding’s guitar became central to the project. Andy Grappy’s tuba continued in the role of the bass. Alan Wakeman and Pete Whyman made up the sax section and Liverpool-born Peter Fairclough was on drums. The Beatles’ original Abbey Road was a studio creation. I don’t believe it had ever been performed live in its entirety. In performance it was revealed as a cabaret on contemporary life that owed as much to the English Music Hall as to rock ’n’ roll.

Mike Westbrook. Drawing/design by Tara Keough

FB: You like a challenge. We remember in particular a whole work around Rossini. Is it fun to work with the constraint of using existing musical material and transforming it, reworking it?

MW: From the earliest days of jazz, musicians have taken music from the world around them and re-invented it in their own style. That tradition continues today, and as a composer I find working with existing material as important as creating original compositions. However I have not been a fan of ‘jazzing the classics’. Until in 1984 when we were commissioned to write for a William Tell Festival in Lausanne and Kate suggested looking at the Rossini opera.

I arranged the Overture for a small street band. Working on this music was so enjoyable that we added more overtures and arias from Rossini operas. We toured the show for several years. In 1989 I wrote a big band version for the NDR Band. This in turn we toured with my own orchestra. In 1992 Big Band Rossini was the first jazz work ever performed in the main BBC Proms at the Albert Hall in London. In 2017 we had the great honour of performing the piece the Teatro Rossini in Pesaro, city of Rossini’s birth. In October this year we have been asked to open a Rossini Festival in a newly restored opera house in Lugo.

FB: In recent years we have heard your solo piano recordings. Is your approach different from writing for a large orchestra or a brass band? Do you put the same feelings into it?

MW: The piano is at the heart of everything I do. It’s a universe, full of possibilities. It is also my daily work-bench. Everything I write I must play first on the piano. On stage I am band pianist, accompanist and occasionally a soloist. But most of my piano playing is done behind closed doors, heard only by Kate from her studio nearby, or when we are working on a new song. In 2016 Kate and our great friend and producer, the late Jon Hiseman encouraged me to make a solo album. Since then I have occasionally played solo concerts. Basically I see these performances as part of the composing process, improvising, setting lyrics, experimenting and working out the voicings of harmonies that could be orchestrated for brass, saxophones or strings, or simply stay on the keyboard. The music can take many forms, but however different they seem, they are simply aspects of the same creative process.

FB: For your 85th birthday, we have seen many re-releases but also videos, and you are touring. What are your desires in the years to come?

MW: The scene here has not yet recovered from the pandemic. Brexit is a disaster, recession looms, further afield famine is rife, the planet is in danger and everywhere democracy is under threat. And above all the nightmare of Russia’s war with Ukraine continues unabated. As jazz musicians the best thing is to carry on playing wherever there are people to listen. In all the chaos we cling to the belief, in the words of one of Kate’s lyrics for Paintbox Jane, “Truth, Hope, Love make Art together, in a bid for Eternal Youth”. We are just releasing the Paintbox Jane album, we have concerts with Kate’s Granite Band, Rossini Re-Loaded in Italy and a new album of a live performance of London Bridge a large-scale ‘European’ work for voice, jazz orchestra and chamber orchestra, originally premiered in Amiens in 1987. 

LINKS: Original interview in French 

Birthday Greetings for Mike Westbrook at 85

3 replies »

  1. It was my good fortune to be at that 1983 Blake songs gig at St. Peters in NYC. Even in my youthful cluelessness, I sensed I was in the presence of greatness. Westbrook is surely a national treasure in the UK, and an international treasure as well.

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