Originally released in 1976 on vinyl, the eponymous album ‘Joy’ (Chris Francis, James Dvorak, Frank Roberts, Ernest Mothle, Keith Bailey) reflected the young, multicultural, vibrant flavours of mid-70s London. Cadillac Records contacted the remaining members of the band (sadly the great South African bassist Ernest Mothle is deceased) to find that the band’s drummer, Keith Bailey, was already working on a reissue. Going back to the master tapes proved fruitful and the result is a reissue of the LP for collectors, and also of a CD with extra material. Interview with Chris Francis, saxophonist with Joy by Mike Gavin (*)
LondonJazz News: What was your background in music?
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Chris Francis: I’ve played music since I was six years old. Recorder, cornet, tea chest bass. Later guitar and a flute borrowed from John Barker of the Angry Brigade!. At art school in Manchester I formed a duo with John Franklin – a brilliant folk guitarist. At Chelsea Arts School, I followed ‘Chicken Shack’ and even sat in on a couple of occasions.
At Chelsea Harry Vince took me to improvisation classes with the great Alfred Neiman. We frequented the Little Theatre Club, meeting Maggie Nicols, John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker. My Jazz listening was conventional – Parker, Coltrane, Blue Note – and my contributions to this free music not universally popular. My youthful energy and habit of ‘playing in tongues’ on alto led to me being dubbed ‘the freak-out kid’. A kindly Richard Williams Melody Maker profile was titled ‘This Kid is no Upstart’ but the accompanying photo made me appear a lot wilder than I think I was!
Vince and I with Maggie Nicols formed the first incarnation of my band Naima, playing small venues, like the ‘Arts Lab’ and ‘Oval House’, but one exception was a performance at the British Council Auditorium. Fly-posting tube stations with large silk-screen posters designed and printed at Chelsea by Harry and myself ensured a full house, including a princess and BBC presenter Richard Baker. All the posters were stolen…
I continued to play with folk and blue players and eventually Alexis Korner, who phoned one night whilst I was playing with my trio at The 100 Club. Alexis introduced me to Keith Bailey at the Speakeasy where Keith was playing with Graham Bond and Noel Redding. I also worked with Jody Grind, The Vagabonds, Art Regis, Robert Wyatt, The Amazing Band and various soul bands.
LJN: How did Joy come about?
CF: I met Frank Roberts at an event connected to NYJO. The parts were beyond me (I was more or less self taught although I later studied with renowned teacher Charles Chapman). Feeling a bit useless I wandered down the corridors only to halt outside a practice room. The sounds that I heard were magical. There was someone I could relate to – a young black guy who embodied everything I believed Jazz piano should sound like. To this day I feel that Frank is the outstanding genius of British Jazz piano playing. We joined Keith and Jim to form ‘The Quintet’ later re-branded as ‘JOY’. We had a saleable offering – the job was to get gigs. I hit the phone, hustling in the UK and Holland. We tried for a deal, approaching Island Records, Michael Cuscuna and others, but there was no market for Jazz. A friendly bank manager gave us an account – the Musicians Union helped. Our elders and betters provided moral support – Dudu Pukwana, Mike Osborne, John Surman, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Fesa, Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani and many others,
LJN: You and Keith Bailey had experience in the rock/pop scene – did this feed into Joy?
CF: Keith started at a very young age (15 I believe). I didn’t have a proper sax until I was 21. Keith taught me to believe that musicians had a worth even if they played Jazz. He knew the importance of study and rehearsal; I knew about marketing, graphic design and print. Publicity was crucial – the great Jak Kilby took most of our publicity pics, I designed the logo and had publicity cards printed. Actor friends had impressed on me the importance of making it as easy as possible for promoters. We contacted local radio stations; BBC Radio gave us national coverage and I would give interviews.
LJN: What were your memories of working with John Jack?
CF: I would ring John on a regular basis and attended the club almost every week – John would often let us in free! I had known him from the ‘Old Place’. John could be reticent on occasions, particularly if the club was not doing well, other times he was extremely affable. I owe him a lot for helping me in those early days and all of us later as Joy became established.
John gave us our record deal and the chance to disseminate our music to a wider audience. Now that modern techniques have enabled that recording to be improved, thanks to Keith’s noble effort, the CD with extra tracks (including my lost tune ‘You’) has dramatically enhanced the response to our music. If John was still alive, I think he would be impressed.
LJN: What was the London scene like for Jazz in the mid 70s?
CF: Friendly but very competitive. When I first started playing one of my mentors was Mike Osborne. We tried to count how many ‘happening’ alto players there were on the London scene. I don’t think we got to more than 12. By the mid 70s more players were appearing, many coming from music colleges. We competed for the small amount of work. Larry Stabbins, Dave deFries, Nick Evans and the many alumni of Keith Tippett, Alan Skidmore and of course Mike Westbrook. It wasn’t easy.
Winning the GLAA competition jointly with Landscape made a massive difference. We had been recognised. Exposure on BBC and commercial radio smoothed our way to membership of PRS and MCPS – vital for the future copyright protection of our work.
LJN: What did you work on after Joy?
CF: I kept playing, forming new bands to play my compositions. In 1980 I recorded my Herm Island Suite on Radio 3 with Paul Rogers and Nigel Morris. Other BBC exposure was with a band featuring Mike Piggot, Jeff Green, Paul Bridge and Tony Marsh – a return to my roots using the same instrumentation as John Handy’s ‘Dancy Dancy’ which in 1967 inspired me to seek a career in Jazz. This band was wonderful. Other collaborations included ‘Sketch’ (an album and Old Grey Whistle Test performance), Ming Hat produced by Geoff Haslam, featuring the writing of Ralph Freeman and Rod Coombes and Marcus Vergette and myself as side men. Another recording with Geoff, of my own Northern Songs – Baltic Suite featuring bass player Claudia Colmer (member of the Ivy Benson All Girl Band!) awaits an issue. I still am actively composing and now playing tenor and soprano sax, and flute, as well as alto.
In 2023 I am still writing music, teaching saxophone, painting, drawing and photography, so life comes full circle from those heady days in the 1970’s when we tried to bring some Joy to audiences.
Special thanks are due to my long suffering wife Penny who has had to put up with me and my crazy schemes for many a long year. She even typed this up for me on her birthday. Also Leo our son, who put up with a lot of noise as a youngster, much of it a complete anathema to an ‘AC/DC’ fan!
(*) Mike Gavin is label owner of Cadillac Records