It was with great regret that all of us at Serious and the EFG London Jazz Festival heard of Stan Tracey’s death earlier today.
A towering figure in British jazz, his career stretched back to the early days of bebop and modern jazz in the UK – a startlingly original pianist, whose love of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk came together in a style that was instantly recognisable as entirely his own. In years of playing piano with a procession of first division American soloists when he was house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s through the 1960s, he became admired as a master improviser, whose solo prowess transcended notions of nationality and background. In subsequent years, collaborations with soloists of a younger and more radical generation – Trevor Watts and John Stevens, Keith Tippett, John Surman, Evan Parker, Louis Moholo – proved that the great jazz musicians can create extraordinary music in any setting, without compromise, and without losing anything of their musical identity. Whatever the context, you always knew it was Stan Tracey at the piano…..
But it was his talent as composer and band leader that arguably made even more impact – in the 1960s, his haunting and evocative suite, inspired by Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood”, marked a crucial point in the evolution of jazz in the UK, as artists in this country developed distinct identities of their own, out of the African/American traditions of the music. Stan’s witty and eloquent themes, and the richly textured qualities of his big band writing, were – and remain - a massive inspiration to successive generations. Whether for small or large group, he continued to compose new music right up to his final years, the creative muse still hard at work.
On a personal note, I first heard Stan play live with Roland Kirk at Ronnie’s sometime in the 60s (some experience, albeit at an age that I probably shouldn’t have been there….), and I first worked with him way back in pre-Serious years, back in the 70s. “The Bracknell Connection” was the first piece of music that I ever commissioned, for the long-gone Bracknell Jazz Festival. After all these years, and after many other concerts with various Tracey-led bands of all shapes and sizes, this first encounter with Stan’s talents stays in the memory as something I’m very proud to have been associated with.
Stan was scheduled to play a special concert on the last day of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, revisiting his 1978 collaboration with John Surman, and performing his latest suite – “The Flying Pig”.
In the event, he was too ill to perform – of course, it couldn’t be the same without Stan, but the sheer energy of the music shone through in magnificent style, with Surman joining the band led by Stan’s talented son, Clark, long his father’s drummer of choice. An occasion tinged with concern and perhaps, a sense of premonition. But one that reminded us all – audience, musicians and Festival team alike – of the uplifting qualities of Tracey’s music, and that this was an artist who commanded enormous respect and affection.
Stan often looked faintly embarrassed when he was referred to as the Godfather of British jazz – his natural reticence balanced by a dry sense of humour. However reluctant a godfather he might have been, his reputation and importance reaches out, not just in the UK, but worldwide. Sonny Rollins – one of the many American jazz soloists who benefitted from Stan’s consummate playing at Ronnie’s during the 60s, and remained a long-time friend, asked at the time – “does anyone here know how good he is?”. He was then…and he still is……
On behalf of Serious and the EFG London Jazz Festival