Saturday, December 5, 2009

London Three

Notting Hill

Returning from the Isle of Wight (the scene of Jimi Hendrix' last live concert in 1970), I found new living quarters in Notting Hill at the top end of Portobello Road – a still famous antiques market. Pembridge Road is a very short street extending Portobello Road to Notting Hill Gate. 38 Pembridge Road was a small townhouse where the owner, Dr. Dempsey, had a surgery on the main floor. The two upper floors were converted to four typical London "bed-sitters" that would have been called bachelor pads in North America. In the basement lived the housekeeper and her husband.

Mrs. Strang kept the premises spic and span during the day and retired to the basement in the late afternoon where she and her husband drank until they went to bed. The good Irish doctor had office hours three afternoons a week and seemed to avoid contact with the tenants. Consequently, we had a clean and private existence in the middle of one of the most interesting neighbourhoods in London. It was a good thing that I found a pied-a-terre as quickly since Judy, my fiancée, was coming to London in a few weeks.

While the gas fire that required shillings to keep it going, the telephone in the hall and the bathtub in the basement weren't exactly selling points when Judy arrived, the really lovely young couple downstairs helped to make her arrival a more pleasant experience. Ian, a young law student, came first in the London bar exams and became V.P. of Thames Hudson Publishing while we were living there. His wife Nathalie was a French translator from Nice who worked for the British civil service. Ian loved Dizzy Gillespie and Nathalie became a fan of Les Double Six de Paris, an excellent French vocal group that predated The Swingle Singers and The Manhattan Transfer. I mention this as every time I visited them they played the album "Dizzy Gillespie and Les Double Six". I grew to love the album both because it is a tour-de-force and because of the memories it evokes of Ian and Nathalie. You can hear a couple of tracks if you click on under Guy's MP3s at the right of this page.

Other than rehearsal bands, gigs during the winter in London were sparse and mainly one-nighters. Judy and I both got day jobs at Selfridges Department store on Oxford St. between Trafalgar Square and Oxford Circus. Selfridges was an American style department store like Macy's in New York or Eaton's in Montreal. Judy got a permanent job that she liked in the bedding department. I worked in the stationary department over Christmas where the only memorable event was the day that a very grumpy Marlene Dietrich came to buy $70. worth of Scotch tape.

Diagonally across the street from 38 Pembridge Rd.was the Prince Albert pub (my "local"). Around the corner and just steps from the Prince Albert was the Ballet Rambert dance studio where Mike Westbrook's Band held weekly rehearsals. Mike got a new trumpet player (Henry Lowther) while I was away, but I got to replace him for several weeks. During that period, we did a concert with Cornelius Cardew, an avant-garde composer in the John Cage idiom. As we mostly ad-libbed from strange musical notations, I really enjoyed playing this concert.

I introduced John Warren to the band and befriended John Surman, one of the best baritone saxophone players I ever heard play let alone had the privilege to know. Amazingly John Surman, John Warren, and Mike Westbrook are all still working and recording. Among the other young musicians in this band who were to achieve well deserved reputations in the world of British jazz were Malcolm Griffiths (trombone), Mike Osborne (alto sax) and Alan Jackson (drums). The band was a veritable "hot house" for young musical talent. Mike Westbrook was eventually awarded an OBE for his innovative musical works and for pioneering mixed media presentations in England.

John Warren played flute and saxophone in the band. He then formed his own band that showcased his music and subsequently formed a musical partnership with John Surman that produced the album, "The Brass Project". John's latest offering, "Following On" is being released February 15, 2010. Following upon his "Finally Beginning" and "Northern Brass" albums it completes a compilation of John's excellent composer/arranger skills. These recordings exhibit John's maturity and a devotion to the jazz riffs and rhythms that formed his art.

John Surman has become a dominant force in jazz improvisation. His strong technical skills as a saxophonist and mastery of the music he loves carve a niche for him as a store of musical information for those who follow in his footsteps. Influenced by those who came before him he continues to add to the music lexicon as evidenced by his playing on his latest CD "Brewster's Rooster", where he is accompanied by jazz greats John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack de Johnette.

Getting encouragement, advice, and friendship from these musicians was priceless. Their devotion to their craft, and persistence in their quest for mastery of their instruments and the musical forms in which they travailed was a stark reminder of what it took to join the elite of the British jazz fraternity.