As I’ve confessed already in these entries, I am again forced to admit that I am entirely useless at doing what people expect of a jazz blog. I don’t review gigs, succumb to the payola of free books, or offer politic praise to albums in which I have no interest. In fact, re-reading those caveats I’m not at all unsure that I may be heading towards a blogging persona just this side of that of Victor Meldew. Certainly there are plenty of things going on under the banner of jazz that I don’t believe. That said, I’d like to think I’m even-handed enough to shine a light on those things I truly consider deserving of praise – be they musicians, recordings, or merely forgotten corners of the British jazz story. Today’s entry usefully ties together all three and, if you must have your blogger plug something, this is, I suppose, an informal ad for a forthcoming release.
I’ve just completed the booklet note (more like a small brochure, actually) for a double CD set by the improvising collective Splinters, a line-up of British jazz-based performers who came together for a handful of gigs during the early 1970s. Even to day, in a climate where fewer jazz barriers and prejudices exist, the names in this group sound incongruous and even incompatible; trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, saxophonists Trevor Watts and Tubby Hayes, pianist Stan Tracey, bassist Jeff Clyne and drummers Phil Seamen and John Stevens. The idea behind this border-crossing collaboration came from the latter, a musician who, although he cut his teeth in London’s free-improvisation scene of the mid-1960s, held a passionate and catholic interest in all types of jazz. Stevens’ vision was that of, as he put it, a ‘free jam band’ in which all hands would create soundscapes based on nothing but their combined skills – no arrangements, no pre-set keys, no planning whatsoever, the end result the product of where the hearts and ears told them the music should go.
Whereas he, Watts, Wheeler and Clyne were steeped in this practice (largely as sometime members of another collective, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble), players like Tracey, Hayes and Seamen were, at root, believers in the old ‘meat and potatoes’ diet of time and changes. Indeed, one writer who heard the band called them ‘three of the heaviest musicians that Britain ever produced’. It was no understatement. That said though, the ‘Sixties’ (in folkloric terms at least) was a time in which all manner of UK jazz artists loosened their tie and let down their hair. Chris Barber was doing it on albums like Battersea Raindance (1969), as was the already more than maverick clarinettist Sandy Brown on the unclassifiable 1968 LP Hair at its Hairiest (one of the best albums of the decade housed in one of the worst album sleeves of all time). The boppers were getting in on the act too. As far back as 1960 Phil Seamen had helped power pioneer Jamaican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott’s ‘free form’ experiments, while as the decade wore on even players as solidly locked into the harmonic corridors as Tubby Hayes and Stan Tracey were prepared to concede ground, these renegotiations resulting in records like Hayes’ Mexican Green (1967) and Tracey’s Free an’ One (1969; recently reissued on CD) and Perspectives (1970).
Young and contemptuous
Despite these early attempts to broker the terrain between bop and free, a certain enmity still existed in the minds of some, with audiences and jazz journalists fiercely defending their chosen camps in countless magazine articles and a never ending series of correspondence in the pages of Melody Maker, Jazz Journal and other periodical. As ever, though, it was left to the musicians themselves to accurately pinpoint the root causes, Sandy Brown hitting the nail squarely on the head in one of his regular pieces for The Listener in April 1972. He wrote;
‘The main division in jazz at the moment is between those musicians who play time and changes (keep time and follow a set harmonic pattern) and those who do neither. The audience for the former, while a minority in mass terms, is quite large; that for ‘free’ jazz is small but enthusiastic. The time and changes group tend to be older and are tolerant of other methods. The avant garde tend to be young and contemptuous of the time-and-changes lot.’
The real point, Brown observed sagely, was not one of individual aesthetics but one of opportunity.
‘None of this matters,’ he wrote, ‘except that the world will be a poorer place if the younger musicians aren’t given a proper hearing.’
Those words were written in April 1972, at the very height of what might be called an idealistic pitched battle between the warring camps. On the one hand you had the purist avant garde, many of whom had bandied together under the decidedly left-wing Musicians’ Co-operative. On the other you had musicians like Tracey and Hayes, both established figures, but by this point no longer the fashionable younger faces of British Jazz they’d once been. In the era of Glam Rock and the heady fusions of bands like Nucleus, neither side was working all that much, but there were organisations designed to assist them in doing so, most notably the Jazz Centre Society (formed in 1968) which aimed to represent and promote all styles of jazz. March 1972 saw the launch of an even more passionate body, the Musicians’ Action Group, centred around Stan Tracey, with an aim to secure better media exposure, higher pay rates and more cultural respect for those sincerely dedicated to the jazz cause. At times, the discussion and debate between all these bodies – both public and private – was more akin to the doctrinaire dealings of trades’ unions of the time, party lines, nomenclature and factionalism making what was an art form seem very much like a political movement. And when the BBC – in essence the media groups like the MAG hoped to get on side – effectively ‘banned’ the more adventurous strains of contemporary jazz from its popular Jazz Club radio slot that April, there were howls of derision from some. Others, like mainstream saxophonist Tommy Whittle, to pick one example, came down more or less with the Beeb; the avant-garde were getting plenty of exposure already, they argued. Why not lend a helping hand the to now vast and anonymous central body of the music – those who were still creating in their own way, unswayed by trends?
Some of the best jazz heard anywhere
It was into this divided arena that Splinters entered, making its first appearance at London’s the 100 Club on May 22nd 1972 under the misleadingly nondescript heading of ‘Jam Session’. Martin Davidson reviewed the gig for Jazz Journal and, after a breathless summary of its many highlights, declared its spontaneous collaborative inventions ‘some of the best jazz heard anywhere in the recent past’. That review and a series of photos taken on the night by Jak Kilby, revealing a riot of chocolate brown shirts, leather jackets, huge collars, flares and wild hairstyles, kept the legend of Splinters alive for many years afterwards, long after fate had dealt the band its final blows.
After just one more gig, at the Musicians’ Action Group’s ‘headquarters’, the wittily-named Grass Roots club in Stockwell, South London in September 1972, things began to fall apart. Phil Seamen died soon after, his frail body finally halted after years of drug abuse, and with him something of the original personality-based thinking behind the group died too. For a time Splinters Mark II soldiered on, playing a handful of gigs with an ailing Tubby Hayes into the new year, but when the saxophonist’s health gave out in June 1973 the writing was on the wall. Stan Tracey, having witnessed the tragic passing of his two close colleagues began to have premonitions that he was to be the band’s next ‘victim’ and, despite the recruitment of both Lol Coxhill and Peter King as Hayes’ replacements, everyone’s enthusiasm for the project simply waned.
For over thirty years, the legend of Splinters existed as a kind of emblem for British jazz fans of all stripes; believers in the bebop tenets held dear by Hayes and Seamen, for example, regarded it as a victory for their heroes, who, even late in the day, had proved they could do ‘contemporary’ as well as any of their younger colleagues. For those who fell in with the free camp of John Stevens and Trevor Watts, it was both an example of the avant-garde’s openness to older idioms and proof that ‘free’ didn’t necessarily mean severing all ties with the established jazz tradition. Stan Tracey’s fans, on the other hand, regarded it as another triumph from one of the pianist’s most openly creative periods. In fact, Trevor Watts has revealed that it was Tracey who came up with Splinters’ memorable moniker, a double-edged commemoration of the band’s separatist rationale and its desire to puncture the pretence the dominating much of what was happening elsewhere in British jazz at this time.
All these faiths were, sadly, built on very little practical evidence. Other than a couple of gig reviews, a few name checks in various interviews with Tracey, Stevens and Watts, and one hard to come by BBC Jazz Workshop broadcast from December 1972, Splinters' reputation remained largely apocryphal until 2009 when Canadian Brit-Jazz enthusiast Mike King released a limited edition CD of the band’s first gig at the 100 Club on his Reel Recordings label.
Titled Split The Difference, the album was, if anything, even more of a revelation that it was expected to be, fleshing out the bare bones of Martin Davidson’s review of the night into a full-bodied aural experience that at times echoed the sprawling improvised energy of John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass. One reviewer – Duncan Heining of Jazzwise – tipped it for his archive release of the year, and deservedly so. At last listeners intrigued by the prospect of Tubby Hayes and Phil Seamen playing ‘free’ were afforded the opportunity to hear just that, rewarded with music that was a powerful in 2009 as it must have been to hear live in 1972, made all the more impressive by Reel Recordings astonishingly ‘present’ audio restoration.
Better as a memory
Yet there was a problem. Actually, it was something more akin to a jinx, which has seemingly surrounded the wider appreciation of the band’s message almost since day one. Planning a further release of another Splinters gig, Split the Difference producer Mike King took his own life in 2015, aged 57. The blow was more than simply personal to those who knew him; over the preceding five or so years, King had worked tirelessly in sourcing rare British jazz tapes from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s and in doing so had gained both the ear and the trust of Trevor Watts, one of Splinters’ founding members. Interviewed by email by this writer in 2004, Watts had revealed he had tapes of all the band's performances, but, as a musician very much focused on the ‘here and now’ he steadfastly refused to let anyone hear them, even for research purposes.
‘Once it’s out it’s out,’ he wrote, ‘and the group and music is better as a memory of something that happened at a certain time, rather than something for later analysis in my opinion.’
He concluded; ‘Got to have some mystery in this cold calculating business.’
Thankfully, encouraged by King’s sincerity and passion, Watts eventually relented and provided access to his voluminous tape archive, which included several cassettes recorded on Splinters gigs at Ronnie Scott’s, Notre Dame Hall, The Swan at Stockwell and other locations. To call these treasures physically unprepossessing is to understate things by some measure; indeed, with their faded inlay sleeves and period manufacturers graphic designs they look anything but a Dead Sea Scrolls. However, as Mike King discovered, the music captured by these plastic and chromium oxide relics was a vivid and fresh-sounding as could be.
Amazingly, as both a tribute to King’s original determination, and as a boon to today’s jazz listeners, the Splinters story has what might be called a ‘happy ending’. Step forward John Thurlow, mastermind behind the recently launched Jazz in Britain label, the repository of a staggering series of tape collections gifted from musicians including guitarist Ray Russell, bassist Ron Mathewson, arranger Neil Ardley and others. Like Mike King before him Thurlow is an individual whose interest and fascination had led him down a path from fandom to active promulgation. Already Jazz in Britain have issued hugely valuable music from the likes of Tubby Hayes, Ian Carr, Allan Holdsworth, Mike Taylor and other 1960s/70s British jazz names, but, again in close collaboration with Trevor Watts, they are shortly to issue a complete collection of recordings by the first edition of Splinters, containing a new, unedited mix of the 100 Club debut (Reel Recording having now gone out of business) together with a previously unissued set from the band’s second ever gig at the Grass Roots club, which, it has now been ascertained, is the final ever live recorded performance by drummer Phil Seamen.
Working on this project with Trevor, John and Jazz in Britain’s resident audio whizz Matt Parker has been an absolute pleasure, all three men’s dedication to ensuring the music is presented in the right way extending way beyond remastering, graphics, sourcing photographs and all the usual tasks that make up the manufacture of an archive jazz release. Jazz In Britain are also an example of the ethics of the record business at its best, in Splinters’ case each surviving musician or their estates being paid a fee for the use of these recordings. In connection with music that was every bit about equality, fairness and parity, this is a move as heartening in a human way as it is good business sense.
For my part, I’ve been able to contribute a deeper look at the background to the band’s formation, drawing on a revealing new interview with Trevor Watts, the sole surviving member of Splinters, contemporary sources (including Tubby Hayes’ diaries), press clippings and the testimonies of others who were present at the band’s two 1972 performances, among them fellow jazz scribes Brian Blain, Brian Case and Richard Williams. In addition to this written material, the booklet will feature a series of previously unseen photographs of both the 100 Club and Grass Roots gigs, licensed from the archive of famed photographer Jak Kilby.
The most noteworthy aspect of this release, however, is the music it contains, naturally. And natural is an especially good term with which to describe its character. Witnessing players as different as Trevor Watts and Tubby Hayes finding common ground without ever once surrendering their own identity is thrilling. Moreover, it’s highly fitting that such music should emerge now in our current cultural climate of suspicion, division and disenfranchisement. Back in 1972, Splinters’ core message was one of understanding, respect, freedom from prejudice and ignorance of barriers, a message we’d do well to remember nowadays, nearly a half century later. In fact, if we were to invoke what is perhaps the strongest of today’s watchwords for change – diversity – then it’s clear that in its wide make up of beboppers and free-blowers Splinters was a jazz outfit decades ahead of its time.
However you view its music – be it as a political, social or simply artistic statement – there can be little doubt of its true value; it is vibrant, powerful, communicative performance of the type that has retained its capacity to surprise. Improvised, collective and collaborative, it’s spirit isn’t just that of 1972 – it’s that of jazz, full stop.
Photo: Hayes at his hairiest: Tubby Hayes at the 100 Club, May 22nd 1972