Wednesday, August 18, 2010

the great gig in the sky

It always seems unfair to me that so few musicians ever get the recognition they deserve. I've been to some great jazz gigs lately and have come across a couple of veteran players in particular whose significance I've only become aware of because of some rather sad circumstances.

I recently saw alto sax veteran Peter King and his quartet at the Bull's Head, my favourite jazz venue. There were a couple of comparative youngsters on piano and bass, 69-year-old King himself of course on saxophone and Martin Drew on drums.

Such a large man that even sitting behind his huge kit, Drew was an imposing presence, particularly on the more up-tempo numbers where he was really able to let fly with some furious solos. He seemed to "sing" along with them, as if they were the accompaniment to a tune playing in his head. Slightly off-putting for everyone else though, just the kind of tuneless droning of someone lost in music they're listening to through headphones:

I also remember him apologising to the other band members during the half-time break for "playing the wrong song", having seemingly mistaken one of the numbers on the improvised set list. I doubt that many audience members spotted his gaffe. Indeed, I overheard him jokingly asking "whether it actually makes any difference which tune the drummer plays".

Quite a humble, self-effacing approach for a musician who in his time, it turns out, played with some of THE major figures in twentieth-century jazz: Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Ella Fitzgerald and Ronnie Scott, amongst others. For THIRTY YEARS, he was a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio!

It was only after the gig that I discovered Drew's history because browsing through a newspaper less than two weeks later I came across a photo of Drew behind his drum kit in the exact same pose as I had remembered him at the Bull's Head. Drew had apparently suffered a heart attack three days after the gig and died. Here was his obituary. I had almost certainly seen his last public performance.

Eerily, today I discover that trumpeter and flugelhorn player Harry Beckett also died last month, within days of Drew. A couple of months ago I went to an excellent concert at the Barbican where many of the greats of British big band jazz played their way through a history of the music. Not surprisingly, the evening culminated in an extended tribute to the music of the late Sir Johnny Dankworth, including two numbers from his widow, Dame Cleo Laine, 84 years old, not so sure on her feet, but having lost none of her stage presence and self-deprecating wit.

Beckett was another veteran who had appeared earlier in the evening. Clearly a very old man, he played along with one tune--a Jazz Warriors number, I think--but then sat motionless at his desk in the trumpet section for the rest of the evening, looking very much like a fish out of water, but nonetheless seeming to enjoy listening to the music, as we all did.

Playing a kind of more typically British jazz music with many of the important groups of the sixties and seventies, Beckett also became an inspiration to young black jazz musicians in his work with the Jazz Warriors and continued to record until very recently. I know this--now--because I've just--today--read the obituary which appeared in the Guardian last month. Better to be appreciated after your death than not at all, I suppose.

They say these things come in threes, so here's wishing Dame Cleo the best of health...

Martin with Oscar ("trading fours" at 5:10)


and Dame Cleo:

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