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The Oxford University Big Band

The Jazz scene at Oxford University at the beginning of the 60s.

I went up to Oxford (Brasenose College) in 1956, and left in 1962, after completing BAs in English and then in Music.

When I arrived there, I was already deeply involved in bebop jazz in my home town of Nottingham.  I shared this interest with my friend Les Shaw; the fact that he was an excellent drummer set me on a lifelong love affair with the arts of drums and percussion, at a time when drummers were all too often the butt of a stream of jokes about their supposed inferiority as musicians. 

Les and I joined a “progressive jazz” group, run by saxist Jim Payne, who became and still remains a valued friend.  I was introduced by him to a variety of  jazz for large groups.  I was already aware of the main Swing bands, but Jim introduced me to the work of composers such as Stan Kenton and Boyd Raeburn.

I naturally sought to follow up this interest at the University.  However, at first the ground was not fertile.  There was a thriving University Jazz Club at the Carfax Assembly Rooms, but to my horror this was the exclusive promise of “traddies”  (in fact of a high technical standard)  to whose music the audience danced.  This was alleged to be jive, but as I had been sensitised to the real thing by my father (a jazz pianist and very able dancer), I found that the result as performed by ex-public school lads and lasses was more often reminiscent of a very exuberant.maypole or morris dance than of the black American original.

In response to this I got together a group of like minded souls to form the University Modern Jazz Club.  This would be worth an article in itself, and I intend to use this site as a way of making available material that I have and of encouraging others to do the same.  The essential point in the present context is that this club and also my other musical contacts led to the formation of big bands to enter the Inter-University Jazz Festival. 

The OU Big Band 1960

I have details of our entry for the 1960 competition, but sadly all information about the following year has been lost.  I shall be very glad to hear from anyone who can help me to fill in the picture.

The 1960 band was:  Trumpets: Doug Whaley, Andrew Hayman ;  Saxes (all doubling on clarinet) John Kilpatrick (alto), Keith Brown (tenor), Paul Betjeman (baritone); Rhythm section:  Robin Baxter (piano), Edward Lee (guitar), Barry Fox (vibraphone), Richard Seebohm (bass), Bryant Marriott (drums), Sandy Lindsay (bongos). 

The original performance was in the Victoria Hall, Bristol on 10 February, 1960.  This recording was made at the Isis Studios in Oxford on February 26. 

The  recording was put onto vinyl EP, and consequently some crackle can be heard on softer passages.

Our entry was the Isis Suite (The Isis is an alternative name for the Thames as is passes through Oxford).  In this I sought to push the compositional side of jazz forward (though improvisation remains central) and in particular to develop form.  To this need I followed the classical concept of a suite, a set of pieces based on dances of varying mood and tempo.  In this I was inspired by the work of such bands as Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. 

In this case the movements are:

1-Medium tempo swing
2- LatinAmerican
3 -Slow ballad
4- Up Tempo swing

These were all typical forms used in jazz of the time.

Comment:

1 - Medium tempo swing [click here to hear /download Isis Suite 1]

A short introduction leads into the theme, which is in AABA form.  There are then solos; vibraphone; bridge to alto solo, followed by the return of theme.

 

2 - LatinAmerican [click here to hear /download Isis Suite 2]

A bass riff leads straight into a rhythm section build up.  The theme is then played by the clarinets.  The form is AABA, the middle section being played by the piano with vibes answering phrases.  There is then a superb solo by Doug Whaley.  Whereas at the end of the day, this is a student orchestra and has many of the limitations you would expect of such a group, I feel that Doug’s performance is not only of a professional standard, but is of unusual quality and structure, even judged at that level.  A clarinet solo follows, ( I think by Keith Brown), after which a bridge leads back to the theme.   At the end of this, the trumpet holds a long high note which bridges to the first note of the theme of the ballad.  The latter is in fact Ballad for Ann, which I had written as a tribute to my good friend, and patron, Ann Hamilton.  (A piano version of this is available on my Sibelius Music spot
(www.sibeliusmusic.com )

 

3 - Slow ballad [click here to hear/ download Isis Suite 3]

The theme is played by the piano (Robin Baxter).  It is in AB form.  Another beautiful solo by Doug Whaley follows. Paul Betjeman (baritone sax then follows), before the theme returns.

 

4 - Up Tempo swing [click here to hear /download Isis Suite 4]

Again the dying notes lead at once to the solo clarinet performance of the theme ( a twelve bar).  The band backs him with riffs.  A baritone sax solo follows, before the final theme with contrasting riffs.

Both this and the earlier baritone solo were in fact written.  In the first instance, this was a strategy of necessity, which I used to give various players (another was alto player Rod McCloughlin, not featured here) a chance to explore the basis modern jazz improvisation, when they felt insecure about improvising before a public.  However, the reproduction of a solo either note for note, as in big band transcriptions of recordings, including solos which were in the first instance improvised (eg Glenn Miller), is a well known feature of jazz or jazz-style music  There is also the famous anecdote of Louis Armstrong, challenged about using the same or virtually the same solo, in which he replied that he saw no reason to change something which was already good.

 

The OU Big Band 1961

In the following year I followed up the idea of the suite.  There are two – as I remember, because there was a first heat.

The personnel changed, above all because various of the players who had been in the previous band had completed their degrees (as I had done with my English degree) and had “gone down” to begin their careers in the wider world (in those days there were plenty of jobs!).

Tenor saxes:  Bill Ashton  Paul Betjeman Paul Pignon Stuart Birtwistle
Baritone sax: Harvey Henry  Guitar:Edward Lee  Bass: Roger Jones  Drums: Ian Greenway

But there were also musical reasons for the changing sound.

First, the shortage of brass players, contrasting with a fair number of saxes, led me to take up the idea of an all-sax front line. This line-up had  in fact been used by the Eric Delaney Band in the first half of the 50s. it appealed to me at the time – I like the timbres which saxes create. 

Second, I felt that a thinning-out of the texture was needed.  In this I was drawing on the concept of Gerry Mulligan who, again in the early 50s, had stripped out the harmonic support provided by the piano or guitar, and by virtue of having a quartet, did not have the option of sustained backing chords typical of both big band jazz and standard classical orchestras.

Third, I was already embarking on the road which was to make me much less popular with jazz friends than I had been up to that time.  Inspired by a variety of factors (my “education” with Jim Payne, the influence of experiences gained at the newly-formed Contemporary (“Classical”) Music Society, and what I was learning on the Music degree course), I felt that I needed to leave behind my formative experiences in bebop, which had been summed up in the Isis Suite.

I felt that the search to imitate my Black American heroes was doomed, and that I must create music which reflected my real position, a young white Englishman, who was one of the first products of the opportunities offered by the Welfare State.

I first created the Blues Suite, which was trying to make sense of how to use the profound influence the Blues and also its jazz 12-bar derivatives has always had for me, without trying to compete with Ray Charles – a hero of the time.

But I then went on to the English Suite.  I had grown very excited by English folk music, and its effect on English “serious” music in the 20th Century. This interest was greatly stimulated by a lot of listening together with my good friend, John Bannister., who was passionate about the work of Vaughan Williams.  So I turned to the modes – not as developed at the same time by Miles Davis, but in the more basic form found in English traditional music.

The process then started continues to this day.

 

Blues Suite

1 - Fast 3/4 [click here to hear/download Blues Suite 1]

Theme – solo (guitar) – bridge – solo baritone sax – them (twice) coda .

This theme (called Isis), can be found in the album of guitar pieces Gross Ideas, available from the Shop on this website.

 
2 - Walking speed [click here to hear/download Blues Suite 2]

A riff theme over offbeats from the rhythm section.  The theme is repeated over a second riff. There is then a tenor solo .  A riff builds tension underneath and then another riff builds up  The same format underpins a solo by another tenor player. The opening version of the theme then returns.  The baritone solos over a third playing of the theme which diminishes away to silence.

This movement shows the influence of swings bands and also of the Rhythm and Blues groups with which I was very involved at that time.
 
3 - Fast [click here to hear/download Blues Suite 3]

The piece begins with a guitar solo, which is then backed by stab figures. A false entry by one tenor will be heard !  Unfortunately, you will also hear a fall in pitch which is due to deterioration of the tape.  The theme appears. It is repeated to a long note backing and  a baritone solo.  There is then a tenor solo, which I recognises as being the style of Stuart Birtwistle. Again a riff backs him. After a four bar bridge, another tenor player takes over the soloing., again backed by a riff.  The theme returns (twice) before the tune ends on a short coda finishing on a break

This theme (called Physiology), can be found in the album of guitar pieces Gross Ideas, available from the Shop on this website. The name derives from the fact that it was written for our friend John Bannister (for whom jazz, as well as Vaughan Williams had a strong attraction).  John was a technician in the University Physiology labs.

 

English Suite

1 - Fast [click here to hear/download English Suite 1]

A straight rhythm in open fifths underpins a build up into two playing of the theme, which is in the Dorian mode. A guitar solo follows. A bridge using the build-up figure leads into a tenor sax solo. The second chorus is backed by the saxes. The theme returns and a coda follows. This uses the original guitar figure, but now in a Latin rhythm.

2 - Medium tempo 3/4 time [click here to hear/download English Suite 2]

A opening theme, again Dorian, is played without rhythm section.  The music then moves into tempo, with  a second theme, a modal riff under a guitar solo.  This at times hints at the blues options which can be found in such music.  An alto sax solo follows before the two themes return. But the piece does not end but leads into a tenor solo.  The first theme returns to end the piece.

3 - Slow  [click here to hear/download English Suite 3]

A falling sax figure leads to the the theme, (in the Mixolydian mode) very reminiscent of English folk music, played on the guitar.  It is repeated by the saxes.  A tenor solo follows, give way to a guitar solo, before the tenor sax takes up again. The theme and its backing figure return.

4 - Fast 4/4 [click here to hear/download English Suite 4]

The figure which began the first movement returns, leading to a simple arpeggio
theme (Dorian mode) and a sax build up. A baritone sax solo follows. An arpeggio bridge leads into a guitar solo. Though the technique is flawed, the move towards a different  conception of soloing, not relying on standard jazz patterns can be heard. (there had been some moves towards this in the earlier movements). The opening ideas returns with its contrasting riffs. Finally a third high riff builds to lift the piece to its end.