Tag Archives: Sandy Brown

Something About Sandy ….

I’ve been inspired by the Sandy Brown set I heard in Norwich, as well as recent conversations with admirers (among them Michel Bastide of the Hot Antic Jazz Band), to resurrect a piece I wrote four years ago on the great clarinettist. This was published in Scotland on Sunday’s Review, when the album Doctor McJazz made its CD debut. Of course, we should be hearing more Brown music at one of the Scottish jazz festivals in 2009 as this would have been his 80th birthday year….

Long before Brian Kellock, Carol Kidd and Tommy Smith earned their places on the international stage, Scotland had already made a significant contribution to the jazz world – in the slightly shambolic shape of the maverick Sandy Brown.

This self-taught clarinettist was one of the most respected figures on the British jazz scene from the mid-1950s onwards.  His death, at the age of 46 in 1975 , was a great shock to admirers of his fiery style of playing and his dazzlingly original compositions which still sound quite unlike anything else in the jazz repertoire. Several of his recordings – especially the albums McJazz and Doctor McJazz (available on Lake) – were hailed as classics almost as soon as they were released.

But Brown’s death wasn’t a loss just for the jazz community. He was also a successful acoustic architect, and he used his pioneering audio techniques to design recording studios for the BBC, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Sandy Brown Associates is still going strong today – though their current contracts presumably no longer have the clause that, upon completion, the architect’s band is to be allowed to used the facilities to record its next album.

As if two world-renowned talents weren’t enough, Brown was also an extremely funny writer whose posthumously published book, The McJazz Manuscripts - a collection of his columns from The Listener magazine - sparkles with the same originality and wit that’s evident in his playing and composing. Its photographs reveal what an unconventional character he was: he’s pictured looking like a young Peter Cook, wearing suits with sneakers and strange hats, as he heads off for business meetings as part of his day job.

Brown’s musical roots lie in the apparently unlikely jazz breeding ground of Edinburgh’s Royal High School. There, in 1943, he formed his first band with trumpeter Al Fairweather and pianist Stan Greig. They and two other former Royal High pupils – Bob Craig and Dizzie Jackson – formed a semi-professional trad jazz band in 1949.

In February 1952, the band played its first big concert, as support for the American blues artist Big Bill Broonzy at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. A string of recording dates followed and, in 1953, the band travelled to London to play the Royal Festival Hall. The next year, Brown moved permanently to the capital.

Brown’s distinctive, hot, sweet and often spiky clarinet style blossomed during the 1950s, and was increasingly showcased on his own compositions, many of which had a strong African tinge. Initially inspired by the New Orleans clarinettist Johnny Dodds, he emerged as a highly original player, actively hostile to the idea of Benny Goodman as primary role model.

Brown’s playing was lyrical, exuberant and often wild. The late writer and broadcaster Miles Kington told me that he had always had the feeling that there was something inherently Scottish about Brown’s sound. “There was often a keening, a wild, lonely note in his playing,” he explained.

The pianist Ralph Laing recalled: “He was one of the great melodic lateral thinkers and he would never let your attention waver. He would lull you into a sublime musical security, then make you leap to attention.”

In person too, Brown delighted in unsettling new acquaintances. Miles Kington was a student in 1962 when he first encountered Brown. Kington told me: “He said: ‘Where are you from, laddie?’ And I said: ‘Well, I’m English but I went to school in Scotland. I went to Glenalmond, for what it’s worth.’ ‘No’ very much,’ was the reply.

“He was a fearsome character. He had this enormous pate, a big beard and gigantic eyebrows. I think he enjoyed putting on this gruff manner to frighten people, but underneath he was a bit of a softie.”

Sandy Brown’s enduring popularity has led to numerous tribute albums and, especially memorably, a sell-out concert at the 2002 Edinburgh Jazz Festival which reunited many of his old bandmates and highlighted the degree of affection in which he is still held. Kington summed up the feelings of those who remember him: “He was larger than life. He was more than just a musician – and he was the best clarinettist in the world at one time. He was a force of nature.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hot Notes From Norwich

It’s almost 48 hours since the last note was blown at this year’s Norwich Jazz Party and it’s still ringing in my ears. This weekend was my first experience of Norwich – or should I say Norwich’s Holiday Inn, which is where all the musical action took place at the jazz party – and I hope it’s one I get to repeat.

Some 30 musicians had taken up residence for the event which had already been underway for a day and a half before I turned up for the Sunday evening session. While I was kicking myself for missing such tantalising treats as cornettist Warren Vache and guitarist Howard Alden’s duo set (and I’ll be kicking myself even harder if I learn that they reprised two of the unforgettable tunes I head them duet on in Nairn a few years back – I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles and the theme from the Spiderman cartoon), there was still much to savour from the second half of the party.

Easily the standout set for me was the one that was so unexpected in a programme packed with homages to the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Red Allen & Coleman Hawkins, Eddie Condon: a Sandy Brown celebration featuring an international band led by ex-pat Scot Jim Galloway on soprano sax. This set was Galloway’s brainchild and he wrote the arrangements – of such Brown numbers as Bimbo, Own Up and The Clan – from the original recordings.

I’ve only ever heard the maverick, Edinburgh-raised clarinettist’s weird and wonderful compositions played by the Scottish musicians (with the odd Englishman featured at the Sandy Brown gala at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival a few years back). To hear them played by a star-studded ensemble that included Americans Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet) and Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar), as well as the Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello was a new thrill.  And what made it even more exciting was watching the musicians – several of whom had never even heard of Brown, let alone his tunes - being converted to his music as they played the arrangements for the very first time..

Jon-Erik Kellso, who had been chosen by Galloway because of his unfussy style, did a terrific job,  and was overheard saying that he was going to be shopping for Sandy Brown CDs as soon as he could.. Some of the jazz festivals, both here in Scotland and abroad (because Brown’s music, with its unique blend of African, Caribbean and Scottish flavours, is truly international) should be shopping for bands to stage Brown tributes such as this – because 2009 is the year in which the great man would have been 80. Sadly, however, he died at the age of 46.

Jim Galloway told me that he first encountered Sandy Brown when Brown brought the band he led at the Edinburgh College of Art over to Glasgow’s famous School of Art, where Galloway was studying. Every year the two colleges would do an exchange – any excuse for a piss-up – but even then, says Galloway, you could hear that there was something special about Sandy Brown.

Some of the same line-up on the Brown set also played in a sensational Bix Beiderbecke tribute, and it highlighted for me the fact that Sandy Brown, like Bix, is one of those musicians who is not merely revered and loved still, 30-odd years after his premature death: he is cherished by people. He routinely inspires his fans to become somewhat evangelical about him. And it was undoubtedly the idea of spreading the Brown word that was a prime motivation for Jim Galloway who must have felt immense satisfaction watching his fellow musicians come under the spell of Sandy’s music.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized