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.”