I came across an old copy of the Melody Maker the other day, dating from about 1961, and couldn’t make out why I had kept it till I spotted that they had printed a letter from me in it, written while I was still at university. Why do people keep saying that Stan Tracey sounds like Thelonious Monk? I had said in the letter. Hands off Tracey! He is his own man and just as good in his own way as Monk, if not better.
Which goes to show that some things change a lot (the Melody Maker doesn’t print many letters about Monk and Tracey anymore) and some things don’t change at all – I haven’t changed my mind about Stan Tracey, because I still think Stan is wonderful and still his own man. I have probably heard more, live, of Stan Tracey than any other living musician, for the prosaic reason that when I worked for The Times as jazz reviewer, I had to go to Ronnie Scott’s most weeks to review the new guest star, and most weeks Stan Tracey was there on piano backing him or her. Quite often though I didn’t say so in review, I came away having enjoyed Stan’s playing more than the guest’s. The star would be running a lot of changes, while Stan would actually seem to be thinking about everything he played, working out new shapes, new voicings, almost literally digging into the music with that rhythmic boldness that made most pianists seem like tinklers.
Maybe the way he sits at the piano reinforces that impression. He sometimes sits hunched up warily, with one shoulder apparently higher than the other, as if fighting off the keyboard, and at other times he launches himself at it as if trying to stun it before it gets him. Nothing classical and relaxed about him. It’s quite exciting just watching him play with the sound turned down. I wonder if he will one day get some RSI peculiar to aggressive pianists?)
Like most jazz musicians, Stan seems to have two personalities depending on whether he is playing up tempo or slow. This is often pronounced with tenor players. Ben Webster had a tone like velvet, playing slow and like a blow torch for faster numbers – but with Stan it is quite noticeable that he is very percussive at fast tempos, almost bleak sometimes and reserves his wonderful full crunching chords for ballads. Never sentimental, though; of all jazz pianists Stan is the least likely to let a tremble enter his voice. This is true in real life as well; when told he had got an OBE, his reaction is said to have been: ’Do they take them at Sainsbury’s?’
It has taken Stan a long time to get to his seventieth birthday, but he has used the time pretty well. He has made what a lot of people still think is the best British jazz LP ever
(Under Milk Wood Jazz Suite), he has written some of the best tunes around, he has led some of the best groups on the scene for thirty years and he has played the most individual jazz piano in British jazz. Little did I think when I wrote that fan letter to the MM in 1961 that I would be repeating it in 1996.
Jazz musicians, like actors and writers, never retire. This is for two reasons. One, they can't afford to, because they never get a pension sorted out. Two, they go on playing because that's what they do. No jazz musician would ever get up on his 65th birthday and hang his saxophone in the cupboard saying it was time to call it a day. Even so, it's hard to believe that Stan Tracey has clocked up three quarters of a century, spending a lot of the last few years being called "the grand old man of British jazz".
You can see why the name sticks. He has carved out such an individual style for himself on the piano that he never sounds like anyone else and never sounds out of date. He has played with everyone. A lot of people still think that his "Under Milk Wood" is the best British jazz record ever. He has been around the world flying the jazz flag for Britain (China, for example, where he says the pianos were fine, and Hong Kong, where he thinks that his performance of his "Hong Kong Suite" for Chris Patten in Government House was the last appearance there by any non-Chinese band ) and he still sits at home in St Albans and waits for the phone to ring, because jazz musicians never retire.
Oh, and he nearly gave up composing recently (‘it's hell, I tell you’, he says) but found himself collaborating with his son Clark instead. It's taken people a long time to accept that Stan Tracey's son could be such a fine drummer, and now they're having to accept that he's a fine composer as well (rave reviews for Clark's CD "Stability" ).
‘Not only that,' says Stan, ‘but he's a brilliant announcer as well.’
I think that must be an even greater source of amazement to father Stan, who hates talking about his music. Leading up to this 75th birthday concert I heard Stan playing on such programmes as Loose Ends and In Tune, but I didn't hear him say a word, because he wouldn't talk to Sean Rafferty or Ned Sherrin, so you can imagine what fun I had talking to him to prepare these notes.
Me: ‘So, what have you been up to since the 70th birthday party, Stan?’
Stan: ‘Well, generally it's Home And Away in the afternoons, Coronation Street in the evening and then early to bed.’
For his latest commission from the Arts Council, the suite called "Continental Drift", he formed an eleven-piece band, which we will hear tonight, but he also co-leads a seven-piece band with son Clark called Ellingtonia, which plays Clark's arrangements of forgotten Ellington stuff.
‘I used to do a lot of stuff with my Octet,’ he says, ‘but I got tired of that after a while and I used to say, 'I wish I could forget the Octet for a time', and someone must have been listening, because suddenly all work for the Octet dried up. Now, I sit around the house saying, I wish I had a million pounds. I hope they're still listening....’
I hope he doesn't get his million pounds because then he might be tempted not to have an eightieth birthday. Meanwhile, raise a glass to the indestructible Stan Tracey, and to Jackie, the great woman behind the grand old man. Which reminds me, I also asked him how his fingers were standing up these days.
‘Fine,’ he said, and added mysteriously: ‘No problems at all. I owe it all to celibacy and the love of a good woman.’
Listen to a few examples of his brilliance as an accompianist,
a musical collaborator and soloist (Ed)