Martin Speake interviewing British alto saxophonist Geoff Simkins.
13th October 2010 at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
Transcribed by Huw Morgan
MS – Martin Speake
GS – Geoff Simkins
MS: This is Martin Speake interviewing Geoff Simkins on the 13th of October 2010. I’m going to start by asking Geoff his earliest musical memories. Was there music in the family? Was it passed down in any way?
GS: Yes my father was a saxophone player. A semi-pro player, he always had a day job but he was actually quite a busy semi-pro player in London. And my older brother Pete is a piano player, again he always had another job but he played a lot and when I was perhaps seven or eight there were certainly people rehearsing in our house, either my dad with his mates or my brother who was ten years older than me. He would have been seventeen/eighteen and playing in his first sort of Dixieland bands playing in West London. That had a big impact because I think when I got a bit older it was perfectly natural for me to start playing an instrument and start playing jazz because that’s what happened in our house.
MS: So it was jazz they were playing?
GS: Yes, my father was a huge Coleman Hawkins obsessive.
MS: So he played tenor?
GS: He played tenor and clarinet and before the war when he had been a young man he’d been to a Coleman Hawkins master class in a shop in Shaftesbury Avenue in his lunch hour from the post office and had stood five foot from Hawkins, who was demonstrating.
MS: Amazing! So when would that have been? What year would that have been?
GS: The Thirties. I forget when my old man was born, 1917 or something, so he would have been seventeen or eighteen, yeah... when Hawkins was spending a lot of time in Europe I think, so, that was sort of, you know, when I first got interested in playing those were the sort of things that my dad told me.
MS: So you didn’t think of rebelling against it, it was just a natural thing for you to play; you liked it?
GS: No, no that was it, I wasn’t rebelling. I mean it obviously became clear that at school I was rebelling against something although I was quite an outsider at school. I sound like Tony Hancock “I was never really one of the crowd”. I was always an outsider partly because our family moved, two or three times, at quite formative points in my education so I had changed schools at quite critical times, and so I was literally the outsider in two different schools.
MS: Was this all in London? Did you grow up in London?
GS: I grew up in London and my family moved to Brighton when I was twelve/thirteen. We moved twice at the point at which I’d just gone to another school then we moved again... And so that’s certainly shaped my character as being sort of a loner, a bit of an outsider in that sense, but also because I thought there was nothing odd about playing jazz, when you went to your new school and other people were interested in the Stones and Manfred Mann and you used to write your names of your favourite bands on your duffel bag I seem to remember and I used to write down Miff Mole and Jelly Roll Morton and they were saying “what the bloody hell’s all this about?” and they were writing down “The Beatles” and stuff.
MS: And you were the only one?
GS: There was one other guy who was interested in blues, and he was very interested in Chicago, the urban electric blues, but there was some point of contact and so we used to knock around together at school but apart from that I was just considered a complete loony.
MS: When did you start playing then?
GS: When I was about thirteen/fourteen, I played the drums.
MS: So it was after you had moved to Brighton?
MS: But, but prior to that you, you remember hearing it in the house?
GS: Yes and certainly when I was eleven or twelve I used to come home from school and listen to Pete, my older brother’s albums and I was completely taken by… I can remember them. There was Cannonball Adderley “Live At The Lighthouse”…
MS: I love that album.
GS: … and there was an album with Carmell Jones and a guitar player called Dennis Budimir and I used to listen to these albums and something about the music was really appealing and so I knew the albums really quite well.
MS: Before you started playing?
GS: Before I started playing. Yeah.
MS: So you didn’t listen to what was in the charts at the time? Rock music, pop music.
GS: Not at all, it just completely bypassed me.
MS: And so you never, well you probably had a bit of peer pressure, in a sense people wanted you to do that did they?
GS: There was to some extent although most of the time I think that they just thought I was an amiable eccentric, so left me alone. I was quite good at football actually and so I played for the school team, so that was my, if you like, that was my…
MS: That’s quite handy isn’t it.
GS: Yes absolutely.
GS: ..my passport to some sort of acceptance rather than being bullied. I think.
GS: But of course I didn’t really understand much of that till much later in my life, and look back and you find why you are like you are and some things that might have shaped your character and personality and certainly that at the time it seemed, it didn’t seem strange. In fact looking back, it certainly was. But the other very curious thing was that on the one hand I’d listened to these albums, you know at the time very modern and contemporary albums, and yet when I started to play I was only interested in very archaic New Orleans music.
MS: Was that because of what your father was playing.
GS: No. He was very much I suppose what would be called mainstream. It was Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson and people like that.
MS: Oh I see. You were interested in music before that.
GS: Oh very very early, very early New Orleans.
MS: So where did you get that, did he have those records as well?
GS: He didn’t, Pete might have had a few I think? But it was, there was something about that music that I found very appealing when I first started to play. I suppose partly because like a lot of people who played traditional or Dixieland music, it was a bit easier to do. It might have been a bit easier to get going by playing that style, but I was much more obsessed with some very arcane players.
MS: This is on drums?
GS: On drums. Yeah.
MS: So did you play along with recordings?
GS: I did. I used to play along with records and then when we had moved to Brighton, I suppose we’d been down there two or three years, so I would of have been maybe fourteen I suppose coming up to fifteen, and my older brother Pete had met some students at the teacher training college and played in a band. He played in a sort of traditional Dixieland band and they asked my brother to join them because he was quite a good piano player and my brother said ‘Oh my kid brother is a better drummer than this bloke that they’ve got’, so he came home and said ‘Do you fancy playing drums, I’ve told them that you can play a bit you know’. So we went out and bought a minimalist kit.
MS: Oh you weren’t playing at all?
MS: He just said you were?
GS: Yes, he said that I was. So I just started playing you know started, I had brushes and sticks, a snare drum, a bass drum, a couple of cymbals and I suppose because I had just listened to so much of it and I’d played along I guess at home and, you know pencils and rulers and things and I suppose had been immersed in it without being terribly conscious of it some of the time.
MS: Do you have a kit now?
GS: No. The only thing I have now is a snare drum and a pair of brushes and a couple of cowbells these of which I do play at workshops, so one of my Saturday classes where there is never a drummer I play brushes and snare. The kit I sold years ago.
MS: So when was the transition because you’re known as a saxophone player obviously?
GS: The little band I was playing in when I was about 17 or 18 the clarinet player was a little, really playing the small group music of the 20’s and the clarinet player, who must, could have only been in his early twenties I suppose, he’d left or his family had moved or he had emigrated or something happened and I said well, I said ‘there is a saxophone at home’, which for some reason my older brother had bought and I can’t think why because he was a piano player, but it was one of those Grafton acrylic things.
MS: Oh yeah.
GS: And I said ‘oh my brothers got an alto, I’ll have a go on that’ rather than the band collapse you know, we needed a reed player. So ‘I’ll have a go on that’. So I just started playing and my old man gave me a bit of tuition in a very sort of rustic way. He just showed me where your fingers went and showed me about reeds and a bit about breathing and tonguing, but apart from that as my mum told me later, he used to just stand outside the little basement room where we used to practice, my mum said he would just stand outside and listen and if he heard anything you were doing drastically wrong he’d obviously come in and tell me, but a lot of the time he would just stand and listen and go away. So he was very hands off in that sense.
MS: So how did you get your playing together? You didn’t have any lessons?
GS: No I didn’t.
MS: And did you have any books?
GS: No, no books. I copied what I heard on records.
MS: You played along with recordings?
GS: I played a lot with recordings and because I was in this little band I was constantly getting practice of playing tunes, but the guy who played banjo and guitar, I mean for probably a couple of years he’d have to play the first chord of the tune and once I had heard that I could play. But it was pointless somebody saying that you were in Bb or it’s in F. I just played.
MS: That didn’t mean anything to you? The key didn’t mean anything?
GS: No it didn’t mean anything.
MS: But it sounds that you’ve got the ear to instrument relationship quite quickly then?
GS: I just relied totally on that, yeah.
MS: Have you got perfect pitch?
GS: No. Relative pitch I guess.
MS: Probably a good relative pitch?
MS: So that happened quite quickly for you, the ability to play and the ability to play in different keys?
GS: That was ok. I didn’t realize that some were more difficult than others. But remember that the sort of harmonic language was fairly simple. A lot of those tunes from the 20’s were really quite basic and if they went anywhere it was only one key around the cycle so it wasn’t harmonic minefields to be traversed, probably because nobody else in the band could have done that anyway. But nonetheless it was playing with other musicians and playing in public and playing at parties and things and soloing and learning tunes, so I did all that.
MS: So had you left school now?
GS: No I was still at school, still at school then and I think it was one of the reasons I wasn’t asked to go into the sixth form because I was seen as a bit of a curious cove really.
MS: So you left then?
GS: I left then and just got a job. Just got an office job, but I was doing a lot of playing.
MS: How long did the day job last?
GS: I suppose.... I worked a bit in Brighton when I left school and then I went off hitchhiking around Europe for a bit and came back, moved back up to London and got an office job. I lived in a bedsit. I was playing quite a lot in London, four or five nights a week but again with people who were specializing in that music of the 20’s. So it was a group of people very interested in the music of Bix and Adrian Rollini and Red Nichols and Miff Mole.
MS: And you listened to that music in detail?
GS: I listened to that music, yes, in detail and actually curiously enough it was those players. I mean I loved Louis and Jelly Roll and Oliver and people, but it was that, it was particularly…
MS: Very specific?
GS: Very specific? Yeah, it was particularly Frankie Trumbauer and Adrian Rollini, whose playing …it was extraordinary, I was really gripped by it. Because it was so unusual and so, and so idiosyncratic to me, having either been listening too in a sort of unthinking way to those Cannonball and Carmell Jones albums, but then listening to very early archaic New Orleans music that was far more rough-hewn, you know, but the sort of precision and the curious labyrinthine melodies and arrangements.
MS: So you’d learn those from recordings?
GS: Yes and the bands I was in were playing some of those tunes.
MS: Did you learn to read at that time?
GS: My reading was still very rudimentary but I had taught myself something about harmony just because I realized that there was going to be a point where I wasn’t going to get any further so I had to start teaching myself about that.
MS: How did you do that?
GS: I just started asking people, I started pestering people who knew a bit more than I did. The upshot of all that was I learnt to read chord symbols in, I learnt everything in concert pitch, I didn’t read any alto changes I just associated concert chord sequences with what I played on the saxophone.
MS: So you weren’t transposing in anyway?
GS: No, I was just reading Bb7, Eb7, F7 whatever it was from the piano player’s part and was playing what that meant to me.
MS: So, that meant that a G on the alto meant a Bb for you?
GS: For me yes it did.
GS: (Laughs). And so you know from what I’ve said already, the way I learnt about playing jazz was in such a curious and piecemeal... and actually quite an eccentric fashion.
MS: Well maybe not in terms of past generations?
GS: No, no.
MS: I have the feeling a lot of people in the past did learn in that way. That’s my feeling about it.
GS: Right, yes that might...
MS: But not so much now.
GS: Not so much now.
MS: …or at that time probably.
GS: But certainly stylistically I was equally obsessed by many different ways of playing. So it wasn’t that when I was 16 I heard Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or whoever and thought that’s it. My interest in the music sort of meandered through the history of jazz.
MS: So you weren’t only listening to 20’s music?
GS: I was playing it.
MS: You were listening, but you were listening to other parts of jazz.
GS: I was starting too, yes, listening to other parts of it and thinking “Wait a minute there’s something else here that sounds really interesting”, but I’m not sure I could deal with it because my knowledge of playing was so rooted in this quite basic harmonic language I suppose.
MS: So you’re playing, you had a day job and you’re playing in London a lot.
GS: I had a day job, I was playing in London a lot and then, and then I was made redundant from the day job.
MS: Were you playing alto?
GS: Alto, yes, I mean from, I suppose I really started playing, thinking of myself as a saxophone player probably when I was about eighteen or nineteen, although I did play drums still.
MS: So sometimes you’d do a gig on drums?
GS: On drums and sometimes on alto, yeah.
MS: Who are these other players you were playing with? Are they around now?
GS: One of them was a great clarinet player called Alan Cooper, great musician and I know he died probably couple of years ago, but he was a terrific musician. There was a very good trombone player called Jim Shepherd who still, don’t think plays now but is certainly still about in West London. A piano player called Colin Bowles, a lot of these musicians had played with a band called The Temperance Seven, who were very interested in the music of the 20’s, particularly that sort of Bix, Red Nichols and Adrian Rollini. I think they used to call it hot dance music or something, but it was, rather then it being classic New Orleans music, it was much more the, perhaps the white end of things.
MS: They are all white musicians you’re talking about?
GS: Most of them. I don’t think that, I never thought about that as being here nor there, it was just that approach to playing I think that interested me.
MS: How long did that go on for? I know your interest in that area but the way I know your playing is not in that area stylistically, so how did it develop into more modern jazz?
GS: I think when I was made redundant, and shortly after I got married! Very curious chain of events. And moved back to Brighton. My wife had a job and I think I realised after a time that I was earning my money by playing in bands. I think it was a sort of ‘by default’ you know I must be a musician because I don’t have a job anymore. So I’m playing in bands, and because there were lots of gigs for sort of you know, Dixieland, swing bands, mainstreamy bands, playing still quite simple harmonic language, but I was probably working 4 or 5 nights a week with different little bands.
MS: In Brighton as well?
GS: In Brighton, yeah. I was doing something’s with The Temperance Seven, I played drums for a bit with them and then I played saxophone for a bit with them.
MS: They worked a lot did they?
GS: They worked a lot!
MS: You can earn a living from that band?
GS: Yes absolutely yes you could. At the time they were, they were very busy.
MS: What period is this?
GS: I suppose that would have been, that would have been sixty... late 60’s, mid to late 60’s I suppose.
MS: What year were you born?
GS: 48. So yeah late 60’s about 68, 69, 71, something like that.
MS: So you’re pretty young still at that period.
MS: Did, so did that band work in Europe as well or is it just that….
GS: They did work in Europe, they, and because it was the era of the sort of, of the working man’s club you know, when they would go on the road and they’d maybe do two or three weeks sometimes doing two clubs a night. They had those two big hits in the 60’s ‘Pasadena’ and ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, and so even ten, twelve, fifteen years later there was still quite a lot of mileage to be had out of that music.
MS: How long were you in that band?
GS: On and off for a long time. I mean I did gigs with them until recently. I played baritone with them.
MS: Did you always play baritone from the beginning?
GS: A bit of alto, bit of baritone, on very few gigs I played a bit of clarinet, which was a disaster. So it was really alto and baritone and occasionally on drums if they needed a dep on the drums. So, that way of playing I continued with even when I wasn’t doing any other playing of that sort. I still retained a sort of interest in playing that. I didn’t feel that it was odd or compromised my musicality at all, it was something that I had always loved I suppose. So I enjoyed doing it. Particularly playing baritone I was, that Adrian Rollini thing was so fantastic I was really happy to sort of recreate that I think.
MS: Did they have charts?
GS: Yes, yes some of the time. It was one of those things where the sort of repertoire had been handed down over the years and after a time everybody knew it back to front but, and it wasn’t a huge pad of stuff, but there was some reading and my reading was never great, its better now in recent years, but it was never great and so I struggled quite a lot with that I think.
MS: Did you record with them?
GS: Yeah, I mean I don’t know where, I’ve not heard any of the albums for years, I don’t even know if...
MS: But they are available?
GS: They probably are still somewhere.
MS: On baritone?
GS: On baritone, yeah.
MS: Was that your first recording, that band?
GS: It would have been yes. I think so and then after a time when I wasn’t working during the daytime I started falling in with another sort of team of musicians in London who were a bit more mainstreamy.
MS: Were you living in Brighton?
GS: I was living in Brighton and going up to London.
MS: Coming to London a lot?
GS: I was going up to London just to play and do a few gigs and there were quite a lot of gigs in the City of London at that time. There were lots of lunchtime gigs in pubs where business folk went. There was The Lud, The King Lud, and the Rumboe here, just off Fleet Street. Ludgate Circus.
MS: This is in the 70’s?
GS: This would have been in the 70’s yeah,mid to late 70’s I guess. And so there were a lot of musicians there. Really good sort of mainstream, middle of the road players and I met quite a few of those and became very friendly with a trombone player called Campbell Burnap and we started working in Europe quite a lot, in Switzerland and Germany, so I was away from home for you know, a month, six weeks at a time. There was a residency in Zurich people used to do and we sometimes we were there for two months, you’d play every night. This place called the Casa Bar, and we were there for…you might do 60 nights in a row. There was a five piece band.
MS: This is unusual now isn’t it? This kind of gig just doesn’t exist now.
GS: No it doesn’t exist now.
MS: That’s amazing, that you were part of that.
MS: For playing it’s great isn’t it.
GS: For playing yes it was. We were living above, certainly for some of those visits, above the club. Two of the musicians lived in Zurich, so they had their own place. Campbell and I and whoever the other musician was in the quintet had a room each upstairs. I was partly trying to save money so I wasn’t going out spending during the daytime. I think it was just coincidental but I thought I’ve really got to start working hard at this business you know because I’m ok and I can play and I’m actually quite convincing but there’s something else and I’d better start working.
MS: What do you mean? By studying you mean?
GS: By studying and practicing and really doing it in a focused way, rather than doing what was necessary in order to fulfil the musical requirements.
MS: So how did that manifest itself, when you had that idea, what happened? What changed? What did you start working on or listening too?
GS: I started to listen too at that time to people like Lee Konitz certainly. The bass player Lindsay Cooper who I worked with in Switzerland, he lived down there for a bit, but I met him on a gig in the Channel Islands. We were playing at a hotel in Guernsey for about seven weeks with a band. Again a residency in a hotel.
MS: Similar kind of music?
GS: Similar sort of, you know, mainstreamy jazz with a few songs that people might know, and occasionally people would get up and sing but it was in the bar every night of the week and it was Lindsay Cooper, I was sharing a room with him and he played me a Lee Konitz tape one night and he said “Have you ever heard this bloke Geoff? You know you might be interested in this”.
MS: What was it? Do you know the album?
GS: I can’t remember now. It was one of those quartet things. It wasn’t the Tristano thing in the 50’s, it was a quartet thing sometime in the 60’s. And I was just bowled over, I was absolutely bowled over.
MS: And you can remember it, the first time you heard it?
GS: Yeah. It really was like a big light bulb going on. I thought this is it, somebody’s explained what’s been sort of filling this huge jumble in my head, because I’d never heard anybody explain it in such an elegant and cogent way. So once I’d heard that I had a sense of direction, I thought great, I’ve got something to work on now. So I started to listen to all that music and read about them, find out how they practiced, what sort of things they were working out, what they thought was important, what things I’d need to really master.
MS: So what did you do then? What did you find out?
GS: I found out about playing with a metronome, about practicing slowly, the connection between playing and singing, about playing things in unfamiliar keys. All that sort of stuff I think. On the one hand I suppose it’d not been totally unheard of, because I played a lot by ear so I was used to hearing things and trying to play what I heard. But to do it such a structured and focused way and I think when I started doing it, especially when I was in Zurich I was you know, practicing four hours a day and we had to play four hours a night, we’d play eight till midnight in this club and so for 60 nights, 60 days in a row I was doing huge amounts of incredibly focused work, I suppose.
MS: If you reflect on it did you feel that your playing moved on after that time, that particular period?
GS: It did in retrospect, although at the time it didn’t seem too, but I guess that’s the way it is isn’t it. It’s imperceptible when you hear yourself play every day. It’s only when you look back and realise what you were capable of doing one year and then you think, after a period of perhaps two years I was doing this, particularly in Zurich, although we were working a lot in Germany and Holland and places, but it was that residency in Zurich and every time I went there for a month or two at a time that’s what I did, pretty much and then after a time I realized there were lots of things that I knew about and could do and understand that two or three years ago I wouldn’t have really be able to deal with.
MS: So becoming influenced by Lee Konitz, did that then lead you to playing with different people?
GS: Well it did, except that the people I was playing with, and this is not a criticism of them, but the requirements of those gigs were very much a sort of mainstream. The sort of thing that the average punter who came in from the streets of Zurich for a few beers would like to hear, which involved a fairly sort of, not anodyne, but yeah, a fairly bland mainstreamy sort of way of playing, and I suppose I was stuck then. This was what I realised I wanted to try and do, but…
MS: But you couldn’t do it?
GS: …the opportunities for doing it were, you felt you were sort of watering it down. Do you know what I mean?
MS: I think so. Yeah. You’re saying that those gigs were playing directly for the public?
GS: Yes, very much so, and since, the musicians were dependant on those gigs because the money was ok. You were working quite a lot and so there was a certain sort of musical requirement if you wanted those gigs. I understand that. That’s fine. But I was at the position where I was thinking “wait a minute”, this is what I really want to do and I’m trying to sort it out, but then when I’d go up to play in the evening I’m still having to try and, you know….
MS: So you were restraining yourself in a way?
GS: I suppose so.
MS: In terms of improvisation?
GS: Yes absolutely in terms of improvisation, or just in terms of trying things out that I was working on.
Interview with Pete Hurt
MS: So you’re playing more of a formula in the clubs?
GS: Inevitably yes because that’s what the people who owned the Casa Bar needed to get their place full.
MS: What was the line up of the bands?
GS: It was some of the time it was, it was trumpet and saxophone, piano, bass, drums. For two months I worked there where the front line was trumpet, trombone and saxophone and it was piano and drums rhythm section with no bass player, and that was every night for two months.
MS: Great experience.
GS: Very interesting yeah. So it was, it was extraordinary. I learnt so much, but you know the more you learn the more... you were blinking in the headlights. This is what I’ve always been, this is what I think I want to do but on the other hand I’ve got to do this and how can we reconcile the two things.
MS: So what happened then when that gig finished?
GS: I suppose in the end other musicians start hearing you differently so they just sort of say “well Geoff is obviously interested in this stuff, so perhaps the next band we get together we’ll get somebody else because they’re much more in the style that’s what we want”.
MS: Oh, that’s what happened was it?
GS: I think that’s what probably happened over a period of time. But then I thought well you’ve now got to make that sort of decision about what you want to do with your music, which way you want to go and what’s important and I suppose I started to then say well this really feels authentic to me now, this way of playing. Perhaps the obsession with the Tristano thing was not so much copying it. It was just that philosophy of improvising I think. That was what I felt was really authentic for me about playing and I think Tristano said at one time that he didn’t really care whether it was jazz or not, he wasn’t worried about that. It was just that that’s what he felt was the way he had to play.
GS: And I think that’s what I came to realise that actually what was important to me was, was being able to play in that way. Whether it was jazz and whether I could make a living at it and whether actually anybody thought it was any good had to be completely secondary.
MS: So that’s quite a big change, you weren’t, now you weren’t thinking of earning a living from music?
GS: Well I still was earning a living from music but I suppose I thought well that there might come a time when that’s no longer possible. Just because people might say “well he might like it, but it sounds pretty odd to me” or “it’s not really great”, or “other people do it better” or something. But that was ok. I didn’t mind that.
MS: Did you, did you find any, likeminded souls at that time, to play with?
GS: Yes I suppose there were, yes there were likeminded souls or there were certainly, there were certainly musicians… this would have been late 70’s I suppose. I was in my late 20’s so it’s 1975, 1976, 1977, that sort of period. Dave Wickins for instance. I met him. He was living in Guilford and then he moved to Brighton. And we got a quartet together with a bass player Adrian Kendon, who was living in Brighton. Adrian was and still is an extraordinary enthusiast and facilitator so he was very encouraging. We got a quartet together with a very good local guitar player in Brighton, a bloke called Frank Taylor. Adrian was very encouraging about getting a band together and trying to get some gigs, rehearsing and so I think that really gave me some encouragement.
MS: And what music were you playing then?
GS: I suppose the repertoire was some Charlie Parker things, a couple of those Lester Young lines, some of the sorts of standards that the Tristano team used to play. A couple of Benny Golson things we used to do. You know, modern jazz.
MS: Was this your direction, did you choose the tunes?
GS: Some of the tunes, some of them Adrian chose, some of them Frankie, it was a collective thing. But it was a chance to, to play regularly with a group of musicians who were likeminded and also who I think were musically ambitious in terms of improving and learning and so that was great for me. The fact that people like Adrian thought that there was something worth encouraging.
MS: Did that band record?
GS: We did. Adrian did an LP, which he put out on his own label. He started a little label called Vortex. It was when Bobby Wellins came out of … he had packed up playing.
MS: I know of a Bobby Wellins album on that label.
GS: That’s right with Pete Jacobson and Adrian and Spike.
MS: Spike Wells?
GS: Yeah. So Adrian was on that album and then he did one with us, which he issued. That would have been about 1980, 79/80 I suppose.
MS: And so you’re doing gigs with that band?
MS: Throughout the country or just Brighton?
GS: There were certainly gigs around the country. It wasn’t just in Brighton. At the time Brighton was very good. We had a regular Sunday lunchtime gig and often one or two other gigs in pubs locally a week and several of us were living in Adrian’s house at the time. He had a musician’s house where people lived, and so there was lots of opportunities to play and practice and that was, you know, to immerse yourself in it. So that was great. That certainly encouraged me to keep going I think.
MS: That sounds a really positive environment.
GS: It was, yes it was, I was still doing, I was still doing some of these other gigs, I was still playing with Campbell. Campbell had a quintet, trombone and saxophone front line, piano, bass, drums, and Campbell was very interested in, not only classic players Jack Teagarden and Vic Dickenson, but he was also interested in Jimmy Knepper and players like that. He always had very catholic musical tastes so we’d do some gigs together. Playing in a sort of mainstream, straightahead way but that was ok, that was an age… and Campbell was very encouraging, he really was.
MS: That’s nice.
GS: It was. Yes that made a big difference I think. So I was able to play and feel that the direction I was going was ok and getting some sort of reassurance from other people.
MS: What were you practicing at this time? I mean it sounds like you transcribed the whole time anyway even if you didn’t write it down, in the sense of playing along.
MS: Did you then transcribe Tristano tunes, or Konitz solos, or...?
GS: I learnt some of the Konitz solos, I never wrote anything down. Nobody had ever really said to do that.
MS: So you did it, the Tristano method of singing it then playing?
GS: Yes and there were a couple of albums I pretty much wore out.
MS: What were they?
GS: Well the one in particular was the Cole Porter one with Red Mitchell.
MS: Oh the duo album. That’s lovely.
MS: They play some very unusual keys.
GS: Very unusual keys yes.
MS: I was listening to it recently. Is it in ‘Everytime I Say Goodbye’ in A?
GS: Yes, I think yes. Didn’t they play one in every key or something? Was it something like that?
MS: Is it that album they do it in every key?
GS: I think so, I can’t remember, there was certainly I, There were a couple of things that I thought “Oh I like, I must listen to this” because it was a tune I play and I remember thinking Christ this isn’t the key I play...
MS: That might be the album where they do it, I know there’s another album where he does something in every semitone, but I didn’t think it was that one, but it probably could be that one as well, I’ve never thought of it actually, I don’t know it as well as you probably...
GS: There were certainly several of the solos I could sing... I really could sing pretty accurately, just by listening to them over and over and getting so that osmosis sort of... you know... it becomes part of your playing doesn’t it?
GS: I didn’t... I very rarely wrote things down... The Charlie Parker book, Omnibook book somebody gave me for a present and that was something I sort of devoured, just because there was so much information about playing in there.
MS: Did you do the thing of playing things in all keys?
GS: I certainly played things in different keys, I didn’t play things in all keys, I thought that might be too demoralising I suppose at the time... But, but certainly I was doing, I was doing a hotel gig in Brighton for some time with a function band which had a singer, and so I was often just playing things in very unfamiliar keys because the singers keys and I certainly developed, not the ability, but I developed a sort of I’d have a go at things even if I wasn’t sure of them.
GS: And I felt that stood me in good stead over the years, just I wasn’t frightened to try something in an unfamiliar key or an unfamiliar tune. I was prepared to have a go even if I went badly wrong.
MS: You can basically hear functional harmony, standard harmony?
GS: Yes I think so yeah. I think so. It certainly got a lot better over the years. But I think part of that was that I, I wasn’t too frightened of doing it. You know what I mean?
MS: Well you’d done a lot of gigs didn’t you?
GS: Yes that’s right.
MS: By this stage.
GS: Yes that’s right and, and curiously enough I’d followed some sort of history of jazz path, you know I...
GS: I started off with very early archaic music, gone to Oliver and more, then Louis and got very interested in that sort of... somebody once called it the birth of the cool, that 20’s... we have Frankie Trumbauer, Rollini and those players. It’s a very interesting notion and I think there’s some truth in that and then Lester Young who I, who was another sort of huge hero and it the way he played and so by the time I’d discovered, found out about Lee Konitz and found out that the people he’d sort of listened too, Benny Carter and Lester and...
MS: So you’d done it in order. Completely chronologically.
GS: I’d done it in order, yes absolutely.
MS: You hadn’t got into Lester Young because of Lee Konitz or Tristano, or...
GS: No. In a sense Konitz was the sort of the the terminus at the other end and I had stopped at all the little stations on the way, and when Lindsay played me that, the Konitz record, that’s, it really was, I thought of course that’s it. That’s the way to play.
MS: So since then, do you, do you feel that’s been your path?
GS: It has without a doubt, although I’ve never felt that I’ve copied Konitz, but it’s just that approach to playing. It’s that sort of, as I’ve said that philosophy of playing the saxophone, improvising, has, that just seems completely authentic for me.
MS: Warne Marsh as well?
GS: Yes although I think that, that Konitz’s curious melodicism is more appealing and I love Warne Marsh I think he’s a giant giant improviser but that, that very idiosyncratic way Konitz has of playing lines I think, I think he is particularly… It resonates with me, absolutely.
MS: Have you followed his recording career? I mean do you like some of the more contemporary projects that he does?
GS: Yes I do yeah very much, yeah. I mean I’ve sort of...I, I think everything I’ve listened too I’ve got something from. So it’s certainly informed me over the years, yeah... as has Warne Marsh and Sal Mosca and all those players, the great players from that discipline... But I’m not, you know, I hope I’m not sort of obsessive about it because, because it’s just, it was a way of playing and an approach to playing music that unlocked a big door for me and sent me off in a direction which seemed to me absolutely right and I feel I’m being true to myself doing it.
MS: Mmm... yeah, I totally understand because I’m very sympathetic to that area of music as well and what you say about Tristano, it’s not a style.
GS: No. No.
MS: But as you said it’s just improvising.
GS: Yes, absolutely yes, yeah.
MS: That’s what, that’s what it’s all about. And sometimes people miss that point.
GS: Yes it seems to me the most crucial point.
MS: Mmm... Where...Where do you put Charlie Parker in all of this? Do, do you listen to his music.
GS: Do you mean personally? Well personally I sort of put him, you know up there on Mount Olympus, you know, with Coltrane and Lester and Louis and all those other giants. So he’s...
MS: You listened to his music quite a lot as well?
GS: Oh absolutely, yes, yeah... and I’ve learnt, I know a lot of the lines he played and again I’ve, you know played through those solos from the Omnibook, I played a lot of those solos until I could really play them fairly accurately, so I learnt a huge amount... But I, but he wasn’t... It didn’t have that, it didn’t really strike as deep as when I first heard Konitz, it was something very personal about it... I sort of, I admire Parker and respect him hugely and you know, colossal player and the influence, and a direction finder for music, but he didn’t sort of radically alter the way I thought about music from a personal point of view.
MS: Have you read the book on Lee, ‘Conversations on the Improviser’s Art’?
GS: Yes, yeah.
MS: It’s just I’m interested on what you think, about Lee’s quite bold statement in there about three kind of jazz musicians. One is the, I think he uses examples of Oscar Peterson and James Moody as people who’ve learnt everything and they wowed the audience, and he has the people in the middle, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker who have their own language but manipulate it and then he puts himself in the other category. Surprisingly enough…
GS: (Laughs). Of Course, Of course.
MS: …as someone who wants to play completely off the top of his head. And I wonder what you thought of that, whether you think that’s true with his, in a way quite simplistic compartments he’s put there, of those areas of jazz?
GS: I think it has to be simplistic, really, I mean... and if you listen to enough Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh there are, there’s a language there which is used and manipulated to an extent even though... even though it might not occupy such a large part of the playing, but I think, isn’t that the case with any musician? There has to be a language which...
MS: I would have thought so, I was just, I’m just intrigued by your thoughts on that.
GS: One of the things I’ve found quite difficult, and I was talking to Stuart Fowler about it earlier and that’s... It’s something that I really did struggle with for a period and that was, on the one hand... as somebody who was sort of, who was an outsider because I didn’t really live in London. For a long period I lived in Brighton quite a lot of the time... Stylistically I was never quite part of one thing or another. A lot of the time I was on the fringes of different styles because I would never quite... I would never quite...In the middle of one particular group of musicians or style or approach... and there was a time when I was, you know becoming interested in, in the music of Parker and Konitz and that, and there was, there was a chunk of me which thought I can sort of play a reasonable facsimile of that sort of Bebop language... Perhaps that’s what I ought to do, that’s, I think that’s probably the way I ought to play... I think that’s probably what people think of as being modern jazz and I struggled with that for quite a long time. I didn’t really have the, that sort of belief to say “This is not what I should be doing. This is not what I can do. What I can do is this….and it took me an awful long time to come...
MS: Well it can take us a while can’t it?
GS: Yes it took me a huge amount of….I was sort of on the edge of the cliff, you know thinking, “Ok I’ll... I’ll jump in, yes I’ll... no I will in a minute, yeah. I’ll just kind of sit down for a bit. I mean ok now I will... and eventually you just have to leap off the side and say this is...
MS: Be true?
GS: This is me and if nobody likes it then I’m just stuck with it.
GS: Once I’d done that is was actually, everything was alright. (Laughs)
MS: Did you feel good?
GS: I felt much better... I thought... and actually I was, I felt much better and also I think when I started to teach a bit more I thought much better about that, because I had to, I... I felt I was on solid ground.
MS: When was this?
GS: It was Brian Waite who first employed me at the summer school... The Glamorgan Summer School. I think he employed me and Dave Wickins the same year.
MS:This is Glamorgan Summer School but it was...
GS: Glamorgan but happened in Barry...
MS: It was somewhere else first. Was it Porthcawl?
GS: It went from Barry to Treforest and it was at Treforest for two or three years and then it went to Porthcawl.
MS: Where did you start then?
GS: At Treforest, when it had come from Barry.
MS: What year is this?
GS: It was probably... It was probably twenty, twenty one years ago, twenty two years ago maybe.
MS: About 1980?
GS: No... about 2000...no, no 1990.
GS: Late 80’s probably.
MS: Late 80’s?
GS: Late 80’s I think, and I think Gordon Beck taking it over from Oxley maybe, and anyway it was Gordon running it and Gordon was a sort of mentor to Brian Waite who was a very good... did, did you know Brian?
MS: Yeah very good player.
GS: Yeah, marvellous piano player. Lovely man.
MS: Great bloke. Great guy.
GS: Gordon had said to Brian “I want you to take over the Summer School, run it, you can do it”, you know... and Brian wasn’t a great sort of leader of men... A delightful man and I, you know, I had a huge amount of time for him but he wasn’t... I don’t think he enjoyed that role of organising and telling people what to do and organising timetables, meetings and things and he struggled with it. But he employed certain people, me and I think Dave Wickins the same year and at the time there was, there was a bit of sneering from some of the older hands, “Who are these blokes, where have they come from? There not on...”
MS: Who else was teaching?
GS: I it was at the sort of, I think... I think it was people like Ian Carr. I think the first year I did it Ian Carr was there, Kenny Baldock was doing it, Gordon was certainly doing it, although Gordon was fantastically encouraging but one or two of the... I think Ian Hamer had done it as well, he maybe, perhaps he done it before Ian Carr There was a lot of musicians doing it one year on and not the next and there was a sort of pool of musicians. And the numbers were on the decline a bit, I think it was struggling when Brian took it over. But that’s, that was great for me, I thought “Wow there’s somebody whose…”, Brian was prepared to give me a chance to teach.
MS: You hadn’t done any teaching?
GS: Not really. I had done a bit, but not in any...
MS: One to one?
GS: One to one’s and the occasional workshop but not anything particularly structural for a week or two like that. And that was a huge…I was really, you know, that’s something I’ll always be grateful to Brian for, for saying “No you can do it”, you know.
MS: You enjoyed it?
GS: I did. Obviously I struggled because, you know our insecurities. I was thinking “God I bet these students are better than I am”, you know that sort of thing and there was some heavyweight names at the time on the, on the teaching. I think Pete Hurt was doing it about the same time, I think that’s where I first met Pete certainly was, was at the Summer School, because we did some of those lunch times gigs in St David’s Hall and those sort of Cardiff venues. So I certainly met Pete there, who was also very encouraging, you know, delightful company.
MS: He’s about the same age as you, in fact he’s two years younger, he’s sixty this year.
GS: Yes and I think probably Pete Saberton is about the same.
MS: He’s sixty. They’re the same age.
GS: So and then I suppose once I was starting to spend time, playing and talking to those guys, then you... It opened up another view of music and teaching, and...
MS: Did you end up playing with some other musicians that you’d met?
GS: I suppose I started to play, do gigs with Brian a bit more. Brian had a trio with Dave Wickins and I started to do gigs with them. I started to do a few things with Pete Hurt. The Brighton Jazz Club started too sometimes say to me would you fancy putting a quintet together or something and so I’d... and Dave Wickins was actually running the club at Guildford at that time. He was helping to run a the club there and so he occasionally booked me to do some gigs with various folk. That’s where I first met Dave Cliff and the saxophone player Charlie Burchell, who was a great tenor player and very interested in the Tristano approach to playing.
MS: Yeah, I never knew him but I just knew of him.
MS: There is an album isn’t there?
GS: There is yeah.
MS: Is it with Dave and Peter Ind?
GS: There’s one with two bass players, Peter Ind and Bernie Cash and I think maybe a guitar player, Derek Phillips isn’t it? I can’t remember now, but somebody else who’s said they’d found a copy of that Charlie Burchell album, recently.
MS: Is that ‘No Kidding’? Is that what it’s called?
GS: That’s right I think, yes.
MS: I’ve seen the cover somewhere around.
GS: think it was Dave Wickins who, who booked me to do a gig with Charlie Burchell and Dave Cliff at Guildford, and Charlie said after the gig, “Lets get a quintet together and we can do all this stuff, all the Tristano stuff”. So he sent me all the parts.
MS: He had all the music?
GS: He had all the stuff.
MS: What transcripts, he’d transcribed it or?
GS: Yes, he had this very particular sort of handwriting, which he’d done it all in, yeah and yes he had lots of...
MS The harmony lines as well?
GS: Yeah, the two parts...
MS: That’s a big job isn’t it?
GS: Yeah, big job.
MS: Transcribing that.
GS: Yeah and he sent me, and we, I think we might have done one gig and then the next thing was Dave phoned me and said “Charlie’s died”, he’s just died all of a sudden.
MS: What happened to him?
GS: I can’t remember if it was a heart attack, but it was very sudden.
MS: How old was he then?
GS: I don’t know, might have been sixty maybe? I’m not sure. I’ve guessed.
MS: He was a bit older then... quite a lot older.
GS: Yes, absolutely yeah.
MS: As you know I interviewed Dave, Dave Cliff.
MS: His memory of meeting you was, at first, was at a function gig in an art gallery. A Duo.
GS: Ah…That might have been the first time we’d ever played together, yes, yes.
MS: So you’d known Dave before this?
GS: Yes, yes.
MS: I think that’s what he’d said to me.
GS: Yeah that might have, I mean, It might have been that way round. I had the impression that we had done this Charlie Burchell gig, and because of that I thought I, when I got this duo gig I sort of thought, “Wow I must ring that Dave Cliff, he’ll be great”.
MS: Ah, right.
GS: But it might have been the other way round, so I’m not, certainly not... But yes it was in Cork Street, the opening of an art gallery, and Dave and I just sat in the corner and as Dave memorably said you know, “The punters were clambering over us to get at the art”, and that was, must have been about 1985, I think and you know I’ve worked consistently with Dave ever since. I mean certainly his friendship and his sort of way of playing, his approach to playing that was another big influence on me, it was a really...I thought...
MS: And you knew his connection with Peter Ind?
MS: …and I suppose the lineage of Tristano and Konitz?
GS: Yes, and he done that, you know, the Scandinavian thing and band the album and you know, particularly his friendship with Peter and Charlie Burchell and Bernie Cash and those people... so that was a... so we got on very well, both socially and particularly musically, and so he’s certainly been one of the people I’ve worked with most consistently over, twenty five years now.
MS: You work together every year?
GS: Yes there’s never been a year where we haven’t done some gigs or done a regular thing or perhaps a little tour, or recorded something, or a broadcast. I think we’ve done something every year since then.
MS: Do you try and get things together or do these things just come up, or does Dave, or somebody else?
GS: I’m terrible at getting things together. I’m awful at it and so things don’t get done. But occasionally people will, because people who run clubs know of our connection that they’ll sometimes say to Dave, “Will you come to the club, do you think Geoff would do it as well”, or somebody will ring me and say, “Oh you know, would you like to come and do a guest spot, who do you fancy playing with, what about Dave, would he come”. And so I think we tend to get bracketed together and I’m very happy about that because, you know he’s a great player.
MS: Well you sound great together.
GS: So I’m happy to do that. But that I think, I think that’s become, not a double act, but there’s certainly… (Laughs).
MS: (Laughs).Who tells the Jokes?
MS: Who’s the straight man?
GS: (Laughs). Yes, we’re both straight men.
GS: It’s the only double act with two straight men.
MS: (Laughs).That’s right.
GS: But... and so... that’s another part of our sort of friendship has been that we have done a lot of duo playing together and a lot of trio playing with Simon Woolf... and I know, it’s become apparent to me over the years that I do that... the sort of area of playing that I really do enjoy is very small groups, duo’s and trios and probably quartets, sort of top whack.
MS: Yeah... Because you latest album is a trio without drums, isn’t it?
GS: With Dave, that’s right yes... and that’s the reason, the reason for making that album was because I really... I thought well the three of us made some great music which has really been conversational over the years and I wanted to get... a record, no pun intended, of that little trio... and I was really pleased. A, having... you know, shaken off my indolence and to do something about it, and organise it and actually get it out, and the fact that I thought it did capture quite a lot of the three of us playing together... so I was really pleased having done it... but generally I’m rotten at it... I can’t ring clubs up... I’m terrible... I’m sort of, “I don’t suppose you want to give me a gig? I’m sure... I’m sure you’re booked up, oh I do understand that, I know you’ve got Alan Barnes coming up, no I, no don’t worry, I’ll phone back another time, it’s fine”.
MS: So you have tried it?
GS: I have tried it, but... but I’m sort of standing with the phone... That thing about leaping off the cliff musically, I’m standing there thinking, “Oh, go on I’ll give them a ring... yeah all right, I’ll, I’ll just... I’ll just go round the Co-op and get some milk then I’ll come back and phone them”... And so there’s still a lot of that goes on... but I suppose... you know... people... as quite rightly they see you, if you, gigs you’ve got to do this, such... there’s so much competition, there’s so many marvellous players chasing very few gigs... you’ve got to do it, you can’t expect people to ring you up, and I don’t, so I’m not, I’m not saying “I’m so wonderful that people just, why aren’t they phoning me”, but it’s just that, that the... the sort of... that lack of... of, not drive exactly... what is it, what is it I’m lacking? (Laughs).
MS: Well it’s... I don’t even think your lacking anything, you’re just hypersensitive. Like... you know this... a lot of us have had to try and steel ourselves to go through this process... and I don’t do it at the moment and so I, I really identify with what you’re saying, and I’ve had all those experiences, and I’ve, and sometimes I’ve just thought I just want my band to play I’m just going to keep doing it, I don’t care how many rejections I get. When I was younger I felt that maybe I had more energy and was stronger, and could take a few rejections. I think pretty much everyone goes through it to a certain extent and some people get through the barrier or are just thicker skinned... Different kinds people aren’t there?
MS:But I did want to touch on something you’ve made me think about there, you know, the amount of jazz musicians now in the country and which I would say jazz education has something to do with this sort of... a lot of great musicians coming out of the colleges and, thirty years ago there weren’t any jazz degrees, so there’s lots of young musicians... My own feeling about this, you know people like yourself and the young musicians are almost chasing the same gigs and this is difficult.
MS: To put it mildly. The time you’re talking about when, when you’re in your twenties... and thirties maybe when, when you said to me that there’s lots of work at the time... and I also spoke to other musicians your age, who, sort of ten years older than me, its very similar scenario, and at that time the other people, Pete Hurt, Pete Saberton didn’t think about hustling gigs at all, there were always gigs.
MS: And they didn’t, didn’t have to hustle gigs, but... for pretty much everyone I’ve interviewed so far it’s a similar scenario... In that the society has changed in some way in terms of work for jazz musicians.
MS: Not that it’s ever been... it’s always been on the fringes. Of course... and it’s not... as Stan Tracey said, which, I love this quote, “Jazz is a bit exotic for the English”... It’s always been on the margins, but it was possible for people to work playing, and you’re an example of someone who can... you know, you talked about your history, and you could play... and work as a musician.
GS: Yes... yes sure.
MS: I just wondered if you had any thoughts about the changing times?
GS: I suppose, I mean why shouldn’t times change, I, It’s just... I suppose it was just in a sense, I was fortunate that when I started to play, and when I was at an age where I, I was happy to go anywhere and play, that’s, that’s what I could do pretty much, and learn as I went along at the school of hard knocks. I was just, I could do it and ask... you’d get told to piss off or be encouraged. But I’m pleased I could play pretty much as much as I wanted in the style that I was interested in playing at the time, but... I’m not sure... I’m not sure why that situation should obtain... for as long as it has... I mean I’m not surprised that it’s getting harder.
GS: Because the music that I... I’m not sure if I think of it as jazz, but the sort of... the mainstream... the mainstream, the main body of music is now sixty years, seventy years old... Isn’t it? I mean the sort of what we think of as Bebop or...
GS You know, that sort of period, so the music must change... inevitably it’ll lead to something else and I suppose it will find another audience in another form, people are saying that now the download is, you know, people, the age of the CD is gone and now people are just putting stuff out there and you can listen to it and it’s a very different way of communicating your music maybe to a...
MS: Well yes, certainly the time you’re talking about, when you were in your twenties, even before that. Speaking to American musician Jeff Williams, when he was in, maybe in the sixties, they would wait for the Miles Davis album to come out…
MS: ..and there be only one album out a year, and they’d have to go down the shop, wait for it, and it would be vinyl, and it would be a big deal... and it’s, what you’re talking about now is, were saturated with so much stuff that’s...
GS: It’s instantly accessible.
MS: Yeah... there’s good and bad to that of course.
GS: There is, absolutely.
MS: Were exposed to an incredible amount, of music.
MS: But... I’m wondering... well people don’t listen in the same way now. I presume...
GS: I don’t... I don’t think so. No I don’t think so. I suppose it took me quite a long, it’s taken me a lifetime to find out I suppose why I play... to own up to why I play, is because there’s something... something, it is for me, it is just a means of self expression, and I think if I didn’t play in public I’d still play. There’s something about playing the saxophone, and playing, and improvising that is, that is part of my existence and an important part... but I’m just wondering for people who are at college now, what... what they see when they leave... the student debt, the sort of, the diminishing possibilities to play at clubs, the changing nature of the music, the changing nature of the music industry or business or whatever...
MS: I have a feeling they don’t think about that, as... as we didn’t...
GS: No I suppose not.
MS: When we were twenty, probably, we didn’t think about... the longevity. I’m always saying that to them “you’ve got to think about the longevity”, but I don’t know why I’m saying that, it seems completely irrelevant, just think about now, playing now.
GS: Just think about now... yes that’s right... I’m just wondering whether, whether, you know, I’ve talked to a number of students quite recently, I suppose particularly in the light of proposed government policy, but student debt and what you lumbered with and how you’re going to repay that and what it might take in order to do, have some sort of employment or career where you’re going to be able to repay the great financial millstone that, but if people don’t think about it that’s fine, but I guess...
MS: But did you have any feedback, or any response when you spoke to the students?
GS: A couple of students I spoke too said they were concerned about that, yes, they were. They didn’t know quite what they were going to do when they left college. That they might be able to use the music degree in order to do something else but still be able to play a bit, or they might teach, or they might... they might have to think about a sort of, whatever they call it... a portfolio, you know, career, where you’re doing bits and pieces.
MS: So none of them said, “I’m going to be a jazz musician”?
GS: I think that... one or two said that that was their... that was their obsessive aim was to be a jazz musician, but quite a few of them felt that realistically they might have to consider other options.
MS: You see... even when I left college, which was ten years after you... or started to be a musician... these things didn’t occur in the same way, we didn’t think about that in the same, we didn’t have to think about it the same way.
GS: No sure.
MS: In that, massive worry about money.
MS: And it’s... it’s disastrous. Isn’t it?
MS: It is... I mean it’s incredibly sad, the whole thing could die out.
MS: But on, actually on the other hand, all these jazz musicians at college, but prior to that they weren’t at college. You weren’t at college?
MS: So, that has changed as well.
MS: How people are learning…
GS: Very much so.
MS: ... about the music.
GS: Yes, absolutely. I’m not sure what that tells us?
MS: No because, because there are lots of different routes, aren’t there... getting it together.
GS: Yes and certainly when I look back, you know, and certainly when, when my, when my day job packed up and I realised I must be some sort of professional musician. As you said, you know, there were plenty of opportunities to play you could, if you did enough pub gigs or enough, you know, you did the occasional wedding or a hotel gig and whatever, and you could, you had a week’s wages, certainly.
MS: There was more live music.
GS: Much more live music.
MS: There must have been. There must have been more live music.
GS: Oh yes, certainly. I mean, certainly, you know Brighton at the time, most of those seafront hotels would have a quartet or something, at least at the weekends, and there were several night clubs which had a trio, or a quartet, at least a couple of nights a week so there were certainly more opportunities to play. Yeah very much so.
GS: Yeah, even in a provincial, town.... a lot more pubs had live music, a lot more pubs had jazz... at one time in Brighton there were probably three or four regular Sunday lunch time gigs...
GS: ... of musicians, you know, playing.
MS: For quite a small community really?
GS: Quite a small community, yeah.
MS: So, so you haven’t... since you gave up your day job you haven’t done anything else apart from music?
GS: I’ve never…. that’s thirty five years I suppose... yeah, thirty five years...
MS: That’s a good feeling isn’t it?
GS: Yeah it is... well it is, that’s something of an achievement and, you know, certainly very few things I’ve done musically I’ve felt have been in any sort of selling out or compromise. But as I said I, until very recently I was doing the occasional gig with the Temperance Seven and for the most part enjoying it.
GS: And certainly... You know I’ve been doing a... When I go to the Welsh College of Music, Paula has asked me to do some part of the history module, which involves talking about music of the twenties and playing some of those things, and I’ve revisited some of those things that I used to listen to, and I’ve been amazed how beautiful they still all sound you know, really beautiful playing, fantastic playing.
MS: That’s great to play that to the students, because they won’t, pretty much definitely won’t have heard of any of that, will they?
GS: No….you play people like Jimmy Noone, or Earl Hines, or not Louis but Jabbo Smith or somebody and their jaw drops, “you mean these people were doing this in 1927?” It’s quite startling, as it should be I think…
GS: …and, and it, there’s a sort of curious sense of, I don’t know, exhilaration I think... when you listen to that music, and realise that people were doing that, were you know, taking these enormous musical risks at a time when it wasn’t thought of as art, it was just thought of as, you know, entertainment.
GS: A way of making a living, a very good living in the twenties for a lot of those people... but you listen to Jabbo or somebody playing this... completely, wild...
MS: I don’t know his playing at all.
GS: Oh extraordinary trumpet player from Milwaukee, I think it was. Breathtaking sort of chops and attack and ideas and then really you think “bloody hell, talk about keepers of the flame, were people really doing that then?”... So that stuff I’ve really enjoyed, that and I’m a very sincere advocate of people listening to that music, not just for historical reasons but because of that part of, and the sort the excitement of improvising and finding out of, taking chances and trying different things and not being afraid to do things... so that’s been a very pleasant part of my teaching over the last two or three years certainly but musically I’ve certainly found a direction that I feel is authentic for me and I’m sort of refining it I suppose. I hope. I’m still getting as much, not enjoyment … that seems, that sounds remarkably sort of well, not lightweight but facile, doesn’t it? There is something very deep about playing and studying, and learning, and trying to refine what it is that you really do.
MS: Yeah. Something else I’ve just been thinking about that I, and I had thought “Oh I’ll see what’s on the internet about Geoff Simkins”, and there’s the biog somewhere, I think maybe on the Jazz Services website or somewhere, just about some collaborations that I didn’t know about that you’d done. It listed Al Cohn, did you play with him?
GS: I did, yes, Al Cohn, I did, yes. Art Farmer I did a few gigs for.
MS: Art Farmer.
GS: Art Farmer and I did a few with Tal Farlow and quite a lot of the Americans when they, a lot of those Americans when they were coming, that sort of period when people like Ernie Garside, the agent, were bringing, there were a lot of Americans were coming over as, as acts, solo acts playing with local...
MS: And he booked bands?
GS: ..and pretty much when they came to Brighton to start with... and, and often they’d get a gig at the Brighton Jazz Club, which could afford those sorts of players and so the, the band that played with them would probably be me, and Spike on drums and it was sometimes Roy Hilton on piano or Brian Waite occasionally on piano or Colin Purbrook or somebody like that, and perhaps, sometimes Adrian on bass, or Dave Green or somebody like that on bass, and it was like a house band that played with a lot of the American visitors.
MS: And so they always wanted a horn player?
GS: They didn’t always want a horn player...
MS: But they got one.
GS: But they got one, yes, yeah...
GS: …and actually for the most part they were, were very, very happy with that I think, it was, at least, you know, we could have some sort of, musical conversation, and it wasn’t just a horn soloist with the occasional solo from the pianist or something it was, it was more like a band?
MS: Did they bring charts?
MS: Did you rehearse with them?
GS: Very rarely rehearsed. Very rarely.
MS: Just called tunes?
GS: Just called tunes. You know, I had a pretty good idea of the sort of thing Art Farmer might play. Then he’d sometimes say, “What do you want to play”, and you’d think of, you know, a Charlie Parker head, or a Bebop line and, or some standard I knew he did and that was great. Bobby Shew used to bring some charts occasionally and I sort off read some of those and earholed the others but there were very few unpleasant experiences. One or two, but very few. Most of them were really great. Tal Farlow was really lovely.
MS: Did you tour with him?
GS: We, no I didn’t tour, I probably did three or four gigs with guitar, bass, drums and me and I think on a couple of occasions it was guitar and bass, and me at clubs.
MS: Did you record with any of, these people?
GS: No, there were a few recordings made by people at, at the gigs but there weren’t any albums. I did a couple of albums with players from an earlier period when my brother Pete and my old man were still playing in Brighton and they booked some of the sort of musicians from an earlier period who were coming over, Brian Peerless the agent was bringing, and Robert Masters another agent, they were bringing similar sorts of players but from the swing era, the mainstream era. So there were lots of people like Ruby Braff and Bill Coleman and Peanuts Hucko, but a lot of those sorts of mainstream Dixieland players came over. I did an album with Billy Butterfield, who was a, fantastic player from the Bob Crosby band in the 30’s and 40’s and another one with on Yank Lawson. So I’ve played a lot with those players. I knew a lot of that Dixieland, mainstream repertoire, I knew it and so that wasn’t, a problem. I think sometimes some of those guys were quite surprised that, you know, that I was quite prepared to play ‘Big Butter and Egg Man’, but then I could play ‘Background Music’ so because that’s where I’d started, I knew a lot of that very early repertoire and the sort of arrangements that might go with it.
MS: Do you think your repertoire stops there with Konitz, Marsh area of music? Although I did here you play a Denny Zeitlin, tune which is further on.
GS: Yes, I mean, certainly since I’ve...the quartet with Nikki and...
MS: That’s Nikki Iles?
GS: …Nikki Iles and Martin France and Simon Woolf, which I’ve actually phoned a few people up to get gigs for next year.
MS: So it’s your quartet and you’ve decided on those musicians?
GS: Yes. I think Simon Woolf was probably the common factor. I did a lunchtime gig at the Globe, where they had a trio booked, the Globe restaurant. I did a couple with Dave, Dave Cliff and Simon and then Simon I think got a gig and instead of booking a chord player he booked Martin France who was living just around the corner.
MS: Oh yeah, Elephant and Castle.
GS: Yes, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, sort of that sort of way wasn’t it?
MS: Oh, that’s right, yeah.
GS: Copperfield Street or somewhere round there and he said, “Look I’ve asked Martin France to do it”, he said, “I don’t think you’ve played with him, but I think you’d really get on well”. And so we did this lunchtime gig in this restaurant with bass and drums with Martin and me, and, and I’d done something with Nikki certainly and then I thought this quartet, I think it would really work with Simon, Nikki and Martin and so we got together and then we did an album which I loved. I was so proud of having done that and so we’ve, you know, worked on and off with Nikki and that band since, but, I actually, got off my arse recently and started phoning people and said, “Look, I know there’s probably no chance of this, but do you think...” and to my amazement several people said, “Yeah, I think we have, next, next year we’re booking for, you know that season, yeah of course... yeah, wow... good idea”, and I was, “Why didn’t I think of doing that twenty years ago”.
GS: So, that’s… I think, I’ve certainly played some perhaps, slightly more, not contemporary things, but certainly things outside of that repertoire.
MS: Is that because other musicians bring different tunes to it?
GS: Yes, that’s partly it. Nikki of course with her, you know with her, other associations with, well obviously with you, but with Stan and Kenny Wheeler and, and various people, so she’s suggested other things and I like to think, I’m not, I’m not blinkered in that sense, I’m happy to play tunes that I feel I can do some justice to or that are stimulating to play, you know.
MS: Are you listening to anything? What do you listen too?
GS: I certainly, I listen to... probably... now that Spotify is so easy to access...
MS: You’re using that?
GS: I do use it a lot and actually I think also when I’m, you know, for instance down in Cardiff, students will say, “Have you heard this album, or have you heard this player, or what do you know about this, do fancy listening to this”, and it’s much more easy... It’s much easier to listen to something on the spot and talk about it, and so I’m, my horizons have broadened in that sense, yeah, .. I am really not some hopeless sort of curmudgeon that lives in the...
MS: I wasn’t implying that.
MS: I was just interested in what you listen too.
GS: No, no, I do, I mean... when we’ve done those, summer school, when we did those free things, the tutor tootles, the sort of Mornington Crescent, whatever they used to call it, Diceman... and I, I actually used to look forward to that, I really got a lot out of that.
MS: Yeah, I love those moments.
MS: They’re quite special.
MS: The, the combinations who never played together, never again.
GS: No absolutely, no...
MS: Apart from that moment.
GS: Yeah and I learnt quite a lot from that. So it’s not a stylistic thing but I think when I’m playing that’s how I feel is right for me to play, that’s where I really feel authentic, you know. I still listen a lot to, to Warne Marsh and Konitz, just to remind me about, that way of playing as a sort of constant reminder about the rigour of that approach to improvising, I think which is important. I still listen a lot to Bach, still listen to the cello suites and the inventions and things which are also inspirational I think.
MS: They’ve been published for saxophone, have you got the book?
GS: Yes, yes... (Laughs) They’re great to play... I think they’re very informative as well as being beautiful, so I probably listen more now in the last two or three years then perhaps I have for some time, to other things and new things. And of course teaching somewhere like Trinity, or, Welsh College of Music or occasionally at other places you’re working with younger musicians who come from a very different musical background and experience and so it’s important to listen to all that.
MS: I think it is yeah, too have some kind of contact with what they’re discovering.
GS: Absolutely... yes very much so.
MS: And then we can help them discover some other things they might not have thought of.
GS: Yes, yes certainly.
MS: Two-way thing, it’s nice.
GS: Yeah…. so I’m not sure…
MS: We could finish if, anything...
GS: No I mean.
MS: Things we tried to cover... that I haven’t talked, we haven’t talked about?
GS: I mean I think... the chronology I suppose I’m probably a bit vague about now, not because my memories going but just because you assume that things happened in a certain order, but like the thing with Dave, which of those gigs came first, the Charlie Burchell or the duo thing... and I, Dave may very well be right, but... but the sort of...
MS: I might even be wrong about my recollection of what he said to me. (Laughs).
GS: (Laughs) But the sort of general chronology which I think is important is the way that my musical stream of thought developed and followed the history of jazz until it arrived at that period, and then when I read about Konitz and those people, who they were influenced by and what they thought was.. and then I thought “Yeah of course”, I mean you listen to that and see I can see where that comes from, I can see why I sort of liked that way of playing then, even though I didn’t know where it was going to lead.
GS: And I still, I still find immense satisfaction in doing that, playing that music.
GS: So... so I don’t think I’ve said anything that I regret.
MS: It’s all been great. Fantastic to talk to you.
MS: So, shall we finish there?
GS: Let’s finish now.
MS: Thanks very much.
GS: Fantastic Martin, thank you.
Photo by: Alex Bonney