Stan’s the man – a British jazz great

Keiron Pim He’s a legend of British jazz and he’s performing here next week as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Pianist Stan Tracey spoke to KEIRON PIM.

Keiron Pim

Stan Tracey's official website calls him the “godfather of British jazz” but he doesn't much care for the phrase himself.

“I don't know what it means,” he grumbles down the phone from his home in Hertfordshire. “Does it mean I've been doing it a long time? Does it mean I have influence? That title wasn't self-imposed.”

Maybe not, but it means both those things and more. At 81 he is an elder statesman of the jazz scene whose best work set a new high for British jazz piano. Under Milk Wood remains a classic. He recorded the suite inspired by Dylan Thomas' play in 1965 and, according to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival brochure, he'll be performing it with his quartet, including original saxophonist Bobby Wellins, at his concert at Norwich Playhouse on May 8.

Except that apparently he won't. “No. Does it say that? I wish they wouldn't do that. I think I have played it enough now. The only time we play it is when we do a production with an actor.”

What he will be playing is “a mixture of standards and jazz originals” and he confirms that Wellins will still join him on stage. He won't specify what he's likely to play because, he says, “I never know what I will play until I'm on the stand. I never pre-plan a concert with the quartet.”

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Long-time fans will know broadly what to expect: a style that melds Duke Ellington's lyricism and the pushing, pulling time-signatures of Thelonious Monk. Those two American pianists are the most often-cited influences but in a career stretching back 60 years, Tracey has enjoyed playing with many of the greats. “Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, they are some of them that I look back on and remember. Ben Webster? He was a nice guy. What can you say about nice people? They are nice.”

He's also had his share of accompanying less than nice people. Stan Getz was notoriously difficult, as were fellow saxophonists Lucky Thompson and Don Byas. Tracey wouldn't expand on why he mentioned these three but in the past he has said of Getz: “One night my wife Jackie was in, I was playing a solo, and he crept over to her and told her which hotel he was in and his room number, then he went back on the stand. I thought that was thoughtful of him.”

This incident, like so many of Tracey's fixtures with jazz legends, came about during the period from 1959-66 when he worked as the in-house pianist at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in Soho. “It was musically rewarding,” he remembers, but less so in other ways. “I did it for six years without a holiday and then finally I had to leave because physically it really knocked it out of me.”

These years of nocturnal, stimulant-driven living were enough to disenchant him to the point where in the early 1970s he thought about jacking it all in and becoming a postman. “My wife found the application form and tore it up, so that was a glorious opportunity missed.”

He stuck with the music and it paid off; he's sufficiently revered and respected to have been made a CBE and to win that dubious title, “godfather of British jazz”. He concedes: “I think I'm accepted more than I used to be.” Why has it taken so long to gain acceptance? “If I knew that I would have done something about it!”

Tracey was born in Denmark Hill, London in 1926 and grew up an only child in Tooting. When the war came he refused evacuation and instead kept his mother company while his father worked in a West End Club. His education ended when he was 12. Around this time he fell in love with an accordion he saw in a nearby shop. He entered local talent competitions and at 16 joined the Entertainments National Service Association, a variety troupe, entertaining the country's workers. It wasn't until 1944 that he took up the piano after hearing recordings of Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.

After serving in the RAF, with which he toured Tony Hancock productions in Egypt and Palestine, he moved back to London and met Ronnie Scott. Tracey's career lay in jazz from that point on. The 1950s saw him travel to New York where he heard Monk, Ellington, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; later that decade he toured with the Ted Heath Orchestra; in the '60s he recorded Under Milk Wood and, with Rollins, the soundtrack to the Michael Caine film Alfie.

He's not unfriendly, just not a big talker. “Sorry,” he says at the end of our conversation. “I know I'm not very forthcoming.” Perhaps he heeds Ellington's influence in another sense; as the great American pianist once said apropos of discussing music, “too much talk stinks up the place”.

The Stan Tracey Quartet perform at Norwich Playhouse on May 8, at 8pm. The event is sold out but for returns try the festival ticket hotline on 01603 766400 or ask on the door.