JAZZ DIARY / Coming through from the back: Philip Johnson talks to the veteran pianist Stan Tracey about the drawbacks of a native talent

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The Independent Culture
What happens when hipness meets stiff upper-lipness? The relationship between jazz and British culture has always been strained; when the slack rhythms of African-American music were first heard by buttoned- up British critics, the response was predictably snobbish. In what Jim Godbolt's Jazz in Britain (Quartet, 1984) cites as the first mention of the music, from the Times of 1919, the writer referred to 'the effort of the orchestra to convert itself into a jazz band, one of the many American peculiarities that threaten to make life a nightmare'. In a review of the first British performance by the (white) Original Dixieland Jazz Band from the same year, it was noted that 'the fever spread throughout the theatre until every last man and woman was on his feet, shouting and flapping in a manner that was peculiarly un-British'.

The sense that jazz was essentially un-British encouraged the view that authenticity was restricted to American - especially black American - musicians. This has dogged British players ever since. Stan Tracey, at 66 the elder statesman of the British modern jazz scene, found himself almost eclipsed by US jazzmen. As house pianist at Ronnie Scott's club in the 1960s, backing a series of imported front-liners, Tracey was consistently overlooked: 'As far as critics were concerned,' he says, 'at least in the early years, it was always 'a valiant effort by the British player'; that was the mention you got.' But the visiting stars relished playing with him. At Sonny Rollins's London Palladium show last year, the saxophonist - who recorded the Alfie film soundtrack with Tracey in 1966 - gave a fulsome tribute to the pianist from the stage. The sub-text translated as 'don't you realise how good this guy is?'

Though his career has not been without honours, including an OBE awarded in 1986, little of Tracey's recorded work is available. This, however, is about to change. A new recording contract with Blue Note has produced an excellent new album, Portraits Plus, and there are plans to reissue a number of his earlier records on the label. With the new album out, in a cover that echoes the graphic style of classic Blue Notes of the 1960s, Tracey remains phlegmatic. Though the album's musical portraits - of Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Gil Evans and Duke Ellington - accentuate the sense of British jazz operating in the shadow of its US counterpart, Tracey insists that jazz never seemed like a foreign language: 'I thought it was just music. No one ever questions a black piano player playing Beethoven. You either play it correctly or you don't'

Tracey's early musical training was emblematically British: he began his career playing in an accordion band for Ensa. Some fellow musicians had a portable gramophone and a collection of 78s and through them he was introduced to records by Count Basie and Teddy Wilson. The craze for boogie-woogie led him to take up piano. Under Milk Wood (1965) - perhaps the greatest of all British jazz albums - made Tracey's name as a composer. The themes were written on scraps of manuscript paper on the all-night bus home from Ronnie Scott's at the end of each night's session. At present Tracey has no plans for further extended compositions. 'At one time I wrote for sheer love of writing. Now, I find the more I write, the more I question what I'm doing and it becomes difficult. Piano playing is different because you don't have the chance to go back and correct it. You play it and it's gone.'

'Portraits Plus' by the Stan Tracey Octet is on Blue Note International.

For the US alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, living in the shadow of Charlie Parker was very nearly the death of him. 'It was a big shadow, a humongous shadow, and it still exists,' Morgan says. As it is Morgan has spent over 25 of his 59 years in prison for a series of crimes committed to feed his voracious heroin addiction, partly a legacy - like his beautiful saxophone sound - of his wish to emulate Bird.

Morgan first met Parker when he was seven years old, when his guitarist father took him to see the Jay McShann band at the Paradise Theatre in Detroit. They went backstage after the show and Morgan decided then and there to swap his own guitar for a sax. Parker was supposed to help him choose the instrument the next day but typically failed to show up, sending Wardell Gray and Teddy Edwards instead, who picked out a clarinet for him to get started on.

He renewed his acquaintance with Parker in Los Angeles, where his father was running a jazz club, The Casablanca. As a teenager, he hung out with the Bird, once joining him for a Stravinsky concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Even though Parker told him not to get involved with drugs, he became an addict at 17. 'I don't blame the times, I don't blame the racism and I don't blame Charlie Parker,' Morgan says now. 'I chose to self-destruct. Looking back, I realise that I did it out of fear of not being able to cut it on the bandstand.'

Morgan spent much of his career in prison bands, at one time playing in the same San Quentin outfit as Art Pepper. 'They allowed me to practise and to grow musically,' he says of his prison years. 'I'm grateful to them because in essence they saved my life, but prison is not the place I would recommend for anyone. Thank God that I was able to get out of there alive. There were times when I didn't care one way or the other. But that was then and this is now, and you know, 'You Must Believe in Spring', that's the title for me.'

The Michel Legrand song is also the title of Morgan's latest album, the third of a remarkable series he has made for Antilles since his release from prison in 1985. With Antilles, Morgan has relaxed the frantic bebop that was his trademark to concentrate on mellow ballads, where his gorgeous, fluttering tone excels. Much of his style comes from careful study of jazz vocalists. 'I worked with Billie Holiday when I was about 17 and I was in the house band at the Club Alabama in Los Angeles. On most of the tunes only her trio played so I had the opportunity just to sit there and listen, three shows a night, six nights a week, for a couple of months. I cried every night.'

Like many saxophonists, Morgan insists that you need to know the words of a song before you can play it correctly: 'You better] How else are you going to get the complete meaning of the song, how is it going to tell a story?' The new album is a series of duets with five piano players, each of whom also gets to play a solo. He even let the pianists - Kenny Barron, Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna, Barry Harris and Hank Jones - choose the repertoire.

Morgan is enjoying his renewed career enormously, though he is cautious enough to make sure he lives far away from the jazz scene, in New Mexico. 'Sometimes I'm not sure I'm not dreaming one of the dreams I used to have in prison,' he says. 'The world is a lovely place to be in.'

'You Must Believe in Spring' is available on Antilles.

(Photograph omitted)

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