Dick Heckstall-Smith

Saxophonist who crossed the boundaries between jazz, rock and blues

The saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith was a significant and stimulating figure in the fusion of jazz, blues and rock music. He found most acclaim with the late Sixties progressive rock band Colosseum. Some of his friends in the jazz world accused him of betraying his talent, but he commented, "When I look back on it, I'm very pleased."

Richard Malden Heckstall-Smith, saxophonist: born Ludlow, Shropshire 26 September 1934; married (one son; marriage dissolved); died London 17 December 2004.

The saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith was a significant and stimulating figure in the fusion of jazz, blues and rock music. He found most acclaim with the late Sixties progressive rock band Colosseum. Some of his friends in the jazz world accused him of betraying his talent, but he commented, "When I look back on it, I'm very pleased."

He was born in Ludlow, Shropshire in 1934, son of Hugh Heckstall-Smith a teacher at Gordonstoun school. Dick Heckstall-Smith attended Gordonstoun, then the liberal school Dartington, in Devon. He played the clarinet and then alto and soprano saxophones, recalling, "I liked Sidney Bechet, so I did my best to become Sidney Bechet for a long time."

Between 1953 and 1956, Heckstall-Smith studied Agronomy at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he led the university's jazz band. As a conscientious objector, he declined National Service and was given work in a hospital for 18 months, but only did nine, because of a back injury.

In 1957, he became a professional musician around the London jazz clubs. Then, in the summer of 1958, Heckstall-Smith was asked to play in a rock'n'roll band at Butlin's in Filey. This was easy work but it made him appreciate the value of crossing the genres. His credo was "When you're freelance, you say yes to everything". As a result, he joined Jerome Robbins's Ballet USA tour in 1959 and was involved in jazz and poetry readings organised by Michael Horovitz and Pete Brown.

From time to time, Heckstall-Smith played with his own quintet, which released an EP, Very Old Special Jazz, in 1957, but mostly he worked with others. He was a founding member of Alexis Korner's Blues Inc, which had a residency at the Marquee club in London in 1962. The initial line-up included Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Cyril Davies and Jack Bruce.

Between 1963 and 1967, most of Heckstall-Smith's work was with the Graham Bond Organisation. Bond's group brought improvisation to blues-based rock music and can be seen as the start of jazz-rock. Their albums, The Sound of 1965 and Live at Klooks Kleek still stand up today. Ultimately, Bond's drug dependency and obsession with black magic destroyed the group.

John Mayall asked Heckstall-Smith to join him in the Bluesbreakers and, ever the freelancer, Heckstall-Smith said that he had always wanted to play straight blues. He contributed to Mayall's acclaimed album Bare Wires (1968).

When the drummer Jon Hiseman wanted to form a new band, Heckstall-Smith joined him in Colosseum from 1968 to 1971. The group also included the guitarist James Litherland (later Clem Clempson), the organist Dave Greenslade, the bassist Tony Reeves (later Mick Clarke) and the vocalist Chris Farlowe. Their live shows encouraged improvisation and they broke with the tradition of having 12 songs on an album, preferring long, often rambling, suites.

Their albums, Those Who are About to Die Salute You (1969), Valentyne Suite (1969) and Daughter of Time (1970) were best-sellers and they influenced Led Zeppelin and Chicago. Heckstall-Smith played on Jack Bruce's solo album Things We Like (1970) and he also played on albums by Davey Graham ( Large as Life and Twice as Natural) and Chicken Shack ( 40 Blue Fingers).

Colosseum disbanded following a disastrous show in Italy in which everybody blamed everybody else. Working with the lyricist Pete Brown, Heckstall-Smith made a solo album, A Story Ended (1972), then formed a new band, Manchild.

For a while, he abandoned touring and studied for a degree in Social Sciences at South Bank Polytechnic. He returned to music with the band Big Chief and then Mainsqueeze. Changing direction again, he played African influenced jazz (the album Woza Nasu) and also played in a funk group DHS$. In 1989 he wrote his autobiography, The Safest Place In The World.

In 1992 Heckstall-Smith underwent heart surgery and then suffered two strokes but he returned to the recording studio with Bruce (the resulting album This That was released in 1995) when the original line-up of Colosseum reformed for a European tour and then an album. Working as prodigiously as ever, he often went to Germany for appearances and recordings with the Hamburg Blues Band. In 1998 he made an album with John Etheridge, Obsessiveness.

In 2000, Heckstall-Smith made the album Blues and Beyond, produced by Pete Brown and featuring Jack Bruce, Paul Jones, Mick Taylor, John Mayall and Peter Green and members of Colosseum. He called it "the record he had always wanted to make" and, considering the artists on board, it was like a musical history of his life.

Spencer Leigh



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