Lol Coxhill: Saxophonist whose work ranged from punk to the farthest reaches of free jazz

 

Lol Coxhill was a pure musical artist, moving with ease between r'n'b, ska, punk, and the free jazz for which he was celebrated as one of Britain's finest ever soprano saxophonists. "Lol was utterly original," said the experimental musician Steve Beresford. "You hear two notes by him and you know it's Lol Coxhill, part of that jazz aesthetic that you should have a sound that is instantly you. And as a performer, he was completely thrilling and wonderful."

Despite such acclaim, Coxhill had the virtue of never taking himself too seriously. "The thing about modern jazz," he told Rat Scabies of the Damned, on whose second album he worked, "is that everyone wants to play loud, squeaky and bonky. But I'm louder, squeakier and bonkier than any of them."

Lol Coxhill was born in Southsea, Hampshire, before moving to Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. His father was in the Royal Navy; he would bring home jazz and African music.

As a teenager, from 1947 to 1949, Coxhill organized jazz nights – live music interspersed with records by such greats as Miles Davis and Stan Kenton; at these events he displayed his talent as a bewitching dancer. He bought a second-hand alto saxophone – he had first thought of becoming a drummer. "By the time I left school," he said, "I was buying Dizzy Gillespie records and saving up for a drape suit. I wanted to become as much like Charlie Parker as possible. But the more I knew about him the less I wanted to be him."

Becoming a professional musician in 1950, Coxhill toured US air bases for two years, with Denzil Bailey's Afro-Cubists, and the Graham Fleming Combo. Following national service in the RAF, he acquired soprano and tenor saxophones and studied music in London, living off busking. "I played jazz and standard compositions merged with open improvisations, always solo. This eventually led to work around the London clubs."

Joining Tony Knight's Chessmen, Coxhill played sax behind visiting American soul and blues acts. In 1964 he made his first television appearance, on Ready Steady Go, playing with Rufus Thomas on his hit "Walking the Dog". "Lol really respected popular music," said Beresford. The saxophonist also played with Martha and the Vandellas, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and Mose Allison. Later he toured with Otis Spann, Champion Jack Dupree and Lowell Fulson.

Whenever times were hard, Lol Coxhill would return to busking. After John Peel came across him on London's South Bank, he signed him to his Dandelion label, releasing in 1971 a double album of Coxhill's music, Ear of The Beholder; determinedly unclassifiable, as well as live busking sessions the LP included the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus", improvisations and music hall songs.

With his white boiler suit, dark glasses and witty shaggy-dog stories, the saxophonist's live appearances were similarly eccentric. By now Coxhill had became involved in the Canterbury Scene, joining Delivery with Steve Miller, Jack Monck, Pip Pyle and Phil Miller; the jazz vocalist Carol Grimes became their frontwoman. They released one album, Fools Meeting. Meanwhile, in 1973 and '74, Coxhill and Steve Miller released a pair of LPs. Coxhill also played with another Canterbury Scene stalwart, Kevin Ayers, in his group, The Whole World of Kevin Ayers.

A highly intelligent man, Coxhill immediately appreciated the wit of punk. One night in 1977 the Damned bumped into him in a motorway service station. "He was totally friendly and not rattled by pretentious musicians like us," remembered Rat Scabies. Coxhill worked with the Damned on their second album, Music For Pleasure. "If there was a father figure to the Damned it was Lol," said Scabies. "He was really witty, charming, and very easy to be with." Touring with the Damned, Coxhill – who had taken on a teaching post – would mark homework onstage as he waited for his moment. "Playing with Lol made me realise that being over 40 did not necessarily mean your brain ceased to function," said the guitarist Lu Edmonds.

Around the same time, Coxhill had become entranced by Jamaican music. "He did a great session for Keith Hudson on his Too Expensive album," recalled Jumbo Van Rennen, Hudson's A&R man. "No musical barriers for Mr Coxhill, a lovely man." Befriending the former Skatalite Rico Rodriguez, Coxhill played with him in the 1990s in the Jazz Jamaica collective. "He is an advanced musician," Rico assessed him.

For his work as a member of the London Music Collective, Coxhill was later championed by the likes of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. "It's such an underground music," said Moore. "It's very serious but it's also very humorous. It's very alive."

Celebrated for his wit, and blessed with a striking physiognomy, it was unsurprising that Coxhill was no stranger to film and television screens, with parts in – among others – Derek Jarman's Caravaggio and Sally Potter's Orlando. He never stopped working. He was a member of the London Improvisers Orchestra, The Dedication Orchestra and The Recedents, as well as performing in duos and trios with the likes of Lu Edmonds, jazz pianists Veryan Weston and Howard Riley, Hugh Metcalfe, and Steve Beresford.

"The last time we played together was in Brussels nine months ago, and it was beautiful," said Beresford. "Lol Coxhill was one of the original saxophone voices anywhere in the world. He was not always appreciated by critics. But musicians understood how amazing Lol was."

Chris Salewicz

George Lowen W Coxhill, musician and actor: born Southsea, Hampshire 19 September 1932; married Ulrike Scholz (two daughters, one son); died London 10 July 2012.

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