Stan Tracey: Musician

Pianist and composer who went from unregarded maverick to the colossus    of the British jazz scene

For the first two decades of his 70-year career, pianist Stan Tracey was regarded by many as, at best, a maverick who could safely be ignored by his peers. The sentiments of younger musicians, however, and eventually of the wider public, warmed to such an extent that he has come to be seen as the colossus of an independent-minded British jazz scene. A concept such as this was so unlikely 50 years ago that it was a shock to the establishment when the noted American saxophonist Sonny Rollins said of Tracey, “Does anyone here realise how good he is?”

It was just months before Rollins’ first encounter with him that Tracey had recorded his early masterpiece, titled Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (1965) but always known by those last three words. With the Scottish saxophonist Bobby Wellins he created some unforgettable soundscapes including the atmospheric “Starless And Bible Black”, of which the novelist Jonathan Coe has stated, “This piece has been part of my consciousness for almost 40 years.” A defining achievement, it led to several more themed compositions, many of them commissioned by funded arts organisations – another factor that was unheard of when Tracey started out.

His musical interest was first awakened by hearing boogie-woogie on the radio and, since the family didn’t possess a piano, at 14 he persuaded his mother to buy him an accordion. Soon he was playing in accordion ensembles in wartime London, and in 1943 he joined the forces entertainment service Ensa, which brought him into contact with young comedians such as Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers and later Spike Milligan.

He was soon favouring the piano, and Tracey’s postwar acquaintance with forward-looking jazzmen such as Tony Crombie and Ronnie Scott was the icing on a heavy diet of touring with dance bands and singers. Tracey missed out on brainstorming sessions with a clique of local musicians about the new American bebop, recalling “I had an unusual relationship with them. They wouldn’t let me in.”

Indeed, Tracey would not have endeared himself, thanks to his interest in Thelonious Monk and in Duke Ellington, whose band was then more revered than his piano work. Tracey’s dance-band career took a leap forward in 1957, however, when he began two years on piano and vibraphone with the popular Ted Heath, admired for his tours in the US as well as here. For Heath, he wrote pieces including “Baby Blue”, later covered by several other players, but Heath irked his soloists by expecting the same solo every night. This association led to Tracey’s first album of standard songs, Showcase (1958), which led Jackie Buckland of Decca’s promotion department to push for a follow-up album of original material, Little Klunk (1959). Jackie and Stan married in 1960.

That same year saw Tracey taking over as house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s recently opened jazz club, and the gradual influx of American star soloists working with him, from Rollins to Stan Getz to Wes Montgomery, helped refine a style full of unmistakable dissonances and crab-like runs. Apart from low-fidelity tapes that surfaced much later, Tracey had barely recorded for six years when the Under Milk Wood quartet album was done in a single day, but except for the early 1970s it has been in print ever since. Unusually for the time a piano score was published, although Tracey was frustrated that his arrangement of the character Polly Garter’s song from the original radio play was blocked by the Dylan Thomas estate. Its equally literary follow-up, Alice In Jazzland (1966), financed by EMI since it required big-band resources, was subsequently played live at the 1967 Richmond Jazz Festival.

Having balked at the six nights a week working until 3am at Scott’s, Tracey left in 1967 and for a while was on a small retainer from Lansdowne Studios, who had produced Under Milk Wood. This led to his writing an album for Acker Bilk, and another of Ellington material with soloists including both Bilk and Joe Harriott. But the early 1970s saw Tracey unemployed and contemplating work as a postman while trying to kick a heroin habit exacerbated by the Ronnie’s routine (years later, he commented about documentary footage of his Alice In Jazzland sessions: “It’s embarrassing to see myself stumbling around like that.”) Now with two young children, Jackie showed her ability to steady the ship and, in later years, Tracey paid heartfelt (though hardly verbose) tribute to her encouragement.

Her organisational flair led to the establishment of a series of South London gigs under the name Grass Roots, which elicited some minimal subsidisation and resulted in Tracey associating with younger and more radical players such as John Stevens, Mike Osborne, Evan Parker and John Surman. Tempered by this experience, in 1975 he launched a new long-running quartet with the saxophonist Art Themen, which by 1978 also included his 17-year-old son, drummer Clark Tracey, who continued to play with Stan’s groups until now. In 1976 Jackie also launched the label Steam Records (so named because Stan referred to his non-electric keyboards as “steam pianos”), initially to purchase and re-release Under Milk Wood, in time for a four-week tour with the new quartet and actor Donald Houston, reading from Dylan Thomas’s prose.

In 1976 The Bracknell Connection, for the festival held there, became the first of a long series of commissioned compositions that actually compensated the time spent in creating the piece. Tracey remembered decades later how, when the BBC had first suggested a one-off big-band broadcast in the early 1960s, “There was no money for writing the music or copying the parts. The idea was that you should feel honoured to be asked.” Many of these commissions were released on Steam, while a November 1993 concert celebrating his 50 years as a musician was recorded in full by the BBC and selections were issued on Blue Note as Live at the QEH. Sadly, a 70-year celebration last month at the London Jazz Festival took place without Stan’s participation.

In the intervening years, Tracey was consistent in employing considerably junior performers, such as trumpeters Guy Barker and Gerard Presencer and many others, and reconnected with earlier partners, especially Wellins. As well as producing new material of consistently high quality he remained a probing interpreter of older standard items, whether from the American songbook or instrumentalists such as Monk and Ellington. A backing musician at the 1982 performance of Ellington’s “sacred music”, he himself directed several such productions, for instance at St Paul’s (1990), Durham Cathedral (1996) and York Minster (2012). He gained an OBE and a CBE, and valued other honours bestowed by the Royal Academy of Music and Leeds College of Music.

The seemingly serious announcement in a 2005 interview that he had given up composing was happily belied in 2011 by a new Dylan Thomas “collaboration” in A Child’s Christmas, with Stan’s grandson Ben reading between tracks from the Thomas short story. This year saw the appearance of The Flying Pig, a compelling suite of pieces inspired by his father’s experiences as a recruit in the First World War; his father was also Stan, so his mother called her only son Billy. His death from prostate cancer has robbed the British scene of a figurehead and the international arena of a major individualist. µ

Stanley William Tracey, pianist and composer: born Denmark Hill, London 30 December 1926; OBE 1986, CBE 2008; married 1946 firstly, 1954 secondly, 1960 Jackie Buckland (died 2009; one son, and one daughter deceased); died St Albans 6 December 2013.