Obituary: Al Fairweather
Thursday 24 June 1993
HUMPHREY LYTTELTON, the most eminent of British jazz trumpeters, went to some trouble to point out that his fellow trumpeter Al Fairweather had been an influence on his playing. One would expect Lyttelton to tip the hat to Louis Armstrong and Buck Clayton in this respect, but to acknowledge a British player and a younger man at that testifies to Fairweather's originality and inventiveness. 'When I first heard him he scared me to death,' Lyttelton said. 'He had a wonderful tone derived from Armstrong's playing which was unique to Al.'
Fairweather was one of a group of jazz musicians who grew up to play jazz in Edinburgh in the late Forties and early Fifties. They called themselves the Royal High School gang and the group also included the clarinettists Sandy Brown and Archie Semple and the drummer/pianist Stan Greig, all of whom later produced fresh and original jazz which could be described as world-class. Their earliest band went in for slavish copies of the classics played by King Oliver and the New Orleans jazz giants. It played at rugby clubs and university dances and often at Edinburgh's Oddfellows Hall, where a friend, Tom Connery, was a bouncer. The bouncer, later known as Sean Connery, went on to great things in another field.
Brown and Fairweather, both imaginative composers and improvisers, were to strike sparks off each other. When they moved from traditional beginnings to play mainstream jazz with their Fairweather-Brown All Stars, the consistent level of inspiration in their music was unusually high. Writing of them in terms of 'the finest hot jazz', Lyttelton spoke of 'a searching exploratory spirit that keeps them burrowing away into every tune with the concentrated persistence of a couple of terriers'.
With two of the most open minds in jazz, Fairweather and Brown abandoned any ideas of copying the greats and instead drew into their music a wide variety of elements, most notably African and West Indian. Their 1957 version of Brown's Go Ghana was a masterpiece and the album of Fairweather compositions they recorded the year before wasn't far behind.
A gifted cartoonist and painter whose illustrations on jazz album covers are much prized, Fairweather studied at Edinburgh Art College before he and Brown moved to London in 1953. Fairweather worked for a year with the clarinettist Cy Laurie before reviving his partnership with Brown when they formed the Fairweather- Brown All Stars, a band which lasted for 12 years.
Brown, one of the country's leading acoustic engineers, had an alternative income, but Fairweather and the others became entrapped in what their agent described as 'the grim struggle to find work'. Eventually Sandy Brown, who was to die in 1975, concentrated on acoustic architecture and handed the leadership of the band to Fairweather.
In the middle Sixties Fairweather gave up band leading and joined the Acker Bilk band. Bilk, another open- minded (and under-valued) jazz musician, changed his philosophy to accommodate the new players and, with Fairweather's arranging of the music, the Bilk band added artistic achievement to its financial success.
Fairweather left Bilk after two years and became an art teacher in Harrow. He continued to play trumpet occasionally and worked sometimes as an arranger, succeeding in both roles with Stan Greig's London Jazz Big Band. He returned to Edinburgh after a serious heart attack in 1983 and began to work there with the pianist Ralph Laing on a musical version of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim which remains uncompleted.
He appeared regularly with Laing in a jump band which they called the Groove Juice Special. A success at last year's Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Fairweather had been due to play there with the band again in August.
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