Obituary: Bruce Turner
Tuesday 30 November 1993
THE saxophone had much the same effect on the purist jazz fans of the Fifties in their war with the 'modernists' as a crucifix has on a vampire. So when Bruce Turner joined the until then traditional Humphrey Lyttelton band in 1953 and played his first concert with the band on alto saxophone at Birmingham Town Hall a group of the band's more extreme fans unfurled a banner reading 'Go Home Dirty Bopper]' This was a risible comment on a man who stuck to the tradition in jazz and in the process made a world-wide reputation as one of the music's great soloists.
Turner, a genuine eccentric, was fortunate to spend 22 years working for a collector and protector of eccentrics. When Turner left the Lyttelton band (he returned later) in May 1957 he was replaced by Tony Coe, another world-class saxophonist. Lyttelton wrote that Coe 'like Bruce . . . speaks in a normal conversational voice which can, on a clear day, be heard two inches away. Like Bruce he has an almost studied incapacity for coping with the irrelevant practicalities of life, like catching trains or remembering where he last saw his saxophone.'
Turner's soft voice meant that it was futile for him to try to speak to Lyttelton while they were on stage with the band. Perhaps this led to Turner's claim when he finally left Lyttelton in 1988 that in the last years of his stay with the band Lyttelton was always so busy that he could only contact him by letter. (Lyttelton refuted this and recalled the hours which the two of them, as the band's nondrinkers, spent talking in the dressing rooms while the rest of the band was in the pub.) When Turner went to Heathrow to deputise for his successor in the band on a brief trip abroad, Lyttelton handed him a letter which read 'Dear Bruce, Hello, Humph.'
Even by 1953 Turner had gained an international reputation and had until then invariably been the outstanding soloist in any group he played with. He admired the alto saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, but later came to regard Tab Smith as his favourite player of the instrument. (Less than two weeks ago in a BBC radio programme, I played records to him by Smith and Hodges and his comments were so lucid and revealing that we planned to devote another programme to our discussions. He was looking forward eagerly to this, but died the day before it was to be transmitted.)
Because he was skilled at recreating the sounds of Hodges and Carter he was sometimes regarded as a copyist, but this was not the case, for the ideas he improvised were uniquely his own and he never borrowed from another player. His integrity meant that he would not be fenced in by musical boundaries as he had played accomplished bebop in the post-war years before deciding that swing and mainstream jazz were his idioms.
Turner taught himself the clarinet at school and took up the alto in 1943 while in the RAF. Afte the war he played dixieland with Freddy Randall's band for periods between 1948 and 1953. During this time he joined the stream of British musicians who 'played the boats', working with the pianist Dill Jones and the bassist Peter Ind in a quartet on board the Queen Mary. This was an invaluable chance for those musicians to hear the most modern jazz at source and, whilst in New York, Turner studied with the then avant-garde alto player Lee Konitz.
In the late Fifties the Lyttelton band toured with Eddie Condon's All Stars, where Turner met another of his influences, the clarinet and later soprano sax player Bob Wilber. Turner surprised the Americans with his prowess when he deputised for Wilber and this further enhanced his reputation.
In 1957 he left Lyttelton to form the Bruce Turner Jump Band, playing in the style of the small swing bands of the Thirties. The band was a huge artistic success but, in the commercial waters of the traditional revival, it stood little chance financially, despite touring with the American musicians Ben Webster, Don Byas and Bill Coleman. When the group broke up Turner joined Acker Bilk's band for four successful years before returning to Lyttelton.
Turner described himself as 'the Jack Benny of jazz' and cultivated a reputation for carefulness which was not entirely justified. Soon after the drummer Adrian Macintosh had joined he found himself in Monte Carlo with the Lyttelton band. He asked Turner if he was buying presents to take home for the kids. 'Kids] Kids]' Turner said. 'They haven't finished paying for their Christmas presents yet.' Surreptitiously he sent money to help the Vietnamese boat people and to other causes, but kept his contributions secret because 'it would damage my reputation'. His conversation was coded - only Lyttelton understood it fully - and peppered with phrases from the Bunteresque comics of the Thirties: 'Some fun, I'd say,' and 'This is the life for a chap, life for a chap.' A long-forgotten American film comic called Hugh Herbert had instilled in him early the habit of saying everything twice.
He published his autobiography, Hot Air, Cool Music, in 1984 and for a time contributed a column on jazz to the Daily Worker. He was a Communist and, when it had ceased to be fashionable, a Stalinist.
'You can always tell when Bruce is angry,' Lyttelton said. 'He only says things once.'
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