THE ONE thing that surprises most American jazz giants more than any other when they visit this country is the fact that the British pianists who accompany them are every bit as good as their own. The first to stimulate the need for rethinking was Gerry Moore in the Thirties, and the line extended with Marian McPartland, George Shearing, Alan Clare, Fred Hunt and, to this day, Brian Lemon. Colin Purbrook was among the finest of them.
Last Tuesday his ex-wife, Maureen, visited him at the St Mary's Hospice in Hampstead and explained to a consultant there that Purbrook was one of the 10 best jazz pianists in the country. Later she told him what she had said. Purbrook, by now barely able to speak, croaked "Five, dear. Five."
"The Grand Vizier of parties was Colin Purbrook, one of the world's best pianists," wrote the clarinettist Sandy Brown. "He has what used to be called `piano touch', which means that a skilful player can make the notes ring longer than most by holding on to some of them while laying others down: no pedals. Colin is the master of that." Brown was a uniquely gifted writer who didn't live to complete his autobiography. But he left some vivid pictures, like bizarre cave paintings, of his years as a travelling jazz musician:
At any time during the Fifties and Sixties, 100 jazz musicians would be living in West Hampstead, at least 50 of them at 4 Fawley Road, or Bleak House as it came to be known. The overriding influences on the choice of the address, so important as to dismiss all other considerations, were being near town and the road north.
Purbrook lived there, along with Tony Coe and Brian Lemon, both of who also worked in Brown's band.
Conditions had achieved squalor of a surrealism it would have been hard to invent. Throughout the crash and snap of breaking glass, the splintered door panels and endless regurgitation of overindulged stomachs (singing a rainbow), Tony Coe would flit faultlessly through Bartk or Jimmy Deuchar would write down musical figures to show what brass arranging was all about.
Purbrook's parties were always in honour of some famous guest, who, typical of the formula that made the parties invariably disastrous, never turned up. Coleman Hawkins and Stan Getz were amongst them. Judy Garland was invited to one and it's not certain whether she arrived, but certainly Purbrook had impressed her enough when he accompanied her on the piano to make her want to.
Most of the incumbents slept on mattresses on the floor. The kitchen sink was unique. Dirty dishes lived in its pond for months, with the top ones being washed as needed. Tony Coe, writing a score, managed to spill a full bottle of ink into it, and after that it was impossible to see below the surface. It came to seem "that an ever greater evil lurked there. You could get your hand bitten off looking for a plate."
His father was a professional pianist and Purbrook began taking piano lessons when he was six. He won three Challenge Cups at the Brighton Music Festival of 1947 and went on to read music at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He played trombone with the Cambridge University Jazz Band in the 1958 Rank film Bachelor of Hearts. Leaving Cambridge in 1957 he first joined Sandy Brown's quintet on double bass, working with it for a six-month season at the 100 Club in Oxford Street. He played piano in the Sandy Brown-Al Fairweather All Stars, staying for three years whilst also working with other bands. One of these was Kenny Ball's, where Purbrook played trumpet, piano and bass.
But his interests lay in modern jazz, and work in the band on the Queen Mary gave him a chance to hear many of his idols in New York. Leaving "the boats" he played mainly with the Allan Ganley-Ronnie Ross Jazzmakers and toured in Germany with the band led by trumpeter Bert Courtley in 1961. He joined Charlie Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Tubby Hayes and other musicians in another Rank film, All Night Long (1961).
After more touring with Kenny Baker and Tubby Hayes, Purbrook returned to "the boats" for Black Sea and Mediterranean cruises with a quintet that he co-led with Tony Coe. Next he joined Dudley Moore's Trio on bass, and continued the association by leading the trio on piano for the Beyond the Fringe stage show that starred Moore and Peter Cook.
Purbrook's trio played on the first 16 broadcasts of BBC Television's Late Night Extra and worked regularly on the Tonight programme. He was on piano for BBC 2's jazz series 625 with Dakota Staton and the Keith Christie All Stars respectively and was a member of Benny Goodman's sextet when the clarinettist recorded a special gala performance for BBC2 in 1964.
Joining the tenorist Don Rendell the same year, he stayed for another two years when the band became the Don Rendell-Ian Carr Quintet, and had a potent role in the group's now legendary album Shades of Blue. In subsequent years he worked most frequently with Sandy Brown and Tony Coe and with his own quartet and octet. As they became aware of the quality of his piano accompaniment, many visiting Americans asked for him, and he played for Benny Carter, Chet Baker, Buddy Tate, Zoot Sims, Mark Murphy, the Roy Eldridge Quintet, Annie Ross, Dexter Gordon, Ruby Braff, Howard McGhee, James Moody and others. He had been a member of Ronnie Scott's Quintet in the early Sixties and when the Ronnie Scott Club opened often worked there as pianist.
He chose, whenever he could, to play with the drummer Phil Seamen, whose work he particularly admired, and he joined Seamen's Trio during the Seventies. Humphrey Lyttelton, always seeking the stimulation to his music provided by fresh thinking players, brought him into the Lyttelton band in 1972 (he had worked occasionally with the band during 1968), and there he stayed three years.
Purbrook was both musical director and arranger for the 1966 Arts Theatre production of The Three Musketeers. He was to remain in demand for this role for the next 20 years, spending a year and a half as musical director of Bubbling Brown Sugar in the West End during the Seventies before touring with the show for three months in Holland. He was musical director of Beecham at the Apollo Theatre in 1980 and of One Mo' Time at the Phoenix Theatre in 1981. In 1984 he was co-musical director of Lady Day with the singer Dee Dee Bridgewater at the Piccadilly Theatre, and he worked with Gil Evans as musical associate for Palace Productions on the 1986 film Absolute Beginners. In 1988 he was musical director and arranger of Alan Plater's Rent Party at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. He directed the music for The Cotton Club at the Aldwych Theatre in 1992.
Often in demand to back vocalists or as a solo pianist, he became an automatic choice in the Eighties to accompany visiting jazz stars, and often recorded with them for the BBC. They included Kenny Davern, Warren Vache, Benny Waters, Teddy Edwards, Scott Hamilton, Sonny Costanzo, Al Cohn, Harry Edison, Plas Johnson, Doc Cheatham, Harold Ashby, Dusk Goykovich, Ken Peplowski, Bobby Shew, Bill Berry, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel and many others.
In 1990 he became resident solo pianist at L'Escargot Restaurant in Soho, London, and more recently had the same role at Kettner's.
During the Nineties he continued to tour and appear on radio and television and, despite the fact that he began to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis in 1995, worked at the same unrelenting pace as before. He was able to do this because of the unique skills of his consultant at the Central Middlesex Hospital, Dr Bernard Colacco, a jazz fan who often went to listen to Purbrook at the Pizza Express.
Despite major surgery and chemotherapy for cancer developed in late 1997, he remained able to play until the end of last year. A CD called My Ideal that he recorded in 1997 with the bassist Andy Cleyndert and guitarist Colin Oxley confirms the opinion of many of his fans that he was playing better than ever before.
Purbrook was never short of work and was featured at the Ealing Jazz Festival and at the Brecon Jazz Festival, both in August last year. His last job was at the Pizza Express on 28 December, when he accompanied the American tenor player Scott Hamilton.
"The most notable thing about him," said Humphrey Lyttelton, "and the reason that any musician would like to play with him, was primarily his touch on the piano. It was the most beautiful touch, light as air, and his solos floated. But apart from that, his interjecting of chords or harmony into other people's solos, would make most of those musicians say that he was the best accompanist in the business."
Colin Thomas Purbrook, pianist, bassist, composer, arranger and bandleader: born Seaford, Sussex 26 February 1936; married 1974 Maureen Young (one son; marriage dissolved 1983); died London 5 February 1999.
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