Obituary: John Stevens

Richard Williams
Thursday 15 September 1994 00:02

John William Stevens, drummer, composer, bandleader, teacher: born Brentford, Middlesex 10 June 1940; married (one son, one daughter); died Ealing, London 13 September 1994.

JAZZ musicians often behave like sportsmen, keen above all to display their prowess in a competitive environment. The music's early history is full of descriptions of 'cutting contests' - marathon hand-to-hand duels which would often end in triumph for one player and humiliation for his opponent. Many of the great players honed their skills that way, but nothing could have been further from the methods of John Stevens, the British modern jazz drummer who died on Tuesday, aged 54, of a heart attack.

Over a period of 30 years, Stevens made a vital contribution to the evolution of what became known as 'free jazz': that genre of improvisation which was born of jazz but grew beyond a reliance on the conventional elements of melody, harmony and rhythm.

To Stevens, however, music was 'free' in a wider sense: free, that is to say, of hierarchy. While he admired the old masters almost immoderately, and believed wholeheartedly in the development and refinement of individual skills, he nevertheless shared with the musicians of non-Western cultures the knowledge that there is more than that to music. His truest gift was as an organiser of music, and many amateur musicians, as well his professional peers, will retain fond memories of making music with him, whether in community music workshops or on the concert stage. Few will have escaped without acquiring a deeper understanding of how such an experience could sharpen the senses and enrich the sensibility of the player.

The son of a tap dancer, Stevens came to music after joining the Royal Air Force at 18. In uniform, he learnt the basics of musicianship at the RAF School of Music; in his spare time he nurtured an interest in skiffle and traditional jazz. But it was not long after his demob in 1964 that he helped found the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, a group inspired by the controversial discoveries of American musicians such as Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler. The SME was to become a permanent factor in Stevens's life, in an astonishing variety of formats. Sometimes it was a duo, with his earliest collaborator, the saxophonist Trevor Watts; often it was a quartet or a quintet; occasionally it could swell to the proportions of an orchestra, with platoons of singers and percussionists.

What was consistent was an insistence on living up to its name. In place of tunes, chords and bar-lines, the members of the SME - who at various times included the saxophonist Evan Parker, the trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Bobby Bradford, the trombonist Paul Rutherford, the guitarist Derek Bailey, the singer Julie Tippetts (nee Driscoll), the violinist Nigel Coombes and the bassists Jeff Clyne and Dave Holland - deployed imagination and empathy, gradually helping establish the ability of jazz musicians to succeed in a task at which their classical counterparts had failed. In the jazz clubs of London in the late Sixties and early Seventies, a genuinely new music was being invented every night - and Stevens, with or without the SME, helped establish and sustain its pulse.

This was not a task for which a reward - or even much in the way of thanks - could be expected. The SME made far fewer recordings than its achievements warranted, although those that survive - such as Challenge (1966), Karyobin (1968) and Oliv (1969) - trace a fascinating journey from derivative beginnings to full originality. Briefly, in the middle Seventies, Stevens made his only concession to fashion when he was persuaded to form a sort of jazz-rock combo; naturally the band, known as Away, turned out to be far too thoughtful and creative to serve the purpose of the music industry. There were other digressions: notably Splinters, a group he devised to feature two of his neglected heroes, the tenorist Tubby Hayes and the drummer Phil Seamen; Freebop, an exhilarating sextet; and an extraordinary big band led by Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones' drummer, which Stevens assembled and rehearsed for its memorably raucous debut season at Ronnie Scott's.

Stevens was a wonderfully deft and sensitive drummer, fit to be mentioned in the same breath as those, like Kenny Clarke and Billy Higgins, who had inspired him. But it was for his enthusiasm, and its effect on the music of others, that he will be widely mourned.

(Photograph omitted)

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