Mike Westbrook - early career photo and a more recent photo combined.

We’ve been checking-in with promoters and artists throughout the South to see how their lockdown experience has been, and how they’ve been adjusting to the current situation.

This week Jamie Harber catches up with legendary jazz pianist, composer and band leader, Mike Westbrook OBE, for an extended interview in celebration of his 85th birthday.

Mike has also curated a special Duke Ellington playlist for us. Listen to it here and find out about the tracks and why Mike has chosen them.

What was your first ever encounter with jazz?

Hearing Duke Ellington’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy.

When & where was your first gig? What do you remember about the occasion?

Probably a café on The Barbican, Plymouth with a band I started at Art School. We had a repertoire of two tunes, which we simply repeated.

Name a track you wish you’d written.

The honest answer is that I wouldn’t want to have written anybody else’s composition, but I would like to have already written the piece I’m struggling with at the moment. The frivolous answer is ‘White Christmas’. Then I’d be rich.

Favourite gig you’ve been to and why?

Kate and I went to see the Duke Ellington Orchestra at The Rainbow in 1973, their last performance in the UK. A profoundly moving occasion.

Looking back over your illustrious career to date, what have been some of the stand out moments?

Stockholm Premiere of ‘Citadel/Room 315 in 1974.
I had given up writing for big band or any conventional jazz group, and was concentrating on Street Music when I was commissioned to write for the Swedish Radio Jazz Group, featuring John Surman as soloist. I wrote most of it on a piano in Room 315 in Leeds Polytechnic, where Kate was teaching at the Art School.

I had a year to write it, and was really able to get into the structure of the music. For the first time, I produced a full score, rather than relying on my usual ‘trial and error’ method. John was brilliant. The Scandinavians were cool, but could really play. In Citadel I tried a lot of things I’d not attempted before, and they all worked!

The Premiere of ‘London Bridge is Broken Down in Amiens, France in 1987.
This was our first collaboration with a full classical ensemble. I took it as an opportunity to put into practice ideas I’d been experimenting with since discovering a system I called ‘The Smith’s Hotel’ chord. This was the most complex piece the band had attempted. Inspired by the Trio tours at that period, it was a European work that included English poetry and French and German poetry selected by Kate with the help of European friends. There was a long period of rehearsal in London, and several trips to Amiens, before the two ensembles met for the premiere. The excitement of hearing the music put together for the first time is indescribable.

‘London Bridge’ was long, and the conductor Alexandre Myrat proposed performing it in three parts. The concert opened with a popular French/Canadian Duo who clearly delighted the Jazz Festival audience. They came back again and again for encores while fifty of us waited in the wings. The first part of ‘London Bridge’ went fine. Unfortunately the message had not got through to most of the audience that there were three parts to the composition. A sizeable number left, thinking the concert was over. By the second interval it was really getting late, and a lot more people left, thinking this must surely be the end. We completed the concert to a small scattering of die-hards. We knew that we had achieved an important, perhaps historic performance, but couldn’t reconcile this conviction with the seeming indifference of the public. In fact we had given the Jazz Festival rather more than it bargained for… Next morning the organisers wouldn’t look us in the eye and the reviews were poor.

But it didn’t take long for ‘London Bridge’ to be vindicated. Further concerts were very well received and Virgin released the album on their new Venture label. That Christmas boxed sets were laid out temptingly in HMV, and ‘London Bridge’ lay cheek by jowl with a Beatles compilation.

William Blake.
Many of the Blake songs date from 1971, when  Adrian Mitchell and I wrote the musical ‘Tyger’ about Blake. It was staged by the National Theatre.

When we formed the Brass Band the songs became part of the repertoire. Over the intervening 50 years more settings have been added. The songs have been sung by Kate and Phil Minton in many countries with a succession of line-ups and have been recorded several times. Every Blake performance is a highlight. Particular memories are of The Foundling Hospital in London (2007), St Peter’s Church in New York (playing Billy Strayhorn’s Steinway (in 1983) and, in 2019, the Dom Club, Moscow.

Perth, Australia, with Kate and Chris Biscoe on our ‘World Tour’ in 1993.
The Trio, our most travelled group, will be 40 next year. With its combination of Song, Improvisation and Composition it has in many ways been the heartbeat of our music. In Perth we interrupted the concert and, with the audience, we went outside to watch a Lunar Eclipse, powered by Chris on soprano saxophone.

Chanson Irresponsable 2001 – A recording with an invited audience at Kingston University.
A 15-piece line-up combining jazz and classical voices and instrumentalists, including a string quartet, French horn and accordion as well as jazz group and soloists. With texts by Kate translated into French, German and Italian.

Following projects like ‘London Bridge’ and other classical collaborations, I decided to form my own mixed ensemble. I felt this was the direction I wanted to take. It was a brilliant band. I called it The New Westbrook Orchestra – rather optimistically as it turned out. Work like this finds itself in the no-man’s-land between the jazz and classical camps, between high art and popular culture. Charlie Parker said ’they try to tell you there are boundary lines in music, but man, there’s no boundary lines in Art!’ When was that? Seventy years ago? The barriers are still in place.

A Bigger Show 2014
The first sketches of the work performed in the back room of The Drewe Arms, Drewsteignton, North Dartmoor on a Sunday afternoon by the 20-piece Uncommon Orchestra. Double rhythm section, vocalists, brass and saxes. All of us were packed in with an audience, mostly made up of artists. And the realisation that something completely new and unpredictable was happening. A disparate collection of musicians, of all different ages and backgrounds, became a band. ‘A Bigger Show’ went on to become more organised, less chaotic. It was performed many times, and recorded. But it never lost that edge of excitement, of  collective liberation.

What are the most exciting changes you’ve seen in the development of the jazz scene over the years?

I can’t answer for the jazz scene as a whole, but for me the last fifty-plus years have been one long journey of discovery, with many exciting challenges on the way. I’ve always had a small band that did most of the touring, and an orchestra for particular compositions. But I never imagined that I’d find myself writing for Theatre, Dance, Opera, Classical ensembles, Choirs and all the many projects Kate and I have got involved in.

All this experience has contributed to our vision of Jazz as an all-encompassing Art form, a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ in German, with improvisation at its heart, unrestricted by style or category. This finds its expression in huge productions like Turner in Uri, in Jazz Cabaret, small group pieces like Art Wolf and The Serpent Hit, and in Kate’s  ‘Neo-teric Music Hall’ Cuff Clout.

Who have you been listening to recently?

I don’t know why, but I’ve not listened to much jazz during lockdown. Jazz history is very important to me, and I’ve been an avid listener. But at the end of the day Jazz for me has always been about playing, not listening too much to what everyone else has done, or is doing. At the moment if I play any records, it’s Ellington, and some classical composers.

What advice do you have for fellow musicians adjusting to the current situation?

I’d be glad of any advice from fellow musicians. I can only really say the obvious – keep working at anything that comes to hand, any idea, any creative opportunity. The one thing lockdown gives us is time, if we can only find a way to use it. I am lucky as a composer, in that I am used to working in isolation a lot of the time. Also as a band leader I have to try to plan ahead and be in touch with the ‘music business’.

Even now Kate and I try to keep our ‘cottage industry’ open. We exchange messages from afar with fellow musicians, and, courtesy of Jazz South, recently recorded a track with Kate’s Granite Band ‘Says The Duke’ (you can find out more about this track here). Necessarily it was recorded ‘remotely’, without the band ever getting together. I admire the way in which many musicians are finding ingenious ways of playing together and reaching the public. I think perhaps the lesson we can all learn from this predicament is that we have to take greater control of our situation. Let the scene once more be Artist-led. The post-covid world is going to need all the Jazz it can get!

Have you been working on any new material recently?

I have got a piece slowly cooking on the piano, but I have to say that at the moment I am happy to let it simmer. No doubt there will be a deadline, and I’ll have to turn up the heat. Kate and I plus our friend and webmaster Chris Topley work every week planning our Moving Picture Show, which screens a new film on the website every Friday. In a way this is like planning a composition. It has now reached its 50th show. I am also spending time writing piano/vocal arrangements of our songs, with a view to publishing them  in some form or other.

You’ve had such a varied and long career and to still be writing & releasing music as you reach your 85th birthday is an incredible achievement. How have you managed to maintain your passion for so long and to keep things fresh and exciting?

Being a jazz musician is for life. There’s no retirement, no pension. And there’s always the lure of the next gig, the next project, which is going to be your best yet. As a self-taught musician I’ve had much to learn, and I still have. With a lot of luck, and not a little help from medical science, I can still get on stage. At my age a year long lay-off is not exactly what the doctor ordered. But I ain’t finished yet!

You’ve had a longstanding musical and personal partnership with Kate Westbrook – what are the secrets of your success?

Kate and I began this adventure in the 1970s, with no idea where it would lead us. We both knew we wanted to commit ourselves to each other and to Art. We didn’t want to teach – we’d done that – and neither of us was qualified for commercial music. It was Art full-time. There were hard times, financially, but then the answer often came from a surprising direction.

One  project cropped up at a lean time which involved forming a street band to play at fringe theatre   festivals and community arts events. This was a new beginning and the Brass Band, as the group became, was our main touring group and the nucleus of many future projects, including The Cortège. We’ve all gone on to other things but the Brass band has never disbanded. Nor will it while Phil, Kate and I are on the planet.

What are your post-lockdown plans?

The last Westbrook gig before lockdown was in Bath with a new quartet – Kate, me, Roz Harding and Marcus Vergette. It’s a shame to be cut off when we’d only just started. But we‘ll be back!

Our trio with Chris Biscoe will be forty next year. The trio has been so much of our lives. We long to play with Chris again.

There’s unfinished business with Kate’s Granite Band, which has not yet been able to follow through on the release of the second album ‘Earth Felt The Wound’. Kate’s lyrics are always a challenge, musically. Where will the Granite Band go next? September has been mentioned as a possible time for a re-launch.

We are keen to get together with Phil Minton and the others in the Blake band. The Blake songs have been the most viewed on The Moving Picture Show, and this is a time when we all need William Blake.

Our date at Ronnie’s with The Uncommon Orchestra has been postponed several times. Have we got to wait till 2022?

This year in the absence of gigs, Mike will be celebrating his birthday with the first screening of ‘We’ll Always Have Paris’.

Last year’s two-piano concert with Mike and Jonathan Gee at the Pizza Express in London was cancelled due to the pandemic. It was scheduled for March 21st, Mike’s birthday. As lockdown continues in 2021, yet again there will be no birthday gig.

This year’s birthday, his 85th, will be marked with the first screening of films made by Jon Hiseman of the sessions that produced the 2016 PARIS album.

Entitled ‘We’ll Always Have Paris’ the films will be shown on the Moving Picture Show over three consecutive weeks, starting with Show No 51 on Friday 19th March. You can watch it here.

Find out more about Mike Westbrook on his website.

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