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Oral History of Jazz in Britain

Stevens, John, 1940-1994 (speaker, male; interviewee)
1992-12-15, 1992-12-29


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  • Title:
    Oral History of Jazz in Britain
  • Contributor: Stevens, John, (speaker, male; Schonfield, Victor (speaker, male; British Library (sound recordist)
  • Subjects: Stevens, John, 1940-1994; Spontaneous Music Ensemble; Improvisation (Music); Improvised music - Great Britain, 1965-1992; Jazz - Great Britain, 1958-1992
  • Language: English
  • Place Name: Interviewee's home in Ealing, West London
  • Description:
    [First interview session]: Changing line-ups of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME), ca. 1977-1992, including quartet with Colin Wood (ca. 1977-), trio with Roger Smith and Nigel Coombes (ca. 1981-), final quartet with John Butcher, Coombes and Smith (ca. 1992-). SME recordings since 1977, performing and broadcasting opportunities, recent concerts and a forthcoming session for BBC radio series 'Impressions'. 'Hustling' for work. Johnny Dyani and Dudu Pukwana. Fast Colour group and difficulties getting suitable work. John Stevens Quartet (with Byron Wallen, Ed Jones and Gary Crosby). The "rhythmelodic" approach of Fast Colour and Freebop. Claire Martin. Crawley Jazz Festival recording ('New Cool). Meeting Ed Jones. PRS (Picard-Rogers-Stevens). John Stevens Quintet. Influence of Eric Dolphy. Teaching, workshops and Community Music. Work with mental health patients. His teaching manual 'Search and reflect'. On a new composition currently in gestation (later titled 'Blue') and difficulty of getting his preferred players. New partially-composed work 'Peripheral vision'. "Territories of the mind" and his practical teaching methods. Working on his music at home, practising and developing ideas. Kenny Clarke and current listening preferences. Having to sell his record collection (ca. 1973). Demonstrates rhythmic motif of 'Peripheral vision'. Late-night working and listening at home. Lifelong interest in painting and drawing and musical inspirations for his visual art. Exhibition of his work. Work at commercial art studio as a young man. Artist Geoff Rigden. Love of work and need to stay active. Jeff Clyne and the Tubby Hayes Quartet. Dep'ing with Hayes Quartet in Cologne (ca. 1961). Wife Anne. Derek Humble. Playing in the Armed Forces band. Maurice Salvet. Cologne music scene (early '60s). Jimmy Deuchar. Stevens' childhood and family background. Early musical experiences. Trips to the Chiswick Empire and cinema. Impact of seeing Phil Seamen with Jack Parnell's Orchestra. Junior Art School. Muleskinners (skiffle group). Drumming lessons from Max Abrams. Early influences: Kenny Clarke, Blakey, Roach. Audition for RAF School of Music. "Jazz at Massey Hall" album. NME and writings of Mike Butcher. Uxbridge (RAF) School of Music and meeting Trevor Watts, Paul Rutherford and Bob Downes. Pre-RAF years (circa 1953/1954). Jazz at the White Hart in Acton and Tubby Hayes Quartet with Phil Seamen. Introduced by Maurice Salvet to musicians on Cologne scene (ca. 1960). Concert-going and sitting-in. Own naivety and misunderstood aspects of his personality. '1812 overture' anecdote. Influence of Coltrane, Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Mingus etc. Lleaving Forces and joining Don Ridell Four. Gigs at the Mandrake and Ronnie Scott's club. Reunited with Jeff Clyne, Trevor Watts et al. Charlie Chester Club. Getting Norma Winstone audition at Ronnie Scott's. Establishing the Little Theatre club (1965). Formation of the SME. First SME album, 'Challenge' (1966). Influence of Sunny Murray and Albert Ayler. Ambitions for the SME. Period in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Negative press commentary. 'Seeing sounds and hearing colours' suite (1967). Change of musical direction. Instructional pieces. Influence of Webern. SME duo with Evan Parker. 'Karyobin' (1968). Changing group personnel. Unissued 'Double Trio' session with Rashied Ali. Eddie Kramer recordings at Olympic. 'Sustained piece' and 'Click piece'. 'Oliv' album (1969). Japanese gagaku. 'Familie' and 'Distant little soul' (1968). Free Jazz Meetings at Baden-Baden. Meeting Albert Ayler.

    [Second interview session]: Influence of Ornette Coleman and Paul Bley.The "rhythmelodic" approach to composition vs. free improvisation. SME line-up with Mongezi Feza, Trevor Watts and Johnny Dyani (ca. 1969). Association with the Blue Notes and sitting-in with the band (ca. 1965-). Unique approach of the South African players. BBC Radio producer Bryant Marriott and his first radio sessions with the "Sinclair Road set" (1965). Heard by Evan Parker. Musical concessions for radio. The SME's parallel development of both free improvisational and compositional approaches. 'The source' album (1970). SME's adoption of differing musical approaches to suit the different group members. Recent work in a variety of group contexts. Plans to canonise the first black saint and his controversial crucifixion portrait of Billie Holiday. Depiction of women. Nat King Cole Trio. His relationship with the bass. Jeff Clyne. Influence of Gary Peacock and Ayler's 'Spiritual unity' album. Design and customisation of his SME percussion kit (ca. 1966). His (non-melodic) approach to tuned percussion. The "ego-less" concept of group improvisation. Role of interaction and importance of finding the right people. Listener reactions. Musical philosophy. Large ensembles. Musicians' attitudes and "the profession". Reasons for introducing "non-musicians" into the performance. Workshops and group Free Space. Meeting and working with the "second generation" players (David Toop, Steve Beresford, Paul Burwell, Nigel Coombes and Roger Smith etc.). Entourage ensemble. Little Theatre club and the Drury Lane Arts Lab. Invitation to take over Ronnie Scott's 'Old Place' (Gerrard Street). Impact of the early ESP albums. On first meeting Tony Oxley and Derek Bailey. The "English-style" of free music and reactions to it. The "linear" vs. (so-called) "pointillist" approach. On his close, long-term musical collaborators: Trevor Watts, Barry Guy, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Ray Warleigh etc. Adapting the SME to the musicians involved. Trevor Watts and their disintegrating relationship. An aborted studio session. SME with Watts and Julie Tippetts. The 'Oliv' session, Giorgio Gomelsky and Marmalade Records. Maggie Nicols. Paul Rutherford. Bobby Bradford. Problematic UK visit by Ornette Coleman. The Bobby Bradford Quartet and Bradford's musical approach. The "individualistic" approaches of Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. Stevens's "multi-directional" approach and critical perceptions of it. Shifting points of view within the SME and his visual art. The "avant-garde", critical reactions and the role of his own personality. Relationship with Dudu Pukwana. Detail, Frode Gjerstad and Eivin One Pedersen (ca. early 1980s). Kent Carter and the 'In Order of Appearance' session. Courtney Pine and the new black British musicians. Musical fashions and the press. Attitudes to the younger players. Connecting with the new generation. John Martyn and Danny Thompson (ca. 1975). Adapting to different musical contexts. Phil Seamen. Early attempts at session work. Charlie Watts and the Charlie Watts Big Band. Repertoire and arrangements. Internal politics. Splinters group with Tubby Hayes (early 1970s) and death of Phil Seamen. Gigs at The Plough and a return to the conventional drumkit. Room at the Top residency. Stan Tracey's Open Circle. Knee injury and period in hospital. Work with John Martyn. Financial crisis. Formation of Away (1975). Jazz-rock. Vertigo contract. Break-up of original Away and second version of band with Nick Stephens, Dave Cole and Robert Calvert. Increasingly rock-oriented approach of the group. Recordings for Phonogram. BBC sessions. [incomplete]

  • Notes:
    Recording date: 1992-12-15, 1992-12-29
    Collection title: Oral History of Jazz in Britain
    Duration: 2 hrs. 00 min. 33 sec.
    Duration: 2 hrs. 00 min. 43 sec.
    Duration: 2 hrs. 00 min. 58 sec.
    Duration: 24 min. 50 sec.
    Duration: 2 hrs. 00 min. 57 sec.
    Duration: 45 min. 06 sec.
    Item notes: Victor Schonfield interviews percussionist and Spontaneous Music Ensemble co-founder, John Stevens. Recorded over three sessions on 15th, 22nd and 29th December 1992. Total duration approx. 11 hours.

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