To begin with, Coleridge, could you tell me how you came to the UK?
Well, I came to the UK in 1934 to study at Glasgow University. In Jamaica, you couldn’t earn a living as a musician and my father was an important figure in Jamaica. Electricity had just come into Jamaica, so I went to Glasgow to study electrical engineering. My father was a musician and he was in correspondence with the Head of Music at the University, Dr. Whittaker. He had a famous choir. I went first of all to get the entry qualifications but I also played violin and obtained my LRSM [Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music]. When I got into the university, I got in to the orchestra and lead the second violins. My professor in Electrical Engineering was my deputy. There were one or two Africans at the University but very few black people. One thing I remember very well was when I first came – before I even got into university – I was invited to climb Ben Lomond. There was snow and ice which I had never seen before. Of course, I had never felt cold like that.
When did you come to London?
In all, I came down in late 1940/41.
And when and how did jazz come interest your life?
I’d never heard jazz before because my father was strictly a classical musician and he wouldn’t have jazz in the house. So, I was hearing jazz for the first time on the radio when I came here. I was hearing some interesting things and thought it would be nice to play that. One of the things I noticed that there were very few only two or three violinists who played jazz and I found that if you’re a classically trained violinist you play things in a certain way, which is quite different from the way you play jazz and there weren’t any really great classical violinists I could hear playing jazz. The only person I could hear was Stéphane [Grappelli] and so I thought it must be difficult. You have to change everything you’ve learnt. So, I thought I have always loved the bass line in music and I’ve always been and still am a great lover of the music of Bach. It occurred to me when I heard Count Basie’s bass player the way he played different lines in his playing which were contrary to what most of the bass players at the time were playing – not the tonic dominant thing but moving lines. That appealed to me. I thought I could put in Bach movements into the jazz and I had decided that I wanted to play jazz and I had to be successful and mustn’t fail. So, I practised and practised. I used to practice eight hours a day. There was a bass player Bob Smith from Newcastle. He was the only one I saw amongst all the bass players up there playing jazz who seemed to me to play correctly. I could see him fingering correctly. So, I got in touch with him and asked if he could advise me as to what books are best. So, he told me and I got the books and started to learn the bass.
So you came to London in 1941.
Yes, I came to London in 1941. I was here during blitz. What happened was how I started I decided to come down and survey the scene and try and fix up something or other and I went into a place where Dick Katz was on piano playing solo and I asked him if he knew of anybody who was looking for a bass player and he put me onto someone and I was offered a job. Then a certain musician who I had seen in Glasgow he came into the club and sat at the bar and was obviously interested in what we were doing and at the end he came over and said to me, ‘I’m forming a band and would you like to play with me?’ and that was a permanent invitation. So, I went back to Glasgow. Then I played with Johnny Claes, who was Belgian, he had the best small band in town at a restaurant in London at the Embassy Club. All the best jazz musicians went through this band. We played for dancing in the restaurant but it was jazz with a vocalist and so on. Lauderic Caton [from Trinidad] was on guitar. It was very exciting and at night after playing at the club – we used to call them day clubs in those days – we went on and played at a night club.
I believe you also played with Stéphane Grappelli.
I played BBC broadcasts with Stéphane Grappelli. He was working in a club and the pianist was George Shearing. He was in that band. We did broadcasts together. Some were at Decca and some at Abbey Road.
So, did you have another job at that time or….
No, I have always worked as a professional musician. The next progression was the Caribbean Club Trio which was Lauderic and Dick [Katz] and myself. I was recording some film music with Stéphane and his group and in the group was Ray Ellington on drums. This was long before The Goon Show and during the recording I said to Ray – he became quite famous as a jazz singer, he had a programme and so on – so I said to Ray, ‘We’ve got a trio that’s at the Caribbean Club. I feel it would be a good idea if you got together with us and we formed a group.’ Our little trio was well-known at the time. So, he agreed and I said, ‘I must consult my other two fellows’. And, of course, they agreed and so we got together and upstairs from the club was an American chap who was a dance teacher and who was a friend of Ray and that was where we used to rehearse and this dance teacher suggested that the group should be called the Ray Ellington Quartet because he had the bigger name as a draw.
Where was the club?
In Denman Street. The Ray Ellington Quartet was very successful. We were able to make a living.
How long did that group last?
I left in 1951. We had a job in Milan. Myself and the guitarist Laurie Denis – we agreed to meet in Milan – I always drove everywhere. Myself and Laurie, we had his car and set off to drive to Milan. On the way, the car went over a huge bump and crushed the brake line. So, when I went to put my foot on the brake going down a hill, nothing happened. We managed to stop the car using the gears and got it repaired but it had also had independent front suspension and had broken that as well. It was quite a journey. The car was fully loaded and I had my wife and one year old daughter with me. Eventually, we got to the meeting place and there was no sign of Ray or Dick Katz. I called them and they were still in Calais and they weren’t allowed through because Dick who was German actually hadn’t got a visa or something. So, that put an end to that gig. So, there we were no money and we were in a very tricky situation. My wife could speak enough Italian to explain things and someone lent us some money to get back. I was really furious about that. So, I gave my notice straight away. The last thing I did with the quartet was the recording for the very first Goon Show – the pilot. The I went to… so, that ended that band for me. I was with Tito Burns, the I got together with Lauderic and another guitarist and a pianist and formed a quartet. My bass got damaged somehow and I had a cello and so I played that as a bass. We did odd jobs but didn’t make hardly any money.
How did you first meet Joe Harriott?
Meet Joe? I joined Tito Burns and one of the first gigs I did with Tito was a concert at St. Pancras Town Hall. We were the main band and in the interval this other band came on and in it was a saxophonist who was playing terrific stuff in the style of Charlie Parker and we had never heard that before. They were a band from Jamaica and the name Joe Harriott came up. I didn’t actually meet him then but the impression he made was very solid indeed. I was doing things at a club in London with Alan Clare and he was playing in a club and I used to play quite a lot with Alan. I was actually playing in a club with Alan when this saxophonist, a black guy, came in and sat in with us. Who was it? It was Joe, Joe Harriott. I was playing with Alan and Bobby Orr and he joined us and when we had finished he said, ‘I’m thinking of forming my own band. Would you like to join us? So, that was how it all started and, of course, he asked Bobby as well.
When was that?
About ’58. Pat Smythe was later. Joe asked a trumpet player, who was a bebop man. A funny little fellow.
Going back to that time, the level of everyday racism must have been very open and obvious. People thought it okay to be quite openly racist.
Oh yes, it was very strong. If you’ve got any kind of decent upbringing you learn how to deal with these sort of things. Although you feel personally at times hurt, you know what you ought to do and how you ought to deal with things like that. So, I was able to come through it but I knew very well that it existed and personally there were various incidents. But, as I said, one has to deal with it and get on with your life. I wanted to play music and I could only do it here. It was suggested many times that I should go to America and I said, no way would I go that country under the circumstances that existed. I would probably get killed or something because I couldn’t put up with what those guys had to put up with. That was unbelievable what happened to people there. Certain places you couldn’t go in and other places you had to go through the back door. That wasn’t for me.
But what about the music scene here?
I can’t say…. the people that I worked with were all okay and fine. I never had any problems with musicians that I worked with. Because in the first place I think proper musicians have a certain other feeling towards other good musicians – people who can play their instruments and behave themselves and that’s one thing I could always play my instrument better than a lot of them. So, they couldn’t put that down to me at all. So, I got on with the musicians alright. It was other people who were horrible. I think things are a bit better but they could be a whole lot better. So long as one is respected for what one is and one does in life that’s all you can expect.
That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, though.
I firmly believe that in fact the more we mix together the better the world is going to be instead of isolating ourselves in factions and so forth and I’ve had that belief from the very beginning. My wife is Viennese and we’ve now been together for 64 years. So, I keep hoping that we prove a point to people that people who are completely different in almost every way can live together in peace. It is possible and we should all try and do this. It would make the world a much better place.
What was Joe like as a person?
He was very confident about his playing for a start. He was very sure of himself. In fact, he could be a very difficult person. He wasn’t so easy to exchange things and views with. The way he thought about things, he had very strong opinions. Also, there’s a group called the Rosicrucians – he was involved with them. I suppose they taught people to stand up for themselves and be forthright but not easy to exchange views with. If he had a view on something, no matter what you said, that was it for him. Very dogmatic. Also, the very odd thing, although we were a group playing together whenever he was announcing a new number he would never say, ‘We are going to play for you…’, he would always say, ‘I am going to play for you…’. He was rather self-centred.
How did Joe get on with Phil Seamen?
Phil was not terribly reliable because he was under the influence of his habit. The worst incident that I can remember was we were playing in Hammersmith somewhere and Dave Brubeck was playing on that gig. It was his gig. We were the support band. Dave was standing in the wings when we were due to start. So, we go onto the stand but there’s no Phil. He hadn’t shown up. So, what do we do we have to start. So, we’re playing away and suddenly there’s a rush and Phil comes dashing in and on to the drum set and immediately was sick all over the drums. That to me was the worst experience I had ever had as a musician. Can you imagine that? In front of everybody. I wanted the stage to open up so I could just disappear. It was horrible, really horrible.
Did the quintet work regularly?
Not as much as we should have. The talent in the group was tremendous. It was such a pleasure to play with these guys.
Did Joe use hard drugs at all?
Joe may have smoked some marijuana but no…. He was a heavy smoker because when he wasn’t smoking he was sticking a cigarette on his instrument. You know how they do. He always smoked.
Do you recall how Joe first proposed his idea of free form to you?
I couldn’t imagine how this could possibly work. I had no idea and I remember when I was driving him to a gig in Frankfurt, he put this idea to me and I said I couldn’t see how the bass would work with this and his reply was more or less, ‘You could always play diminished runs.’ I remember thinking, ‘You mean I’m going to have to spend my life playing diminished runs?’ [Laughing] Once he brought the draft of his first composition like this I began to hear more or less what was required and so did all the others because they were all wonderful musicians. The sum total of our experiences in music gave us the chance and the way to find a way to do it.
What was the experience of playing that way like?
It was exciting. I mean you were actually the composer at the same time because the ideas came entirely from you being suggested by whatever else was happening in the group. We were constantly supplying each other with what to play next. It demanded absolute concentration and ability. People can play their instruments but when they need to do something off the cuff can they just do it? This is what was demanded by that music. I still listen to it. It’s still so fresh for me because it is still so different.
How did audiences react?
It varied a lot. It varied a lot. It’s possible that it was only musicians, proper musicians who could really appreciate it thoroughly what we were doing. To the general public who demand constantly a lyrical line or something or must hear a tune, they would be lost.
How about other musicians, how did they react?
When we first played it in the old Ronnie Scott’s musicians would come to the door and stand there with their mouths open [Laughing] and more or less smirking. They didn’t understand it at all. They used the standard approach to things and if you weren’t doing that you weren’t any good. There was an American critic who was very impressed, a Down Beat critic who gave us five stars.
How did Shake Keane come into the group?
I had been playing Sunday gigs with a pianist who was probably the worst pianist in the world. But he had the best people playing with him and Shake was one of them, so I knew the quality of his playing. So when this other guy, the trumpeter, left I told Joe, ‘You’ve got to get Shake in.’ In fact, he played mostly trumpet at the time but then he got himself this fluegelhorn and he couldn’t find a suitable mouthpiece but I heard him play this thing and I said to him, ‘That’s the instrument you should play.’ He played that like no-one else because he had the most wonderful sound but anyway he persevered and eventually found a mouthpiece he could be comfortable with and, thank goodness, because he played it so wonderfully the sound he made. He was my best friend.
How important was Denis Preston to the quintet?
All praise to him for having the quintet because no-one else was interested in giving us a chance to record. It was very fortunate, of course, that he had a black girlfriend and I think that was probably what started his interest in the group. None of the other people would give us a chance. Also, he had to my ears the very best recording engineer – Adrian [Kerridge]. He was the only one to give me a decent sound on my instrument. If any instrument suffered in the studio it was the bass. Very few of them knew what to do. Anyway, Adrian did and it was such a pleasure to hear. When other people did it, I used to think, ‘What did I do wrong? Why don’t I sound like I should?’
You were one of the first to use amplification with the bass.
I was the first. When I was with Stéphane I used it on those broadcasts with Stéphane.
What about Indo-Jazz Fusions?
To me it’s music. It’s all part of this wonderful world. This business of ‘Oh, I’m strictly a classical musician’ and so on. It’s music. It can be so varied and should be.
Did the group get a lot of work?
Not a lot of work. The last one was in Ireland. Joe was so scared of flying. He was absolutely terrified. He got drunk [Laughing] and, so, he couldn’t play properly.
What happened with Joe, then?
1967 was my last record with Joe – Swings High. After that there was no contact. He just disappeared off the scene. What a tragedy! I’m sure he was very disappointed but we never really discussed anything. We were not really friends outside group. We never met outside the job.
One more question, Coleridge. Can I ask you about the two drummers the quintet used – Bobby Orr and Phil Seamen. How did they differ?
Bobby was a master of time. He got a beat and he kept that absolutely dead the whole time. I always knew exactly where the beat was. It meant a lot to me because then you can phrase things and do things around this beat but when it’s all over the place I don’t enjoy playing with it. They say they are pushing the beat. They describe it as pushing the beat and it gets gradually faster and faster. You can’t relax on that. That’s my feeling and Bobby was absolutely a master at that. I loved playing with him. Phil was exciting and very talented. His skill was superb. On the whole, after Bobby came Phil.