Michael Osborne, ‘Ossie’ to his friends, was one of the finest improvisers Britain has produced. Anyone who knew or just met him will tell you that the gap between Ossie on and off the stand couldn’t have been greater. Off stage, he was quiet, shy and taciturn. But once he put the horn to his mouth, it all poured out, a torrent of melodic lines and just when you thought he could find nothing more to say, he would make his most profound statement of the night.
Our culture loves the image of the “tortured, troubled artist” struggling with demons but, for a time at least, controlling them to produce great work. Often the image is our projection, our indulgence. But in Ossie’s case, it was probably the truth. His really was a tortured soul, just as his work was genuinely great. Mike died in 2009, having been absent from the scene since 1982 due to mental health and drug problems. His story is as glorious as it is tragic and we should celebrate at the same time as we grieve his loss.
Louise Palmer came to London from Ireland in 1965 and bewitched by ‘Swinging London’ decided to stay. By chance, she moved into a house where Mike had his bed-sit. It took quite a while for Ossie to ask the unusually pretty and petite Louise out.
“Mike invited me along to one of the gigs at Peanuts and, of course, I came out and my head was reeling. This quiet, quiet person that I had met and who hardly spoke but when he got up to play it was like a totally different individual. I couldn’t believe how strong and how emotional the music was.”
Mike had come to London a few years before Louise. Born in Hereford, his parents were quite well-off. His mother, Iris, owned five hairdressing salons and Mike had a nanny, who looked after him. Though fond of his mother, Mike did not get on well with his father, Jack, a rather strict and controlling man.
Sent to boarding school at the age of seven, Mike hated the experience and often cried when he had to go back after the holidays. Strictly speaking, Mike wasn’t an “only child”. Jack was 36 and Iris was already in her thirties when they had Mike. Iris had previously given birth to twins, who either were still born or died soon after birth. When Ossie was still very young, his mother was hospitalised for two years. Mike wasn’t allowed into the ward to visit her and his father had to lift him up to look through the glass panel so that he could see his mother. It is easy to speculate on the effects of these various events on the development of a sensitive young mind.
At the same time, Ossie excelled in music at school and two photographs from Wycliffe show him playing banjo in the school’s Trad Jazz Band. He was also a keen swimmer and a fine cross-country runner. So, maybe it wasn’t all gloom in his childhood. Mike studied music at the Guildhall and had graduated from there by the time he met Louise. Jazz was clearly his first love and he was already gigging and playing wherever he could. The Peanuts Club at the King’s Arms in Bishopsgate was a regular haunt for some 10 years. In fact, the excellent Border Crossing from 1974 with bassist Harry Miller and drummer Louis Moholo was recorded there.
Harry Miller’s wife and business partner, Hazel, recalls the gig with fondness. “In the end it became Ossie’s domain really. It was a Friday evening and there was a core. Usually it was A.J. (drummer Alan Jackson), Harry, John Surman and Ossie but any musician who came into town used to turn up there. Ossie used it as blow really, somewhere they could always play. Some weeks there would be two or three people in the audience. Others you couldn’t get anymore in if you tried.”
John Surman first met Ossie at a rehearsal for the Mike Westbrook Concert Band around 1964, and has similar memories of Peanuts. “I started to go up there with him in a quartet, which would have been with Harry Miller and Alan Jackson on bass and drums. We became very close friends and both of us were jam session crazy. If we couldn’t find a jam session to go to we would start one. There’d be something going on two or three times a week and we’d be playing somewhere for peanuts, hence the name of the club.”
By 1970, Ossie was an important part of Mike Westbrook’s Concert Band, as well as being a key member of John Surman’s Octet along with trumpeter Harry Beckett and tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore. Not only could Ossie blow with a wildness and freedom that few could match, he could also serve the music of others, which is why Westy, Surman and trumpeter Harry Beckett chose him for their bands. The music just flowed through him, whether it was his own or that of a friend.
It was that quality that endeared him to John Surman. “What appealed to me about his playing, and probably what appealed to him about me, was that we were both really passionate about making the music. He had that passion for the music and I liked his sound. He was expressive. He said things with one note, he was that kind of player. If you listen to Tales of the Algonquin, there’s a John Warren track called ‘Dandelion’ and Ossie plays the tune at one point and it’s heart-breaking. There’s such a lot of feeling in it.”
Mike had begun using amphetamines and barbiturates in the early 60s when he first came to London. One day, Ossie told Louise he had something important to tell her. “I thought, that’s it. He’s going to tell me he’s got a girlfriend. He said: ‘you know the cigarettes I make. They’re not just ordinary tobacco cigarettes,’ and then he explained it all to me. At a much, much later date he told me that when he came to London to go to the Guildhall he met up with all sorts of people and was taking uppers and downers and speed and all that sort of thing. And, of course, he was always taking amphetamine sulphate. But I only learnt that later when he became ill. I wasn’t aware of all that.’
John Surman acknowledges that Mike’s drug use was far from unusual. “We’re talking about the 60s and smoking and drugs were everywhere then. Everybody was into it. I think the problem there was that some of us got away with it and Ossie didn’t. I think he was one of the unfortunate ones and it affected his mind. Eventually, it shut him down. He got twisted and couldn’t find a way back.”
It was simply no big deal for most people. The worst that could happen was that you might get busted. It was a part of the scene and part of making things happen and, in the main, took second place to the most important thing of all – making music.
The trio with Harry and Louis had increasingly become central to Mike’s musical world. Other players might join in or be co-opted but it was with Louis and Harry that Ossie seemed best able to express the music inside him. Despite forming a large ensemble to play at Ronnie Scott’s Old Place in Gerrard Street, it wasn’t until late 1969-70 that Chris McGregor formed The Brotherhood of Breath. As Louis Moholo explains, from the outset Mike was central to their plans.
“When the Brotherhood of Breath happened Mike was the first choice. He was the first choice when we had a pen and paper and were deciding who was to be in the band. He was the first cat.”
Asked just which qualities made Mike so valued a musician, Louis’ remarks refer both to “Ossie the musician” and to “Ossie the man”. “He was very exuberant. He was a fantastic musician, so exciting to play with. So fast and furious. His melodies were so beautiful. With Dudu Pukwana (playing together on alto) they were very sweet. He was such a generous man himself. I would put him in the same category as Chris McGregor in terms of behaviour and things like that. He was a darling man. I don’t know of anybody who hated him.”
Ossie was also an extremely sharp dresser with a keen eye for style. The contrast between Ossie and John Surman in this respect is one that John still enjoys. “He was the guy who introduced me to the concept of ‘hip’. His big idol was Jackie McLean and Ossie was on the look out for the next Jackie McLean album and if Jackie was wearing a pork-pie hat on the cover of the album, next thing Ossie would be wearing a pork-pie hat. He was a sharp dresser while I was a complete ragamuffin. As I still am (laughing). That was the difference between Ossie and me, he loved all those things that were hip, a touch of the bebop. He didn’t go as far as… well, the dark glasses, yes, but not the beret.”
Mike’s first album was Outback, recorded for Peter Eden’s Turtle label. It was an exceptional debut and was the beginning of an output that hardly faltered in quality. As well as Harry and Louis, it also featured Chris McGregor and Harry Beckett. Mike was already a member of Beckett’s working band and when they went into the studio to record Harry’s wonderful first album, Flare Up, Mike was there. By now readers will have realised that as well as being a significant recording artist in his own right, Ossie was also an important part of many of the major records of the period – Marching Song, John Surman’s How Many Clouds Can You See? and with John Warren Tales of the Algonquin, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and Brotherhood and Alan Skidmore’s TCB, as well as Harry Beckett’s first three albums.
Despite all this activity, money was in short supply. But to an extent, money was not really the first consideration, as Harry Beckett explains: “Mike loved playing the saxophone and composing and doing gigs. He loved all of it. That was his life. He didn’t want anything other than to be out there playing the saxophone. The financial aspect wasn’t a big thing.
So long as you got some money to live on but playing and enjoying each other’s playing for Mike and myself as well and for a lot of musicians, that was what it was all about. He was a beautiful person. I mean I never saw Mike argue with anyone or have a heated discussion. He just enjoyed being there.”
In terms of finance, Mike relied on Louise. For many jazz musicians, a working partner was a prerequisite for survival, as Hazel Miller remarks wryly: “All musicians depend on the woman at home. It’s Evan Parker’s joke. ‘Who’s a musician who lives on the street? One without a woman!’ Poor souls they are.”
It’s a point that Louise acknowledges without rancour. “Most of our life depended on my working all the time. I suppose in the late-1960s before Mike became ill he was starting to make a small amount of money and I mean a small amount of money. I would pay the mortgage and keep us going and his parents topped us up now and then until he started doing tours in Germany. And even then any tours he did abroad brought him some money but of course Mike was taking a lot of drugs and then started to drink heavily as well. So, I never saw any money. I don’t think any musicians made any money then.”
Ossie suffered his first breakdown in 1972. He had been in Germany on tour and came back home in a highly paranoid state. It was clearly a very frightening experience for both him and for Louise.
“It was winter time, and he was in an absolute panic. He said, ‘Have the police been around?’ I said: ‘No. Why would the police come round?’ He said the police in Germany were looking for him. He couldn’t relax at all and said he’d done some terrible things. Of course, I had no experience of mental illness and he had never shown any sign of it until then but he was in a terrible, terrible state. I was really frantic but I persuaded him to see our GP and to cut a long story short Mike was persuaded to go along to the psychiatric hospital the next day. He was in there for about seven weeks. He was diagnosed then as ‘paranoid schizophrenic’.”
Mike could not accept his illness at first and would not take his medication. Inevitably, he became ill again and was readmitted to hospital. Following his first illness, it was John Surman who came to the rescue. Mutual friend Alan Skidmore had suffered a serious car accident and was hospitalised for several months. John had finished working with Barre Phillips and Stu Martin in The Trio and was feeling burnt out. It was then that he came up with the idea of a saxophone trio.
It was on a visit to Alan Skidmore in hospital that John first suggested the revolutionary idea. “He said, ‘I’ve got an idea, Skid. I think we should form a band of just three saxes.’ I said: ‘It sounds like a good idea to me.’ And, of course, we all were hard playing and coming from the same direction and loved the same kind of people.”
Though the name SOS came from their initials, it had a much deeper resonance for all three, who were for different reasons struggling at the time. Mike just played alto but Skid added drums and percussion, while John combined his various horns with synths and electronics. It was an amazing band far greater than the sum of its parts and years ahead of similar ventures like the World Saxophone Quartet and ROVA. Surprisingly for such a radical idea, SOS did very well, as Alan remembers: “People were delighted because they’d never heard anything like it before. It was a hard gig because once you had played your solo, then you had to go straight into the backing while Mike or John soloed. You didn’t stop playing, so it was a relief to put the sax down and get behind the drums. It was a unique group.”
In 1974, through a contact of John’s (the ballerina/choreographer Carol Carlson), the group landed a three-month residency at the Paris Opéra performing their music for the ballet Sablier Prison. It was a huge success. During a break towards the end of the run, John had to go down to the South of France for a gig. When he came back, Skid told him that Mike was becoming paranoid again.
“Mike became quite seriously ill. He was taking uppers and downers. He managed to hold it together until the final curtain call at the final performance. Then he collapsed. John and I brought him home the next day on a plane to London and he went straight from the airport to the Maudsley Hospital. He never really recovered and it was the end of S.O.S. because Mike couldn’t be replaced.”
Despite his illness and an increasing spiral of drinking and drug-taking, Ossie was able to hold things together for periods, largely due to the emotional, and financial, support of the ever-loyal Louise. Schizophrenia is perhaps the most destructive of any mental illness. Over time, the personality and the individual’s capacity to function deteriorates usually to the point where long-term care is required. That would prove the case with Mike Osborne. And yet, from 1975 even into the early-80s, Ossie produced some of his most remarkable work. Working with Hazel and Harry Miller and their Ogun record label resulted in Border Crossing with his trio with Harry and Louis and three years later in the quintet album, Marcel’s Muse, featuring Marc Charig on trumpet and the highly talented Jeff Green on guitar. There were also two albums with Stan Tracey, at the time in his most experimental phase. Both Tandem and Live at Bracknell are exceptional pieces of work and better yet are planned for reissue soon.
Even as late as 1981, Ossie was still playing as if his life depended upon it. The recent discovery and release of the tapes from two gigs in 1980 and 81 on Reel Recordings – Force of Nature – are astonishingly fine. But there is one album of the period that stands out among them all – All Night Long.
One of the most exciting and definitive records of the period, All Night Long is Ossie’s hallmark performance. There is a moment where he leads the trio into a sudden and unexpected ‘’Round Midnight’ in double time that seems to contain the whole jazz tradition but then surpasses it. It was a tune that Louis Moholo had sworn he would never play.
“I remember that night. I had always said I wouldn’t play that song but then when it came, we just dove into it. It wasn’t discussed. We just went straight ahead into it. Mike just went into it as Mike would do things and we just followed up. It was like to be very sharp was the name of the game, in those years you had to be really sharp and on your toes.”
It is perhaps better, kinder to stop here and remember Ossie for all that. It wouldn’t be true, though. His friends didn’t desert him and Louise, even though she and Mike divorced in 1997 and she remarried, kept on supporting him to the end of his life. But it was hard, for Louise above all. Towards the end of his playing career, Mike was consuming not only huge quantities of whatever drugs he could get hold of – amphetamines, cocaine, hashish and alcohol – he was using up what little money he and Louise had. They moved to Norfolk, in the vain hope that removed from drug contacts Mike could “get himself together”. Of course, he found ways of getting drugs, sometimes even from unsuspecting GPs, and ended up in a dreadful hospital in Norfolk and one, though long closed, that still carries its appalling reputation around the Norwich area. This was the real beginning of the end for Ossie the musician. Not long after, he returned to live with Jack in Hereford but his elderly father could not cope with his mood swings and, eventually, Mike went into full-time residential care. He never played in public again.
So, was it the drugs that did it? Alan Skidmore perhaps puts it best of all: “It was probably the combination of different things. Don’t forget he had a mental illness, which was doubly sad because he was such a fantastic saxophone player. He certainly wasn’t mental when he came to play his alto. It was as if everything else in life seemed to mess him up.”
The release of Force of Nature and reissue of All Night Long may make one sad for what might have been but they also honour a unique talent. For Hazel Miller, Ossie was a true original. “I’ve listened to lots of saxophonists but Ossie stood out. Nobody else played like him. He was prolific. The music was excellent. I really feel like he was a major voice of the era and he still is. When we brought out All Night Long and listened to it, John (Jack) and I, both went: ‘There’s nobody like that any more. Listen to him’.” People might talk about the influence on Mike of his hero Jackie McLean and of Ornette Coleman but to Harry Beckett, that misses the point: “When I listened, I heard only Mike when he was playing and enjoyed what was coming from his saxophone and was inspired by what he was doing. Because he just wanted to play and play beautiful.” John Jack of Cadillac Records puts it with determined succinctness: “You can’t construct an Ossie school of Jazz saxophone. It was about music. It was just about playing, blowing. Bugger the mathematics of it.”
Even though Ossie left the scene twenty-six years ago, his death was felt as deeply by all his friends, as if he had never been away. There was much to mourn but still more to celebrate.
Mike Osborne -Outback (Turtle/FMR, 1970)
The great Chris McGregor and Harry Beckett join Ossie, Harry and Louis for Mike’s debut album. Two long tracks provide a huge amount of scope for the improvisers and the music develops as if through a series of melodic and rhythmic adventures. Essential for fans of McGregor’s piano playing, which is given free rein here.
Mike Osborne – Shapes (FMR, 1972)
Three saxes (Surman, Skid, Ossie) plus two basses (Miller, Earl Freeman) and Louis Moholo on the traps. The music sounds angry and violent and recalls Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun at times. An archive recording unreleased at the time and a very powerful musical set of performances.
Mike Osborne Trio/Quintet – Border Crossing/Marcel’s Muse (Ogun, 1974)
Border Crossing was recorded at Ossie’s Peanuts Club with just Harry and Louis and is the better of the two but offers a fine pairing with the later Marcel’s Muse. Guitarist Jeff Green shines on Marcel’s Muse and Marc Charig on trumpet provides a mercurial foil for Ossie.
Mike Osborne Trio – All Night Long (Ogun, 1975)
This and Outback are the essential purchases. Harry Miller and Louis Moholo were so central to Ossie’s work. This is music that flows so freely that it seems organic. Yet one knows at the same time that it is that combination of openness combined with a strong feeling for time and pulse in the rhythm section that both allows and contains its sense of freedom.
Alan Skidmore Mike Osborne John Surman – SOS (Ogun, 1975)
One of those albums that is so much more than its parts. A veritable power trio and one that was years ahead of its time. Despite the virtues of the many saxophone groups that have followed few, if any, have possessed the dynamic range of SOS and the use of electronics and synth adds layers of texture and colour that astonish and charm the listener.
Mike Osborne – Force of Nature (Reel recordings, 1980/1)
What a bonus! Two great performances from 1980 and 81. This is an archive find of real importance. Featuring two different rhythm sections but with the excellent Dave Holdsworth providing continuity. The music moves through different moods, sometimes quite plaintive and almost fragile and sometimes with the natural force that defined Mike’s work.