Jazz Professional               

Pete Cater

An exclusive interview with the leader
of the brightest, swingingest big band
to hit the British scene for decades.


"The sheer unflagging drive is impressive"—Dave Gelly in Observer.
"An important voice in British Jazz"—Chris Yates in Jazz Rag.
"A band with verve, excellent, a taste of things to come"—Roy Belcher in Big Bands International.
When you listen to the Pete Cater Big Band you realise at once just what a giant step Pete and his musicians have made for British big band jazz"—Ron Simmonds in Jazz Professional.
...do not miss them in concert. If you like big band jazz you’ll have a great evening."
Malcolm Laycock, BBC Radio 2.
Playing With Fire
The Pete Cater Big Band Gallery

Talking to Ron Simmonds in 2001

Early Days

I really couldn’t help being a musician because it really all started at home when I was a very, very young guy. My Dad plays the drums—good player—a really nice, clean technique, nice touch on the instrument, and so there were drums at home.

Remember we’re talking about the 1960s. There was work all the time for everybody, busy guys, and he’d got this sort of junk set that he used to have set up at home to practice on, in the spare time that he had at that time. And, of course, I found them right away. There were sticks lying around the house and there was good music on the radio and the records all the time.

We had records of Basie, Dave Brubeck, Sinatra, Oscar Peterson, Clifford Brown and Max Roach. When you’re hearing that stuff, very early in life, and you have an ear for music and you’re blessed with an innate natural talent that you inherit from your family for doing this thing then it really was inevitable that I ended up picking up the sticks, which I did quite quickly.

I was something of a 2–year–old novelty very early on—this tiny little kid that could keep a beat. Today I’m more of an adult novelty, and that’s a whole different matter. So really I’ve got to say that my Dad was my first inspiration to play.

I found that I could pick things up very easily. I could pick up rhythms from records—not just drummers, but horn parts, and the rhythms of various melodies had an immediate appeal for me. There is some old movie footage somewhere of me playing at a very, very early age. I don’t know where it is and I just keep my fingers crossed that no one manages to turn it up and embarrass me.

So, apart from watching my Dad do his practice routine, I was also hearing some pretty good players, right from the outset, the first of whom that really sticks with me to this day—I can still hear his influence in my playing—is the great Joe Morello.

At that time the Brubeck Quartet was massive. Everybody had the albums. They used to play at sell–out concerts all over the world, and, of course, Joe was a master. Time and technique and touch and real musical invention on the drums.

I still hear things of his in my playing today. So I think, oh yes, there we go—that’s Joe Morello coming through. The other players I was hearing at that time were Ed Thigpen, with Oscar Peterson; to a lesser extent guys like Max Roach and Sonny Payne. Then, a couple of years later, when we were in around 1968, I remember my Dad spending £150 on a Scandinavian hi–fi system.

You’ve got to remember that £150 was a lot of money back then, nearly thirty–five years ago. The speakers on the thing were taller than me. He had some new records and the first records I remember him playing on this fabulous new audio equipment were some of the first recordings of Buddy Rich’s band. They had a profound effect upon me. I was hearing music with incredible clarity and power for the first time, through this wonderful gear he had bought us.

 Immediately I was captivated by the music, and, of course, Buddy’s playing. Enough has been said about him over the years in various publications. For me to add anything to that would be quite unnecessary. I think the guy was a genius, a complete one–off. Fourteen years after his death he is still talked about more than most drummers who are playing today.

So that kind of developed through my formative years. I started hearing other bands. I quickly became fond of Basie’s band and also Woody Herman’s band. I would say that those three bands—Buddy’s, Basie’s and Woody Herman’s—they were the ones that really inspired me—really led me into the direction of my great abiding love for big band jazz.

I listen to a lot of stuff today. I listen to pop music, and always have, but the difference between the influence I’ve drawn from pop music, as opposed to jazz and big band music—as a young guy I thought pop music was nice music to listen to, but it didn’t inspire me to pick up the sticks and play, in the way that jazz music did. I’ve always tried to keep an open mind in that respect.

To this day, anybody that I hear, who has something to say on my instrument, has my respect with regard to the area of music they have chosen to go into, whatever the style, genre or whatever they play. Somebody who can really play will always have my respect.

A Step Up

When I was about 14 years old I heard the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra. They came and played a show at my school, and immediately I thought this is for me. I got talking to the musical director, a guy called Mike Beaumont, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come down to a rehearsal sometime?’

They had a second band for the younger players who were just coming through. I went down there one time and they gave me a job in the second band on the spot. I hung around there for four or five months until an opportunity came up to go into the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra proper.

This was very good experience for a young player. It was a pretty good band then, but it wasn’t half the band it is today. I really believe that, of its kind, one of the best youth big bands, not only in the country, but also in the world. It’s nice when you are learning with people your own age, having new experiences and getting on the bus and going out on the road and playing—meeting various guest soloists. It was a very happy time for me.

Also, at that time, something that fills me with great feelings of nostalgia: the Musicians’ Union in Coventry, each year, used to put on a big band competition. There was this old venue in Coventry called the Matrix Ballroom—you probably remember that from the old touring band days.

They would have a band set up at each end of the ballroom and the bands would rotate and change over. Through the day about twelve bands would play. I think it was the first time that I appeared there with the senior band of the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra that they decided to have an award for the best drummer, which I won, and continued to win after that, every year from 1979 to 1984, when I finally left the band.

Also, when I was sixteen, I received the Jack Parnell Drum Award in the BBC2 Big Band Competition. The whole idea of coming to London and doing a big broadcast at the Golder’s Green Hippodrome amongst all the luminaries from the music industry was very exciting. Again, very, very happy times.

After that I left the band when I was twenty–one and hung around Birmingham for a while—probably for far too long. I gigged and did odds and ends and eked out a living—did the usual things a lot of young musicians do, like going away, doing location engagements, theatres, a few little flirtations with the cruise ship house bands, the QE2 and things like that.

I’d come to the end of my twenties and I was not terribly happy with the way things were progressing. I didn’t feel that things were moving forward in the way that I would wish them to. I was in the fortunate position of having some money so I said well I’m going to go to London and find a proper place to live and just start all over again. Cut my ties with everything I was doing.

That’s what I did in the November of  1992. I came to London and I knew about three people. I knew another drummer, a bass player and a trumpet player. I thought, well one of us is going to get a new gig, and that’s exactly what happened.

A Fresh Start

So here I was, the new guy in town, quite a bit older than musicians generally tend to be when they come to London for the first time. You tend to think of guys coming down in their late twenties, going to college and the kind of things that go on.

A couple of people were really helpful. My good friend, the trumpet player Don Morgan, he recommended me for everything he practically could. He got me involved in one of the rehearsal bands, in north London, quite close to home, to play and meet a few faces.

I was immediately impressed with the general standard of musicianship, as compared to what I had been used to in Birmingham, and also the attitude of the players. A lot of times in the past, when I was a real veteran of the rehearsal bands I’d been in, the young guys would turn up to rehearse—and they’d spend far too much time drinking and arguing, bitching about how the charts should be played. Very little playing would get done, and very little creative work or actual achievement in the two or three hours, or however long we were there.

So I was immediately impressed by the approach to musicianship, and the attitude towards getting something right—casting the die of how I would approach my own band when it finally got formed. Through Don, and Trevor Brown and one or two other people I was lucky enough to get some good jobs, do plenty of work and manage to keep my head above water while I was busily getting myself established.

There was also a local saxophone player called Jerry Gibbs who had a quartet gig every Thursday night in Willesden Green. I hooked up with him at one of the rehearsal bands I’d been hanging out with. He just booked great players all the time, in the piano and bass chairs, so in a very short space of time I was meeting a lot of really first–class musicians, working with them regularly and really getting a good feeling for the London scene.

People who I met at that particular point in time I have a very special fondness for—people like John Horler, John Pearce, Harvey Weston, a bass player who recommended me for a pretty much full time gig with Elaine Delmar a couple of years later. A very fortunate occurrence.

At that time I was then able to really go on the road and be pretty much a full–time jazz musician. We were doing a revue show, based on the music of George Gershwin, with the late Mick Pyne on piano, and going everywhere, all over the UK, going to Europe a lot, and that really changed the whole thing for me.

Running concurrently with this I’d been meeting quite a few younger musicians and catching up with a few guys I’d known in the Midlands who had migrated to London previous to myself. A lot of people knew that I’d dabbled in a little bit of band–leading in the past—I’d actually put a band together for the first time in 1982, when I was 19 years old. The usual thing, just getting hold of a bunch of charts I liked, not really caring about how difficult they were.

Just good charts. I didn’t care how high it was, or whether it fell under the fingers, or not. If it’s good I want to play it. Then a few years later I co–led a big band at a jazz venue in Birmingham called The Cannonball. They called it The Cannonball because it was in Adderley Street.

We had a band there called The Wasted Youth Jazz Orchestra that did a few little gigs, and we had a lot of fun. The core of that music I had gathered together from those two previous incarnations of what is now the Pete Cater Big Band was sitting in my wardrobe and it got about that I was a guy with a library. During the period, round about 1994, a lot of people kept saying to me, ‘Hey, why don’t you get a band together?’

A couple of guys who were persuasive at that time were the saxophone player Howard McGill, who is now with the BBC Big band and also the great lead trumpet Andy Cuss. An absolutely fantastic lead trumpet player. Terrific sound, wonderful time and phrasing—he’s a guy who really has got it all. For my money, the best lead trumpet player in this country at the moment.

Something New

With so much persuasion I thought, let’s sort something out. I happened to be, for my sins, depping with NYJO one lunchtime down at a golf centre, and the guy who used to own the golf centre, a guy named Stuart Dunlop, I got talking to and he said do you want to put a new band in here. He said, ‘I’m always ready to encourage guys who want to start something new.’

I thought I could do something a little more contemporary, a little bit more modern and a little bit more forward-looking than what the rehearsal bands were playing at the time. I already had a core of musicians that fit into that arena quite nicely, so in February of 1995 I booked the rooms for Tuesday mornings and rounded up some guys—got the section leaders to bring in some guys they’d like to play with.

I said OK, here we go—we may do this once and we may never do it again, we may do it once a fortnight or once a year—or never. Everybody said, Please let us do this once a week. So that was that. We started rehearsing the band, getting some new music in, and playing once a month.

We would play Sunday lunchtime, at the golf centre. I remember the first job that we did. A completely unknown band, we had an audience of about a hundred and twenty, which is really quite astounding. I still have the recordings of that and it was great.

At that time we were playing a few things by Thad Jones, Bob Minzer, Jim McNeelly—people like that. First class writers. Their music had never really been done much in the way of justice by any other British band. That was how we got the ball rolling, back then in 1995.

About a year after one of the guys said he had met up with an American saxophone player who had just relocated to London. He was going around various rehearsal bands with some charts he had written, and he turned out to be Frank Griffith. Frank turned up one day with his horn and with his charts and it was just like having a whole new book. He’d been writing for—some of his stuff went back about ten, fifteen—a whole body of work.

The things that Frank brought at that time, in early 1996, a lot of that stuff became the core of the music that is on the Playing with Fire album: things like Caravan, New Arrival, which I consider to be one of the best big band charts I’ve ever heard anywhere, except perhaps A Time for Love. Frank was bringing all those charts in at that time. I wouldn’t say that knowing Frank has necessarily opened up contact with any other American writers, although, through him, I have been able to get hold of one or two things sort of second-hand from people—that wonderful chart of Angel Eyes that’s on the current album is from bass trombonist Dick Lieb, and a thing by Bill Mobley, which we’ll be recording soon.

So the meeting with Frank Griffith really set the style, gave us our own sound, our own identity. You can’t get much luckier than that. To find somebody with that level of writing skill, imagination, creativity and musicality. The sound of Frank’s writing has really defined the sound of this band for several years now and I hope it continues to do so for a long time.

He and I now kind of concoct things together. I’ll come up with a germ of an idea or rough out a line, and sometimes a very detailed outline, and then he goes and works his magic on it. Between us we’ve come up with a few things that I’ve been very happy with. Like Regulator, and Some Other Time and Silver’s Serenade.

As  far as rehearsing the band is concerned—we just set up and we play. I like to deliver some of the responsibility to the section leaders, and, indeed, to everybody in the band. I like to hear what guys have got to say about it. At the end of the day I’m in charge, I write the cheques and I decide what we’re going to do, but I always listen to the opinions of the people who are there playing. These are the people who make the band great. The individuals, and what we come together and do, make the band what it is.

It’s not like saying, OK, we’re going to play 21, 46. 33 and 97—take it or leave it. You’ve really got to think about what guys are going to be happy playing. I feel I have a fairly strong basic instinct for what’s a good chart, and what the guys are going to get musical satisfaction from playing. Maybe get a solo on, try to look for things where the ensemble writing is interesting in the right kind of way, so that the guys are going to want to do it. There’s no point in browbeating the musicians into playing stuff that they really don’t like.

I’ve got clear ideas as regards swing and phrasing and the kind of style that we lay down in that respect really comes from me. I believe that there are two great chairs to lead a big band from. One is piano, the other is drums. All too often musicians don’t listen to the drummer quite the way that they should. Certainly English musicians don’t.

I’ve had very, very different experiences from my encounters with the various American musicians I have worked with, and have continued to work with over the years. I’m a great believer that—if you’ve got somebody out front, a non-playing person to just point out certain things, cue up certain things, or maybe offer some directions as far as dynamics are concerned—if you’ve got some clown waving his arms around beating time out front—now how can a band play with that? You can’t hear it, you can’t play with it—and it’s usually wrong, anyway. So that’s every MD in the world demolished in the space of a few well-chosen words.

I think that we in Great Britain as a whole, we only have that much breadth of understanding as far as time is concerned, and swing is concerned. I think this is something that is improving a lot, and there are a lot of musicians who play pretty much in time. Trying to get them to phrase and to articulate notes, and to get an eight-piece brass section to do that in strict tempo, how to make it groove, how to make it swing and to get all that light and shade and internal dynamics happening is very hard to do.

I think the circumstances that kind of dictate it, where time is the essence—there are so many studio big band recordings that should never have been released because they were sloppy and under-rehearsed. Everybody comes in and they run the chart down, sight-read it, put it on tape, and I’m sorry—that’s not good enough.

Guys going out doing concerts with the band, sight-reading—if an audience is paying fifteen, twenty or more pounds of hard-earned money to come and hear your band play then they deserve a little better than to listen to sixteen guys sight-reading on the stage. That really is not good enough. It’s not professional, not good enough. If you want to stay in the business you’ve got to get your music right. No messing around. Put the time in, get it together and then start making something different.

I would say that the public reaction to our band over the last few years has really been tremendous. The live appearances—we’ve done some wonderful shows. We played three times at the Rendezvous in Britain, over at Egham, promoted by Murray Paterson. The first time we played there was at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. Who’s going to come and listen to a band at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning? Well many, many hundreds of people did, and the guys really rose to the occasion. I think that one show, more than anything, really helped to put us on the map.

Suddenly we were getting feedback from all over the UK, from overseas—Europe and the States. We were getting talked about and selling a lot of records. Incidentally, I should say that we were very lucky in that back in 1997, I applied for a small Lottery Grant of four thousand pounds to make our first album. They were gracious enough to come up with that. And with the support of  Jazzizit Records, who took care of the manufacturing and distribution we got a pretty nice album together.

I’m reasonably happy with it. Some of the performances on it are excellent. The sound and the mix of that record—I feel could have been better than it was, but it is nice and bright and has a lot of clarity and a lot of excitement and energy about it. That was the first time I had ever produced a record and the first time I’d ever had that much control and responsibility over a project of that magnitude.

Of course, you learn by doing, and I think the evidence of that is quite clear and apparent in the quality of the second album. So I feel that it’s a growing thing—that each record is better than the last. The third album will be better than the second one, and so on, and so forth.

I am very grateful to a lot of very loyal people out there, who’ve taken the time to support us. Over the last few years the festival appearances have been great. We’ve played at Jersey two years running. That was really impressive. The reaction has just been fabulous. I think people react to something in spite of themselves.

At that time the band was not a known entity at all, outside of Sunday lunchtimes in West London. All of a sudden here was something that was new, didn’t have all the usual faces in it and played new music very, very, very well. Consequently I think that out of this came the very favourable response that we have had from the public.

Some of the older musicians do come out and see us. I think that some of the older musicians are a little bit fazed by what we’re doing. I don’t know—maybe they think that we’re too modern, maybe feel that we should be playing older charts, or what-have-you. What we’re doing is straight-ahead contemporary music, it has a relevance to what’s going on now, it doesn’t draw on nostalgia in any kind of way at all, though what we’ve always tried to do is retain the core values of what big band music is all about—precision in the ensemble, phrasing and dynamics. A group of energetic guys who really want to play the music they are playing.

We don’t want to have people sitting there like it’s just another job, and waiting for the cheque to come in the post. The guys come to work for me because they want to. I always insist that everybody is paid properly. It’s a professional situation. I’m not asking favours from anybody. The musicians are there, they want to be there and they’re proud to be there.

I wish some more of the older musicians would come and check us out. One thing that quite irritated me was that a few months ago we played for NYJO's 35th birthday at the Hundred Club. There were several bands on the bill there. One of the bands had some of the session faces in it. It was a pick-up band, hadn’t done a rehearsal, and they played immediately prior to us.

When we went on and played you would have thought that if they were at all interested in music, and what’s going on in the scene, they would stay around and listen to it, but you’ve never seen a bunch of guys leave the room so fast in all your life. I don’t really know what that’s about.

As far as the younger musicians—sure, we have younger musicians coming along all the time: guys who are in college, guys who are playing for the Youth Jazz Orchestra—I always encourage that. It’s great to see them.

You know—they’re the guys, a few years down the line, they’re going to be working for me. Their enthusiasm is to be encouraged. I don’t know what it is, but sometimes guys get into their early thirties and all they seem to be able to think about is their next game of golf. If you want to play golf, go on the golf course. So you walk around the golf course thinking about music—I wonder?

Young musicians—they are the future of music and I’m always happy to see them and answer their questions to the best of my ability.

Recently we played for the National Union of Students Convention up at Sheffield and that was very interesting because we played to people who had never heard a band like that, live before. I guess that the younger people today think that a big band is something like the band Jules Holland had, which to me is just like a rock group with some horn backings—really not jazz, and really doesn’t have any kind of quality or values. I don’t quite know why it is the BBC devote so much precious air time for it. The one good thing about it is that it’s creating some well-paid work for some very talented sidemen there.

As far as the Jazz Rag poll is concerned we won that last year, in 2000. We won the poll just one time, and the deal is, with that—the year after you win it you’re not eligible for the year after. Let somebody else win it, which I think is fair. There’s quite enough on the British jazz scene—you get quite enough just seeing the same old faces all the time, so it’s fair, in a way that other people do get a chance to come through.

We were lucky last year because the year that we won was the year that the BBC Big Band was exempt from winning. There’s a band with an enormous following, that works a lot, that gets all the broadcasts there are left on British radio, and, of course, an enormous amount of freedom. Publicity courtesy of the BBC. So they’re in a very fortunate position.

The Critics

As far as record reviews in the press are concerned—you occasionally encounter a little bit of strangeness, someone with a lack of understanding. I’m very open-minded about what reviewers have to say. If they like it: that’s fine, and if they don’t like it it’s really not my problem. If musicians weren’t here, were not creating, what would the reviewers be doing? Probably be at home, mowing the lawn, or something.

The whole music industry at large these days is like a massive infrastructure of all sorts of people doing various corporate things. People that are involved in the promotion of music, the marketing of music. the selling of music, the broadcasting of music—and then, at the end of the chain, there’s a small handful of people who are actually involved in creating and playing the music. Who, very often, don’t seem to matter too much in the scheme of things.

But what you have to stop and remember is: it’s musicians that create music, without which these people have no income and no job. I know that most music is now clinically marketed and manufactured, and I see that happening a little bit in jazz, which troubles me greatly.

I hope that’s not the shape of things to come, I really do. I hope that quality music will always be able to come to the fore, based on its own virtues, not based on how much money you are prepared to spend on it. I happen to know that the guy who originally inflicted the Spice Girls on the world at large is trying to get a bunch of young guys together, in their late teens and early twenties, and have a big 1940’s style swing band. So maybe there’s some productivity in there—maybe it gets some young people looking for some other kind of music. That could be valuable if the young players get a little pace out of that.

As I said, most of the reviewers have been very good, very fair and on the whole, very favourable. Occasionally people say some things that strike me as a bit strange, like the band’s too busy and it plays too many notes. Well I don’t know—how many notes is too many notes? Maybe there were a couple of hundred too many notes on one of the charts—I really don’t understand that.

The other thing that worries me—I picked up one of the magazines today and there were about thirty albums reviewed in it. And of those thirty albums three were new recordings. Everything else was old, re-issued tunes and stuff, I’m sure all of them great—Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Thelonius Monk, Clifford Brown—whatever, but I think enough has probably been written about that over the years, so there’s really no justification for wasting column inches on it now.

 What is anybody going to find new to say about Art Tatum, for Christ’s Sake? Some retired schoolmaster from Banbury is going to give you his treatise on what he thinks of Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert. Who needs that? Why don’t you review the people who are creating the music today?

Again, this is the music self-destruction. The image of big bands that everybody has is of 75-year-old musicians playing 50-year-old charts. We really have to set a new agenda and help the people to see what big band music is all about.

Reviewers I don’t worry about too much—they don’t keep me awake at night. The only opinions I really listen to as far as the band is concerned are from the people who play in the band, and, of course, I listen to my own opinions.

Another thing that’s completely stupid, ridiculous and beneath contempt is when people say that the band is over-loud. I’ll quite happily and proudly say that I’ve got the loudest big band in the country at the moment. But I’ve also got the quietest band in the country. I expect the guys to go out there and play powerfully. I play powerfully enough—I can also play very softly.

We cover the whole dynamic range. The guys get on the stage and they’re ready to play and while they’re on the stage for the few hours that we’re playing I expect them to really give their all to the music, not sit there like civil servants in dinner suits.

Trumpets sitting down! That’s always a bad sign—to see a trumpet section sitting down you know it ain’t gonna be all there!

We show commitment, hard work—these are the things we place a high value upon in the band. We like to play together. As well as this being a fabulous group of musicians that I am very privileged to have, we also have a good thing going socially. There are no little cliques in the band, nobody bitching about anybody behind his back—I wouldn’t tolerate that kind of thing. I expect people to conduct themselves properly, on the stand and off.

Great Bands

As far as the history of big bands — there have been a few bright moments over the years, and a few moments that are best forgotten about. But it’s not something that I can really comment on, from any kind of informed standpoint, really, because I can sit here and honestly say to you that I’ve never been interested in British big bands whatsoever.

Everything that I have taken on board has always come from the American bands. The earliest ones with Buddy, Basie, Woody Herman and later the wonderful Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. And also some of the stuff that has been going on in Europe—that Clarke/Boland band, with all those fabulous players, and Peter Herbolzheimer’s Rhythm Combination and Brass. Bob Florence has had a good band for many years, although I think a lot of his writing is quite repetitive. Another good band is Rob McConnell’s band out of Toronto. Bob Mintzer has recorded some wonderful albums with his young musicians.

I was so lucky with our band in that we have a fabulous bass player, in the shape of Dave Jones, who is a master of both the upright and the electric. He has it all together on both the instruments. That’s very rare, a very precious quality. The bass chair in the band is definitely a doubling chair. Because of the quality of the contemporary things that we play we really need the electric instrument and — of course, when we’re playing straight ahead and start to swing then you’ve got to have the old upright there.

So he and I have a very special relationship. He has a fabulous sense of time. He just puts everything into the same place that I do. Whereas in the past I’ve worked with bass players who can, in one bar of four-four, playing a walking line, they can play three different tempos.

It comes back to the kind of musical values that we have in this country. My experience seems to be that the value that gets you rated highest in the UK is the ability to sight-read. Now sight-reading is a very important skill—it gets jobs done quickly. But it’s kind of like a side issue really. Obviously you need people to be good, competent readers, but I’m not really concerned about people that can flawlessly sight-read the most difficult chart you can ever put up in front of them at first attempt if they can’t play in time or if they don’t swing—if they don’t have what I consider to be the right kind of shout.

So sight-reading alone is a useful skill but to me it’s not the definition of a good player. The definition of a good player for what I’m trying to do is somebody that has a good sound on an instrument, has really great time, really understands swing. He understands how to get in that groove and keep it right there.

Anybody who’s not sure of what I’m talking about—young musicians who may be looking at this on the Web, or whatever—if you want to know what this is all about you should get some Basie records. If you know the music of the Basie band, you know swing. And if you don’t—then I guess you don’t.

That band for me over the years, from its earliest incarnation in the thirties, right up to, I guess, the late seventies—because it isn’t really the Basie band any more, it’s the Grover Mitchell band, playing some fairly anonymous music—that was the band that epitomised time, dynamics and swing. And that’s what you need if the band’s going to sound good. Articulation, guys phrasing short and long together, coming off notes together, taking the time and trouble to pay attention to these kinds of things. Breathing together—brass players breathing together. How important is that!

I’m very lucky with the people that I have. One guy who I must mention is our lead trombone player Liam Kirkman—he is absolutely fastidious as far as getting the whole brass section to really take care of business, absolutely properly and to the letter. He’s not only a great section player but a great lead player and a fine soloist. When you have that kind of focus being brought there on the music in a rehearsal situation you can’t help but succeed.

The Future

I’d like to talk for a moment now about the future, the future of our band and what I think of the future of music in general.

I really hope that we can continue to work and go out there and play to the audiences who have supported us so enthusiastically over the last few years. I worry that I see performance opportunities on the decline. If you’re not on radio or television then you really aren’t going to get any kind of identity with the public at large. You are very much at the mercy of the jazz media such as the few radio outlets that there are, and the magazines that there are.

Of course, there are now so many products on the market, a high percentage of which are not of a very high quality and doesn’t deserve to be heard. Everybody has to kind of wait his turn.

Look at the festivals. How few festivals there are that have big bands. Of the few that do, many of them tend to rely on the usual old British jazzers who put a band together for a special event once in a while. I must say, though, that one very notable exception to that is Ernie Garside, who books us in to Wigan. He has been very supportive of us over the years. He’s said, ‘You know, I really love what you’re doing with the band, because you haven’t got all the same old British jazz faces in all your chairs.’

You can go and see three different big bands at three different festivals under three different leaders and see most of the same players all the time. Which is fine, but I’m sure there are people out there in the provinces who think that there are only twenty-five jazz musicians in London.

Everybody’s got to get a fair crack at the whip. I do get a little upset occasionally because I feel that in one or two areas we have been unfairly overlooked. Hopefully that will all right itself.

What I really feel is that I’d like to take the band abroad. I’d like to take the band into Europe because the important product is always treated in a special way. Look at the fuss that we make in this country of American bands. Years ago that was the very right and proper thing to do.

Standards have changed very much, I think. Commercial considerations, and what-have-you aside, we can, in this country, produce bands that are every bit as good as anything coming out of America if we just stop and think about what we’re doing, and just go the extra mile, pay attention to detail and make sure it is properly implemented.

Pay attention to the quality of the music that’s being played and the standard at which the band’s playing at the time, so that everybody can play comfortably at the time without staring at the music—without being afraid of taking his eyes off it for a moment.

I hope that jazz music, an art form for which I have a long, abiding love, will continue to grow. I hope that people recognise it for what it is—for the art form that it is. I hope that it doesn’t get watered down with a whole bunch of supposedly modern things, like Hip-Hop and all of that other bullshit that no place in our art form at all.

I would that it go on and blossom and that generation after generation of young musicians will be inspired by the things they hear around them, and want to go out and put the time in and come through and make their own statements. Hopefully we’ll all be here for a good few years to come, and I hope I’ll be around long enough to see that happen.

I certainly hope that big bands continue to be a part of the musical landscape of this country. But in order to do that leaders have got to take the responsibility. It’s no good putting on a concert and doing a bit of this and a bit of that. Do a Basie chart and a Miller chart and a Harry James chart and a Tom Kubis chart and a Sammy Nestico chart—I mean—that’s completely brainless.

You’ve got to think about who you are. You’ve got to have an identity. Spend a few quid. Cash in one of your insurance policies, get somebody to do some writing for you. There are lots of talented young people around—Frank Griffith, Martin Williams, Matt O’Regan, Matt Wates. Some of the guys who have written wonderful music for us.

It doesn’t cost that much money. Invest in the writers, invest in the rehearsal time and then you’ve got the ingredients for having a band. It takes more to have a big band than to just have a bunch of charts and find out some guys. Once you get a bunch of charts together and you get a bunch of musicians together you have the ingredients of a big band. Then you’ve gotta go down the road, working together, understanding how one another plays, understanding the various personalities that are at the table.

Then, once you start getting to that kind of level of understanding, you can look up, and proudly announce, Yes! I’ve got a great big band.

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved.