Jazz Professional               

Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland
Big Band

Where it all began

Where it all began
Kenny Graham
Report from Tony Brown in 1968

The Kenny Clarke /Francy Boland Big Band claims (through its most eloquent mouthpiece Gigi Campi) to play “any music that is in the spirit of jazz.” It is a pretty wide definition and one that will not offend even those musicians obsessed with the fear of being categorised.

 Kenny Clarke we all know about—a drummer who has carved his own place in jazz history. Pianist Francy Boland is a much more mysterious figure—a product of the Royal Conservatoire, Liege, Belgium, whose work was brought to the notice of Count Basie and Benny Goodman by pianist Mary Lou Williams. Francy went to America to arrange for them and for Herman and Gillespie and (we may assume) assimilated plenty.

 Boland returned to Europe in 1957. Gigi Campi had been losing his shirt running his own recording company and promoting jazz tours. On Lee Konitz’s dates alone he dropped 10,000 dollars. As Francy arrived, Gigi gave up. But he vowed that if he ever tried again he would find himself a good rhythm section. And here they were—Boland, the great Kenny Clarke (he had just settled in Paris) and bassist Jimmy Woode, who left Ellington to emigrate to Sweden and finished up, like so many at that time, in Paris.

 Says Campi: “It was a fantastic section. I knew the moment I heard them together that one day I would start a big band. Then Kurt Edelhagen came to Cologne and played some of the arrangements Francy had written for Basie . . . ”    40–year–old Gigi Campi was born in Cologne of an Italian father and a German mother. (He is based on the city and owns an ice–cream parlour there.) (Cologne had its traditional Carnival and Gigi did not dig carnival time. “Junk music,” he says scathingly.

 “So I put on jazz and my place was filled with people who didn’t like the old stuff, either. We gave them Lucky Thompson, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Charlie Shavers—always backed by groups that I put together.” Kenny Clarke was visiting Cologne and listening to Francy Boland’s writing, since Francy was then chief arranger for Kurt Edelhagen.

 Gigi set up an octet recording for Blue Note—“The Golden Eight.” Throughout one night, the octet recorded the whole album—“Difficult music”, observes Campi. “In Kenny Clarke’s opinion, it was the best group of its kind that has been recorded in the past ten years.” The pieces were falling into place.

 American vocalist Billie Poole was in Cologne in 1961 to open the Storyville Club and wanted to do an album backed by Francy. Riverside agreed to buy the tapes. The studio and musicians were booked—and at the last moment Billie was called back to America by a bereavement. Rather than cancel the session, they decided to record the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band.

 How to describe the KC/FB Big Band’s identity? “We are, in a sense, a Resistance band”, says Gigi. “We are shocking people with our music—trying to awaken them. Not with so–called New Sounds. There is nothing new in the sense of tradition. We don’t try to be avant garde. In my opinion, Francy is the only man who really harmonises when he is scoring. The sounds and the colour are between the lines, as it were.”  There are others who will confirm that it has the genuine stuff of Protest. Trombonist Nat Peck has played with the band since its inception. “It’s a protest against a situation that has come on big bands of late,” he says. “A lot of people are using bands as a mere projection of their own personality, forgetting the important role that the individual musicians play in an orchestra. It’s no longer Ake Persson on trombone and Benny Bailey on trumpet, but a trumpet and a trombone. An arranger writes a piece of music and it is full of traps and tricks and dynamics. The musicians are so involved with the technical performance that they are handcuffed. They can take no liberties with the music. They are restrained to such a degree that all the warmth and the electricity is lost.”  (Click the picture to enlarge.)

Boland, says Peck, has such an understanding of what musicians are, what they mean. Maybe, he concedes, the band has gone to the other extreme—because there is a conflict between the two attitudes. “I’ve heard some people say: ‘Yes, it’s a good band—but there are no dynamics’.   Jiggs Whigham sat in while he was working with Edelhagen. ‘Funny band’, he remarked. ‘No dynamics!’ ‘Yes there are’, I said. ‘One is loud, the other is louder’.” Both Nat Peck and Kenny Clare make the point that the music they are called upon to play is very difficult. Says Kenny: “It is going to sound exaggerated, I know, but Francy really writes for the players. He pushes them. Like, he wrote one note for Nat, all on his own; he knew just how Nat would play that note, and it had to be played by Nat—nobody else.

 “The whole thing is like that. He writes to make Benny Bailey sound as good as he does. If Benny sounds so good, he is being given room.” They say that they have had some very good lead players in for odd dates. Benny couldn’t break his regular Munich schedule with the Max Greger band to play Lugano so Snooky Young was booked. “He’s one of the finest lead trumpet players in the world—but it wasn’t the same. Yet Don Menza walked right into the band and made it.”  The determination to get the right man produced one odd result. For one date they planned a really big band— five trombones and six trumpets. They had to find a bass trombonist and nobody could come up with one. Then Ake Persson came to see Nat Peck. “I’ve got him,” he said. “Listen to this record.”  It was a Gil Evans album and there was this fantastic bass trombonist. There was the name on the cover—Keg Johnson. Excitedly, they called Gigi in Cologne. “You must get Keg for this date.” Keg was in New York, but Gigi is such an enthusiast that he hunted down his man by means of a series of transatlantic phone calls. Keg said: “Alright. I’ll do the gig. One condition: Include in my journey a trip to Spain, expenses paid. It’s always been my ambition to go there.” The deal was made.

 Nat Peck had a couple of drinks with Keg before the job. Before they started playing, he noticed to his consternation that Keg. was dozing. He nudged “It’s alright”, said Keg.

 Well, he didn’t sound quite as great as on the record. Maybe everyone was expecting too much. Later, they said to him: “We heard this album that you did with Gil Evans.” Said Keg: “What album?” “Some of the finest bass trombone playing I’ve heard in my life”, said Nat Peck. “What album?” asked Keg. “That wasn’t me. As a matter of fact, I’m not really a bass trombone player; I had to borrow this thing. I certainly never did an album with Gil Evans on bass trombone.” It was a year before they dared to tell Gigi.

 They have a great respect and a great affection for Kenny. Nat Peck has known Klook for twenty years. “We started working together in Paris way back when all the expatriates were going there. His interest in music has always been amazing. He’s been listening to things and doing things and never losing his enthusiasm, even today. He gets better and better all the time.” Kenny is now well over fifty. By the time most musicians get to that age they are a bit disillusioned. Kenny Clarke isn’t. And he never at any time tries to impress any musicians about anything. fie is never anything but calm—and they have seen him in situations that were hair–raising.

 “I’ve never met anyone who stayed so calm”, says Kenny Clare. “You should come along to a recording session. All pandemonium let loose. Everybody talking or blowing like a bunch of madmen. You’d think it was a wild social event. Kenny never raises his voice, never gets excited. He’s a wonder.”  Nat Peck believes it is something to do with Kenny’s basic philosophy. With guys like these, there’s not really anything you can do to tame them. So forget about it. Take it as it comes, try to get something going. And the miracle always happens when somebody says “One–two–three–four.” 

Kenny Clarke is not widely known for his big–band playing, since the bands he worked with before he joined Dizzy’s great outfit were not issued on record in Europe. “The only record that did him justice”, says Kenny Clare, “was a concert recorded in Paris. It wasn’t issued in Britain, though I managed to get a copy. His time—his actual rhythm playing—is not something that many can do. Gus Johnson has a similar kind of time. So many people would like to be able to get that very springy kind of beat that Klook has. I would. When I’m with him, I can play like that exactly, without even thinking about it. Soon as I’m away from it, I can’t do it any more. Strange. I can’t figure it out.”  Kenny Clare got booked with the band originally when Klook got stuck in Spain. Everyone was so impressed that Gigi asked Clare to come back on the next session. It worked out so beautifully that Klook suggested that Kenny become a regular member of the band.

 “After that first date”, says Kenny, “they were being nice, really. They gave me a couple of notes on vibraphone that I invariably played wrong. Well, they figured that I’d always be available to do anything that Klook wouldn’t be free to do. I could do sundry percussion. Then one number was a Turkish march thing and I played snare drum.  When it was played back it sounded very much together, like one drummer They talked it over. Next time I came would I bring my drums as well? See if we could make it with both of us playing. It worked—and it’s been like that ever since.”  Kenny Clarke, they say. might not appear to be a man who feels very involved in what happens in the world outside his music. He keeps pretty much to himself. Yet he has opinions on politics and the world situation—very definite ideas on the great issues.

 “He is really a very intelligent man”, says Nat Peck, “And it’s not a superficial intelligence, but something very deep–rooted and something very mature.”  They describe Francy Boland as not being a front man in the accepted sense. He is an introverted man and doesn’t speak that much. He doesn’t have a big voice. His authority shows most in his writing—and in the attitude of the musicians toward his writing. According to Gigi Campi, the band is a community. Aside from the obvious differences of colour, the character of every man is in marked contrast to the next. What are they? Catholics, Marxists, Moslems, Zionists, Socialists and Capitalists—a mixture. This was the one aspect of the international band that used to frighten some. With such a mixture is was potentially . . . explosive.

 What happened was that it exploded on the stand. The concert in Prague was ridiculous. The programme was supposed to run for 50 minutes. The band played for an hour and forty–five minutes. That included a short encore. The musicians walked off to thunderous acclaim. Kenny Clare went upstairs and changed, then came down for a drink. The audience was still applauding. It must have kept it up for nearly ten minutes.

 They say that there are seventeen soloists here, each man a strong individualist. Francy just walks to the front, waves a hand and the band blows. He walks back. The band has its own personality—a composite. It is a projection of seventeen musicians. In different circumstances these men might find themselves in conflict. Instead there is tolerance and respect. And affection. When it comes to music there is no argument. Never.

 One might expect to find a man as able as Boland to have his prickly side; or presume his concentration is balanced by or disorganisation on some non–musical level. Instead, he is tidy. Respectable. He is married, has two children. Plays tennis, is a keen photographer. He has never been caught practising the piano or taking pictures of musicians.

 He plays tennis at/a certain time; he writes his arrangements at a certain time. He is well–organised and un–temperamental. He has been known to write arrangements in the living room with the rest of the family watching television and the volume full on. Or with his son playing Beatles records.

 Benny Bailey observed: “Everything he writes seems so simple, so normal; but just try to dissect his colours and you end up pretty badly: all the secrets lie between the lines.” It is the simplicity, the concentration on essentials, that is his strength. One musician listened to “Lockjaw’s Blues” 16 times and said: “Only now do I know what’s in there—and I still have to take it home and listen some more.

Once, they tried another arranger - and listened to the playback of the tunes. “That’s not our music”, they said.It’s an imitation of bebop.”

“It is the band of coexistence”, says Gigi Campi. “Everything is so straight. There is no bullshine. It is hard to keep a band like that, because it is hard to keep integrity. There are so many promoters and record producers exerting pressure: “If you come down to this compromise we might succeed commercially . . .

“When we did a waltz album, Francy refused to arrange Viennese waltzes. He said they were written to be played the way they are. ‘Wives And Lovers’ and ‘My Favourite Things’ he did. He said they are waltzes of our time and we can play them our way.”

They have respect for Gigi’s enthusiasm and dedication. “You’ve got to be enthusiastic to do what he’s trying to do. This is the world’s most expensive hobby. He’s got a very good instinct for people—you know, the way he gets the band together.”  They allow that Gigi has made just one or two slight mistakes. There was that time that Dusko Goykovich was Haus Verboten at a radio station and the European dep. just did not gell.

Says Gigi himself: “I’m just hooked on jazz. Apart from that. I believe in a couple of things. There is a vacuum on the market—a need for music like this. I consider this a continuation of what Ellington was doing—and I believe in a band as a team. Our music played by another band wouldn’t mean a thing.  It was written for this band. When we have to replace a man, as we now have to replace Shake Keane, we almost cry.

 Shake is a member of this band now—with his sound, with his solos, with his humanity.”  They have to be coaxed to laud individuals—but driven, they name Benny Bailey as indispensable.  “Absolutely monumental.” And Johnny Griffin—“Another monster.”

They refer to Derek Humble in terms of genius, knowing it to be an overworked word. “Not just his jazz playing. His lead playing is superb.” Ronnie Scott, they say, plays beautifully, and they believe that Tony Coe is going to find the environment one that he will enjoy, and also that it will bring his considerable talents to full development. To use Nat Peck’s words: “He never had the boot in the behind that he’s going to get in this band.” 

By all accounts, Ake Persson is a phenomenal trombonist. Peck has now been working with him for more than five years. “Every time I sit down with him it’s like I’m hearing him for the first time. Thrilling. I’ve never worked with anyone who has stimulated me so much. He makes you try to play up to his standard. The guy is an authentic musician. Everyone that’s heard him agrees. I was talking to J. J. Johnson about him and he was absolutely submerged by Ake’s playing. And that coming from J.J. . . . . He’s a guy who doesn’t say what he doesn’t mean.”

Tony Coe may be facing an ordeal. Kenny Clare describes his first date with the band as “one of the most frightening experiences of my life.” Of course, he knew who he was depping for. “Before that first number started, I was petrified. I was following a very hard act.” After the first number, the. rest of the band went out of their way to make Kenny feel he’d made it, and that helped him to settle, Ronnie Scott declares that the two drummers complement each other. “Kenny Clare ‘is more Buddy Rich inclined; Kenny Clarke is . . . basic.”  Ronnie, as we all know, is a man of shrewd eye and sardonic utterance. And his ears are certainly not painted on.

Says he: “One would be hard put to better this personnel in Europe. If I were to form a band, these are the guys I would pick.”  There can’t be a last word on the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band.  But the Scott declaration will do for the time being. Tony Brown.

Copyright © 1968, Tony Brown. All Rights Reserved