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A JAZZ JOURNEY - 1925-1994


Ken Rattenbury
Parts 1 2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/13/14/Conclusion

PART VII: (1957 - 1964)


SO, SUBSTANTIALLY, wrote William Shakespeare, opening the famous Jacques Soliloquy, The Seven Ages of Man in As You Like It - and it was this renowned speech that nudged me into writing a jazz suite of thirty minutes duration, following a commission from BBC's Third Programme, to fill such a slot in a series called "British Jazz Composers" - the other writers in this instance having been Kenny Graham, John Dankworth and Richard Rodney Bennett. This all happened in 1963 and my choice of subject for my participation had been guided, with somewhat uncharacteristic surge of opportunism, by the fact that it was Shakespeare's Quartercentenary Year.

I thought there just had to be furious Bardic activity during that twelvemonth and, by golly, there was. No sooner had the suite been broadcast than the phone started to ring in a crescendo of brash tintinnabulation which surprised and smockraffled me . . . To pare down to essentials, the work was subsequently sold by Radio Enterprises for rebroadcasting all over the globe, from Asia to Australia, U.S.A. to Yugoslavia, Canada to the Cameroons - in fact, it spread like a forest fire, clocking up around 150 broadcasts during the next year or so.

Nobody more surprised - or, indeed, delighted - that I and the fact that the producer of the series, the late John Hooper, had assembled a superb 11- piece line-up (including the magnificent Kenny Baker, then Bob Efford; Tony Kinsey; Keith Christie; Derek Wame) did no harm to the piece at all and the sounds fairly sizzled. As composer and titular conductor, I was beside myself with wonderment and delight. Now, I guessed, this is surely how Duke must have felt at the run-through of a new work, brought to sparkling life by his illustrious band of jazz geniuses. So, for a brief five and a half hours, I reckon to have experienced the self-same sensation of satisfaction, while the piece was being put into the can.

The Seven Ages of Man, then, first presented a jazz setting of the Soliloquy, word-for-word, the text intoned with sublime and subtle timing by that superb actor, Sir Michael Hordern, the seven following movements each evocative of the stages in the life of man, suitably re-titled "Rompin' 'n' Stompin" (the infant); "Jingle for Junior" (the whining schoolboy); "Loverboy Blue ' (the lover); "Hot Shot" (the soldier); "Wise Guy" (the judge); "Granpop's Tune" (the lean and slippered pantaloon) and, lastly, "Blues Out of This World" (last scene of all) during which Kenny Baker delivered a muted blues solo of such beauty that it still moves me deeply after all those years between.

Yes, all in all, a great year for the old pencil and paper (someone once said that all you needed to be a composer was to have a headful of tunes and an electric pencil sharpener!) But it didn't actually start during The Seven Ages year. Way back in 1957, I wrote a 4- movement suite called "Mirror to Bix n (almost self-explanatory - I listened to much of the great lyric trumpeter's work, absorbing many of his favourite melodic twists, incorporated them into a few of my own, and there were the themes!)

The first broadcast, on JAZZ CLUB, was with the Steve Race Six - Steve (piano); Derek Collins (clarinet); George Chisholm (trombone); Arthur Watts (bass); Terry Walsh (guitar) and Geoff Lofts (drums) - plus my trumpet doing the Bixian bits. There was included one movement remembering Beiderbecke's impressionistic piano-playing, with Steve interpreting. It was repeated several times after that on local radio with my own regular lads.

This seemed to open up the flood gates, for, during the next few years, I produced a series of half-hour jazz suites for Children's Hour - here are a few titles: "The Cut's Concerto " (a story of nine lives in nine lively movements); then dramatisations of classic fairytales from Grimm and Andersen - The Snow Queen, Rumpelstiltskin, The Bremen Town Musicians, The Tinder Box, etc.) plus a setting of Browning's pied Piper of Hamelin, all the incidental music jazz-tinged and integrated into the texts. They were all eventually recorded by EMI and issued as LPs and EPs - a marriage of jazz and the junior which lasted with gratifying commercial as well as aesthetic satisfaction for many years.

And during this time, I was fortunate enough to have been included, as a guest soloist, in the BBC's annual Jazz Saturday concerts broadcast and televised from the Royal Albert Hall. Everybody was there: Ball, Barber, Bilk, Humph, Chis, all the fine names. Enjoyable indeed and - most of all - a challenge.

Hopping ahead to 1964, I produced another half-hour suite, based on and named after Coleridge's epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, using the same personnel as the Seven Ages, plus extra tuned percussion and xylophone and vibraphone. This was both expansive and exciting, because with the extra players, one was able to reproduce the strifes, say, of storms at sea; evocations of ghostly presences; moods of icy terror - the whole spectrum of tinting in orchestral sound. I have a superb recording of this broadcast in my archives.

Since those days, apart from hundreds of commissioned orchestrations for jazz groups of every style, far and wide, I have done very little extended composition; a great shame, really, but when you consider that a major work can take up to 5/6 months of planning and scoring time, then the promotion of the same, the requisite hours are just not there when your daily practising, travelling, gigging, each just have to be accommodated as priority activities.

Not that all these things have unduly worried me - the music has always been the prime motivation, the most urgent duty of all. I don't ever remember beginning any new day in my life without playing, listening to, discussing, writing about - some style of jazz or other. And I've been so darned lucky so far to have enjoyed disgustingly good health, to sustain the load. Plus a sense of responsibility - because jazz is never to be considered lightly, or lightweight indeed. An ever-evolving music, a phenomenon of the present century and a mite before it. Long may it prosper and delight. I am very proud to have been even modestly involved in its very mechanics and its miraculous manifestations of great beauty and glowing vitality.

LIFE WITHOUT JAZZ ? Unthinkable. Unbearable.

Copyright Ken Rattenbury © 1994