Mike Westbrook

English pianist, composer, bandleader

Written interview, 16 January 2003

I first became interested in jazz at school in the late ‘40s—began collecting ‘78’ records—Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, boogie woogie, Fats Waller, etc. It was much more exciting than any other music around. It was also subversive: jazz was banned at my school. Jazz was mostly American, but the New Orleans revival in Britain, in its purist days, was important. Part of a new, alternative proletarian culture that acknowledged black American music as its inspiration. Likewise blues and skiffle, before they metamorphosed into pop. After school I began to hear more modern jazz. In this post-war period people went out dancing to big bands. This was a time when ‘progressive’ jazz seemed a part of building a new socialist Britain. In the’50s one or other of the touring bands would be playing at Torquay Town Hall, for dancing and listening—Dankworth, Ronnie Scott’s ten-piece, and so on. Ted Heath was resident for the summer at the Spa ballroom—mostly commercial stuff, but always some good jazz. The music was mostly copied from the Americans—Stan Kenton, Ellington, Basie. Eventually we were allowed to hear the Americans live. The first I saw and heard was Lionel Hampton—a revelation.

I was teaching myself trumpet and piano, and through National Service and a year at university continued to listen, practice and occasionally play in a small band, ‘mainstream’ style. At Art School in Plymouth in ’58 formed a band with fellow students.

In London in the ‘60s I formed my first regular band. I was writing my own compositions by then. We were becoming more experimental, very much inspired by the American New Wave. Just as were starting up, the modern jazz scene was collapsing—clubs went over to the more accessible Rhythm and Blues. The Marquee, which initially presented jazz seven nights a week, gradually changed over till there was just Sunday (Joe Harriott), then that went. So we had nowhere to play—the search began to find new openings—this became, and remains, very much part of one’s work as a composer/bandleader. On the plus side, the great American soloists like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, could be heard at Ronnie’s. The American influence remained strong. But the changes in the scene forced one to be very strong in one’s convictions, to question the American orthodoxy and to work on developing an independent voice. I had a sextet and occasional big band to write for throughout the ‘60s and was lucky to have a platform at Ronnie’s ‘Old Place’. I started to write extended compositions, including an anti-war piece, Marching Song.

By the ‘70s, despite some success, the British jazz scene was still very restricted. Fortunately there were opportunities in the theatre—not only the straight theatre (such as Tyger for the National Theatre) but, more importantly, in fringe or alternative theatre. Writing and playing music for the Welfare State, among others, required a new approach. This led to the formation of the Brass Band in ’73. The idea was to be able to play anywhere. So the music was acoustic, mobile, and open to all kinds of situations. We played in the streets, shopping centres, schools, hospitals, factory canteens—anywhere that anyone asked us. To find suitable material, I drew on New Orleans, folk songs, early music, anything at all that would work with that line-up, or was suggested by a member of the band. Songs and improvisation were included. It was the most natural kind of music making, but in that rock-dominated scene, quite provocative. It was anti-elitist, democratic, populist, yet High Art—for all of us, I think, a fusion of our musical and political philosophies. We played in Community Arts events (at that time there was some Arts Council support for Community Arts), Tribune rallies, demos, benefits, and the Communist Party’s Moving Left Revues at the Round House.

At the Moving Left Revues we were on the bill with Henry Cow and Frankie Armstrong. We teamed up with them and formed the Orckestra. This toured in France and Italy, where the Cows were well established in the alternative scene. In these countries there was a link between revolutionary politics and the avant garde. This was never really the case in the UK—as a Brass Band tour organised by the Communist Party of working men’s clubs showed. Sadly. For the Brass Band, political songs were important—Brecht/Weill, etc—but the main rallying point was the William Blake song ‘Let the slave’ which we performed everywhere, and which became our anthem. Notably we played it at the Rute Lieder Festival in East Berlin.

The Brass Band continued to play street music alongside concerts and festivals around Europe. The Cortege was a large-scale composition that grew out of this experience and expressed, in epic form, many facets of the Brass Band’s musical and political stance. By this time—‘79—the Brass Band had moved into Jazz Cabaret, with Mama Chicago and other shows that followed. This music-theatre approach—based in jazz, with improvisation all-important, as a vehicle for political song, satire social comment, original song-writing—has run through all the work generated by Kate Westbrook and me ever since. There have been small bands—our Duo, the Trio with Chris Biscoe—as well as music-theatre, opera and such large scale works as London Bridge has Broken Down. This last, which grew out of Trio travels in Europe, explored political theatre in sections devoted to London Bridge, Wenceslas Square, the Berlin Wall, Vienna and Picardie. ‘Belle Vue Berlin Wall’, we were told, was playing on a local Berlin radio station in 1989 as the wall came down.

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