Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Improbability of the Clarke Boland Big Band - Part 2

Between 1967 and 1969 the CBBB recorded a series of fine albums, including Faces, Latin Kaleidoscope (with Phil Woods) Fellini 7 1/2 and Off Limits for the MPS label which were excellent showcases for the arranging and compositional talents of Francy Boland and for the band's exceptional 'togetherness'.

The vintage year of the Clarke‑Boland Band was 1969 and by common consent the peak performances of the band's career were heard ‑ and, happily, recorded ‑ during an unforgettable two‑week engagement at Ronnie Scott's Club in London from 17 February to 1 March. As I wrote at the time, if there has to be one set of recordings, from all of the band's repertoire on disc, selected to stand as a monument to the finest jazz ensemble to come out of Europe, then it has to be the thirteen tracks and two albums from that 1969 Ronnie Scott’s Club date.

The band broke attendance records at the club and, says Campi, only then did the musicians really feel the full extent of the power of which they were capable. To have the opportunity of playing together night after night for two weeks made it possible to achieve a rapport and a mutuality of feeling that even this intuitively integrated band had not equaled hitherto.

By this time the CBBB had an additional drummer. Recruiting a second drummer for a band that has Kenny Clarke in its rhythm section would seem to be setting a new standard in futility. But it worked. British drummer Kenny Clare, a noted session musician, with excellent technique and good reading ability, had first come into the band as a sub when Klook had other commitments. He handled the job so well that he was taken on the 'permanent staff.’ There are various explanations as to why this happened and, in all probability ‑ as is usually the case ‑ there is an element of truth in most of them.

Whenever it was suggested to Klook there was one drummer too many in the band, he vigorously disagreed. Two drum-heads, he argued, are better than one. He told Max Jones in a Melody Maker interview published on 15 March 1968:

It came about because of my teaching. From my experience with
students I thought that maybe drummers can play together without being noisy or confusing. So I tried it out at the Selmer school in Paris and found it worked well.

Between the two of us, I think that Kenny and I can play anything in the world ... He is someone who thinks exactly the same way I do about drumming. He's one of the most intelligent drummers I've ever met ... We're two soul brothers.

I would suggest that this may be another example of Kenny's tendency to retrospective rationalization. Ronnie Scott's recol­lection is that Kenny Clare's presence in the band was in­tended to take some of the pressure off Klook, 'who wasn't the greatest reader in the world. The arrangement allowed Kenny Clarke to coast from time to time ‑ and it worked because they were so compatible. It would have been disastrous otherwise.' And in best Ronnie Scott style he instanced the massive all‑star band organized by Charlie Watts in 1987 which had not two drummers but three. 'Someone asked the vibraphone player what he thought of the tempo of a piece the band was rehearsing. "Fine," he said, "I liked all three of them."'

Kenny Clare recalled his first gig with the band when he talked to Crescendo's Tony Brown in May 1968. He had made a good impression and was asked by Gigi Campi to play alongside Klook on the next date.

They gave me a couple of notes on vibraphone which I invariably played wrongly ‑ well, they figured that I'd always be available to do anything that Klock 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.

There is no doubt that driving the CBBB took a lot of energy and endurance and the addition of Clare not only added to the rhythmic foundation but also spread the heavy percussion load.

Playing along with the greatest drummer in the world was a pretty intimidating experience for Clare. He once told me of the first gig with Klook in Ostend in 1967 when the dual drumming exercise became a nightmare. 'Try as I would at rehearsal, I just couldn't get it together. The drums were fighting each other.'

He left the theatre after the rehearsal full of gloom and depression and decided that the best thing to do for the sake of the band would be to slip silently away. He went to book a flight back to London ‑ but there wasn't one. He shrugged resignedly, walked around the town for a couple of hours, then finally made his way back to the theatre for the concert. 'I started the first number full of apprehension ‑ but from the very first beat, it all came together miraculously. I just couldn't believe it!'

And that was the beginning of a beautiful percussion friendship. From then on, Clare became an integral part of the rhythm section and missed only one gig with the band. Strangely enough, Clare said he was never able to play the same away from the band. 'There are many drummers who would love to get the same springy kind of beat that Klook gets. I'm one of them. When I'm with him, I can play that way without even thinking about it. As soon as I'm away from him, I can't do it any more.'

True to character, Klook gave every encouragement to Kenny Clare and undoubtedly one of the important reasons why they worked so well together was that they had such a warm relationship off the stage, as well as on.

British drummer Frank King, reviewing the two Polydor albums that resulted from the Scott engagement, wrote in Crescendo: 'The perception and telepathy between Kenny Clarke and Kenny Clare is magnificent. They have such a fantastic togetherness that in places it is miraculous.'
With Jimmy Woode unavailable, Ronnie Scott's bassist, Ron Mathewson, was brought in for the club engagement and with Clare, Scott, Tony Coe (on tenor and clarinet), Humble and Tony Fisher (trumpet, depping for Jimmy Deuchar), the British contingent in the band was as big as the American. Yugosla­via's Dusko Gojkovic was recruited into the trumpet section.

Gigi Campi had to miss the first week of the engagement, but when he walked into the club on the Monday of the second week, Johnny Griffin told him, 'Gigi, you're gonna hear some shit tonight!' Campi sat at a table with writer Bob Houston, my wife and myself and beamed as his 'family' took the stage. ('Italians, he'd explained to me once, 'always try to wrap everything up in a sense of family ‑ and that's how I regard the band.') Campi had heard practically every note the band had played since its debut. But when it hit, with a high‑voltage version of 'Box 703', Campi turned to us wide‑eyed and said, 'Wow!' Later he told me: 'I couldn't believe how good the band sounded. When they played the tutti in "Now Hear My Meanin' " I got goose pimples all over.'

For Ronnie Scott those two weeks were undoubtedly one of the major highlights in the history of the club, as well as being musically inspirational. 'It was marvellous. People used to applaud in the middle of the arrangements ‑ showing their appreciation of some of the tutti or soli passages. It was really one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.'
The year 1969 was certainly a banner one for the Clarke­ Boland Big Band. It played the Pori Festival in Finland that summer and Lars Lystedt, Down Beat's Scandinavian corres­pondent, described the condition of the audience as 'spell­bound'. In September the band shared the bill at Rotterdam's De Doelen concert hall with the mighty Thad Jones‑Mel Lewis Orchestra, and reporting for Britain's Melody Maker, Jan van Setten told of 1,780 people 'exploding into thunderous acclaim after the four‑and‑a‑half‑hour marathon concert'. It was a real battle of the bands, he said. 'Who won? Music.'

At the Prague Jazz Festival in October, the CBBB 'totally eclipsed' the Duke Ellington band, according to Melody Mak­er's Jack Hutton. 'This year's Prague Festival proved one thing conclusively to me ‑ the Kenny Clarke‑Francy Boland Big Band is the finest big band in existence,' he wrote.
And after a Paris concert in that same month, Jacques B. Hess of Le Monde wrote:

'The CBBB is a triumph, at the highest level of talent and professionalism.
The warmth, the commitment and the enthusiasm of the musicians is refreshing and a marked change from the lackluster and blasĂ© perform­ances of the Ellington and Basie bands which we have become used to over the last few years.'
In October 1970 the CBBB was back in Britain for a three‑week engagement at Ronnie Scott's and at this time Carmen McRae came to London to record with the band in the Lansdowne Studios. With a minimum of rehearsal time, the superbly professional ex‑Mrs. Clarke managed astonishingly well with some difficult scores, especially considering that six of the eight tunes recorded were new to her. The whole session was completed in eight hours. It was named after a Boland-­Jimmy Woode song on the album, 'November Girl'.

There followed a three‑week European tour which had Dizzy Gillespie as special guest and which culminated in an appearance at the Berlin jazz Festival. But the tour was not a great success musically because the band had to submerge its own personality to play a programme that was more closely associated with Dizzy.

In fact there were now signs that the band was beginning to run out of steam and, no doubt, one of the factors which undermined its momentum was Campi's failure to conclude an agreement to take the band to the United States. It was a great disappointment for Kenny Clarke ‑ and for all concerned with the CBBB. But, for a variety of reasons ‑ predominantly financial ‑ plans to have the band appear at the Village Gate in New York, followed by concerts in Boston and Chicago, an appearance at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival and a tour of Canada, did not come to fruition.

'I'd really love to take the band on the road in the States/ Kenny Clarke told me in 1967, 'just to prove the point about the high standard of European musicians.' But it was not to be.

What finally caused Kenny Clarke to acknowledge that the days of the CBBB were numbered, however, was the untimely death of Derek Humble on 2 February 1971 at the age of thirty‑nine. 'The band was never the same without Derek/ Kenny said, voicing a sentiment that was shared by the whole CBBB family.

In June 1971 the band made its last recording, Change of Scenes, with Stan Getz as guest soloist and, in March 1972 in Nuremberg, played its last concert date when, according to Gigi Campi, 'it was a sorry shadow of its former self'. He went on:

Johnny Griffin came to me after the concert, and virtually read the funeral service. The following morning I had a long discussion with Francy and Klook to see if we could keep the band going. I still thought there might be a possibility of pulling off an extensive tour of the USA which could have regenerated the spirit of the band. So some days later I went on a round trip of Europe to try to put the band together again. I called on Idrees, Nat Peck, Tony Coe and Johnny Griffin and finished up in Montreuil with Francy, Mook and Benny Bailey. And finally I realized that it wasn't going to happen ...

And that's when even Campi's apparently unquenchable enthusiasm gave out. It was April 1972 and the Clarke‑Boland Big Band had breathed its last.

But, as Bob Houston, who was closely associated with the band through most of its lifetime, wrote afterwards, though the demise was a matter for regret, that the band had existed at all was a matter for celebration ‑ 'as with all phenomena which survive on excellence against the tides of current fads and fashions ... The CBBB was one of the most enjoyable mani­festations of the last decade in jazz. Be grateful that it happened at all, and that we have it on record to enjoy.'

And Kenny Clarke said, 'It was a fantastic, unique experi­ence from which I learned a lot. It was not only a great band, it was a community, a congregation of friends ‑ and one of the happiest bands I've ever worked with.'

The Clarke‑Boland Big Band left a rich legacy of its reper­toire on record. In the eleven years of its existence it recorded thirty‑nine albums.

Kenny Clarke's role in the CBBB was not only the obvious one of being the rhythmic dynamo; he was important as a co‑leader in his own reserved and unobtrusive way. He led by example; he had the total respect of all the musicians who ever played in the band, and that respect, coupled with respect for one another, was what kept the band so tight and its musical standards so high.
Says Johnny Griffin,

The CBBB couldn't have lasted with a Benny Goodman or a Buddy Rich leading it ‑ because there were too many bandleaders in the band. It wouldn't have worked if the leaders had been dictators. I mean, the vibrations from the egos! My God, imagine ‑ three trumpet players all Leos: Idrees Sulieman, Benny Bailey and Art Farmer. It was like an armed truce. It was amazing with all those different characters and the strength in each one. And it would mesh! There was no one on the band that you could pick on! It was really like a zoo, with tigers, lions and gorillas in it!

'I never met anyone who stayed so calm/ Kenny Clare said of Klook in an interview with Crescendo's Tony Brown. 'You should come along to a recording session. All pandemonium let loose, everybody talking or blowing like a bunch of madmen. Kenny never raises his voice or gets excited. He is a wonder.'


Ronnie Scott confesses that he was always a little bit in awe of Kenny Clarke. 'But he was always so amiable and pleasant. He didn't come on like your typical extrovert bandleader. He just sat there, and played ‑ and that was enough.'

Gigi Campi remembers times when Kenny would arrive late for rehearsal or recording due to plane or train delays. 'We would all be waiting in the studio ‑ and as soon as Kenny walked in you were aware that there was suddenly more power in the room. His presence ‑ quiet, dignified and calm ‑was such a positive force.'

Jimmy Woode says that it was simply not Klook's way to get out in front of the band and pep‑talk the musicians. 'He might speak quietly. to you individually ‑ but his leadership was implicit in his solid integrity. Francy and Klook were not exactly charismatic leaders like Duke.'

Ron Mathewson remembers Klook as a man who comman­ded respect from all the members of the band without any attempt to pull rank: 'He was really helpful to me when I came into the band for the gig at Ronnie's. He said, to me, very nicely, "Keep a straight four. Let the guys feel you, because you're new. They want to trust the rhythm section. Just play it cool and let it happen."'

Francy Boland's co‑leadership consisted entirely of creating the band's inimitable book, writing not for the instruments but for the musicians, and providing support and solos from the keyboard that were consistently streets ahead of his own evaluation of them. Boland carries self‑effacement almost to the point of self‑erasure. He told me, 'Kenny didn't really have a lot to do with the music. And I wanted it that way because I was the arranger.'

And without any apparent awareness of the sublime irony of a Boland being struck by someone else's inclination to maintain a low profile, he added, 'Kenny was a very reserved person and he kept his thoughts to himself. He never express­ed enthusiasm when I came in with a new arrangement; though he might give me a compliment ‑ a small compliment ‑from time to time.'

Clarke and Boland, during their association together, were never in any danger of engulfing one another in explicit mutual admiration. But had it not been there in some abund­ance, the band simply would not have flourished. Whatever Boland may feel about the measure of respect and appreciation he received from Kenny, Gigi Campi remembers an incident which speaks eloquently of Klook's high regard for his partner.

The band was rehearsing and swinging like a demon ‑ without a drummer. Kenny was standing out in front, rolling a joint. Suddenly he looked up in mock disbelief and genuine joy, and said, 'This band doesn't need a drummer. That Belgian motherfucker swings it just with his writing, goddam it!

'For Kenny,' Campi adds, 'there were two great arrangers in Tadd Dameron and Francy Boland.'

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