In the autumn of 1959 Stan Tracey ended his two year association with the Ted Heath Band which had provided financial security and musical frustration in equal measure. His new freelance career included frequent gigs at the jazz club Ronnie Scott and Pete King had opened in Soho and it wasn't long before he became the clubs resident pianist.
STAN: "I went into Ronnies and did some gigs there and then eventually wound up on a regular basis at the club."
1960 you started?
"Around about 1960 yeah.. because my son was born in '61.. yeah."
So you became a family man not long after leaving Ted? Not the way it's usually done. Usually when you become a family man you want the pay cheque. That's not when you leave.. (laughs)
"No um... I never used to think about money. Now I've got some I think about it a lot. I was one of those people who didn't have any and didn't worry about it. I'm awfully glad I felt that way because you see so many people leading wretched lives without money. Again ignorance is truly bliss.. I thought I'd always get by fifty bob (£2.50) here two pounds there.. (laughs). No I never even considered it.. I guess my wife Jackie probably worried about it more than I did as she had to have money to keep us together, the family together. Food.. the rest of it. I just went on my merry way."
That's great, the ideal life.
"Well a bit selfish.. I didn't think I was being selfish at the time but looking back I guess but I was so caught up with the music I was doing."
You were house pianist. Was there a house rhythm section or did that change and you remain?
"That constantly changed. For instance the month that Dexter Gordon did we went through 11 drummers."
"Well I think Benny Goodman was the intended drummer but he couldn't join us until.. maybe the third week or something like that and as I said while waiting for Benny we went through 10 drummers. They were either destroyed by Dexter or he said he didn't want to play with them. Because those guys used to come on really heavy."
"Yeah.. and particularly he was a little messed up at the time. So there wasn't a lot of compassion flying around and he said "I don't want him.. and I don't want him, I don't think he wanted me particularly, but he was stuck with me... and one or two of those guys unless you believed in what you were doing they could destroy you. Lucky Thompson was like that. Don Byas was like that. Not nice people to work with."
Zoot was meant to be a good guy.
"Yeah, Zoot (Sims) and Al (Cohn) were great. Y'know we may not have been up to the standards they were use to but they could appreciate what we were trying to do and actually when I hear the album we did with Zoot.. it's come out on CD again, it doesn't sound too bad. I mean the rhythm section. It had Kenny Napper, Jackie Dougan and I think we did OK.
I was intensely patriotic at that time about British jazz. Mainly because I think the critics were always writing us off or the only mention you'd get would be "..and ably supported by the British lads". Yeah that was painting a different picture to the way it was in my eyes. Always making comparisons, always y'know semi apologising to whoever or whichever instrumentalist was coming in. Semi apologising in the review "this wonderful man has to put up with this.. blah blah blah".
"Yeah there was one... he really took us to the cleaners as a rhythm section accompanying whoever it was at the time, so much so that quite a lot of people wrote in defending us. If you took it to heart it would destroy you, you wouldn't want to play again. That's the sort of thing that hardens you up, puts a different slant on life."
Who were the guys that particularly suited you?
"Well Al and Zoot, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins."
"Yeah it was a great experience and at that time you'd start off on one tune and then suddenly go into bar 4 in a different key of another tune and maybe play that for 6 bars then you'd be back playing the tune you'd started out with, and go through every number like that. Jumping in to another tune, not from the top.. y'know somewhere in the middle in a different key or the tune you were playing would suddenly be in a different key for four or five bars and back... it was, it was like a helter skelter.
There was one night he came on, we did the first set and he played 'Night and Day' for an hour and the second set he came on and played 'Night and Day' for an hour. It was fresh from beginning to end. Constant invention. It was a joy to listen to."
Must have been a joy to play behind.. hairy but..
"Yes hairy it was...(laughs). So who else now.. Freddy Hubbard, he was all right... a bit of an ego trip. Stan Getz of course.. .total ego trip. I went and played with Donald Byrd... Wes Montgomery I enjoyed, he was a nice guy. Got on quite well with him. Sonny Stitt... haha, a different sort of a feller. I never could make him out. He was heavily into alcohol at the time and he was somewhere else. There were quite a few more... but I can't remember them at the moment."
But some of them must have really appreciated what you were doing.. I mean Rollins, that famous quote "does anyone around here know how good he is?", talking about you.
"I like to think he enjoyed my playing."
The players that responded to you who obviously would have really been on your wavelength, I mean Rollins with that sort of attacking style and never knowing what sort of angle you would take, I mean that's your sort of thing too.
"Roland Kirk I enjoyed playing with although physically I found him the most demanding. So intense what he did, to keep up with him was really hard work both mentally and physically.
I played with JJ Johnson, I enjoyed that... I think he was the only trombone player they ever had there."
It was very tenor heavy wasn't it?
"Oh yeah it was. That might have been something to do with the owner of the club."
Yeah.. but the whole thing must have been physically demanding?
There was that punishing routine.. what, Monday through Thursday was your regular night time thing and then the all nighters on Fridays and Saturdays and some times on Sunday as well... phew.
"Yeah I had to take the occasional aspirin."
BBC Maida Vale Studios. 12 January 1994
Recorded live at Ronnie Scotts, this unreleased recording of the 'tenor giant' performing with Stan's 'in-house' trio of the time is now digitally remastered from the original reel tape. The album perfectly captures the atmosphere of the club in 1968 (including Ronnie Scott as MC).
Along with Simon Spillett's superb liner notes putting the people and the era into context the cd is a must for fans of this classic period.
Ben Webster - tenor saxophone with Stan Tracey - piano.
Dave Green - bass. Tony Crombie - drums
Soho Nights is available from Resteamed Records
Ben Webster Quartet - Poutin'
Ben Webster - tenor, Stan Tracey - piano
Rick Laird - bass, Jackie Dougan - drums