MIKE WESTBROOK has led big bands, small bands, brass bands and rock bands in his twenty years as a major jazz composer. From his tributes to Ellington and Blake to his epic dance of death The Cortege, Westbrook tells Graham Lock the rags-to-rags success story of a life on the British jazz scene.
THE NIGHT Mama Chicago hits town, the air is filled with fire and sweat. In the Seven Dials, blood slides down the wall. You're there, in slaughter- house, in clip-joint, as cattle scream and the Windy City boogies on down against Depression. The rain from Lake Michigan stings your face; the ghost of Al Capone leans on the bar, machine- gun still smoking.
The Brass Band blast out the beat, swing it through Duke and Cab and Jelly Roll. Then it's a march or a sour late-night blues. Phil Minton moooaaans, Chris Biscoe blows a tear-stained solo, Kate Westbrook cackles of "golden guys and dolls", all gone to dust.
In the shadows a figure looms. The Boss. He grunts through a tuba, slaps down piano keys. His elbows poke through frayed shirt-sleeves. Huh? I second-take. Times are that tough? Then the Creole rhythms catch afire, the mind dances, the spirits fly.
I step into the night, dazed, happy, head full of fantasy. "Darkness falls from smoky air/The future is already here." A long black limousine pulls up beside me the door swings open. "Get in," growls a voice. "Big Mike wants to see ya!"
THE DAY I meet Mike Westbrook he has just returned from Sicily, where he and his co-worker/wife Kate have been researching a new music-theatre piece based on D.H. Lawrence's poem The Ass. 1985 is a big year for Westbrook: a book about his Brass Band has been commissioned by Quartet. The Ass, scheduled for Nottingham's Lawrence Festival in September, will be preceded by two other British premieres of new Westbrook material. In May, On Duke's Birthday - his orchestral tribute to Ellington - plays at a central London venue and in June the Queen Elizabeth Hall will stage his Westbrook-Rossini, a composition for seven-piece brass band based on the opera William Tell.
Given the scope of Westbrook's previous work, Ellington and Lawrence are not unexpected reference points. But Rossini?
It all began, he says, when the Westbrooks were invited to play at a Lausanne street festival dedicated to William Tell. Kate - a keen opera fan - suggested using the Rossini and Mike, dubious at first, became fascinated by both the music and the composer's life-story. His modus operandi particularly appealed.
"All his operas were written in about ten days, just before the deadlines. He was always working under pressure - last-minute rehearsals, chaos, riots on the first night, people throwing things. Not at all one's picture of the classical opera - more like a jazz gig, really!"
(Riot In Ronnie’s ! Hordes Of Drunken Businessmen Slain By Music Lovers!! We should be so lucky.)
Still, it’s Mike Westbrook’s talent for nosing out new directions, unlikely links, that has made him the leading British jazz figure of his time. Though inspired by the great tradition of Black composers like Ellington and Mingus, Westbrook has also drawn on an Old World culture of folk songs, poetry, cabaret and hymns, so forging in his music a unique marriage of Afro-American and European sensibilities. In particular, from big-band projects like Metropolis and Citadel/Room 315 to his settings of William Blake’s poetry and his epic musical canvas The Cortege, Westbrook has shown himself to be a composer of extraordinary flair and vision. It’s no surprise to hear that, fired by William Tell, Westbrook is toying with the idea of doing an opera himself.
"It is the ultimate performance art,’ he enthuses, "it has everything - story, poetry, music, spectacle, acting. You have to have a big vision to take it all in."
That’s exactly what Mike Westbrook’s got. But in person I find it partly hidden behind a very English sense of decorum, A large, friendly man whose slightly gauche air is rather disarming (and deceptive), his conversation reveals both a native reserve (Religious beliefs, Mike? "Well ... er," twiddles fingers, shifts uneasily in seat, looks stern, "I, er, don’t think this is really the time or place ) and, pulling against it, a desire to explain his music with the same painstaking thoroughness that goes into its making. Now more than ever, it seems.
"Yes, I find writing’s become slower, much more difficult," he frowns. "I think as you get older you become more aware of all the possibilities. Also, I’ve become more interested in craftsmanship, in the architecture of the music, and that discipline is hard. I can’t leave things out, for example. My things are often accused of being too long and, certainly, when you look at Ellington’s three-minute masterpieces, I don’t know how he did it. I can’t do anything three minutes long," self-deprecating chuckle, shake of head, "that economy is something we’ve lost."
MIKE WESTBROOK was a late developer in jazz. Born in High Wycombe in 1936, he grew up in Torquay then spent seven years sampling Accountancy, National Service, Geography and Art School before he realised music was his first love. He started his first band in Plymouth in 1958 and was soon joined by baritonist John Surman, then a sixteen-year-old schoolboy. (One possible legacy of this early encounter is that nearly every Westbrook band since has featured baritone.) In 1962 they both moved to London where Westbrook led numerous bands, large and small, and played regularly at the Old Place and the Little Theatre Club as well as holding down a day job as an art teacher. In 1968 his band made their international debut at the Montreux Festival.
His first records - Celebration (1967), Release (1968), Marching Song (1969 - all Deram) - were large-scale big-band works which showed Westbrook rapidly expanding his modern-jazz base to include blues, rock & roll, brass bands, Lionel Hampton and "The Girl From Ipanema" in glorious profusion. Two unrecorded pieces, "Earthrise" and the seven-and-a-half hour "Copan/Backing Track" were early examples of Westbrook’s interest in multimedia projects, particularly music-theatre, and employed light-shows, costume, film and slides. "This body of work, wrote Ian Carr in 1973, "was responsible for the emancipation of British jazz from American slavery.
Metropolis (RCA, 1971) was the culmination of this first big-band phase and, with its use of a double rhythm section and electric guitars, also paved the way for Westbrook’s brief fling with rock music in his group Solid Gold Cadillac. He’d been attracted by rock’s power and strength", by its focus on the song form, but when the records didn’t sell his RCA contract "fizzled out" and the band soon followed suit. Westbrook later returned to RCA for a one-off, the Citadel/Room 315 big-band project in 1975 but, in the meantime, his attention had turned to the format which, along with the big band, has proved the most durable of his concerns: the Brass Band.
Formed in 1973 with old Torquay crony Phil Minton, Westbrook found the Brass Band an ideal vehicle for his interests in popular song and theatre. It was, he says, a new start; a deliberate attempt to "be more accessible, to play to people in different situations". For the next few years, the Brass Band forsook the usual music circuits and played at fringe theatre events, street festivals, factories, schools, hospitals. Audiences enthused but costs were prohibitive.
"We were really scuffling," he recalls. "I can’t tell you. No money at all, no record contract, we were nowhere"
At this point, Kate Barnard (later Westbrook) who had joined the band soon after its inception on vocals, tenor horn and piccolo sat down with a telephone directory and rang every record company in London.
"We made appointments with all the A&R men, took them our little cassette of brass-band music," Westbrook says grimly. "Some were too busy to see us, some didn’t even turn up. We saw, like, the whole underbelly of the music business. Some of those guys were absolute shits."
Luckily, Transatlantic were keen to help and offered a deal whereby Westbrook was paid a regular monthly sum. It was, he says, the only time in his entire musical career that he has had real financial security. Alas, within months the company was taken over and Westbrook’s deal fell through. But a turning point of sorts had been reached: the Brass Band made their first LP (For The Record, 1976), and Westbrook met Laurence Aston, who later left Transatlantic and released several Westbrook records on his own label. Original Records. He also became the Westbrooks’ manager.
Such vicissitudes are not untypical of a British jazz scene which is consistently undervalued by Arts Council snobbery and government philistinism. But Westbrook - as a composer and brass-band leader - is an anomaly even within the jazz culture.
Does he ever feel like an outsider? "Yes. I find it all very frustrating. Kate and I, when we start to think about where we fit in, even on the jazz scene which is surely where we belong, we both feel very isolated. And the Arts Council, Radio Three - they have such a constricted view of music.
"But," he adds, "one can’t help being aware that jazz music is not very widely accepted in this country. It’s run up against brick walls."
"Well, the emphasis on commercial music. You seem like a romantic fool if you don’t do things for money." He shrugs helplessly. "There’s a kind of cynicism, perhaps it’s the Thatcher ethic, which has crept into all areas of life. Idealism, sincerity, playing the music you believe in, that’s all regarded as old-fashioned. It’s sell, sell, sell - it runs right through the cultural establishment as well as the pop business and I don’t think jazz fits into that scheme.
"Still," he reckons, "jazz has a fundamental strength. The people who do believe in it, believe passionately. Young musicians are still coming up and committing themselves to the music. OK, all those prosaic things like paying the rent, God knows they are problems but in bigger terms, even if we in jazz are struggling, it’s a noble struggle. We have to stick to our guns."
OF THE seven albums Westbrook made between 1976 and 1981, five were by the Brass Band. Truly, a case of where there’s Mike, there’s brass! For The Record, Goose Sauce (1978) and the live Paris Album (1981) offer selections from the band’s repertoire; Mama Chicago (1979), a jazz cabaret based on the life of Al Capone, and The Westbrook Blake (1980) are more programmatic.
For me, Westbrook’s Blake is a highlight of his career. His settings of Blake’s great radical and visionary poems were originally written in 1971 for Adrian Mitchell’s play Tyger, but he later adapted them for the Brass Band and they became a staple part of the repertoire. This honing process paid rich dividends: The Westbrook Blake is among the most potent and stirring of modern jazz albums. Superbly performed by the band horns and voices relishing the emotion with visceral intensity Westbrook’s music perfectly catches Blake’s feeling, from the mystical joy of "I See Thy Form" to the bitter anguish of "London Song". Westbrook’s comment that "there’s something in Blake that’s close to the spirituality of a Coltrane" perhaps explains why the saxophonists here (Chris Biscoe, Alan Wakeman) blow with such blood-curdling passion. And the finale – Phil Minton singing "Let The Slave", Westbrook declaiming ‘The Price Of Experience" – meets Blake’s vision of political freedom, his mighty plea on behalf of the wretched of the earth, with equal fervour and commitment. It swells the heart like little else in jazz.
Then there’s the bleak anger of "Holy Thursday", one of several songs here with an uncanny relevance to Thatcher’s Britain: "Is this a holy thing to see/In a rich and fruitful land/Babes reduc’d to misery/Fed with a cold and usurous hand?’
"It’s a cry of tremendous compassion," agrees Westbrook. "The world hasn’t really changed that much since Blake’s time. Even London is much the same as ‘London Song’. I think Blake got to the heart of the human situation."
He adds that he and Kate also recorded Blake’s "The Human Abstract" as a single for CND. So where does Westbrook situate himself politically? Is he a socialist?
"Oh yes, of course," he says, surprised. "I’ve never been able to imagine how any reasonably intelligent person could be anything else. And one’s experience as a musician confirms it. I think jazz is socialist music, it has to be – because of its very nature, its origins, the whole image of society which is contained in the activity of playing jazz."
Hang on, how do you as composer fit into this egalitarian vision? Aren’t you in charge?
It has to be the kind of vision of society or collective activity where people contribute what they’re best at, not one where they have to deny part of themselves to fit in. It does work in jazz groups. When you’re onstage, there’s an incredible equality between all the performers, everyone is mutually dependent. I think jazz is a much more collective activity than people acknowledge."
Yet, apart from a handful of songs about war and poverty, your own work rarely addresses specific political issues: how come?
He ponders. "Well, when it happens, it’s wonderful. But I don’t think it’s something one can aim for as a thing in itself. Propagandist music makes things very simplistic, musically and politically, whereas in fact things are much more complex. and I think the artist must try to use the finest language that he’s capable of – not to be obscure, but he mustn’t be dishonest or go against his nature.
"Basically. I believe one must have artistic integrity, artistic freedom, because that’s what gives you the determination to carry on."
IN RECENT years, Westbrook’s major project has been The Cortege, an epic three-hour work for voices and sixteen- piece jazz orchestra. First performed at Bracknell in 1979, Westbrook made substantial revisions before it was recorded for Original in 1982.
The Cortege reflects on no less a theme than -the cycle Life/Death/Life", and Westbrook cites two images as central to the work. The first, that of a horseman riding to his death, comes from Lorcas poem Cancion De Jinete, here given a solemn setting on "Cordoba". The second, that of a New Orleans funeral march, evokes an early Black musical tradition – the parade that begins in grief and ends in elation.
Rather a sombre framework, I remark. "The real facts of our existence are pretty sombre." Westbrook shrugs. "There are times when one wants to do simple, immediate things and that’s fine, and other times when you want to do something bigger, to try and crack some of the big problems of existence, and The Cortege is like that."
The idea grew out of the Westbrooks’ travels around Europe, was fed by such diverse influences as Goya’s etchings and Stravinskys The Soldier’s Tale, and gradually took shape as a huge musical procession of Westbrookalia: texts from Rimbaud, Blake. Lorca, folk songs from Sweden, taut chamber sections, rock guitar solos, brass-band marches, big- band swing. "It encompassed everything I knew in 1979," he grins, "probably still does."
If the overall mood is necessarily dark, there is satire, elegy, and a rumbustious drinking song to lighten the way. Plus a stream of fine solos, notably Phil Todd’s clarinet, Lindsay Cooper’s sopranino, and Phil Minton’s voice which can ride the swell of Blake yet wrap itself in the eeriest of rustic tones for a garish "Lady Howerd’s Coach". But The Cortege is chiefly an ensemble work, a prime example of Westbrook’s developing interest in musical "architecture". Much of the music, he says, grew out of a nine-note sequence which forms the bass line of "Cordoba", the first section he wrote.
"I’ve always been interested in developing my own sense of harmony, and working on the structure of The Cortege involved me in a lot of experimentation, a lot of mathematics, drawings. I was trying to evolve...l lack the exact terminology but I suppose it was a scheme of tonality. That nine-note sequence fascinated me and I began to form a pattern, a matrix, and explore the ramifications of that."
The number three, says Westbrook, became a vital component of The Cortege, both thematically (the Life/ Deaf h/Life cycle) and musically where it formed "the basis for rhythmic, melodic and harmonic patterns". In particular, in its evocation of the Holy Trinity, it reflected the Christian elements of the work.
"Broadly, yes, Kate and I would describe ourselves as Christians," he says when pressed, though I suspect he’s more at ease with Blake’s visionary iconoclasm than with any particular set of church dogma. Like his politics, his religious beliefs are rarely explicit in his music and even in the case of "Kyrie", the one specifically Christian reference in The Cortege, Westbrook’s programme notes stress that it is "a simple universal framework of spiritual communion". Its form, he also points out, is "equivalent to the most fundamental musical form in jazz, itself wrung from the cries of suffering humanity – the 12-bar blues".
Talk of The Cortege leads us inevitable to the art of composition itself. In 1983 Westbrook wrote: "Though I started, musically, from a fairly abstract basis, the songs, say, in French and Spanish, took on the character of French and Spanish music, without any effort on my part to make them do so."
I express scepticism about this, and push him: surely you had some prior idea of the musical idioms you would use?
"No... er, it’s very personal, really, how one works, I, er...," he stops, looking rather harassed. "I don’t ever analyse my approach... but well the last thing I think about is what idiom the music should go in. If its for lyrics, I go to the words and if there are no words, there' s a feeling I’m trying to get into, give a shape to.,. But I have no preconceptions no barriers: I don’t push things in a particular direction but if I find them going that way I don’t try to stop them. So if it turns out like a folk song or a bit like Ellington, say, that doesn’t matter as long as it works."
He reflects a moment, then declares: "The only problem ever is expressing what you want to express and the only criterion is that it doesn’t sound boring."
THERE IS so much more to the Westbrook canon which I lack the space to cover: albums like Love/Dream And Variations (1976) Piano (1977), A Little Westbrook Music (1983) and a wealth of unrecorded material, from TV and film scores to jazz cabaret and music-theatre pieces like "Bartlemy Fair", "Les Nuits Dificiles", "Bien Sur!" and "Hotel Amigo". There is also his background in painting to be explored, with particular reference to the strong visual element in Westbrook’s composition from the influence of Goya on The Cortege to his visit to Sicilyfor The Ass. ("Oh yes, landscape can be an inspiration.") In 1973, Westbrook spoke of his music as "sound images", now he says he’s mere interested in its "architecture" than in "just a sequence of images": a change but the analogy is still to the graphic.
Most vital of all, there is the influence of his wife Kate, which he describes as "paramount". Her song-writing skills, her knowledge of painting, poetry, opera, theatre, have both spurred Westbrook’s own interests and led his writing into new areas. Much of this is, I think, evident on the records. But there is more, too.
"Our relationship has been a major factor in us being able to keep up the struggle, as it were, because there have been times of darkest despair, not so long ago really, and having Kate there, someone else believing in the music, gave me the strength to carry on."
One thing I should mention in a little detail is the latest Westbrook LP, On Duke’s Birthday (hat Art). Originally part of a longer work, After Smith’s Hotel, Westbrook revised and added to existing material and came up with a new, separate piece. His love of Ellington goes back to his teenage years when his father gave him an LP of Duke’s 1940s orchestra. "I’ve been listening to him so long now," he says, "he’s in my bloodstream"; and On Duke’s Birthday includes a couple of sly Ducal touches – wah-wah trombone, high trumpet – as a mark of respect. But it isn’t, Westbrook insists a copy or imitation of the master: "I don’t have the technical ability to do that."
It is, though, his tightest piece of composition to date.
"I tried to create a harmonic language, to inter- relate the sections, interlace things harmonically and melodically, so there are cross-references holding it all together. It’s quite rigidly structured: all the solos are written into the arrangements, for example, rather than open-ended."
On Duke’s Birthday swings too; a flawless, polished record, it reflects the new confidence" Westbrook says he has found in his writing. Ellington’s compliment to English culture on the Shakespeare-inspired Such Sweet Thunder has been amply repaid.
To end our conversation, I remind Westbrook of something he said to Ian Carr in 1973. "What I’m after is some kind of spiritual thing. This is a restless quest." Is that still true?
He looks a bit embarrassed. "Er. . . expect I’ll get in an awful muddle if I talk about it, but, yes, there is a quest, a very deep search for. . .truth, I suppose. The myriad techniques of music are all ways of approaching it, though it’s something you endlessly circle around, never really getting very near it, because we’re very imperfect.
"But through music, all the arts, I think one can get into that dimension. And it seems to me that the improviser taking a tune and improvising on it is a good symbol of that process. To take something known – and then the great improvisers have this enormous gift of going beyond that, to where another world can open out to you.
"Blake talked about imagination, that’s the technique you use, but the goal is building this vision, this Jerusalem. That’s what it’s all about in the end."
Mike Westbrook is in his fiftieth year of building Jerusalem. His music, wrote Ian Carr, "has enlarged the consciousness, receptiveness and potential of British musicians".
Sweet thunder, indeed! Or, as Willy Blake had it, a blessing on every blast.
The Wire, 1985