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Stan Tracey: The jazzman

PUBLISHED: 16:09 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

One of the greats: Stan Tracey

One of the greats: Stan Tracey

Stan Tracey, awarded a CBE in this year's New Year's Honours List, is one of our finest jazz musicians and composers. But, although his music receives worldwide acclaim, he's never made much money from his work. Pat Parker spoke to him and his wif...

Stan Tracey, awarded a CBE in this year's New Year's Honours List, is one of our finest jazz musicians and composers. But, although his music receives worldwide acclaim, he's never made much money from his work. Pat Parker spoke to him and his wife Jackie at their St Albans home

AT 81, Stan Tracey, pianist, composer and arranger, is one of Britain's greatest living jazz musicians. His innovative 1965 suite Under Milk Wood, based on Dylan Thomas's play, won him worldwide acclaim, and he has been showered with awards, including the CBE in this year's New Year's Honours List. 'I am surprised, honoured and delighted,' he told me the day after the award was announced.
Yet, for all the acclaim, the Godfather of British Jazz, as a BBC documentary hailed him, has never made much money from his music. Today, he lives with his wife Jackie in a small retirement flat in
St Albans, on a 66-a-week state pension. Not that he's bitter about the lack of financial reward. 'It doesn't bother me,' he shrugs. He's never been in it for the money. He literally lives for his music.
He plays around three gigs a month, but would love to do more. 'I would like to work twice a week. I want to work continuously, and I'm doing less now than I ever did.'
When I spoke to him, he was looking forward to performing the London premiere of his major big band piece, Genesis, at the Barbican, on January 30. There will also be a rare performance of his spectacular piano duet with
Keith Tippett.
Whereas he sees his masterpiece Under Milk Wood as something of an albatross, because it's what everyone knows him for, the 1986 Genesis suite is the work he is most satisfied with. He won't use the word 'proud'. 'Stan doesn't do 'proud',' says Jackie. 'He's the most modest man
I know.'
Stan's formal education ended when he was 12 because the war forced his south London school to close. 'So I just kicked around. I was a bit of a dunce at school, so it suited me fine just to hang around and enjoy the war. It was a boys' adventure come to life. Most kids my age thought it was wonderful, collecting shrapnel and exploring bomb sites. At that age, you never consider you might be killed,' he says.

'In 1960, Ronnie Scott recruited him as resident pianist in his new Soho club and Stan played with most of the great American jazz artists'

He first fell in love with jazz at the age of eight, when he heard an old 78 record at a friend's house. Stan listened to it over and over again. At 14, he persuaded his mother to buy him an accordion 'because it was shiny', and taught himself to play. He spent part of the war entertaining servicemen in a Gypsy accordion band. Then, when the RAF finally caught up with him, he avoided being posted to India as a telephonist by joining a Gang Show, produced by Tony Hancock.
Inspired by boogie-woogie, he taught himself piano, and after the war became a familiar name on the London jazz scene. Then, in 1960, Ronnie Scott recruited him as resident pianist in his new Soho club. Stan played with most of the great American jazz artists, including Stan Getz (whom he did not like - don't get him started on this), Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, who once famously said of Stan, 'Does anyone here know how good he really is?'
It proved a wonderful jazz education, but the long hours and seven-day weeks took its toll. Stan became addicted to heroin, which, he says, 'builds a very deep protective wall around you'. It enabled him to cope. 'In the end, I took it just to stay normal. It stopped me feeling ill', he explains.
But ill he was, and finally, after nearly seven years, he had to leave Ronnie Scott's. Jackie had previously had no idea that her husband, and father of their two small children, was addicted to heroin. But with her support and medical help, he eventually kicked the habit, and has been drug-free and teetotal ever since.
Despite having had great artistic success with both the Under Milk Wood and Alice in Jazzland suites in the mid-60s, Stan now found himself out of work and penniless. Jackie was forced to sign on for benefits to pay a 21 electricity bill. Stan considered giving up jazz and becoming a postman. Jackie was having none of it. 'I knew what he had to offer. I tore up the application form.'
Jackie rescued him. Together with the wife of another jazz musician, she appealed to the Arts Council for help, and started to arrange regular gigs. In 1975, she and Stan borrowed 500 to launch their own record label, Steam, and rereleased Under Milk Wood and his other classics. They only ever made enough to release one album a year,
but it allowed Stan to keep recording and composing.
Since then, Stan, whose style has echoes of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, has played with numerous musicians, and produced an extensive body of work which is at last winning acclaim. 'Stan was 30 years ahead of his time,' says Jackie proudly.

'It takes him six months to write one hour of work and then it may only be performed six times'

He frequently collaborates with their son, percussionist and composer Clark Tracey, who lives in Hemel Hempstead. The Stan Tracey Trio, with Clark on drums, perform once a year at St Albans' Maltings Arts Centre. At last, says Jackie, Stan's getting reasonably paid for his performances. But he's given up writing. 'He's burnt some of his compositions. He gets angry because he puts his life into his writing. It takes him six months to write one hour of work and then it may only be performed six times,' she explains.
Many of his surviving compositions are stuffed in a cupboard, as are his countless trophies and awards. He doesn't want them cluttering up the flat. 'They're ugly,' says Stan. 'And they don't pay the bills at Sainsbury's.' But I'd guess the CBE will escape such a fate. This most modest of musicians seems genuinely rather chuffed about this one.

Read this article in the Hertfordshire Life digital archives


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