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The Godfather of British Jazz: The Life and Music of Stan Tracey
by Clark Tracey
IN HIS 80th year, Britain's greatest jazz pianist Stan Tracey described his life in music as “one long voyage of discovery” and this biography by his son Clark, who played regularly with his father as a drummer from 1978 to 2013, is a profoundly engaging account of that journey.
Tracey, born in South London, grew up “between Tooting and Brixton” and Clark relies on his father's diaries to describe his boyhood as an accordionist before becoming a pianist and his launch into professional music with Tony Hancock's comedy tours and as a member of the RAF Gang Show touring Palestine and Egypt.
His trips as pianist on the liner Queen Mary took him to New York where he found his heroes. “Monk and Ellington were the two piano players who really zapped me,” he wrote.
But it was during the 1960s, as house pianist at Ronnie Scott's, that he made his reputation. ”Does anyone in Britain really know how good he is?” asked the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon named him “the English Monk” and, for altoist Lee Konitz, playing with him was “a complete delight.”
For Stan, accompanying these stellar Americans was like “eternal Christmas.”
But such relentless night-time playing and the associated drugs culture took a toll on his body and mind. “He was happy at night in the club,” said his wife Jackie, “but during the day he was just this sad, tired man.”
In the 1970s, I remember hearing him regularly in the public bar of The Plough in Stockwell — his residency earned him £6 a week — accompanying phenomenal musicians like drummer John Stevens, Barbados-born trumpeter Harry Beckett and South African bassist Harry Miller.
But jazz poverty hit him hard and he began to see himself as “a jazz Marie Celeste, floating around your own country.” No wonder that he wrote: “All music is an interpretation of life and life isn't very pretty.”
Yet he also wrote that “the love of playing music — the joy of it - was like nothing else” and. as recognition arrived in his later years, life become more comfortable but no less artistically challenging as jazz became less of a “dirty word.”
Listen to his records as you read, they are the best accompaniment to this fine book.
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