My mum was pretty much on the run from my dad from the outset! This meant living
in Totnes, Hastings and Battle (in a caravan, and then on a farm) before he eventually gained custody of me and brought me up as a single dad from 1970 onwards.
We moved to Battersea, Chelsea, Kensington, Surrey, and Woolwich over the next ten years. I always spent holidays and some weekends with my mum.
I found music very early on, and by the time I was 15 I was playing in front of
an orchestra, playing saxophones in Don Rendell’s Big Band (paid work!), and with funk and reggae bands in South East London, attending the jazz class at Goldsmiths’ and working part-time.
I left home just before my 16th birthday, renting a room near my school in Blackheath. My music and clarinet teachers were all incredible musicians – one taught me Bach 4-part with jazz chord symbols.
My friendship with Will Woolf was pivotal in giving me the confidence to go to jazz venues and festivals (underage). I sat in with Dudu Pukwana semi-regularly and first heard Bobby Wellins at the Greenwich Theatre Bar.
I went to York University, when I really wanted to go to music college. But as fate would have it, Bobby was the Composer In Residence that year. I transitioned from a
full English Literature degree into taking 3 Units in the music dept. My dissertation was on Sonny Rollins. I met him and showed it him – he was very touched and gave me his contact details, scribbled over the copy of Freedom Suite, which I still have.
I moved with Rosie’s mum to Brighton in 1986 when we discovered she was on the way! I figured I could give Rosie a good environment and still be in striking distance of the London scene. This became important when I was invited to join Loose Tubes in 1989.
I have some inner drivers that carry me through tough challenges, like bringing up my daughter as a single parent, doing my PGCE at 45 years-old, or running a jazz course! But I wouldn’t say I’m as focused on my own output and ‘career’ as I could be.
I was very demotivated (musically) after a serious car crash in 1998, just after I’d taken a nine-piece fusion band to a big stage and audiences. I think a near-death experience gives one a little bit of perspective in relation to the possible cost of over-extended ambition…But I still want to compose, play and perform at the very highest possible level.
I consider myself very privileged to have had opportunities to meet and work with fabulous extremes of humanity, to have travelled very far on tour, and to have played with incredible artists, and to still be thrilled at the prospect of a rehearsal, a recording, a gig with such great artists. I hold in my heart all those souls who have been generous to me with their time and talent… I was partly brought up in Soho, doing my homework in Mario & Franco’s, Edouard’s, The Colony Room or the Coach & Horses, so strong opinions and extreme individual expression don’t phase me. I was introduced to Ronnie Scott by Bill Mitchell and the Time Lord, Tom Baker, who also gave me a collection of Miles Davis records on my 15th birthday. I just knew from about 10 years-old that I wanted to do this, that it would heal any wounds, and keep me alive in every way!
Geoff Simkins said to me some years back that the pursuit of jazz is a spiritual undertaking, and I think I am beginning to understand what he may have meant by that; you are at your best as a person if you have a ‘spiritual’ or compelling practise to pursue. Music is a powerful force for communion with others – musicians and audience – and I feel deeply involved with colleagues with whom I co-create. The ‘realities’ of life don’t always live up to the ideals of art, so there can be some downers and disappointments, of course, but the gift is inestimable.
I’m 54 and a father, brother, son, granddad and partner to a dispersed but passionate family. My friends mean everything to me, too. Music isn’t a linear, time-bound life. Everything’s still to do!
Words: Julian Nicholas
Photo: Lisa Wormsley