The Gilded Mafia
In the messy, impossible to codify mass we call the ‘Swinging Sixties’ - by definition a decade-long stretch, but a term generally agreed to mean the years 1964-67 – there was no city more exemplary of this era’s apparent mix of meritocracy, talent and fifteen-minute fame than London. And there was never a year more representative of this new zeitgeist than 1966, twelve months which saw the UK’s cultural capital raised to hitherto unheard of heights. This was a time of soccer World Cup wins, the ‘best’ series of ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Frost Report’, Labour’s landslide victory in a snap General Election, Patrick Troughton’s debut as the second Dr Who, The Who’s ‘Happy Jack’; of a renewed confidence in national resources, of a bursting multicoloured kind of energy that would shortly morph into the psychedelic trip that was 1967. It was, in short, a great time in a great town, seized fully by those who were young and going places.
Or that’s how the story usually goes.
History – or rather the cheap sound-bite kind of history served up to us in the popular press and the kind of documentary television beloved of Channel 5 – has a habit of reducing a bigger, more detailed picture, into something far more easily comprehensible. Thus we have 1966 – a year in which both the Moors murders trial and the Aberfan tragedy left the nation dumbfounded, to pick just two decidedly ‘unswinging’ events, and which was as much about fading international clout and rising unemployment as it was about mini-skirts and Mini Coopers – reduced to one long party, probably held in one of those trendy London discotheques frequented by pop stars, actors, the Marquis of So-and-So and the odd celebrity villain.
Yet this sort of thumbnail sketch is by no means solely the creation of today’s documentarian. Indeed, in April 1966 the famed American journal ‘Time’ magazine published its now infamous ‘Swinging London’ issue, a catch-all originally intended by its writer as a serious travelogue piece but hijacked by editorial demands to expose the the kind of ‘Britishness’ that had fascinated US readers since the Beatles made it big over the pond in 1964. Read now this piece is almost embarrassingly ‘1960s’, with its strap-line of ‘You Can Walk Across It on the Grass’ sounding like bad double-entendre dialogue from an Austin Powers movie. But even back in 1966, there were those who could spot all the phoniness a mile off. One ‘Time’ reader spoke for many when he wrote dismissively of the features concentration on ‘the moronic fringe, the smart alecs and the social climbers.’ Another thought the entire article nothing more than ‘colour supplement London’.
Years later, the author of ‘Swinging London’ Piri Halasz revealed that she had intended her stay in London in preparation for the piece to be ‘taken seriously’, expressing a desire to understand, among many things, UK politics. ‘Instead,’ she remembered disconsolately, ‘I was taken to the Ad Lib’.
The Ad Lib was a London club, situated in Leicester Place, and as one of the capital’s trendiest nightspots in the mid-1960s, it attracted a goodly share of the prominent, the popular and the posturing of the era. As such its clientele included, at various times but significantly frequently simultaneously, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, fashion model Jean Shrimpton, photographer David Bailey and actor Michael Caine, amongst others, and for a time the club was, as one sage observer put it ‘the chosen haven for the gilded mafia of the Pop scene.’
Crossing the Ad Lib’s dance floor at this time was a little like dodging life-size reproductions of ‘David Bailey’s Box of Pin-ups’, the creation of one of its noted habitués published in late 1965, which, as its introduction made clear was intended to be ‘a statement...about London life.’ Or, to put it more truthfully, about a certain kind of London life.
In fact, looking at Bailey’s chosen subjects – Lord Snowden, The Kray Twins, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Vidal Sassoon, Jean Shrimpton, Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, to name only a few – was hardly to see a genuine cross-section of the capital. Rather than being a representation of the unseen many, these were a highly visible few; an elect, a cadre of ‘movers and shakers’, those then said to be making London truly swing.
It was all a product of a construct, of course, exactly as ‘Time’ magazine’s ‘Swinging London’ was to be a few months later. And yet, as the 1960s receded into history, there was still something ineluctably glamorous about Bailey’s photography – shot in detailed, unsparing monochrome and often as artfully cropped as they were skilfully shot – something beautiful even, despite the fact that there is plenty of evidence to say just how unattractive (in every sense) some of the subjects of these portraits were. Nobody could argue that the Kray Twins, staring vacantly, lumpily, from Bailey’s box, were in anyway admirable, but somehow, taken together, these images – not so much a collection of photographs as an exclusive time capsule – provide everything we need to know about ‘trendy’ London at the time they were shot.
As ever though,the quality that made the capital’s nightlife what it was – swinging - was as difficult to pin down as it was to localise. Nothing in 1960s London moved faster than fashion and defining who, what and where was ‘in’ mid-decade was actually far harder than packaging up thirty-odd photos of the famous and feted. In particular, the ‘where’ of London’s new classless society proved especially elusive. No sooner was a place, be it a club or a restaurant or a discotheque, said to be ‘in’ then its hitherto prized exclusivity was blown wide open and that sort of thing, even at a time when there was much talk of the abandoning of old qualifications of education and class, meant that the new elite might be forced to share their space with those eager to be ‘seen’ and that just wouldn’t do at all. Rather ironically, this resulted in a new form of snobbery in which a meritocracy transpired to be more like a clique than a free for all.
While clubs like the Ad Lib came and went (and by early 1966 ‘Queen’ magazine was stating it to be a very ‘out’ place to be seen) – and were even open to lampooning by those who’d once been regulars (John Lennon appearing as the doorman of the ‘Ad Lav’ club in a December 1966 episode of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s BBC TV series ‘Not Only But Also’) - there was little damage done when they fell out of favour. As we’re so often told the 1960s in London wasn’t just a moveable feast, it was a mobile party and so, around about the time ‘Queen’ were damning the Ad Lib’s falling street cred, the ‘beautiful people’ had moved on and decamped elsewhere, a seismic shift that might not actually require anything more extensive than a few minutes brisk walk.
One of the places they got to one Thursday night in March 1966 was the Plaza Cinema in Lower Regent Street, barely a few streets way, a locale that, having been open since 1926 hardly qualified as new. But on this one evening its foyer was packed with a cast list equally as impressive as that at the Ab Lib on any given night, and, as we shall see, actually far more diverse. They were all there; Michael Caine, all four Beatles, the mop top's close friend Cilla Black, a whole bevy of notable young actresses including the tender titian beauty Jane Asher, then Paul McCartney’s girlfriend.
The reason for this sudden descent on Piccadilly? The world premiere of the Lewis Gilbert-directed Michael Caine vehicle ‘Alfie’, a film which in itself encapsulated much of what London in the 1960s was ‘supposed’ to be about; laddishness, dolly birds, opportunism, the triumph of wit and will over worn out convention.
What was more, into this, perhaps the quintessential 1960s-mix, were added American saxophonist Sonny Rollins – then one of jazz’s biggest names - Ronnie Scott, owner of a club at root equally as trendy as the Ad Lib (and far more lasting), his close colleague Stan Tracey – the club’s house pianist then emerging as a composer of genuine note, with the release four months before of his ‘Under Milk Wood’ LP - – and, furthermore, that perennial icon of UK modernism, Tubby Hayes. The reason they were there, augmenting the ranks of the popsters and actors: Rollins had composed the film’s score, while Scott, Hayes, Tracey had played on it and tonight their band were present to provide the pre-curtain entertainment.
It seemed,even then, an uncommonly rich mix of notable achievers, but amazingly this momentary aligning of the stars – jazz, pop, cinematic – has hardly brushed the antenna of social historians. Eager to look at Carnaby Street, or Scotch of St. James, or even what was going on at the flat Michael Caine shared with fellow lady-killer Terence Stamp, documentarians have ignored what was perhaps the defining night of ‘swinging’ London, as if it were hidden in plain sight. Or, to paraphrase Caine’s infamous catch phrase, this was something not many people knew.
Indeed, for all those familiar with the press shots of McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr and their squeezes taken that evening, there are scores of jazz fans who’ve probably no idea that Sonny Rollins, Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes and Stan Tracey were there too. And, if you’re the sort of 1960s ‘culture vulture’ who likes to spot forgotten or even unrealised connections between the worlds of jazz and pop – and there can be no better year for looking at this crossover than 1966 – then the evening of Thursday March 24th 1966 comes on like a wet dream. Actually, when you think of it, it’s as happening a night as can be imagined. Forget all that ‘Cool Britannia’ nonsense the 1990s ushered in, the time when Brit-pop forged an embarrassing alliance with New Labour, a bunch of ‘mad for it’ Sixties-fixated retro-heads were desperately assuring us we were attending the coolest party on the planet, and it was loudly coughed Britain was again the ‘place’ to be. None of that could possibly top a mid-sixties London film premiere at which Lennon and McCartney, Caine and Hayes, Scott and Rollins were hanging out, surely?
Flowing Logic, downright ugliness
The story of ‘Alfie’ – and of the Bill Naughton creation from which it sprung – has been told many times before. The film itself has become a classic, not just for Michael Caine’s cheeky asides to camera and the cast of fine female actresses he plays opposite, but also as one of several key celluloid documents of Sixties London (alongside, say, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Morgan - A Suitable Case For Treatment’ and ‘Performance’). A barrier breaker in every sense – and still capable of providing shocks beyond its mere morality tale narrative, as anyone who’s seen Denholm Elliot’s creepy turn as a visiting abortionist can attest – there was much more to ‘Alfie’ though than cinematic fourth-wall liberties and nice shots of ‘the smoke’. Alongside these, or moreover threaded between them, was a musical score equally as noteworthy, and, at the time, just as novel as Caine’s audience address.
It wasn’t that jazz musicians weren’t already scoring major motion picture – Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Johnny Mandel, John Lewis and even Duke Ellington had already done so by 1966 – but it was that previously nobody had ever handed the job to a performer as quixotic as Sonny Rollins. Nor had any ‘composer’ ever handled such a task so casually.
By 1966 Sonny Rollins was already a jazz giant twice over. A native New Yorker, his ‘first’ career had begun in the late 1940s when as a teenage prodigy he’d hung out with – and recorded under the leadership of – bebop leading light, pianist Bud Powell. All of nineteen, Rollins was clearly a man to watch, one already in possession of an almost unique voice; playing the tenor saxophone, an instrument hitherto defined in jazz terms as either Coleman Hawkins- or Lester Young-inspired, he took from both men, added in the flashing brilliance of altoist Charlie Parker, and his own unmistakable grasp of musical form, to come up with one of the defining jazz styles of the 1950s.
This first stage of Rollins’ stardom reached its apex on the 1956 album ‘Saxophone Colossus’ (Prestige) a record whose title paid tribute to both the tenorist’s impressive physical stature and the enormity of his improvisational skills. This, however, was not enough for the ever-self-critical Rollins and barely three years after this triumph, he retired completely from public performance to work on an art he considered perfectible.
When he emerged again in 1962, it was both with an approach substantially altered and onto a jazz scene in the throes of a revolution. The emergence of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his rules-abandoning, avant-garde concept of ‘free’ jazz in Rollins’ absence was one thing; the other was the gigantic way in which his friend and colleague John Coltrane had filled the vacuum during these off-years to become every inch an equal modern jazz tenor giant.
Rollins response to all this changes (and challenges) left many divided; what had once been mere capriciousness of character now appeared more like wilful eccentricity, with a performer already notably free-flowing often darting down some curious musical side-alleys to get a particular result. The stimulus of the avant-garde wasn’t always helpful either. There were preoccupations with tonal distortion, experiments with sidemen of questionable worthiness, and, more generally, a sense of weirdness to it all, one matched by an equally startling obsession with image, the saxophonist veering from shaven-head to pharoah-like beard, from floppy berets to Stetson hats, raincoats to rows of tambourines embroidered on his waist. If the ‘old’ Rollins had been merely unpredictable, the ‘new’ one was frequently just plain odd.
This Rollins was the one London jazz fans first encountered in the flesh in January 1965 when he began a month-long residency at Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho’s Gerrard Street. The proprietor was already a fan - ‘undoubtedly the best thing I’ve heard’ he was quoted as saying after the American’s run had ended – but there was as much controversy as enjoyment to be had in the visit. ‘Flowing logic with downright ugliness’ was how Bob Dawbarn of ‘Melody Maker’ assessed the inconsistency of the saxophonist’s approach at Scott’s; ‘a great rubbish tip sprinkled with pearls of wisdom’ said Benny Green in ‘The Observer’, while to Britain’s modern jazz community, who, even as late as 1965 still liked their US jazz idols adventurous but understandable, Rollins’ time in their midst was more baffling than beautiful. The king of these, fellow tenor Tubby Hayes, declared of the American ‘he’s a very creative musician...a very advanced straight down the line’, while pianist Stan Tracey, whose trio was tasked with accompanying the tenorist for the Scott run was torn between admiration and exasperation; ‘I liked some of it,’ he told ‘Melody Maker’ but not the bits where I didn’t know what the hell was happening’.
These ‘bits’ were Rollins’ preference for chopping and changing between themes part-way through a set as if suddenly bored, his dislike of providing verbal cues of any kind and what were, at time, downright bizarre exhibitions of on-stage impotency - ‘absolute silence, apart from the swishing noise of his head cleaving the air’, as another musician remembered it. All of this can be found on three unsanctioned releases issued from live tapes made at Ronnie Scott’s by the late Les Tomkins, all of which were eventually successfully contested by Rollins’ lawyers (there were issued on the now defunct Harkit label as ‘Live In London’ Volumes 1-3).
Yet, despite all this, the saxophonist was well pleased with his accompanists, praising them in the press and, in one oft-quoted example of his generosity, singling Stan Tracey out on the microphone one night at Scott’s with the words ‘does anybody here really know how good he is?’
Clearly Rollins had made some key musical friends. He’d also mightily impressed his audiences too, one of which included the son of noted British film director Lewis Gilbert – director of such classics of fifties British cinema as ‘Reach For The Sky’, ‘The Admirable Crichton’. ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’ and ‘Sink The Bismark’. When Paramount Pictures contracted Gilbert to direct an adaptation of Bill Naughton’s radio play ‘Alfie Elkins and His Little Life’ (then both theatrically-staged and novelised as ‘Alfie’), and he and the production executives were casting about for someone to provide a suitably free-ranging soundtrack, his son suggested Sonny Rollins. Lewis liked the idea – contemporary jazz seemed to fit the character of the protagonist, he believed – and so ovations were made. The two men talked; Gilbert wanted something spontaneous and impulsive, in the manner of some of Alfie’s female conquests; Rollins’ couldn’t deliver anything less. The film, therefore, would be made with no score, temporary or other, in place. The musicians recording the ‘final’ version would have to use their creativity to match image and sound.
Although a bold proposition, in some senses Gilbert and Rollins were echoing Louis Malle and Miles Davis’ collaboration on 1957’ film ‘Life To The Scaffold’, in which the trumpeter and his band had improvised their contributions along to a projected image. However, even the notoriously tetchy Davis had played ball here; trying take after take to get exactly what Malle wanted, as the ‘expanded’ CD issues of the soundtrack released years later revealed. Rollins’ just didn’t work like that. To his way of thinking, music was either ‘there’ or not, no matter how much he was being paid to make it (his recording contract with RCA-Victor, signed in late 1961, for example, was for a staggering $90,000, a sum the company failed to recoup after three years of highly inconsistent releases. Unsurprisingly Rollins was dropped in 1965).
Treat it lightly
According to a piece in ‘Down Beat’ , America’s leading jazz monthly, in August 1965, the original plan was to have Rollins fly to London to meet Gilbert, watch the film and then fly home to New York to write his score. That completed he’d return to the UK to add his compositions to the final cut. Only it didn’t work out that way. The saxophonist was busy that summer, playing club dates, recording another album (‘On Impulse’, his first for a new label affiliation, Impulse! Records) and generally working on his own things, and so it was that when he finally arrived in London in mid-October 1965 to complete his contribution to ‘Alfie’ he had barely a few days to not only compose a score but record it too.
He’d left the English side of assembling a band for the purpose to those he knew and trusted, among them Ronnie Scott. Stan Tracey was a natural inclusion, as were what in the end transpired to be something of an all-star line-up of British bop greats; drummer Phil Seamen, guitarist Dave Goldberg, bassist Rick Laird, Scott and Tubby Hayes on tenor saxes and Keith Christie on trombone.
Eager to see what Rollins had come up with in the way of arrangements, on the day before the first session was scheduled to take place, Scott and Christie visited Rollins in his room at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. Scott’s biographer, John Fordham, takes up the story;
‘The saxophone was on a sofa with a spotlight shining on it. If Rollins were trying to say that’s where the music is, he couldn’t have put it any better. All three men got very stoned in the course of the discussion and eventually the two Englishmen asked to see Rollins’ idea for the score. He brought out a sheaf of manuscript paper and laid it before them. Every sheet was blank – except one. A fragment of phrasing was notated there, in a childlike hand.
‘How should we treat the music? Scott asked, puzzled by the American’s cavalier disregard for the responsibilities of the job. ‘Treat it lightly’, Rollins advised. In the circumstances, there wasn’t much choice.’
Scott would soon after title one of his compositions in honour of this pithy response (‘Treat It Lightly’ from ‘The Night Is Scott and You Are So Swingable’, Fontana, 1966)
It’s a great story, and one which is undoubtedly true, but there’s also a hint of oversimplification to it for all its hilarity. Rollins himself later stated that he’d done ‘most of the sketching and the score’ in Ronnie Scott’s 39 Gerrard Street club after-hours, implying there to have been a tad more preparation than the legend allows (although Stan Tracey observed some doubts as to whether this was actually the case; ‘I did [that] one night, because I was writing, and it was freezing cold and miserable. It was a miserable place, the Old Place, cold and damp. [So] I don’t think he would do that’).
This is just one of many myths and mysteries that have grown up around Sonny Rollins’ score for ‘Alfie’; when exactly was it recorded, where and by whom? Did the tenorist really write all the music or did he cheekily steal something from one of his key sidemen? There’s even the suggestion that it’s not Rollins himself who takes the recognisably personal tenor sax solos on the finished film but none other than Tubby Hayes, deliberately impersonating his American idol. All these things have done the rounds Chinese Whisper style for some years, but as with all such folklore, if you know where to look there exists a strong body of evidence to counter rumour, hearsay and false ‘fact’.
The best source of first-hand documentation of how the ‘Alfie’ sessions went down is the surviving work diaries of Stan Tracey, now in the possession of his son, prominent UK jazz drummer Clark Tracey. Amazingly, even in the middle of a period of back-to-back gigs (and moreover immense personal dissipation) the pianist was insistent on keeping a detailed account of his daily workload. From this we now know that there were, in fact, two 10am ‘Alfie’ rehearsals at Ronnie Scott’s club on October 18th and 19th 1965 – followed by four days’ worth of recording at Twickenham Studios on October 20th, 21st, 22nd and 25th. Each of these sessions required an unholy 8.45am call at Scott’s each day, an early start which may explain Rollins’ memory of spending all night writing in the club. As for Tracey, it hardly seemed worth going home; he was working at Ronnie’s on virtually every night that month and was, as of October 15th, supposed to be accompanying the American saxophonist Hank Mobley, the first ever US Scott club guest to fail to show up. As ever though, the pianist ploughed on, playing a role he later dubbed ‘resident idiot’.
The sessions themselves ranged from meticulous to ramshackle. According to Tracey, ‘Sonny showed up with half a sheet of manuscript for each player, with just his ‘Alfie’ theme’. The pianist also contributed the waltz-timed ‘Little Malcolm Loves His Dad’, improvised during the scene where Michael Caine’s character sees his child playing with his ‘stepdad’ (this later occasioned some bad blood as Tracey attempted to secure back his compositional rights and, more controversially, his royalties), but other than that it seems everything else was created pretty much as a group endeavour. Ronnie Scott later recalled how Rollins’ unpredictability in these circumstances could be as frustrating as it was stimulating. John Fordham again;
‘There was hardly anything to go on, which is exactly what Rollins wanted. The director would put key scenes on the screen, tell the musicians they had sixteen seconds to fill, and leave them to it. Whether they took a long time over the job, or hurried it, Rollins’ reactions would be equally unpredictable. After one long morning of preparation with an unusual degree of attention to detail, Scott took the American down to the river [Thames] in his sports car for lunch. They rounded things off with a large joint. When they got back, Rollins said ‘All that stuff we did this morning, forget it.’ Everybody started again.’
By the end of the fourth day, the score – such as it was – was in the can. But could what comprises in actuality a little over eleven minutes worth of music, sprinkled sparingly throughout the film, really be called a score? Wasn’t it more like a few snatched sketches, the bare bones of an idea rather than the fully realised conclusion? Rollins himself seemed to think so too. The following year he and the record label to which he was signed – Impulse! - exploded these fragments into a full-scale LP, arranged for a bigger band by saxophonist/composer Oliver Nelson. The result was perhaps the best of all the great tenorists mid-1960s albums, one of the few that remains consistently listenable from beginning to end, containing in the lengthy ‘Alfie’s Theme’ title track and the ballad ‘He’s Younger Than You Are’ two of his most arresting solos of the era.
Some of the record’s success comes from Nelson’s solidly professional charts but much of it comes from Rollins being given a specific brief rather than putting on the red light, rolling the tape and letting things tape their course. This framework – the very thing Rollins so often appeared to reject when playing live and which he’d wrestled against when recording the original ‘Alfie’ sessions – had actually given his inspirational improvisational gift its best setting in years. His comments on the album sleeve certainly hinted that he was taking the potential of formal musical environs more seriously. ‘It’s all part of the same thing – finding and expressing yourself through music and finding links to yourself in the experiences of others.
Rollins, though, had been a tad premature in his last statement. ‘Michael Caine is Alfie is Wicked’ the film’s tag line ran (and the actor was undeniably a ladies man par excellence as his memoirs confirm), but the happily married Rollins certainly wasn’t. Invited to attend the world premiere of ‘Alfie’ at London’s Plaza Cinema on March 24th 1966 and seated in the auditorium alongside Caine, the Beatles, Cilla Black and company, there unfolded on screen before him the story of someone he realised was ‘a terrible guy’.
Far from being ‘the education of a hipster’ as annotator Nat Hentoff had it in his sleeve notes for the Impulse! tie-in LP, Rollins’ saw a film in which the protagonists character reviled him. Moreover, his score was, he felt, somewhat wasted. Years later he was unsure of whether Lewis Gilbert comment to him - ‘Sonny, your music sounds just like this character Alfie’ - was ‘really a compliment or not’. He certainly held no strong urge to lend his name to another such story. ‘If I was offered another [film] opportunity,’ he told his biographer Eric Nisenson, ‘I would only do it if the film highlighted the music rather than the story itself.’
These days you can hear Rollins’ ‘Alfie’ soundtrack away from the visuals, tacked on to the end of one of the ‘Soho Scene’ compilations issued by the enterprising London-based Rhythm and Blues Records (‘Soho Scene 1966/67: Jazz Goes Mod’). At all of a few minutes in length and divorced from context it’s hard to believe it was ever the subject of any controversy, or indeed, that something this fleeting took days to get together. And, hearing Rollins’ signature tenor - one minute frisky and bleating, the next ruminative - it’s impossible to believe that anyone ever thought it was Tubby Hayes and not the score’s composer playing. I first remember hearing this latter ‘truth’ back in the 1990s, and it has certainly appeared in print on more than a few occasions (Keith Shadwick’s ‘The Illustrated Story of Jazz’, Crescent Books, 1991) – it even makes it into the ‘Tubby Hayes: A Man In A Hurry’ documentary film – but it’s nothing more than a nice bit of jazz-flavoured urban mythology. Session chits reveal Hayes was on the soundtrack but he doesn’t solo. Neither indeed does Ronnie Scott. Moreover the presence of these two former Jazz Couriers – both tenor saxists and ardent Rollins’ fans – on a session led by the man widely regarded as one of the two great modernists of the instrument (the other being John Coltrane) begs the awkward question of whether they might not have been a bit, well, superfluous.
Also, given Rollins’ willingness to stretch the making of a few minutes of music to a four-day job, you can’t help wondering if some aspects of the ‘Alfie’ score were a kind of ‘jobs for the boys’ thank you to his favourite UK musicians. Think on this further; what kind of a commercial film score composer would, in their right mind, have booked the notoriously bombed-out Phil Seamen for a session at this time? It makes you think.*
As does the night on which the ‘Alfie’ premiere took place. A cursory glance at the lives of the personalities present over the surrounding weeks provides an especially rich look at London’s musical culture at this time. Ronnie Scott was, of course, hosting Sonny Rollins at his club that month, while three days after the film premiere he and a new quintet featuring fellow tenor Alan Skidmore were featured on the BBC’s regular ‘Jazz Club’ radio programme, taped barely a stones throw away from the Plaza Cinema at the Beeb’s Paris Theatre (this can be heard on the Gearbox LP: ‘Ronnie Scott Quintet featuring Alan Skidmore’, 2014).
The Beatles, on the other hand, were creating as much controversy as music; earlier that month ‘The Evening Standard’ published the infamous John Lennon ‘more popular than Jesus’ interview, and the day after being caught by the press flash bulbs in Lower Regent Street - March 25th - the band were posing for the equally divisive ‘butcher’ photos taken by Robert Whitaker, later to be used on an (swiftly withdrawn) American LP cover.
Tubby Hayes was courting a degree of controversy too, taking a band of new and untried talents – Mike Pyne, Danny Thompson and Tony Levin – on their first circuit of the nation’s provincial jazz clubs that month, astonishing audiences not just with his sideman’s youth but with his own new-found taste for post-Coltrane improvisational techniques - hear the album ‘Live at The Dancing Slipper’, taped fours days later on March 28th (Harkit, 2006).
And while Cilla Black hadn’t sung the memorable Burt Bacharach/Hal David song heard at the close of the film (the producers opted for Cher), her cover – recorded in London with the composer present, around the same time that Sonny Rollins was taping his score to the movie – was set to surge to number nine in the UK singles charts. Black’s recording had been made at EMI Studios, Abbey Road, the same facility in which the Beatles were shortly to create their album ‘ Revolver’, one of the defining popular LPs of the decade. Abbey Road also featured in Stan Tracey’s life on the same week as the ‘Alfie’ premiere; he and a star-packed big band (featuring Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes) had completed the follow-up album to his recently-issued ‘Under Milk Wood’ - ‘Alice in Jazz Land’ - at the studio the day before, March 23rd 1966.
These connections are perhaps uncanny and, at the very least, offer an intriguing background to a fleeting if noteworthy moment. Indeed, given this odd mix of popular talent and jazz purism, one wonders is any conversation was struck up between, say, Sonny Rollins and Paul McCartney, or maybe even between a Beatle and a local bebopper like Hayes or Scott. Interestingly, until I told him about the ‘Alfie’ premiere Stan Tracey’s son Clark – who knew only too well his father’s antipathy to all things Beatles – hadn’t realised that there had been a night when they’d occupied the same space, so near yet so far.
He did, however, furnish some useful practical details; for his services at the Plaza Cinema that night Tracey was paid a princely £8.00, the second of three paid engagements that day; the first a photo call at Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street that morning and the third his nightly gig on the same stage with Rollins. All in a day’s work, then, playing for the glitterati. Clark Tracey also adds a rather depressing postscript; that when ‘Alfie’ was remade in 2004 (with Jude Law as Michael Caine’s successor) his father’s band were again required to play at the London premiere. ‘We were completely ignored’, he remembers. ‘Nobody listened’.
Not so in March 1966, though. Sonny Rollins may have later cast a doubtful eye over the use of his music in a film so intrinsically-linked to the darker side of life but I’m certain he would have loved the blackly comic farce than unfolded just ahead of the curtain-up. Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, Stan Tracey and their colleagues were set up on the Plaza’s stage, their brief simple – to play a short version of Rollins’ signature ‘Alfie’ theme before making a discreet exit.
In his biography of Scott - ‘Jazz Man: The Amazing Story of Ronnie Scott and his Club’ (Kyle Cathie, 1994), John Fordham says;
‘They were supposed to begin...on the signal of a green light and stop on the red light that was supposed to appear a couple of minutes later, at which point the platform they were playing on would be lowered out of sight and the curtains would open. The green light came right on cue and the band eased into Rollins’ playful, jaunty opening bars. The red light, however, didn’t show.
They played that theme over and over, with all the variations they could think of, for more then twenty minutes while technicians sweated in the projection room to locate the hitch with the film. It was just the way the composer would have wanted it.’
One wonders what Caine, Lennon and McCartney and all the other notables sat out in the darkened theatre made of all of this? A true ‘what’s it all about?’ moment, then.
Not many people know that, either.
*If the story of the launch of ‘Alfie’ chimes rather well with all those legends of London in the 1960s being one endless party of pop, personalities and pill-popping dandies and of British jazz at last coming of age, it’s worth remembering that, later that same year, 1966, there came a rather rude reminder that not everything about UK-made music met with instant American approval. Sonny Rollins may have been only too happy to collaborate with British jazzmen on his film project, but when Miles Davis Quintet pianist Herbie Hancock arrived in London to record his score for Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult thriller ‘Blow Up’ he found his ideas met with a distinctly flaccid interpretation by saxist Don Rendell and trumpeter Ian Carr. ‘I was used to working with and writing for New York musicians, that high calibre of musicianship...that aggressiveness,’ he later remembered. ‘And it didn’t work out that way at all with the English players...it came out weak and bland.’ Hancock retaped most of his score in New York.