Memoir: Tony Burns

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My friend, Tony Burns, has died. After a short time in a hospice in north London, he died in his sleep on Friday.

Anyone present at book launches or readings I gave in the London area over the past couple of decades will remember Tony, accompanied by just guitar and bass, embellishing the occasion with jazz saxophone playing of the highest order. It was always my favourite part of the evening.

I first met Tony Burns when we were in our mid- to late-teens, introduced to him by a school friend, Jim Galvin, who lived in the same street. We hung out together in the local park, visited the same jazz clubs; played, on occasion, for the same soccer team. When Tony decided he was going to learn to play the saxophone, I opted to join him on drums. At first we practiced in his bedroom, me playing brushes across the top of an old suitcase, Tony with the real thing; later, when I had a full kit, we used to hire a room over a pub in Kentish Town on Sunday afternoons – the pub landlord found it hard to believe two people could make that much noise.

After college, I moved away to teach, Tony took up tailoring – and was to work in Saville Row – and we fell largely out of touch; once or twice, on a visit down to London, I saw him playing – excellently – at a pub in Covent Garden but little more.

He was still playing alto sax then, alto and baritone; the alto showing the influence of one of his early heroes, Paul Desmond, the baritone carrying shades of another, Gerry Mulligan. Later, he almost exclusively played tenor and if you closed your eyes it was Stan Getz you were hearing.

It wasn’t until the late ’80s and I was living in London again that we began to spend time together more regularly: listening to jazz – the Gillespiana big band at the King’s Head in Crouch End was a favourite – and, on occasions, playing and performing together at poetry and jazz evenings at the Troubador and elsewhere – reading aside, my task was to supply minimal percussion on bongoes, watching out in trepidation for the moment when he might throw me a four bar break.

More recently still, Tony had a residency at a pub in north London, near the Archway, and on a couple of occasions – knowing I had a full set of drums once more at my disposal – my daughter’s – and having exhausted the list of deps in his little black book, he asked me if I would come along and sit in. They were – for me – some of the most pleasurable times I can remember. I kept my head down, kept time, and when – just occasionally – Tony gave me a quick look of approval, it made my evening.

That won’t happen again. But I know, whenever I’m listening to Getz, or Desmond, or Mulligan, there’ll be a moment when I’ll close my eyes and see Tony playing.

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Memoir: The Fishmonger’s Arms

Sometimes you inadvertently walk into a piece of your long distant past and it stops your breath like a large hand pressed hard against the heart.

There I was, Friday last, walking along a stretch of Wood Green High Road – north from the tube station – that I doubt I’d walked along in over fifty years, and there in front of me, on the corner of Trinity Road and the High Road, was The Fishmonger’s Arms, now, the exterior of the building largely unchanged, the local police station, but then home of the jazz club run through the 50s and 60s by Art and Vi Saunders in the adjacent Bourne Hall, where my friends and I spent so many Sunday nights listening to various jazz outfits of the period, in particular the Alex Welsh Band.

It was where we went to listen to the music, drink, dance – by which, of course, I mean jive – and meet girls. Though the only communication, the dancing itself aside, was usually little more than an outstretched hand and a terse, “Dance?”, and then at the end of the number, of you were lucky, a quick little nod of thanks from the girl before she returned to her friends.

To catch something of the atmosphere, take a look at Karel Reisz’s and Tony Richardson’s short early film, Momma Don’t Allow, featuring the Chris Barber Band and filmed at the club in 1956.

And for more information, memories and discussion take a look at the always interesting Sandy Brown Jazz web site, run by Ian Maund.

We loved the Welsh band for the sparkling joy and intensity of the music they played – back then a bright Condon-style dixieland that would later, with changes of personnel,  morph into mainstream and swing – and for the way they always seemed to be enjoying themselves on stage. Alex with his clipped cornet/trumpet phrasing and instantly recognisable vocals; the edgy vibrato of Archie Semple’s Pee Wee Russell-influenced clarinet; Roy Crimmins’ trombone – Crimmins whom we ‘adopted’ as our favourite member of the front line, frequently buying him a pint of bitter when we bought our own.

Drummer, Lennie Hastings, in every sense at the heart of things, would frequently finish off one of his four bar drum breaks by jumping up and shouting ‘Ooyah-ooyah!”, sticks held high above his head, and could also be prevailed upon, to our naive delight, to roll his trousers above the knee, insert a false monocle and transform himself into Herr Lennie Hastings, singing Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear and Ein, Zwei, Solfe – One, Two, Drink Up in cod German.

Why exactly we stopped going I’m not sure. Some of us went off to university, I suppose, others drifted into jobs, drifted away; steady girl friends failed to share our enthusiasms; engagements, careeers, marriage, mortgages, children beckoned.

I last saw Alex Welsh, clearly a sick man, leading a band at a club in Nottingham in the early 1980s. Not so long after that evening, he was dead at the age of just 52.

Vic Chesnutt

I first heard – and saw – Vic Chesnutt not far off twenty years ago, on stage at London’s South Bank in a strange mix of singer-songwriters that included Dan Penn and Guy Clarke and was compered by, I think,  Charlie Gillett, who had, I remember, a great deal of difficulty in getting the performers to talk about what they did in much more than grudging monosyllables. Not his fault, simply a bad idea. Chesnutt I’d never come across before, never as much as heard of; this strange little guy in a wheelchair [he was rendered partially paralysed in a car accident at the age of 18] with a whiny voice and off-the-wall, doom-laden lyrics.

I bought his second album, West of Rome, played it quite a lot – some songs, anyway – and then he slipped from my consciousness until recently when I heard a song – “When I Ran Off And Left Her” from the album, Drunk – which lodged in my brain and wouldn’t go away.

When I ran off and left her
She wasn’t holding the baby
But she was holding a bottle
And a big grudge against me
I tried to learn from a psychiatrist
How to stay calm and minimise risk
But I should have kept
All those appointments
I’m gonna need ’em
I’m becoming disjointed

Whenever I would put it on, my partner would have to get up and leave the room. Whatever the opposite of Easy Listening is, this is it. The only comparison I can think of is the late singer and artist, Kevin Coyne, and his album, Marjorie Razorblade. A voice that cuts through you and leaves its pain.

I’ve just been walking on the Heath, listening to a a dozen or so of Chesnutt’s songs, and thank God it’s sunny and blue, beautiful and cold, because that’s the kind of antidote these songs need. In “Flirted With You All My Life”, it’s not a woman he’s singing about but death. This Christmas Day just passed, he stopped flirting, and died from an overdose of muscle relaxant drugs that had left him in a coma. He was 45.

There’s a free six-track MP3 sampler of songs from his last two albums available on his web site – http://vicchesnutt.com/home/

Listen.