2013-01-25 14:18:00 - Saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith was blessed with the advantage of a restless, didactic edge in his every creative endeavour. He brought out the essential skills and humanity in musicians he worked with both professionally and interpersonally. His career is a landmark in a number of regards for British jazz and R & B. As a founding protagonist, he takes his place as a truly significant figure in the 1960’s cultural revolution, although he lived and died in the spirit of a working musician. Dick never stopping to speculate on his industrious creative output, instead he offered his insights through his fluent emotional yet factually rich memoirs, de-romanticising both the people and the controversial political economy of the music industry.
Excerpts from Biography of DH-S by Stephanie Thorburn.
The text in this feature is from the author's interviews, liner note reflections and biography of Dick Heckstall-Smith.
Stephanie Lynne's e-Book 'Soul Survivor' is now available as for download. See author's profile on the music educational website 'True Fire'. (Format pdf).
Richard Malden Heckstall-Smith was born in Ludlow, Shropshire, in 1934. ‘DH-S’ possesses one of the most complex and comprehensive musical ‘CV’s in the business. Initially attracted to the saxophone by the sound and physicality of the instrument, his father bought him an alto sax at the age of 15. Dick instinctually surrounded himself with the most evocative, progressive musical influences. By the time he had moved from Gordonstoun school, Wales to Dartington after the war,
he connected with the playing of New Orleans clarinettist Sidney Bechet, a key stylistic influence; I will let Dick elaborate,
“I no longer needed to be convinced but knew what I wanted to do; I literally wanted to learn to be Sidney Bechet... Bt 1955, I was listening to Lester Young, although Bechet gave me the foundation of how to play, then Wardell Gray gave me the superstructure."
The early performing life of DH-S is well documented in both articles and his lucid personal memoirs 'Blowing The Blues', 2004. When I spoke with Dick, his lucid anecdotes spoke way beyond the mere facts of his distinguished musical lineage. He took little persuading in interviews, simply a pointer would invite maximum rewards in the recounting of the genius and gems offered by those musicians around him. On the conversation starter of his years negotiating with the talented and mercurial Graham Bond Organization, he lovingly reconstructed some significant points of juncture at the inception of our British popular music scene with a vengeance,
“Chronologically I knew Ginger the earliest. From the moment I met him I preferred his drumming to anyone else... we were always mates and got up to all sorts of silly s*** together. We’ve never had a serious quarrel"
The legacy of Graham Bond however, seemed closest to his heart, “Graham came later… I met him in 1958 at a place called the Nucleus Club, I began to play tenor with Sandy Brown in ’57. Graham I became aware of a couple of years later on when he appeared one evening staring up into my eyes, he was wearing a double breasted suit, he was a refrigerator salesman. Graham was a very good piano player, but back in the days of the Nucleus he couldn’t get his bebop jazz chords together... Pete Brown, me, Jack (Bruce) and Ginger knew him as a magnificent musician who should have been alive now, he would be an enormous name but he’s been dead for thirty years ."
Perhaps the greatest chestnut in his verbal repertoire was recounting the angst of Cyril Davies’s presence through his disgruntled arrival at one of Alexis Korner’s first Blues Incorporated rehearsals, “At the first gig we were all there waiting, after an hour there was a crushing noise and cursing, a large balding bloke in his 30’s came in and upended his brief case, a thing like a liquid consisting of a million harmonicas flowed out. I subsequently found out that he (Cyril Davies) disapproved of saxophone; he didn’t think it was a blues instrument.. Cyril and I were good mates and drank together, he was a Welshman brought up in England and I was an Englishman brought up in Wales, so we had an understanding ."
Dick was fundamentally an intellectual, with an unconventional Oxbridge background. His fully dimensional personality produced some seminal and invariably challenging musical concepts. Politics, history and the poetry of T. S. Eliot preoccupied his waking mind in spare moments outside of the saxophone. He engaged of course with what was most fundamental to him, rather than prioritising commercial viability, “If I play something I don’t like, pretty soon I won’t be there, but I don’t think this process is a real problem, rather it’s part of life’s rich pageant.. On the whole concept of purity, music is only ever seen as pure ex post facto, as part of the articulated spoken public awareness."
In some of Dick’s finer achievements it is possible to put in perspective these statements and to see that DH-S always utilised his own genre and repertoires, yet despite his insights, at times lacked maybe the necessary cynicism to criticise the under funding or under exposure of the jazz & blues genres in the media at large. His jazz suite Celtic Steppes was a notable achievement, released in 1996 and funded by the Arts Council. Co-producer Pete Brown crowns Dick a ‘true saxophone poet’ in his liner notes. Set around 0-500AD, Celtic Steppes traces the Anglo-Saxon invasion, our musical, spiritual and racial heritage. Dick Heckstall-Smith, “The only composition which is similar is Stravinsky, although much better. I use a single line tune, changed key and chose to use this as a basis to transfer to an orchestra; I worked by instinct The work received a positive reception, but was logistically difficult to perform live, thus never realising its full potential. In a similar vein Dick recorded a rich instrumental jazz album Woza Nasu, featuring musicians from solo band DHS$. This multi cultural title received considerable praise, but the original glass master met with an acid bath from a rather unscrupulous record label, thus destroying Dick’s productive musical odyssey ‘from Ellington to the Brecker Brothers'. Woza Nasu has since been re-released on Voiceprint label.
Further slightly underrated Dick Heckstall-Smith endeavours included his incarnation in the early 1980’s with ‘back to basics’ blues outfit Mainsqueeze, a large musical unit which included Eric Bell, guitar- ex-Thin Lizzy, John O’Leary, harmonica- ex-Savoy Brown and Keith Tillman, bass-ex-Bluesbreakers. The rough, edgy and spontaneous qualities of Mainsqueeze invited greater acclaim in the EU, seeing a line-up change by 1983 and three European tours with Bo Diddley, resulting in the recording of 'Hey..Bo Diddley in Concert' for Conifer, an album probably savoured only by a hand full of collectors. Dick was however, equally balanced and philosophical in the face of oscillating success with the seminal Colosseum who enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in 1993. Following the release of all five previous albums on CD, their Reunion Concerts in 1994 proved to be a setting for some true Colosseum fan mania in Mainland Europe. Sell out shows saw hundreds of fans unable to fit into venues, instead lining the surrounding hillside to serenade their idols!
Dick was constantly a remarkable survivor throughout life irrespective of his relative musical fortunes. He overcame bouts of serious ill health at many significant points in his career, yet remained untouched by the extent of his own strength of character when interviewed. Having suffered two strokes following heart bypass surgery in 1992, he preferring to describe the facts and effects his condition had upon him. Almost certainly it seems the episode did little to permanently lessen his ability to perform: - “The effect of my illness is virtually imperceptible on my playing... I started to play sax far too early in hospital, the doctor thought it would be recreational, but it is hard labour.. It wasn’t until September ’92 that it dawned on me I was playing better, I found out that the strokes had knocked out what the neurologist called a couple of centres of inhibition!"
In 2001, it has subsequently been documented that Dick began to suffer with the cancer that he eventually died from. However, this did not contain his free form creative tendencies one bit, releasing his first pure blues album, WC Handy nominated Blues and Beyond the same year on the new Blue Storm Music label. It was through this project that Dick was able to explore some key working relationships with a host of colleagues and friends from over the years including Mick Taylor, John Mayall, Jon Hiseman, Clem Clempson, Jack Bruce and Paul Jones. The album represents an assimilation of distinguished musical content that in effect invites the listener to explore archaeology of blues as a form. As noted by co-producer Pete Brown, Dick had not lost any of his natural restless temperament and spirit, he comments that, “Purists may comment on the lack of traditional forms on this record, but they’d be missing the point; real blues has always found its own shape, I have to say I encouraged Dick when we were writing the songs for the record to push out the boundaries a little. It is melodically and atmospherically effective, and there are some truly notable songs including the powerful human lyrical essence played out on ‘Cruel Contradictions’ featuring Peter Green’s vocal and ‘Big Deal' an idiosyncratic favourite DH-S composition that has appeared on some three albums to date.
Blues and Beyond was not without what Pete Brown describes as Dick’s “occasional studio excesses", the essence of the album is articulated through his sax lines that provided a basis to guide and inspire the other musicians. Aside from special guests, there was a consistent, core band. Gary Husband is credited by Pete Brown and Dick as “breathing percussive life into the record", whilst bassist David Hadley injects the benefit of his diversity in the arenas of jazz, blues and funk; the lesser- known Rab McCulloch took on a bulk of the vocal duties with facility. When I asked Dick to select personal album highlights, his response was as ever illuminating: - “I have neither the ability nor inclination to play something reproducible, except by accident. It might be just selfishness, though, the real answer is that I can’t do anything else.. If I were asked to single out some but not all of the tracks on the album, the fact is that it would be or seem, inimical to those not selected. The truth is, ALL of the performances seem to me to be exquisite and deserve to be eulogised over. Hats off to Brown and the production team."
Personally, Dick was for me a conscientious friend who had the gift of not only an exceptional musical intelligence, but also a high EIQ (emotional intellect). He spared time and patience to proof read through my work, his interviews, sharing his personal music collection and pieces of literature. Without a doubt however, a piece de resistance for those meeting with his approval were occasional foundation lessons in bebop jazz chord theory- and quite tough those hours proved too! Dick almost certainly achieved a majority of what he desired career wise, except perhaps the biography of Wardell Gray that DH-S was hoping to surprise us all with over the next few years.. He had disrespect in life perhaps only for the whole ageing process, and continued to record and tour all that he could to earn a living wage until the very end. Jon Hiseman told me that to him Dick was simply a, “unique personage in a world of look-alikes", which summarises his charismatic qualities well. We need more pioneers like Dick Heckstall-Smith at the cutting edge of blues and jazz. Dick had a great currency of vibrant energy and so in this vein I will keep what I have written presented in the present tense to represent a living memory.
Copyright Stephanie Lynne Thorburn 2013.
This feature can be found in the archives of the original Graham Bond official website and in the author's biography of Dick Heckstall-Smith.
For the new e-Book on Dick Heckstall-Smith, 'Soul Survivor' see True Fire:
A Kindle edition of this text is also being formatted. For further news on the author's projects and e-Book catalogue can be found on Stephanie Thorburn's homepage.