In a JAZZ world dominated by American musicians, Stan Tracey was a rare British player, one who managed to command the respect and admiration of his Transatlantic peers. His style as pianist was poetic, percussive, trenchant and utterly distinctive, his playing influenced by Thelonious Monk’s pernicious approach and Duke Ellington’s lyricism.
Born in Denmark Hill, South London, in 1926, he began his career by playing accordion and joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) in 1943 at the age of 16. A year later, inspired by boogie-woogie player such as Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, he took up piano.
“His style as a pianist was poetic, percussive, trenchant and utterly distinctive.”
A stint in the RAF followed, but when he left the air force in 1948 he gravitated towards Soho, where the British jazz scene was beginning to coalesce. It was there that he met bandleader and future club owner Ronnie Scott, a man who would help shape jazz in Britain.
Working with a number of bands, Tracey’s reputation grew and in 1959 he made his first recording, Little Klunk, under his own name for the Vogue label with Phil Seamen on drums and Kenny Napper on bass.
The resident pianist at Ronnie Scott’s club from 1959 until 1966, he played with some of modern jazz’s most legendary figures including Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard and Roland Kirk. His friendship with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster proved to be particularly strong, and is captured on the impressive Live At Ronnie Scott’s album recorded in 1968 and the studio set, Webster’s Dictionary, two years later.
While playing at Scott’s club, Tracey continued to develop as a player and, in 1965, he arrived at his most celebrated work, the elaborate jazz suite, Under Milk Wood. The album, inspired by Dylan Thomas’s 1954 radio drama of the same name, is characterized by the haunting and timeless tune, Starless And Bible Black, which showcases tenor saxophone player Bobby Wellins at his most evocative.
As well as a fine player and arranger, Tracey was also a prodigious composer who embraced new styles and experimented in the early ’70s, most notably via his work with fellow pianist Keith Tippett. In later life he described his style as being highly visual.
Forming his own label, Steam Records, in 1975 and encouraged by his wife Jackie to continue forging ahead in his career, Tracey released at least an album per year for the next 12 years, and entered the ’80s as a figure revered by British jazz fans. Tracey himself felt that jazz as a whole remained underappreciated in the UK, as did so many British players of his generation.
Although his recording slowed in the ’80s and ’90s, he continued to play and enjoyed a regular Saturday night residency at the Bull’s Head in Barnes. While certain people found him to be an uncompromising figure who didn’t suffer fools and who had scant regard for the music industry, Tracey never fell out of love with the music itself.
On November 18 of this year the 100 Club celebrated Tracey’s 70th anniversary as a musician. The line-up included Ginger Baker, Keith Emerson, Georgie Fame, Danny Thompson, Alan Skidmore, Bobby Wellins, Cleo Laine and his son Clark Tracey on drums, among several others all of whom expressed their great love for the man.
The following weekend Tracey played Queen Elizabeth’s Hall as part of the London Jazz Festival. It was designed as an opportunity to showcase material from his recently released album, The Flying Pig – an album based on the experiences his father suffered when he was wounded and captured in 1915 during World War I. Ultimately, this show would provide Tracey with a high profile swansong befitting a man who, even at the age of 86, remained a powerful force in British music. How we shall miss him.
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