JACK BRUCE WAS A MAN whose career was animated by a genuine sense of adventure and where music provided him with an endless outlet for expression. Like so many British musicians who were born during World War II, jazz provided him with a clarion call and it was the genre that, despite his many achievements in the field of rock, he most readily identified with throughout his life.
“Jazz provided Bruce with a clarion call.”
Born in Bishopbriggs, Lanarkshire, Bruce learned cello and composition from an early age before abandoning his studies to lug his double bass around Italy with the Murray Campbell Big Band. By the age of 19 he’d moved to London and joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, entering a supremely fertile artistic milieu where the musical possibilities seemed endless.
His Blues Incorporated bandmates included organist Graham Bond, drummer Ginger Baker, the three joining forces in The Graham Bond Organisation in 1963 alongside the 20-year-old guitarist John McLaughlin. The febrile, drug-fuelled atmosphere of Bond's band would see Bruce and Baker develop an almost legendary antipathy, the latter claiming that the former’s playing was “too busy” – pots and kettles, surely. After two years of musical and personal tension, Bruce left the group – ostensibly to pursue a solo career – having appeared on the seminal The Sound Of ’65 album, and its follow-up, There’s A Bond Between Us.
His reputation was such that he was invited to join Marvin Gaye’s Stateside group, but he turned it down, joining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers instead. There he first met Eric Clapton, and while his stay in the band was short, he did record a live set at London’s Flamingo Club which was originally intended to form the basis of the band’s Beano album. In the end, the original 1966 Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton does not include Bruce, although he does feature on four tracks on the 2006 anniversary two-disc set.
A short stint playing with Manfred Mann followed; the band’s Pretty Flamingo hit Number 1 in the UK in May prior to Bruce accepting the invitation to join Clapton and Baker in an unnamed new band – ironically at the drummer’s behest – in July 1966.
Christened Cream due to their musical pedigree, all three band members contributed significantly to the band’s intense sound and drew significantly on their past experiences. Bruce’s compositional skills, meanwhile, came to the fore on some of the band’s most celebrated tracks including N.S.U. (the opening track on their December ’66 debut, Fresh Cream), Sunshine Of Your Love, White Room and I Feel Free. Bruce’s expansive runs on his Gibson EB-3 bass became a Cream hallmark, but equally significant were his potent vocal melodies, which helped the trio travel far beyond their original desire to reaffirm their blues roots.
With Clapton tiring of the supergroup format and Bruce and Baker again at odds, Cream made the decision to split in May 1968, playing their final shows in the UK in November of that year. In August Bruce had already entered the studio and recorded an album of free jazz instrumentals with John McLaughlin, saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith and drummer Jon Hiseman. The sessions would finally be released as 1970’s Things We Like, Bruce’s second solo album, which followed a stint in Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime band and 1969’s more accessible solo debut, Songs For A Tailor.
A Top 10 UK hit, Songs... was titled in tribute to Jeannie Franklyn, Cream’s costume designer and Bruce’s former flame who’d been killed when travelling with her current beau, Richard Thompson, when Fairport Convention’s van crashed on the M1 on May 12, 1969. It also underlined Jack’s vast range of compositional skills with a selection of material that cut across genres and incorporated baroque flurries and wordplay. A key track, Theme From An Imaginary Western (co-written with his collaborator Pete Brown), would later be covered by Mountain. Elsewhere, Weird Of Hermiston – originally composed for Cream’s Disraeli Gears album – combined the title of an unpublished Robert Louis Stevenson novel (Weir Of Hermiston), an Edinburgh suburb (Hermiston) and a set of nihilistic, gothic lyrics echoing the death of ’60s optimism, where even “trees are no longer a comfort”.
“Bruce's urge to collaborate never seemed to fade.”
Bruce’s restlessness meant that his recorded output from 1970 onwards remained prolific. In 1971, for instance, he participated in Carla Bley and Paul Haines’ ambitious jazz opera, Escalator Over The Hill, before returning to hard rock territory in ’72 with West, Bruce And Laing alongside Mountain guitarist Leslie West and drummer Corky Laing (the trio cutting two albums). The following year he played bass on Lou Reed’s multi-faceted masterpiece, Berlin, and then, in 1974, Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe emerged with Bruce playing cello on the instrumental title track.
Bruce's urge to collaborate never seemed to fade, and would include further major work with Robin Trower (three albums in 1981), US-born Latin music producer Kip Hanrahan (a slew of releases beginning with 1983’s Desire Develops An Edge) and the power trio BBM (Bruce, Baker And Moore, with Ginger Baker and Gary Moore, who released one album, Around The Next Dream, in 1994).
In 2003 Bruce was diagnosed with liver cancer but, despite an initial failed transplant, he recovered to join Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton in the reformed Cream for concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall and Madison Square Garden.
Earlier in the spring of 2014, Jack Bruce joined your correspondent on MOJO Rocks, the weekly radio show on Planet Rock, to publicise his latest solo album, Silver Rails. While he appeared frail and admitted that his health was not all it could be, his enthusiasm for music remained palpable.
When it came to discussing his achievements in Cream, he was proud and yet philosophical, acknowledging that he would continue to be celebrated for those times, but affirming that his body of work extended far beyond those two highly fecund years in the mid-‘60s. Whether Cream could be tempted to perform for one final time was also a question he toyed with, coyly, but he made it clear that the making of Silver Rails had presented him with as much pleasure as any of his other recordings.
Discussing his latest collaborators – including guitarists Phil Manzanera, Uli Jon Roth, Bernie Marsden and Robin Trower as well as keyboard player John Medeski – he reserved special praise for drummer Cindy Blackman Santana (aka Mrs Carlos Santana). A disciple of Tony Williams, her skills, dedication and energy made him beam with joy.
Bruce’s death at his home in Suffolk on October 25 at the age of 71 robs us of a man whose life was defined by music until the very end. How we shall miss him.