Sunday 14th May will be the last of my Playback Sessions at Dartmouth Arms NW5 for a while. I will be back later in the year and meanwhile there will be others carrying on the vinyl-only listening tradition. But the final one from me (for a bit) is a play-through of Coltrane’s Blue Note album Blue Train. That’s not to say we won’t dip into Crescent, My Favourite Things, A Love Supreme and so on. We will draw the line at the Ascension and Interstellar Space era. After all, we’d like people to stay. Blue Train, though, is hugely accessible and we are using the fantastic “Ultimate” version released last year. I’ll be in conversation with sax player Danny Silverstone of the Equinox Quartet (see https://mylifeinjazz.co.uk) , who will help steer us through Coltrane’s changes. As it says below, May 14, 6pm, free.
THE MILES STYLE
This was originally written for a fashion company. It is here because on November 13th there is a playback of Kind of Blue using the UHQR (Ultra High Quality Record) vinyl version that plays at 45rm (and consists of two discs) in a North London pub. Details at the end of the article. Photographs are from the official Miles Davis site (https://www.milesdavis.com/gallery/miles-davis-photos/)
Miles Davis, as well as being one of the most influential jazz musicians in the world, was also one of the most stylish. Looking good was as much an obsession as the sound of his trumpet. “For me, music and life are all about style…. you’ve got to have style in whatever you do – writing, music, painting, fashion, boxing, anything.”
Herbie Hancock remembers: “Miles was always the hippest guy around. The way he moved, the way he walked, the way he stood when he played, what came out of his horn, and the cars he drove [Ferraris and Lamborghinis], all of that was stylish. That was part of his persona.” Saxophonist Wayne Shorter once told the New York Times: “He always dressed well, always in tune with fine things, and he didn’t see any reason why fine things should be denied to anyone. He grew up that way.”
Davis himself confirmed Shorter’s assertion that his embracing of the high life had its roots in his upbringing in a middle-class, aspirational family in East St Louis. “[My mother] had mink coats, diamonds,” Miles wrote in his autobiography. “She was a very glamorous woman who was into all kinds of hats and things. She always dressed to kill. I got my looks from my mother and also my love of clothes and sense of style.”
Still, he needed a little fashion advice when he went out into the world to earn a living as a musician. Future saxophone great Dexter Gordon, always known as a dapper dresser, took him aside and told him to ditch the over-sized suits he was wearing. Miles protested that he had paid a lot of money for them. “It ain’t about money,” replied Gordon. “It’s about hipness.”
Miles responded positively to the criticism, not always a given (one of his favourite brush-off phrases – “So what?” -provided the name of a pivotal tune on Kind of Blue, his ground-breaking, best-selling modal album). “So, I created a kind of hip, quasi-black English look: Brooks Brothers suits, butcher boy shoes, high-top pants, shirts with high tab collars.” In the mid-Fifties he moved from Brooks Brothers to frequenting the Andover Shop in Cambridge’s Harvard Square, where tailor Charlie Davidson dressed him in jackets of English tweed with narrow lapels and natural shoulders, woollen trousers, broadcloth shirts with button-down collars, thin knit ties and Bass Weejun loafers. As anthropologist and jazz scholar John Szwed explains: “It was a look that redefined cool.”
Like his music, which in the space of ten years moved from bop to post-bop to orchestral “third stream” to modal and back to chordal, Miles’s fashion sense was in constant flux. Downbeat magazine once said Miles wore “what the well-dressed man will be wearing next year”. Unlike other jazzers, he regularly featured high in both the Esquire and GQ best-dressed men lists. Why?
In their book Clawing at the Limits of Cool, Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington argue that (as Dexter had advised him) it was as much how he wore his clothes as his choices that made Miles the fashion plate he became: “They were more than bolstered by his physical beauty and sartorial elegance, his complicated relationships with beautiful women, and most of all, his don’t give a [damn] attitude.”
This, they suggest, was a man who could take a simple, well made, white button-down shirt with the sleeves pushed back and elevate it new heights of sartorial semiotics. “The shirt is tucked neatly into his pants,” they write of his appearance in the Kind of Blue sessions, “He is tight and fit, in full control, in top form… [it is] an aesthetic statement.”
But then so was the green button-down with the rolled-up sleeves with flat-fronted pants he wore on the cover of Milestones the previous year, an uncommonly confident and uncompromising pose -look at that stare – for a black jazz artist at the time. In fact, Miles was showing that he could carry off any number of shirt combos – collarless with a scarf or ascot, a scalloped collar under a seersucker jacket and checked, open-necked numbers, which were a particular favourite for a while.
On stage, the Ivy League look of plaid jackets and trim trousers quickly gave way, especially after he had performed in Italy, to a clean, European style of slim-cut dark suit with unfussy white shirt and narrow tie. A pocket handkerchief was usually provided a flash of colour. This outfit, with subtle changes to jacket length and profile, would see him through the sixties and the years of his peerless Second Classic Quartet (Shorter, Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Miles). Check out its ’64 concert in Milan on YouTube. It is the timeless Miles look almost all of us think of when his name is mentioned.
As the sixties ended, so his music started to change again, this time even more radically, and Miles would evolve his performance wardrobe with it. The exquisite ballads, the Harmon mute and the complex but satisfying Wayne Shorter tunes were phased out; processed trumpet and long jams came in. This gradual change to electric Miles (which began, tentatively, on 1968’s Miles in the Sky and reached its apotheosis on Bitches Brew in 1970) risked alienating older fans with a genuinely innovative, if often jarring, sound that was courting a new rock audience. So what?
As the music became more groove-based and melody-free, Miles’ stage outfits morphed to reflect the dense patchwork that producer Teo Macero and Davis created from disparate tracks spliced together in the studio. By the time of the once much-derided but now feted funk-draped On the Corner in 1972, we had the furs, the cobra skin, the wrap-around sunglasses, suede trousers and the broad-shouldered, fringed leather jackets. Miles was still ahead, but few wanted to follow, unless they were self-assured enough to carry it off (as Lenny Kravitz and Prince eventually did).
Interestingly, Miles might have invested in flamboyant outfits from the likes of Kohsin Satoh and Issey Miyake in later years, but he never fully abandoned the shirt. There is a famous photograph by Anthony Barboza of Miles in front of his wardrobe and a cascade of belts, scarves and shoes that almost looks as if someone has tossed a hand grenade into it. But, amid the African-inspired tops and leather trousers, in the top left-hand corner.. what’s that? A row of long-sleeved white shirts, of the sort he wore during the Kind of Blue sessions. In Michael Stradford’s book MilesStyle Barboza told the author that the trumpeter still liked expensive shirts but if he wore them in concert, they would get so sweaty “he’d throw them away. So, you never saw him in the same shirt twice. And he wasn’t spending $20 on them.” Maybe that’s why, eventually, they stayed in the wardrobe.
Miles died in 1991, aged 65, by which time he had gone back to ballads (Human Nature, Time After Time) and had finally come to terms with his past, even exploring, thanks to Quincy Jones, some of his fabulous Gil Evans-arranged recordings (from Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Porgy & Bess) at a Montreux concert shortly before he died
The mercurial, oft-troubled trumpeter was, as he admitted in his memoir, far from a perfect human being. Nevertheless, Miles changed the face of jazz across five decades as well as re-calibrating public opinion in the US about what a black musician could achieve – prestige, adulation, wealth – and how they could influence the wider public’s tastes. Most jazz people are remembered for a single thing, one great album or evergreen tune. Miles’ legacy is a dazzling kaleidoscope compared to others’ monochrome. Why the restlessness that dominated his life? “I have to change,’ he once said. “It’s like a curse.” And, in the end, our good fortune.
The Dartmouth Arms is on York Rise, NW5. The session is free. If you want to know more about Kind of Blue and its lasting influence I heartily recommend Richard Williams’ The Blue Moment.
KIND OF BLUE NOTE
This is a (very) expanded version of a piece that appeared in the Camden New Journal
The venerable Blue Note catalogue – home to timeless gems by Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Donald Byrd and dozens of others – is one of the greatest archives in jazz history. The record label, having settled down after some turbulent times in past decades and now under the direction of Don Was, is not shy about exploiting its reputation as the guardian of a great jazz legacy nor in marking itself out as progressive label that looks forward as well as backwards. To serve these two masters, in 2020 it invited a raft of young UK jazz artists to revisit and remake tracks from the vaults, in the way Madlib and Us3 had done in the past. The result, Blue Note Re:imagined, was an enjoyable if widely varied set, where some artists restructured the songs/tunes entirely (as with Poppy Ajudha’s fast-and-loose reboot of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man), while others played it pretty straight, such as Ezra Collective with its nicely woozy version of Wayne Shorter’s Footprints.
Later this month, available for pre-order now, comes Blue Note: Re-imagined II, where a fresh batch of up-and-coming tyros (Ego Ella May, Nubiyan Twist, Celeste etc) are let loose in jazz heaven. One of them, soul-jazz-R&B star Reuben James (Sam Smith, Disclosure, Roy Ayers, Joni Mitchell – in her living room! – and his own combos), admits that although it sounds like bliss for any jazz geek, the sheer width, breadth and heft of the heritage can be daunting. “Yeah, they called up and said I could choose anything from the Blue Note catalogue and I was like.. whoa. There’s just too much choice. It’s kind of overwhelming.”
I asked some of the other featured artists about the process of choosing and re-imagining a classic Blue Note track. Some were brief, others were, well, fulsome (yes, Nubiyan Twist) but all were insightful. The comments appear in the same order as the tracks on the album.
Yazz Ahmed “It” – From Chick Corea The Complete “IS” Sessions (2002).
RR: The original track is just 30 seconds long. It’s a fascinating album. How did you go about expanding and did you take cues from the other tracks?
YA: One of the approaches I often take to composition is to work with short fragments of melody and rhythm. Once I’ve arrived upon motifs that resonate with me, I mess around with these ‘cells’, adding notes, inverting patterns and improvising on the themes. It’s like being a child, discovering new things by experimenting through play. It occurred to me that I could use the same process with It, using fragments of the material to create a collage, something personal to me, from Chick’s miniature masterpiece.
Whilst working on this arrangement, I was listening to quite a bit of Turkish music and also Standards by American post-rock band, Tortoise, which undoubtedly inspired me to go for heavy sounding guitars, played by Samuel Hällkvist, and crunchy, virtuosic drum grooves performed by Martin France. I always like to compose with particular musicians in mind and for this project it felt perfect to invite my friend, and Chick’s long-time collaborator, Tim Garland, to join my musical family on bass clarinet.
Creating this track has been such a fun experience and I hope people enjoy my proggy-jazzy Turkish take on Chick Corea’s It.
Conor Albert “You Make Me Feel So Good”– From Bobbi Humphrey Fancy Dancer (1975).
RR: Did you know about Bobbi Humphrey? And why this track? The album was not well received by jazz critics at the time – how do you think this stands up now?
CA: No, I actually didn’t know about Bobbi Humphrey. Rachel from Decca actually suggested I had a listen to this album and I thought a lot of it was really cool! There’s this other tune called Please Set Me at Ease that I also really enjoyed. It reminded me a lot of Headhunters era Herbie Hancock, which I’m a massive fan of. It’s interesting that it wasn’t received well. I seem to remember a lot of jazz critics didn’t like the new jazz funk fusion stuff that happened in the 70’s, as they thought it was too mainstream and thought artists were selling out. I don’t know much about Bobbi’s history but maybe it was something to do with that? I think it stands up great now. It sounds SO 1970’s, in a great way. Super nostalgic and all the sounds are so idiomatic of the time. I just really loved the harmony throughout the record, some pretty weird choices at times but super fun to play!
Parthenope “Don’t Know Why”– From Norah Jones Come Away with Me (2002).
RR: How challenging was it to tackle one of the most familiar songs on the album and how did you go about making it “yours”.
P: I spent a lot of time figuring out which song would work best for me to recreate. I love making music that feels nostalgic and dreamy and felt ‘Don’t Know Why’ naturally lends itself to that. It’s just a great song – I’ve known it since I was a kid and was so inspired to work on it.
When beginning my arrangement, I started to hear ways I could subtly play around with parts of the track in order to offset the original but keep the essence and beauty in its simplicity. What I ended up with was a cover of ‘Don’t Know Why’ that grows from being heavily influenced by the original into something completely different throughout the song, with chord reharmonisation, huge backing vocal stacks and improvisation until it takes you somewhere else as a listener. There is a satisfaction when the song returns to back to the familiar last Norah verse and then brought to a close by a dreamy and thoughtful outro.
I really wanted to maintain everything I love about ‘Don’t Know Why’ in my version. Though it was daunting at first to take on such a big song, I’m so glad I worked with the challenge as it really pushed me creatively and I think it came out great in the end.
Swindle “Miss Kane” – From Donald Byrd Street Lady (1973),
Producer Swindle was unavailable, but both versions are great jazz-funk tracks. The original dates from when Byrd was working with the Mizzell brothers.
Nubiyan Twist “Through the Noise (Chant No.2)” – From Donald Byrd A New Perspective (1963)
RR: This is one of the most dramatic reworking from a dramatic album. Can you tell me how Chant became Chant No 2. especially about the new rhythm track.
NT: We were excited by the unusual marriage of heavy swing found in both Jazz and UK Garage and 2 step. A connection we hadn’t consciously made before but one that became an exciting backdrop for influences of broken beat, afrobeat, bebop, synthesis and sampling culture that found their way into the composition. We liked the idea of taking a track that might not be an obvious choice and Nick Richards found himself writing lyrics for Donald Byrd’s ‘Chant’ and sketching a beat on his analogue drum machines, Tom Excell then developed new sections in his Sheffield studio, followed by Luke Wynter writing reharmonized chords for a C section. It continued in this fashion as a remote, chain-reaction writing process (begrudgingly adopted due to covid restrictions) which was all compiled and produced by Tom along the way. We got together at Nave studios in Leeds where last minute additions to the composition were made, such as Pilo’s Brazilian-Portuguese rap and BV’s from Ria Moran before finally recording the tune together and getting to hear live band sound. It was a whirlwind process as Tom was due to have his first child around the time of making this tune. Given the grandeur of the artists on Blue Note we put a lot of pressure on ourselves however there’s always something nice about committing to initial ideas and not overthinking or intellectualizing music. It becomes an encapsulation of that moment, even if you feel it’s not finished yet, it’s an honest snapshot. Having a new life about to enter the world whilst composing this conjured up a lot of thoughts about letting go of your ego and passing on the torch to the next generation, reimagining what’s come before in a way that honours and preserves the best parts of the past. It was an honour to have this opportunity to rework ‘Chant’ by Donald Byrd and we’d like to dedicate it to baby Zebedee and his mother Kathy.
Like a lot of the material that we compose as a band, Chant 2 was written collaboratively. We had already become quite used to sending tracks back and forth to one another over the years and this was certainly true over the pandemic.
When we were invited by Blue Note to contribute to the project, we all thought about the tunes we felt most inspired by and started to demo some ideas. I think we explored some Art Blakey material originally as we thought the horn heavy arrangements would work well in our ensemble. At around the same time I started to demo an arrangement of ‘Chant’ by Donald Byrd. I wanted to avoid selecting a tune that I already knew very well and especially stayed clear of my favourite tracks. Chant was a tune that I had heard before, but it was fresh enough in my ears to begin ‘reimagine’ it as a contemporary composition. First and foremost, when I sat and listened to the track, I instantly felt inspired. It was the honesty of human voice and the melancholic mood of the tune. It was haunting! Reflecting on it now, I think it really resonated with the times and what everyone was and is going through.
Musically, the original has a very strong melody, so it made sense to try and write lyrics. In the process of the lyric writing, I tried to explore the whole experience of feeling as though these jazz greats were communicating to us through the music, what were they trying to say? The 2 step, Garage feel to the track wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, but I think it’s a sound that is so unique to the UK! I don’t think that any of us really wanted to explore a classic jazz swing feel to the track as that would have been too in keeping with the original and could have sounded like a bit of a pastiche. That being said, it is funny how we ended up having a shuffle and swing to the beat through the Garage feel. There is a strange parallel!
Once we had established the main feel of the track, we started to share ideas for B sections, a bridge and some horn figures also. Tom Excell is our band leader and producer. It really is inspiring watching him bring together everyone’s ideas to create a cohesive arrangement. By the time it came to record our parts as a band, we already had a good idea of what the form would be. Tom facilitated a session at the incredible Nave studios in Leeds, the city where the band had been conceived. This was one of the first times we had all been together since the pandemic, so it was really special. During this session Oli (keys), contributed a beautiful piano solo and Pilo (percussion, vocals), a passage of Brazilian-Portuguese spoken word, which really dances around the whole rhythmic feel of the track. Ria Moran has been featuring with the band over the last couple of years, so it was important to have her presence on the track. She contributed some beautiful backing vocals and ad libs. Once the tune had been recorded, we had our good friend and mixing engineer Oli Barton-Wood pull everything together.
I think we jammed a lot into this tune, which is pretty typical for the way we write and arrange as a band. There is a lot of us and it’s important that everyone features in a meaningful way. Although we were paying homage to Donald Byrd’s original tune, I think we were able to take it to another space, using our own influences and musical culture, which is the whole point of the genre. It’s about pushing forward, innovating and seeking ways to express ourselves in the most honest way possible.
Ego Ella May “The Morning Side of Love” – From Chico Hamilton Pereginations (1975).
Ego Ella May was not available for interview, which was a shame as it would be interesting to hear a vocalist’s take on a percussionist’s album..
Oscar Jerome & Oscar #Worldpeace “(Why You So) Green with Envy” – From Grant Green, Green Street (1961).
Oscar Jerome was not available for intereview.
Daniel Casimir ft. Ria Moran “Lost” – From Wayne Shorter The Soothsayer (1979)
RR: The Soothsayer is a very good album that languished in the vault for years. Can you talk about the appeal of this band (and maybe a word about Ron Carter in particular)? And why/how you went for this quite significant (and successful) reconstruction of this track.
DC: The reimagining of Wayne Shorter’s lost album was quite difficult (it took me around 11 attempts) simply because I have such a great affection for the track and the album as a whole. My goal wasn’t to modernise the music (which I feel is impossible), but to imagine what the track could potentially sound like if Wayne Shorter was born in West London. I am truly grateful to collaborate with vocalist and writer Ria Moran, Who I feel really captures the mood of the original piece in this setting. Another difficulty about covering this track is that each personnel on the original recording is an icon in Jazz . I had the pleasure of watching Ron Carter at this year’s North Sea Jazz, and it is truly an honour to cover piece that he has performed on.
Theon Cross “Epistrophy”– From Thelonious Monk Genius of Modern Music (1952).
The innovative tuba player as unavailable for interview.
Maya Delilah “Harvest Moon” – From Cassandra Wilson New Moon Daughter (1995)
RR: Many of your listed inspirations come from outside pure “jazz” as, of course Neil Young is (until Cassandra got hold of him). Did you know or like the track (either version) before? How did you approach putting your own spin on it?
MD: I’ve known and loved ‘Harvest Moon’ for a long time as every year me and my family sing it at Christmas (weirdly so as it’s not a Christmas song) but because of that it’s always been a nostalgic song for me. I’m a fan of both versions of the song but wanted to take attributes from Cassandra’s version and start the song off in a similar style to her slow mesmerising cover. I always love making funky sections and love an unexpected switch up so decided to take the second half in that direction.”
Kay Young “Feel Like Making Love” – From Marlena Shaw Mama Got a Bag of Her Own (2006).
RR: In the past you have quoted Janis Joplin as an inspiration. Marlena Shaw is altogether smoother prospect – can you describe what you get from her?
KY: They are actually quite similar in styles. You’ll hear the similarity more on Marlena Shaw’s ‘Women of the Ghetto’ which is quite electrifying. What I love about Marlena Shaw and why I was drawn to her …is her ability to switch that energy on and off.
Venna & Marco Bernardis “Where Are We Going” – From Donald Byrd Blackbyrd (1973).
Venna & Marco were unavailable for interview.
Reuben James “Infant Eyes” – From Wayne Shorter Speak No Evil (1966).
RR Why this track? With added lyrics?
RJ: I found a few vocal versions online with lyrics, I think it’s Jean Carne [It is-RR]. That really inspired me to do my own take and version on this classic and really put it into a more modern soundscape. Herbie Hancock is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) for me with his feel and choices, second to none really what his sound brings to the original on that [Wayne Shorter record], it’s just ridiculous. I think Herbie’s every piano player’s favourite piano player basically. I actually got to meet him recently, he’s very humble, super sweet and encouraging. I hope you guys enjoy my rendition. It’s really appropriate cause my sister had just had a baby and I’m soon to have my first and it just felt like a right moment to do this song, big up to Wayne Shorter for the composition as it’s just unbelievable harmony. It’s so lush, the chord choices are so ahead of its time and it’s still so hip even today, it just wows me every time.
Binker Golding “Fort Worth” – From Joe Lovano From The Soul (1992).
RR: Perhaps because of the American title I can hear a link from the original to your style on some tracks on your new album, Dream Like a Dogwood Wild Boy. The reworking sounds to me like it straddles that and Feeding the Machine. Can you tell me what your aims were on taking this track on? And why Lovano?
BM: Why Lovano? To me, he is one of the most inspiring saxophonists working today & the record “From the Soul” & particularly the track “Fort Worth” from the early 90’s have always been inspiring to me. It’s a beautifully written, played and recorded number. It’s incredibly simple, but at the same time successful in telling a story that really works. Lovano’s playing and writing are superb in general. So, it was never a difficult choice in that sense. Just difficult to live up to.
“Fort Worth” does have a fairly American feel to it & of course the title does help. I wanted to pick a track which tied into where I am now musically. There are no chordal instruments on the original & this was the big difference I made with the cover. We also played in a more aggressive fashion which changed the mood of the track somewhat. I simply felt that the dissonant, distorted guitar sound would add a fitting new dimension to the song. Binker & Moses’ “Feeding the machine” is certainly a more aggressive album than “Dream like a Dogwood Wild Boy” and it’s possible I still had one ear in that world [of B&M] when making this arrangement.
Cherise “Sunrise” – From Norah Jones Feels Like Home (2004).
A very interesting choice – not an album that was well received at the time, thanks mainly to the increased “country” element. Cherise has moved it back towards a jazzier feel. She was not available for interview.
Franc Moody “Cristo Redentor”– From Donald Byrd A New Perspective (1963).
RR: This album was Byrd’s attempt to address religion/spirituality in a new way. Does that resonate with you? Or was there another attraction?
FM: Donald Byrd’s, Cristo Redentor is an undeniably transformative piece of music. It has that very special quality of being able to stop your brain whirling in its tracks, cut out the background noise and take you on a journey. Those choral voices are so confident and beautiful but have a vulnerability to them. Byrd references music we’re more used to hearing in a place of worship and yet delivers it within the cool tones and the aesthetic of Blue Note jazz.
Like Donald Byrd (in our own slightly ham-fisted way), we strive for our music to take listeners to a different place. Whether through the mediative grooves of dance music, the scene setting of lyrical hooks, or (without looking into it too much) just trying to offer up a good time on a dance floor somewhere. There’s probably some sort of connection with Donald Byrd’s influences and ours. Growing up surrounded by the choral music of Herbert Howells and John Tavener, the first time I heard Cristo Redentor I was blown away and so inspired by how he had integrated these sounds, space and depth into his music. To be honest we were very scared we would butcher this glorious piece. It’s a very dangerous thing re-imagining a masterpiece!! But we hope that one or two people can get lost in our take on it for a few precious minutes.
- Blue Note Re:imagined II is released on September 30th, but you can preview the tunes and compare them to the originals by clicking on the playlist at https://www.bluenote.com/announcing-blue-note-reimagined-ii/. IF the vinyl arrives in time (never a given), Rob Ryan will be doing some back-to-back comparisons of new and old Blue Note at Camden New Journal’s talkin’/jazz stage at the York Rise Street Party NW5 on September 11th. There will also be a tickets to shows at the Pizza Express (https://www.pizzaexpresslive.com/), the Hampstead Jazz Club (https://hampsteadjazzclub.com/) and Camden’s Jazz Café (https://thejazzcafelondon.com) up for grabs.
PARTNERS IN CRIME
UNDERTONES -Where Jazz Meets Crime by Nancy-Stephanie Stone
There are obvious reasons why crime and jazz are intimate bedfellows in both fact and fiction. Syncopated music initially began its journey to the four corners of the earth in the wrong part of town (Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans) and the clubs where it flourished in pre-WW2 Kansas City, Chicago and New York were generally Mob run (The Cotton Club in Harlem was owned by British-born bootlegger Owney Madden). Later, Las Vegas was also heavily Mobbed up. Just ask Frank. Even London wasn’t immune, what with Ronnie Scott’s being in Soho, most of which was run by the likes of the Maltese Messina Brothers and with the Krays owning El Morocco club in Gerrard Street (they once offered Scott and partner Pete King a club to manage further west, but Ronnie wisely decided his heart was in Soho).
There is a scene in Legend, the Tom Hardy Kray movie, where someone says they have the protection money from Ronnie Scott’s, which is erroneous – Ronnie and Pete never paid protection money. This was because Frith St, where their second club was and is located, was run by Albert Dimes, a Scottish-Italian heavy. Albert designated Ronnie’s club a neutral space, where rival gangsters could see a show without having to watch their backs too closely. He also gave them a bottle of Mumm champagne to seal this deal, and Ronnie and Pete said they’d open it when the club made a profit. It is still sits, unopened, behind the bar.
So, with jazz historically providing the soundtrack to the thrills and bloody spills of the low life, it isn’t surprising that from the 1920s on, crime authors who wanted to give their novels a little authenticity peppered the narrative with jazz references. This fertile ground is the subject of a new book called Undertones by Nancy-Stephanie Stone (www.galileopublishing.co.uk) which is subtitled Where Jazz Meets Crime. It is a pitched as a reference book and is great fun to dip into sections on individual U.S. cities and peruse chapters on jazz spies, P.I.s and drugs). One of my favourite sections is the Jazz Discography chapter. So, for example, when a character in one of Ray Celestin’s excellent series (The Axeman’s Jazz, Dead Man’s Blues, The Mobster’s Lament, Sunset Swing) listens to Louis Armstrong play West End Blues, Stone suggests checking out Louis Armstrong on Okeh (Sony Legacy) to hear the tune for real. Elsewhere, there are plenty of unfamiliar novels and authors to check out (I never knew, for instance, that Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me was a book before it was a movie or that there were several of pro drummer Bill Moody’s novels I hadn’t read). There are hours of sleazy, swinging fun to be had here. Although the author is American, it ranges far and wide and I was particularly pleased to see that the author has found plenty of room for NW5’s king of jazz-noir, John Harvey, whose books and short stories are soaked in the music, not least in some of the titles (Off Minor, Body and Soul). Incidentally, his excellent Darkness, Darkness covers much the same ground as the recent Sherwood TV series. If you don’t know his work, get yourself down to your local bookshop in (in my case Owl Books in Kentish Town) and order a clutch of the jazz-loving Charlie Resnick series. And when they arrive put on Elmer Bernstein’s brilliant score for Johnny Staccato, a short-lived TV series where John Cassavetes starred as a piano-playing jazz detective. Honest.
TUNES IN THE KEY OF B3
Since this article was published Joey has died, aged just 51, which was a terrible shock as a few weeks before we had hugged outside Ronnie Scott’s and he had thanked me for the piece. . There is a heartfelt appreciation: here: https://londonjazznews.com/2022/09/05/joey-defrancesco-1971-2022-a-tribute-by-pete-whittaker/
Joey DeFrancesco is very young to be a jazz legend. But legend he is. Mention the Hammond B3 organ to any jazz fan and three names will come up – Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, who put the sound at the centre of soul-jazz in the 50s and 60s, and Mr D. “Well,” Joey says from home in the US, “I started young, that’s why people think of me alongside Jimmy or Jack. But I’m only 51,” he mock protests.
Starting young is right. He was four when he started playing the organ, nine by the time he could reach the foot pedals, although he was already playing in clubs alongside his musician father. He was such a keyboard prodigy that by 17 he was in Miles Davis’ band. Like many people who heard that husky voice on the line summoning them to New York, he thought it was friends spoofing him. “I must have hung up on him four times.”
But eventually he went to that terrifying audition where Miles pointed to the piano and said: “Play something for me.” So he did and he was in the group (this being the late eighties Tutu era). I asked if Miles had given him any advice. “Yeah. I was playing a solo one night and he wondered over and said: ‘Leave some holes.'” Miles being the master of space in a solo.
Joey had to leave, though. “I had done my own record by then and Columbia wanted me to go on the road to promote it. Miles was mad at first, but he understood.”
That first album and his subsequent ones, plus a punishing touring schedule, meant that Joey brought the Hammond back front and centre after a few years in the jazz doldrums. “There were some people who thought I was the first to play it in jazz. It was Fats Waller back in the early 40s who was the first in with Jitterbug Waltz! But it was sort of phased out for a while. You had synthesizers, which are way more portable, then bands like Weather Report with a very different sound, which I love, and rock bands had gone towards the piano. But the Hammond was still there. All I did was remind people how great it sounds.”
On his latest album – his 39th – More Music, Joey demonstrates he is more than just a keyboard whizz. He also plays trumpet and sax. Well. “When I was with Miles I was playing trumpet in secret. He was Miles, you know? But I played him one of his lines one day and he said: You sound like me. Do it again. So, I did and he said:Iit was better the first time. But he was very encouraging. He gave me some of his mouthpieces and a couple of Harmon mutes. I still miss him, man. The best times were when we weren’t on stage, just hangin’ out.” The trumpet is a hard mistress, but seeing Joey playing Hammond with one hand and trumpet with the other a few years ago, I couldn’t help thinking – that’s almost Miles I’m hearing, jamming from the after-life.
Joey’s new band, which features a second keyboard player/guitarist, which frees him to take sax solos, that again are remarkably adept considering he has only been playing a few years, will be at Ronnie Scott’s in a few weeks. Don’t worry, his obvious affection for other instruments will not overshadow what he is best known for – expect plenty of funky, gospely, soulful and swinging organ. In others words, the classic, compelling sound of a B3 in full flight.
Joey DeFrancesco played four shows at Ronnie Scott’s on 27th/28th July: see https://www.ronniescotts.co.uk/
KIND OF BLUE NOTE
There is a horrible neologism that I came across in a newspaper recently. In the article the term “premiumisation” was applied to scotch whiskey – it describes the process of rebranding/hyping a product to make it “investible” and “collectable”. Something very similar is happening in the world of jazz, specifically in the world of LPs. It began with coloured vinyl editions, which are nearly always promoted as limited, collectable and attract a few quid extra over and above their monochrome siblings. I fell for this for a while – I have clear, yellow, red, orange, blue and even camouflaged discs. I stopped going colour-crazy when a record company executive assured me that adding pigment can affect sound quality and longevity of the album.
The other route to “premiumisation” is the re-mastered special edition. This is spiralling to quite frightening heights – there was a recent version of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, announced with typical fervour: Definitive handmade limited run reissue Ultra High Quality Record! 33 1/3 RPM LP release limited to 25,000 copies. Mastered directly from the original 3-Track master tapes by Bernie Grundman. Pressed at Quality Record Pressings using Clarity Vinyl® on a manual Finebilt press. Cost for all this? Around £150. I’m sure it’s a wonderful artefact but I already have six versions of that record, including one on cassette. I surprised myself by resisting it.
Less eye-wateringly expensive is the Blue Note Tone Poet series, supervised by Joe “Tone Poet” Harley, and put out to celebrate 80 years of the label. These are “all-analogue, mastered-from-the-original-master-tape 180g audiophile vinyl reissues in deluxe gatefold packaging. Mastered by Kevin Gray (Cohearent Audio) and vinyl manufactured at Record Technology Incorporated (RTI)” . The latter is considered one of the best pressing plants in the world. Artists getting the Tone Poet treatment include Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon and many others.
Again, they are beautifully done, but are they worth the £10 premium they attract (they usually retail at £31-34) over a regular LP? After all, over the years I have been seduced by claims of superior sound quality by Japanese-only Blue Note editions (or maybe it was the obi strip – that band of paper that wraps around the cover) and “Cadre Rouge Audiophile” featuring Direct Metal Mastering and French pressing. Do I need more tweaks?
One of the most recent batches of Tone Poets included McCoy Tyner’s splendid Expansions, which features the great Woody Shaw on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Gary Bartz on alto and, unusually, clarinet, and bassist Ron Carter on an unexpected cello. It encompasses fast and furious modal jazz with the septet firing on all cylinders, Matthew Halsall-like Far Eastern tones and a piano/cello ballad. It was indeed an expansion of Tyner’s regular soundscape. I happen to have a 75th Anniversary re-issue of this, so I bought a Tone Poet one to compare and contrast.
I don’t have a particularly high-end audio system. At its heart is a vintage Quad and 1970s Japanese Micro-Seiki deck with SME arm which is maintained by Audio Gold in Crouch End (it was where I traded a still-boxed CD player for it years ago, back when you couldn’t give record decks away). So not audiophile perhaps, but I do know its sound very well and thought I should be able to detect any differences/improvements in the new pressing.
And I could. A more sonorous piano here, a richer woodier bass sound there, crisper horns in one or two places. But, I realised, paying such close attention and constantly repeating sections not only gave me a headache, but it also spoiled my enjoyment. I was like one of those oenophiles who can wax lyrical about the component parts of a wine without pausing to enjoy the whole (the same is true of some coffee drinkers I know). I’m assured that the superior quality is best appreciated through headphones, but as that isn’t how I like to consume music, it’s a moot point. So, would I rush out to replace an album I already had with a Tone Poet version? No, probably not. But….
And it is quite an interesting “but”. One of the welcome aspects about these re-issues is that Mr Poet hasn’t gone for the big ticket albums. So, no Sidewinder by Lee Morgan, but the more obscure Cornbread, no Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock, but The Prisoner and so on. Also Joe Harley has embraced other labels that were or are now in the Blue Note stable. So for instance, I have a Tone Poet of Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, which was on the originally on the Stateside label, and a recent release, Katanga! by Curtis Amy and Dupree Bolton, which was on Pacific Jazz.
The latter is a fascinating album, because it highlights just how brilliant a trumpeter Dupree Bolton was, blistering fast yet astonishing accurate, with a hairs-up-on-the-back-of the-neck high-speed stratospheric excursions and brilliant tone. Bolton only made two real appearances on disc (Katanga! and The Fox by Harold Land, also recommended), frequently disappearing into the fog of drug addiction and subsequently prison. There isn’t space here to tell his whole tragic story of wasted talent, but if you are interested seek out Granta 69 (“The Assassin”). It includes a piece about Bolton by Richard Williams called Gifted, which is as fine and as moving a piece of jazz writing as you’ll find.
So, given the quality and heft of the physical record, the heavy card used for the covers and, sometimes, the inserts with essays (as with Katanga!), I certainly would buy a Tone Poet if it was an album new to me or I only had it on CD and wanted an actual LP. Forthcoming releases for 2021 include Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan, Wayne Shorter, Joe Pass, Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Red and more Grant Green, all new to me. I’ve got my extra tenners ready.
Exactly fifty years ago last weekend I caught a bus from my semi-squat in Catford to Crystal Palace and joined the crowd of long-haired, patchouli-scented hippies streaming into the park to witness the first ever rock Garden Party. The Crystal Palace Bowl with its distinctive hemi-spherical stage (think a dinky version of the Hollywood Bowl) overlooking a small lake had opened in 1961, but up to that point it had only hosted classical music. That day, headliners Pink Floyd were to usher in the dawn of a new age (but then everything was a New Age back then) with amplifiers, inflatables, dope and semi-nude people frolicking in the water in front of the stage.
I had already seen the band several times by that point, including the Azimuth Co-ordinator tour – it was a joystick that controlled a quadrophonic sound system, allowing panning from speaker to speaker – at the Liverpool Empire. Although in the pantheon of PF gigs, that palls in comparison to the one my friend, writer Jonathan Futrell, witnessed: -Syd Barrett-era Floyd and Jimi Hendrix at the Albert Hall – it was a hard act to follow.
Indeed, I was slightly underwhelmed by the band that day, not helped by being damp and cold (the weather was capricious in the extreme, much like this May) and the lengthy wait for them to set up. Atom Heart Mother without the orchestra didn’t carry the same punch as on the album, and although they did play one unfamiliar work – The Return of the Son of Nothing, later to become Echoes – most of the set was the familiar workhorses from the live disc of Ummagumma. Plus the inflatable octopus that was meant to rise majestically from the lake was a damp squib.
I was mainly there for Mountain, a band featuring plus-sized guitarist Leslie West and bassist Felix Pappalardi (later to be shot dead by his wife Gail), a key figure in several Cream recordings. I don’t recall that much of their performance apart from Jack Bruce’s Theme for An Imaginary Western, their big hit Mississippi Queen and the long coda to a gloriously extended Nantucket Sleighride – later the theme for TV’s Weekend World. To my surprise, Rod Stewart, in a pink corduroy suit, and The Faces put on a fantastically rumbustious, amiable and crowd-pleasing set although, I have to admit, I wasn’t quite sure who he was. But I was young then. And wise enough to go back to the bowl a few more times, because it was – and will be again – one of London’s great outdoor venues.
The subsequent Garden Parties featured the likes of Elton John, Roxy Music, Yes, Jimmy Cliff, Ian Dury, Santana and, er, Vera Lynn. The most famous gig was probably Bob Marley and the Wailers, when capacity was increased from 15,000 to 25,000 and Jonathan Futrell (then a writer for Black Echoes) waded into the lake, stood on a milk crate and snapped an iconic photograph of the singer that now hangs in the Bob Marley Home & Museum in Trench Town, Kingston, Jamaica.
The original stage fell into disrepair and was replaced by a more angular (and now rusty) steel one in 1997 but that too became dilapidated. The final, small-scale concerts took place around 2009. Recently, however, a successful crowdfunding campaign (match-funded by the Mayor) has raised enough money to rebuild/refurbish the stage and bring back live music to the Bowl. In the meantime, a temporary structure will be floated onto the lake and used until the new permanent structure is complete. First up in this re-birth is the South Facing Festival (southfacingfestival.com), a month-long series of concerts with The Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Cymande, Soul II Soul, Sleaford Mods and the English National Opera. There is also a healthy smattering of jazz on offer and I’ll be writing more about that and the festival in the new Kind of Jazz column in the Camden New Journal over the coming weeks.
- See crystalpalacebowl.com and facebook.com/thecrystalpalacebowl for more details. Tickets for southfacingfestival.com are on sale now.
GI JIM CROW
The news of the scandal about the lack of recognition for Black and Asian soldiers who died serving the “Empire” in WW1 made me think back on the initial reaction to a book of mine. Over a decade ago now, I pigeonholed a senior editor at a major publishing house about an idea for a novel. One I had completed in draft. He listened to my pitch, which was based on true events, and gave his verdict. ‘Does anyone really care about a bunch of executed criminal GIs, some of whom might have been hanged by mistake?’
Well, it turns out I did and do, because I am still writing that book. The fact that the GIs in my book were Black and Hispanic means the story is still relevant with a chilling modern resonance to crime and punishment here and in the USA.
The basic facts are these. When US troops poured into the UK in preparation for D-Day, they were subject to the Visiting Forces Act (1942), which allowed the US military to conduct courts martial on British soil and gave some immunity to our allies from British law. One anomaly was that rape was a capital crime for US servicemen, although it was not under domestic law.
There were 19 executions of GIs in England. Most were hanged; two were killed by musketry, as the US Army quaintly called a firing squad. Of the 19, nine were convicted of murder, six of rape, and three of both. Eleven of the 19 executed were African-American, with three others of Latin-American or Mexican-American heritage. None was higher than a corporal, with most privates. No white American was executed for rape. When the black soldiers were sentenced to a custodial sentence for rape, it tended to be twice the length of the equivalent incarceration for a white man. Several were condemned to mental institutions indefinitely. Jim Crow definitely came over with the US army.
The hangings were carried out at Shepton Mallet prison in Somerset, familiar from the opening of The Dirty Dozen, where Lee Marvin offers the condemned men a way to cheat the hangman. The hangman, incidentally, was Tom Pierrepoint, who (if you’ll pardon the terrible pun) taught the ropes there to his more infamous nephew, Albert.
There were some US soldiers who had a narrow escape. Leroy Henry, for example, was convicted of rape and sentenced to death. Although he admitted having sex with the woman, he claimed she denounced him when she asked for £2 instead of the usual £1 for her services and he refused. He avoided the noose because a petition of 33,000 locals found its way to General Eisenhower. He not only commuted the sentence but dismissed the entire case, leaving Henry to walk free and return to his unit.
Researching the book uncovered (for me) plenty of other examples of how Black soldiers were treated differently, both before and after the war, including the case of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion. A segregated unit (Black gunners, white officers) it played a crucial role in covering the retreating US forces at the Battle of the Bulge and in defending Bastogne with their howitzers. When the Germans first broke through, some of the unit’s positions were overrun and some taken prisoner. Eleven African-Americans managed to escape and hide out. They were sheltered by locals but were betrayed by a Nazi sympathizer and handed over to the Waffen SS. At 7am on December 17th, 1944, the German troops drove the eleven deep into the Wereth forest, tortured them – including cutting off fingers and driving over them with army vehicles – and executed them. Whereas the 84 white soldiers massacred by the Waffen SS at Malmedy on the same day were the subject of an investigation and a trial of the perpetrators after the war, the eleven were written out of history until 2017, when Congress finally recognised as the victims of a war crime.
So what of the original novel inspired by all this? Well, I have recently re-worked and updated it (which I have been doing periodically for ten years). It concerns the discovery of a GI ‘s skeleton in a field in Wiltshire, the local police response, and the US investigators brought in to examine the body. It is called Beyond the Bones and it has a tag line that seems to fit with the recent news about those WW1 soldiers. In war, as so often in peace, Black lives don’t always matter.
Let’s hope it finds a more sympathetic editor this time.
Hero, smuggler, mercenary, adventurer: the real Zumbach
Almost five years ago now I was asked to appraise a movie script that told the story of the Polish pilots who had fought in the RAF during the Battle of Britain and beyond. I knew the vague outline of the story: the Polish flyers were overwhelmed by the better equipped Luftwaffe on home turf, escaped to France to continue the fight and, when France capitulated, made their way to England, where, despite their abilities, they were left to cool their heels. Only in the darkest hour of the Battle of Britain were they finally unleashed on the Germans, and proved themselves formidable opponents. In fact, 303 Squadron, the first of the “foreign” RAF units, became the highest scoring squadron in the Battle of Britain, although the British public, who in 1940 feted and idolised the Poles, and the government turned out to have very short memories once peace came.
The script told the story well enough, although I had one significant reservation. The squadron featured never existed and characters were amalgams of real people. Now that might have worked with a story like 633 Squadron, where everything apart from the Mosquitoes is fictitious, but this was a slice of history important to both the British and the Poles. My instinct was that there must be enough real stories around the actual 303 Squadron and the individuals in it to carry a movie. That’s when I discovered Jan Zumbach.
Of wealthy Swiss-Polish heritage, Zumbach’s life story was enough to fill several movies. The version of the script that eventually got made only tells the story of Zumbach – played in the new film Hurricane by Game of Thrones actor Iwan Rheon – when he and his fellow Poles were fighting in the skies over England. But there is so much more.
Born not far from Warsaw in 1915, Zumbach’s love for flying was ignited at the age of thirteen when the Polish Air Force put on an acrobatic display close to his sleepy hometown. His mother disapproved of his subsequent ambition to fly, so he enlisted in the army and then requested a transfer to the Air Force. At the age of 23 he was flying (antiquated) PZL fighters in the 111th Squadron and war was coming.
Infuriatingly for him, on the eve on the German invasion in September 1939, Zumbach broke a leg when his plane somersaulted during a night landing after clipping a truck parked across the runway. Hors de combat as Poland crumbled, he made his way to Romania and then to France, where he saw some action, before finally making his way to England, specifically a glum Blackpool.
There, weeks passed in a fug of boredom before, in July 1940, it was announced that a Polish squadron (albeit with British and Canadian commanding officers) was to be formed at RAF Northolt. There was more frustration, however, as the Poles had to endure English lessons and get used to RAF jargon (such as “Angels” for height) as well as conversion to thinking in miles per hour, feet and gallons, before they were allowed to fire a shot in their simmering anger at what was happening to their homeland.
Flying Hurricanes, rather than the more glamorous Spitfires, the Poles nevertheless proved to be tenacious fighters and were often considered positively reckless by their RAF counterparts. In No Greater Ally: The Untold Story of Poland’s Forces in WWII, author Kenneth K. Kosdan states: “Faced with spent ammunition or malfunctioning guns, Polish pilots [in the Battle of Britain] were known to ram enemy bombers, chew off wing tips or tails with their propellers, or maneuver their planes on top of the Germans and physically force them into the ground or English Channel.”
Zumbach himself was awarded eight kills and one probable between August 2 (when 303 became operational) and Oct 31, 1940 (the accepted end of the Battle of Britain). Like many of the Poles, who were often older and more mature than their RAF counterparts, he also found he scored highly with British women, as he revealed in his rather unreliable memoir On Wings of War (credited to “Jean Zumbach”).
“There was a thick notebook by the bed… it was X’s private diary, a detailed account, with critical commentary, of her love affairs. Even my limited English vocabulary was equal to this kind of subject matter, especially with the clues provided by the names of several members of my squadron. X had awarded them high marks, in contrast to her rather disparaging assessment of her fellow countrymen. By my rapid reckoning, her survey was based on a sample of approximately thirty. Sample thirty-one was delighted when she demonstrated how much her studies had taught here.”
Zumbach, later a Wing Commander, went on to lead 303 Squadron, but it was his post-war activities that set him apart. He, like other Poles who had served the Allies, had reasons to be disappointed in his treatment after VE Day. Thanks to the British government’s desire to appease Stalin, the Polish armed forces were not allowed to march in the Victory Parade in 1948 (some pilots were invited, but refused in solidarity with their banned comrades). And because he wouldn’t take part in any of the resettlement schemes for Poles, Zumbach claims in his memoirs that he was given three days to leave the country he had risked his life for. He reasserted his Swiss identity, gained a passport, and moved to Paris, his sense of justice tainted by the ungrateful attitude of the British authorities.
In the immediate post-war years an enterprising and amoral Zumbach used his newly-formed Flyaway charter company to smuggle diamonds, cigarettes, Swiss watches, gold and people (the latter to Israel) and even, in shades of The Third Man, penicillin (although at least the stuff he transported was genuine). By the late 1950s, however, he had gone more or less legit, running a restaurant and a nightclub in Paris and, as he put it, “getting fat”. Then, in 1962, war came calling again.
The offer was from President Moïse Tshombe of Katanga, which had ceded from the Congo, to put together the fledging country’s airforce, under the cover of an airline known as Air Katanga. It turned out to be a murky, messy and brutal conflict, with Zumbach’s rag-tag of an airforce providing ground support as Katanga battled Congolese and UN troops. Zumbach carried out more than sixty raids, but, outgunned by the UN, which eventually deployed SAAB jets, and out of pocket because of Tshombe’s bounced cheques, he returned to France, where he dealt in second-hand planes. But Africa wasn’t quite finished with him.
It was another secessionist state that brought him back. In 1967 the Republic of Biafra broke away from Nigeria. War broke out between the Federal Government and the new state in July of that year. One of Biafra’s representative contacted Zumbach and asked if he could find them a bomber. He paid $25,000 for a mothballed Douglas B-26, which he sold on for $80,000 – only later did he find out the middleman charged Biafra £320,000. Zumbach was persuaded to deliver the plane in person and, eventually, to oversee it re-conversion to a bomber, complete with shark’s teeth on the nose like the famous Flying Tiger’s Kittyhawks.
Going by the name “John Brown”, he flew bombing missions for the new Biafran airforce (basically Zumbach and some trainees), destroying several aircraft and a helicopter on the ground, as well as killing a senior Nigerian army commander. This even though most of the “bombs” he used were improvised exploding cooking pots. The Sunday Times picked up the story:
“The first round in the soggy, bogged down civil war of Nigeria has gone to the secessionists of Biafra [thanks to] their judicious or lucky use of their one B-26 bomber.”
But again, Zumbach was on the wrong side and Biafra lost the war and tipped into a horrendous famine. He returned to France and wrote his memoirs and, rumour had it, his dealings in planes and sometimes weapons. His explanation for his colourful life? “Trouble comes naturally to some men, while soft living feels like a hair shirt.”
Jan Zumbach died in 3 January 1986, aged 70, in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The investigation into his death was closed by order of the French authorities without explanation. Maybe “trouble” had finally caught up with him. He was buried at Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw, Poland, a hero of 303 Squadron, home at last.
Hurricane, co-written by Robert Ryan and directed by BAFTA award winner David Blair, is released on September 7th. Some scenes in the film were shot at the splendidly atmospheric Battle of Britain Bunker (battleofbritainbunker.co.uk) in Uxbridge, which is open to visitors seven days a week and where a Hurricane in Polish RAF colours guards the entrance.
That’s Not A Tiger Tank!
I have heard or read a few things lately questioning the accuracy of war movies. On Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage a member of GCHQ claimed that The Imitation Game (the Benedict Cumberbatch film about Bletchley Park and Enigma) got two things absolutely right: there was a Second World War and Turing’s first name was Alan. In The Times today bestselling historian Antony Beevor, discussing the Arnhem movie A Bridge Too Far, said: “All those war movies are dodgy in some way.”
This is of interest to me because, as the co-writer of the new WW2 film Hurricane, about the Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain and beyond, I am well aware of the compromises with history that have to be made. Let me start by saying the broad brushstrokes of the narrative are absolutely true to life, that in summer 1940 the RAF did reluctantly allow a Polish squadron, 303, to be formed which, flying Mk 1 Hurricanes and not the pin-up Spitfire, managed to chalk up more victories than any other squadron in the Battle of Britain. And that they – in fact all the Polish armed forces – were treated very badly after the war.
However, some of the details do play a little fast and loose with the facts. There is a scene with gun cameras on 303 Squadron’s planes, when I am fairly sure they weren’t fitted until after the BoB. But gun camera footage always seems very real and visceral on screen, so in they went. The party at the Dorchester celebrating the Poles and their achievements, similarly, did not happen until after the main air battles of 1940 were done, but it was a decent shorthand to show how the Poles were feted by British society at the start of war. The hostess for that party was actually American, but I felt the introduction of a US character without explanation would be confusing.
Although the main players such as Jan Zumbach (Iwan Rheon), Witold “Cobra” Urbanowicz (Marcin Dorociński), Czech flyer Josef Frantisek (Krystof Hádek) and Canadian Johnny Kent (Milo Gibson) were historical figures, some of the supporting characters are fictitious.
One is designed to show the strain of constant air combat suffered by the over-worked pilots (including relying on Benzedrine to stay awake) and he is an amalgam of several individuals (not all of them Polish). Another is a Jewish character (who actually had a larger role in the original script). Although there were no Jewish pilots in 303, there were in some of the RAF’s other Polish squadrons. It seemed OK to move one across.
As in the movie, Josef Frantisek was a lone wolf who went off hunting solo, much to the annoyance of his colleagues. He died when, for reasons unknown, he flew into a hillside – not, having run out of fuel, the White Cliffs of Dover as in the film. But it does look a lot more dramatic.
The two main WAAF women, led by Stefanie Martini, are actually a fusion of four real individuals, with stories based on their memories as young girls thrust into the highly regimented, repressive world of the RAF. The plotting scenes, by the way, were filmed at the Battle of Britain Bunker in Uxbridge, which is a remarkable time capsule. It is open to the public and well worth a visit.
You might think the Poles’ success with the British women is exaggerated, but there is a persistent story that some RAF pilots sewed “Poland” patches on their tunics and spoke cod-Polish in clubs and bars to try and get some of the attention the foreigners were enjoying. (Sadly, those scenes got cut from the film.)
There are other instances of artistic licence. Appalled by the rag-tag appearance of his new recruits, Squadron Leader Kellett orders uniforms from his tailor, Gieves & Co (as actually happened). When the van turns up, Gieves’ address on the side is given as No 1 Savile Row. In fact, it was Hawkes that were at that address during WW2. Gieves & Hawkes didn’t shack up together at No. 1 until 1974. But the address on the van serves to show how much money Kellett had laid out of his own pocket. Appearances mattered as much to the RAF as the ability to shoot down Germans.
There is a scene when Zumbach uses his wing to play snooker with an ME-109, ramming the side and sending it crashing to earth. Unlikely? Maybe. Originally I had Zumbach lowering his plane on top of the stricken ME-109, forcing it lower and lower until it clipped the trees. But there is historical basis for these close encounters. In No Greater Ally: The Untold Story of Poland’s Forces in WWII, author Kenneth K. Kosdan states: “Faced with spent ammunition or malfunctioning guns, Polish pilots [in the Battle of Britain] were known to ram enemy bombers, chew off wing tips or tails with their propellers, or maneuver their planes on top of the Germans and physically force them into the ground or English Channel.”
Having been one of those who shout things like “That’s not a Tiger tank!” at the screen for most of my life, I fully expect and probably deserve lots of flak about the above and more. But, after my experience with Hurricane, I now agree with Antony Beevor, who said in The Times: “You can nitpick your way through them for all the historical inaccuracies, but the trouble is that the needs of the movie industry and the needs of history are totally incompatible.”
And there rests the defence.
* Hurricane is released on September 7th in cinemas and on digital platforms