As Aotearoa’s Jazz musicians become increasingly confident of their place in the world, it is timely to acknowledge those who paved the way. A significant figure in this journey is saxophonist and winds player Brian Smith. I had been meaning to interview him for some time and the recent lockdown provided the ideal opportunity. I have long been aware of just how innovative London Jazz was during the 60s and 70s. The output was considerable, different from what was happening elsewhere and it stands up well to this day and there is an increasing interest among jazz fans and Jazz historians in pouring over this material. Over a lengthy Zoom call, we discussed his musical career and in particular his involvement in the UK Jazz scene. What follows is extracted from that wide-ranging discussion.
Where Smith grew up and how he first engaged with music was the obvious place to start, but then as we proceeded I was struck by how modest Smith was, quietly brushing aside his considerable achievements in true Kiwi fashion. And the more we talked, the more I realised that a colourful piece of Jazz history was unravelling.
JL32: Hi Brian, thanks for agreeing to the interview.
Smith: Greetings John, where would you like to start?
JL32: Where were you born?
Smith: I was born in Wellington but I grew up in Stratford, Taranaki. It was there that I learned piano and later switched to the saxophone.
JL32: Did you start gigging in the Naki?
Smith: Yes as a schoolboy I was part of a band that played for local dances. It was so much fun that I stayed at school an extra year; beyond when I’d intended to leave.
JL32: what were your musical interests at that time?
Smith: It was then that my friends and I encountered 78s by the likes of Humphrey Littleton, Bennie Goodman, Louis Armstong, Lionel Hampton. I still have those under my bed (laughs and points). So, my first jazz interest was more Eddie Condon and I particularly liked the clarinet player Edmund Hall. It was his ‘feel’. It was hard to get records here then. But also among those recordings, I soon discovered Joe Newman, Wardall Grey, and early Miles.
JL32: Did Wardall Grey lead you to discover Dexter?
Smith: No, I discovered Dexter later, also Miles album ‘Around Midnight’ a little later again, those was significant albums for me.
After playing in a few small bands, Smith moved to Auckland (1958) and it was there, that he joined the Bob Paris dance band, later moving to Australia with them. During his time in Auckland, he became increasingly active on the jazz scene, playing at places like Trades Hall. When the Bob Paris band moved across the ditch, he went with them, joining the exodus of Kiwi musicians like Mike Nock who had left for Australia a few years earlier.
JL32: When we were discussing the Auckland clubs and musicians, you mentioned trumpeter Dave Ironside. I knew Dave well and I often wonder what became of him as I went to Sydney with him in 1967.
Smith: Yeah, Dave was a great bloke, he had a really good sense of humour, very funny.
JL32: And when was your move to Australia?
Smith: It was in 1960, I went on the Wanganella with Rick Laird, Barry Woods, Neddy Sullivan and Mike Walker, I was sick for two or three days as I recall (laughs). The trip cost us £30 each, a fortune in those days.
JL32: Did you get much work across the ditch?.
Smith: Well, after moving to Australia with the band, I met up with lots of musicians, such as Kiwi pianist Dave McCrae and our association was to continue later in London. (reaches into a box and produces a few Bob Paris recordings – one with vocalist Ricky May ). Later I obtained a residency on the Gold Coast through Bob Paris. That was where I met my wife. We were given accommodation and a percentage of the door. My wife was a receptionist at that hotel, she made sure that I was fed.
JL32: You connected with a lot of interesting Jazz musicians while in Sydney, notable Aussies, Kiwis such as Mike Nock, and others from much further afield.
JL32: Did you by any chance meet up with a blind multi-instrumentalist Claude Papesch while you were there?
Smith: Yes, I was driven around Kings Cross by him. (much laughter as we reminisced about this as we had both been nervous passengers while Papesch drove). Bob Gillett, Andy Brown, and I lived near Claude, and once after he’d painted his flat, he asked us to check the bits he’d missed and tap the wall to show him. He was such a character, a nice guy, he would call around and knock, and we would sit there quietly, then he would enter and find us one by one, feeling our ears and faces and naming us. I heard that he eventually became mayor of the Blue Mountains. Anyhow, after two years of gigging around Australia I moved back to Auckland. Once back home I played regularly with the likes of Tony Hopkins.
JL32: Lachie Jamieson was around then, did you know him?
Smith: Oh yes, a great drummer and vibes player. I played with him a bit too, and another drummer back from the USA, Ray Edmundson. Lochie was a big deal in Auckland as he’d played with Sonny Rollins, Ira Sullivan, and bands around Chicago. And apart from Tony Hopkins, I played regularly with Mike Walker, Marlene Tong, different people. Some tours happening around then.
Then a few years later, I packed up and decided to move to the UK as my wife came from Lancashire. On the way, I had a one-night stopover in New York, and during that night, I attended three gigs. I heard John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Hancock. Clifford Jorden was the tenor player with Mingus which was at the Half Note.
JL32: What was your first destination in the UK?
Smith: I went to Manchester and met a few people on the scene. One of them was a bloke called Ernie Garside, who managed a Jazz Club there. I would sit in from time to time and my wife’s brother would come with me. He eventually became Maynard Ferguson’s manager. At that time Maynard was playing in Manchester. This was not long before his London concerts. Ernie Garside asked if I wanted to play in Maynard’s band and I did. It got busy as I was juggling three bands.
JL32: If it’s 69/70 you would have been playing with Nucleus, Tubby Hayes Big Band, and Maynard Ferguson.
Smith: Yes, and one or two other things were happening. I was playing with Alan Price as well.
JL32: I have listened to recordings of Tubby Hayes from that period. Nice band.
Smith: There was a TV Show and bits that were recorded. I had no solos but I was in the saxophone section with Alan Skidmore and Peter King. Peter King was great, I played with him quite a bit, a real nice guy.
JL32: I have jotted down a list of the significant UK bandleaders of that era you’ve played and recorded with: Graham Collier (70), Maynard Ferguson (65-75), Michael Gibbs (63-70), Keith Tippett (78), Mike Westbrook (69), Humphrey Littleton, Tubby Hayes, and particularly the Scottish horn player and composer Ian Carr (69-82). You have regularly played alongside UK-based Jazz greats like Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman, John Marshall, Alan Holdsworth, Peter King, Tony Oxley, Stan Tracey Barre Philips, Jack Bruce, John Surman, and many more. And course Alexis Korner, the proto blues unit that influenced John Mayal, the Stones, etc. That’s some list.
Smith: It was a busy time.
JL32: I want to spend a bit of time on ‘Nucleus’, but before I do, I see you played regularly with Kenny Wheeler.
Smith: Yes and he was such a humble guy. He would come away from a concert or recording session after playing well, look concerned and ask us if he played alright.
JL32: At around that time was Kenny working with John Taylor and Norma Winstone, right?
Smith: Yes Norma Winstone and John Taylor were actually in Nucleus at one point, during my time the only other vocalist was Joy Yates (a Kiwi). But back when I first arrived, there were other people important to me. Rick Laird was in London by then and he was working at Ronnie Scotts. He introduced me to a drummer, percussionist called John Stephens who ran the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
JL32: He was a notable early free player. Tell me more?
Smith: He was good to me. He had a caretaker flat off Harley Street. He let me stay there and I played with him at the ‘Little Theatre Club’, with Trevor Watts. I played with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble a bit at that time. Dave Holland would come up, Kenny Wheeler, Jeff Klien, Evan Parker. One night Chick Corea turned up and sat in and I didn’t know who he was at the time. We were playing a lot of free stuff and he was stomping and slapping the piano sides.
JL32: Anyone else?
Smith: Oh yes I was with Alexis Korner between 1965-66).
JL32: Did you ever encounter the legendary Phil Seaman?
Smith: yes, once I recall we were on the same gig.
Note: Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated was a very important band at the time and the great British blues bands like the Stones and John Mayal were all heavily influenced by it. Musicians like Jack Bruce, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, and Graham Bond were all in the band at some point. The Alexis Korner band moved freely between jazz and blues venues and included Jazz standards in the repertoire.
JL32: Was the 1970 album ‘Elastic Rock’ the first Nucleus album you were on? I think that you were a founding member of that band.
Smith: I was. The band was formed by the Scottish trumpeter and arranger Ian Carr and multi-instrumentalist (Sir) Karl Jenkins, I was with them right up to when I left the UK and on many of the albums between 1970-82, except when I was touring with Maynard Ferguson.
JL32: It was very successful. I arrived in London in 1985 and it was still popular then. Don’t you think the term Jazz-Rock Fusion was a bit of a marketing exercise? To my ears, you were a jazz unit edging at times into free territory. Not nearly as rock-sounding as in the guitar-heavy fusion bands. Listening again I find stronger synergies between Nucleus and the late 70’s output by Bennie Maupin or Eddie Henderson etc. And it sounded like a true collective with no egos dominating.
Smith: Yes we were a collective and you could argue that there was a synergy between our music and the era you mention. Nucleus did do well and there were a few other Kiwis who joined the band after I did. Billy Kristian, Dave McCrae, Roger Sellers, Joy Yates.
JL32: Overall, 45 members are listed as passing through the band, and there were 21 albums by my count. You are credited on many of those albums. And some well-known figures from the London Jazz scene came and went; Kenny Wheeler, Tim Whitehead, Tony Coe, Gordon Beck, John Taylor, Norma Winstone, Allan Holdsworth, Neil Ardley and so many more. And of course, you were in the core group. I notice that your playing attracted favourable mentions from reviewers.
Smith: Oh well (downplaying it), I got along with Ian and it worked out for me. There were quite a few of us (Kiwis) in London during the 70s, Frank Gibson and Bruce Lynch for example. We were all doing different things. Anyhow, the last tour I did with Maynard was March 75, and I went back to Nucleus and played with them right up until when I returned home. Bob Bertles the Australian saxophonist filled in while I was touring with Maynard.
During his time in London, Smith was often in brass sections accompanying well-known popular musicians or visiting artists. These included: Gladys Night And The Pips, Donavan, Dusty Springfield, Nancy Wilson, T Bone Walker, Georgie Fame, Alan Price.
JL32: You played tenor, soprano, and alto flute. Your soprano sounded great and the arrangements were interesting. Did you write any of the tunes?
Smith: Yes I wrote a few.
JL32: I’m guessing that the tune Taranaki would be you, there’s a clue there.
Smith: Yes that’s me (laughs).
JL32: What about arranging?
Smith: The arranging was basically whoever wrote the tune and then everyone had input.
JL32: And so not long after, Nucleus won the Best European Band competition at Montreux.
Smith: Yes that was 1970 around the time we released Elastic Rock, our first album. The big radio stations used to sponsor bands, all of the big European stations, and our sponsors were the BBC and we won (laughs). So because we won at the Montreux Jazz Festival, as best European band, the prize was an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.
JL32: How was that?
Smith: Fantastic, yeah, so after Montreux, we travelled to Newport. It was in the afternoon, I can’t remember which day, but it was funny actually, because Dave McCrae and Rick Laird were there also with the Buddy Rich band. And Mike Nock with Fourth Way on the same weekend as well.
JL32: So you got together for a hang?
Smith: Yeah, because we hadn’t seen each other for quite a while. And then we played one night in New York at the Village Gate. It was amazing.
JL32: Did this lead to more work for Nucleus?
Smith: After we returned, we toured a lot, Italy and Germany in particular, Festivals and clubs. It became a regular thing.
Nucleus gained a significant following and after Elastic Rock, many successful albums followed. They reflected the times and the restlessness of 70s youth culture, complete with psychedelic cover art and cross-genre appeal, but they were firmly grounded in the Jazz tradition. The albums following: We’ll Talk About it Later, Solar Plexis, Belladonna, Roots, Labyrinth, Under The Sun, Snakehips Etcetera, Alleycat, In Flagranti Delicto, Out of The Long Dark, Awakening (and more after Brian Smith left). The labels during the 70s were Vertigo, Capitol, Mood. Some are still on issue and most will be available on streaming sites (one Nucleus album is also available on Bandcamp featuring Smith)
JL32: You played with Kieth Tippett’s Frames around then? You are credited on ‘Music for Imaginary Films. With Stan Tracey.
Smith: Yes I played with Stan a few times, but there was a trombonist named Malcolm Griffiths. He and I got a quintet together for just a little while in 1977, and we did a couple of gigs and a broadcast and Stan Tracey was on that with Brian Spring and Dave Green. And another one I did some playing with was a great piano player, Gordon Beck. I was in a band with him called Gyroscope right at the beginning. At around that time I started touring America with Maynard and Gyroscope hired Stan Sulzmann.
JL32: I associate him most strongly with Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Music for Small and Large Ensembles’. (we agree that this double album is an essential desert island disk)
Smith: yeah Stan and I were pretty good friends and still keep in touch. Oh, and in the late 70s, Dave McCrae put a band together called ‘Pacific Eardrum’. That band did two or three albums, one before I joined, and several later, including one after I returned which we all did back here in New Zealand.
JL32: So looking back over that period, what gave you the most satisfaction?
Smith: Well playing Nucleus, but playing with Maynard especially so. I’d always had this thing about the big band era, the bands that toured America constantly, and (having) the chance to do that in 1974. I spent a whole year in America and I was touring around the whole time. It was just that whole road thing, being on the bus with a bunch of guys and having a good time, playing some good music. Once upon a time, it was like going to school, that’s where musicians made a name for themselves. I learned a lot playing with that band. Sometimes it was the incidental things, like playing at the Bulls Head in Barnes, playing with small units, like the Tony Lee Trio as a guest, or with Martin Drew. And Paz, that was a Latin Band run by Dick Crouch and we recorded a few things. That was a great band and I enjoyed that.
JL32: Do you think that it gives you an edge playing with big bands?
Smith: Well it depends on the person, but it is a good training ground, and for young players, they must play with lots of different people, whether in small ensembles or large. Learning to read but also learning to blend in, hearing the phrasing, and knowing how to react.
JL32: When you returned to New, Zealand I guess people wanted to take lessons. I heard somewhere that you taught Roger Manins for a while.
Smith: He used to come to my place in Glenfield when I lived there, maybe for a year or so. I like Roger, we get along fine.
JL32: And in the years after you returned I recall the Brian Smith Band and an album ‘Southern Excursions’.
Smith: Yes that was with Frank (Gibson) and Billy (Kristian), and my friend Jeff Castle, a pianist from England. He came out here and lived with us for a year in 1984. And then there was the collective ‘Space Case’. We did three or four albums with that band. There was Kim Paterson on trumpet, Murray McNabb on piano and Bruce Lynch on bass (and later on, Andy Brown) and George Chisholm did some trumpet things as well, that was around 84-86. I also did an album with Jacqui Fitzgerald in the 80s. Then there was the time when Roger Fox brought Anita O’Day out and Louis Bellson and we did a brief tour. Lastly my album Taupo (Ode), with Billy Kristian, Kevin Field, Kim Paterson, Lance Sua, Kevin Haines, Alain Koetsier. The two Moonlight Sax albums did pretty well also.
JL32: Have you done much teaching?
Smith: Yes I’ve done a lot. I taught at Northcote College for 20 years and other schools, Papakura, Rosehill College, Kings College. The last school I worked at was Whangaparaoa College.
JL32: I don’t suppose musicians ever retire because I’ve seen you doing gigs about town over recent years.
Smith: Yes there have been a few, and I had a regular gig at a local bar called the Paroa Bar until this lockdown. With Frank, Dean Kerr, and Neville Grenfell on trumpet. Then we had a band with Dean and his brother and a Sunday spot at Muldoon’s in Orewa for a time. Again that was with Frank and Dean, and an occasional gig at Downbeat as well. We don’t know what will happen at present, but I’m hoping the Paroa Bar opens up soon. They’ve got a nice big stage.
JL32: We’ve covered a bit of ground.
Smith: Yes that’s about all I can recall at the moment but there may be a few holes in it.
JL32: Thanks for giving me so much of your time Brian.
Smith: Well, I’m off to play a few notes.
The interview covered a lot of ground, but I knew that there would be much more to uncover. I have always had an interest in British Jazz and so when a new Bandcamp label, Jazz in Britain Archival Project was launched, I took note. Going through it this morning I have located four albums featuring Brian Smith. Some of these contain never-before-released material. Smith expressed a particular fondness for Paz and there is a Paz recording among the Ron Mathewson archival tapes. There is an unreleased Live Nucleus session titled Solar, and best of all Neil Ardley’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ and Alan Cohen’s band Oracle. Here is the lineup on the Oracle Album: Kenny Wheeler, Henry Lowther, Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore, Brian Smith, John Surman, Chris Pine, Mike Gibbs, Martin Fry, Ron Mathewson, Trever Tomkins. I will watch this space with keen interest.
I can’t help but wonder if the kids’ Smith taught, realised, that he’d once played a part in the wild and heady days of London’s music scene.
Additional sources: The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, The Rough Guide to Jazz, The British Jazz Project, ephemera such as posters and pamphlets. Acknowledgments British Jazz Archives.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.