John Stevens (1940-1994) was a key figure in the development of free jazz and free group improvisation in Britain. Originally a jazz drummer carving out a successful career for himself in clubs such as Ronnie Scott’s, he gave up jazz playing completely in the late 1960s order to commit himself entirely to free group improvisation. The group which he organised with Trevor Watts, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, has since 1966 been an institution in which many of the key figures in the movement have being involved. The composition and improvisational ideas that Stevens originated for this group have developed into workshop pieces which he has used extensively with both trained and amateur or ‘non’-musicians. These were published in a book entitled Search and Reflect which forms the basis of a cooperative approach to music making and teaching. It is in these workshops that many young musicians got their first taste of collective improvisation, the present author included. His teaching and outgoing personality have been at least as important as his own playing. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he played in a wide variety of contexts, amongst other things forming bands using improvisation along with aspects of rock, funk, jazz and folk. He is also involved in drama and visual art. At the time of the Interview his main musical activities are teaching, playing different forms of jazz and occasionally performing with S.M.E. I met him at his house in Ealing.
For me it was an instinctive thing, it was all tied in with drawing and painting really, I was doing that ever since I can remember. I was spending, like, hours doing drawings. It wasn’t in any way self-conscious, almost like I didn’t even realise I was doing it. When I got to secondary modern school this one teacher was very… he was almost flabbergasted at one point about what I’d been doing without any knowledge of anatomy or fuck-all, you know? It was all figurative. I’d use my own body. Also, I’d go into a local shop like WH Smith’s or something and I was fanatical about books, but I never liked reading, it was all pictures, anything with pictures in it. So if I got some money for my birthday or christmas I go and sort through the book sales and pick out cheap art books like Botticelli and Rubens. With Rubens I thought, ‘Fuckin hell this is it’ and I loved it.
Running parallel to that was music, my mum and dad loved music. My dad had been a tap dancer and they loved musical films and stuff so every week my mum would take me on a monday to the cinema and if there was a musical film on that’s what we’d see every time… Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, all that. Music was just a fantastic thing, it was all around, the radio would be blasting away on Sunday mornings. My mum and dad were quite loud people as well, partially because my dad from boxing had a damaged ear, so he was, like, deaf, or partially deaf anyway, so you’d have to really shout, I mean we were a really loud house and there was only three of us, ’cause I’m an only child. So there’s this music which was going on and on, music was never not played during the day.
Anyway this teacher said I should take this exam to get into junior art school, which I did and passed. Ealing Technical College and School of art, I went there when I was about 12, and that’s where the transition took place. When I went to junior art school I actually suffered quite a lot really, because I started getting really self-conscious about what I’d been doing for years. I couldn’t say anything about it intellectually to you, but emotionally I was feeling uncomfortable with something that I’d felt very comfortable with. I couldn’t take the guidance they were giving me and I didn’t fit in, though I suppose I did as far as they were concerned in that they liked my work.
I switched onto music out of Guy Mitchell, Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray all that stuff which was the popular music. But the more jazzy side of it was in the family, there’d be, like, Fats Waller, the Nat King Cole Trio, stuff like that. And there was one thing that I remember which was a Saturday evening and the radio was on in the kitchen and this music came on and I went, ‘What is this?’, and it was like all going on at the same time, it sounded like an action painting to me, and it was jazz. So when I was out in the street, and I can’t remember exactly the details, but I must have mentioned that as a little kid because there were older kids in the street who went, ‘Jazz, I’ve got jazz records,’ and they started playing me stuff that they had, and I knew that it was something that I really liked. And one kid who was older than me, started playing me the bits and pieces he had and also took me to the Chiswick Empire to see the Variety. And there was all sorts of impressions: I saw Billy Eckstine singing and playing the trumpet, Rose Murphy – who you probably wouldn’t know – a black woman piano player and singer, Billy Daniels, who was, like… well the line between jazz and what they were doing, well, you best not draw it. And obviously there was all sorts of other things as well, To me it’s the Arts really, Max Miller, Tommy Cooper…
Funnily enough, running alongside of that, was my dad’s involvement with boxing. To me, that isn’t that different from jazz, the thing about duality and duckin’ and weavin’. For me somebody like Muhammad Ali, the images and the whole idea of interaction and speed, was like a real artist. Okay he’s a boxer but to me he could have been a tenor saxophone player. All those things, all those colourful things stemming out of the sort of environment I was living in, had an effect which was to do with expression. The whole aspect of performing was just there and I put a lot down to that atmosphere, particularly the level of enthusiasm that there was when the family got together, like, my mum and dad’s sisters and brothers and all that stuff. It was a very typical, what you might call, working class bit; it’d be like whoosh! Bam bam! Dancing and singing and going absolutely potty.
I saw the Jack Parnell Band at the Chiswick Empire, which had Phil Seamen and Jack Parnell on drums, and I thought, ‘God, this is unbelievable!’ I used to read the New Musical Express, which had someone called Mike Butcher writing in there, as a guidance to what the new records would be. I suppose we’re now talking about when it was getting clear, when I was about 13 Because Jazz at Massey Hall probably came out in 1954, which would make me 14, Lionel Hampton At the Apollo came out 1954ish, and the first Modern Jazz Quartet record with Kenny Clarke on drums. So I was now beginning to find my way. I’d go up to Squire’s, a music shop in Ealing, from Brentford, where I come from. I’d go in and say, ‘Have you got any jazz records?’ and I’d go into the booth and start playing these records until I found one that I wanted. What I was looking for was that, sort of… outburst that I associated with jazz, where it’s all going at the same time, that was the thing. Now as I go through the records obviously there’s stuff that’s a lot cooler and I wouldn’t select that.
The first real step was listening to the music, pretending to play with it; being the saxophone player or whatever, you know, like, miming to it and getting carried away with the whole idea of it. I got my mum’s Smiths Crisps tin which she used to have all the shoe stuff in and two dustpan-and-brush brushes and started playing on top of this tin. Eventually I got a pair of proper brushes to play on it with and that was it. I actually started doing gigs with this Smiths Crisp tin, it was like a skiffle group, there was an acoustic guitar player and a geezer with a tea chest bass and we used to do pubs and that, we called ourselves the Muleskinners. The bass player and I had a real affinity for a certain area of music. Now if you’ve got a mate and you’ve both got the same taste then that really pushes it on. So then the getting of records would be a ‘guess what I’ve got!’ sort of business, y’know. This affinity led to us actually going to gigs and luckily enough in Acton at the White Hart was a fantastic jazz venue. A lot of the really good British players in London would be gigging there every week. So I saw Phil Seamen down there, Stan Tracey, Tubby (Hayes) and all that. So that just spurred the whole thing on, regularly seeing this live jazz. So I thought, ‘I wanna be a drummer,’ and my mate said, ‘Right, I wanna be a clarinet player,’ and that was it.
The next big step was that in 1957, he goes into the forces, he gets called up right? And his first leave he contacts me and says, ‘Guess what!’, I said, ‘What?’, he says ‘I’m going to a music school,’ I went, ‘fu-uck, fuckin hell, how come?’. It was for the Air Force band, from training you go to Uxbridge school of music for a year and then out to a band and spend the rest of the time as a musician. When he came back and told me that I was doing a day job at the time. When I left school at 15 the first job I got was at Sanderson’s Wallpaper factory and I’m a very clumsy person, like, they were printing this wallpaper up and I’m like tearing the fucking wallpaper and it was horrible. So I stayed there about three days and fucked off. My dad said, ‘You should get an apprenticeship, that’s what you need, a bit of security,’ and all this. So I went to Evershed’s and Vignall’s engineering factory to be an apprentice engineer. Me and that didn’t suit at all. In fact, when I eventually left, which was after about six months, the foreman said, ‘Look, even if you wanted to come back to this place we wouldn’t have you, so don’t bother ’cause I’m glad to see the back of you!’ I just didn’t suit, it just didn’t work, my temperament and that. Anyway, then I worked in a record shop which had a drum-kit upstairs and when the geezer used to go out I used to go up and play on his drum-kit. Which didn’t go down too well because he’d come back and there’s customers in the shop and I’m bashing away upstairs. So I eventually got the bullet from that. I ended up in a commercial art studio. I didn’t like that either but that lasted a couple of years.
The real transition came when my mate came back and said what he said. By that time I’d left the studio and was working at Mercedes-Benz in the goods-inwards department and I thought ‘Right, this is it, I’m off,’ so on Saturday morning I went off to the recruitment office. I just missed National Service so I actually didn’t have to go in, but I just thought, ‘Right, that’s it, I wanna be a musician now!’ And that seemed to give the opportunity where immediately you were gonna be a musician. Now, I wasn’t thinking about the nature of being in the forces and all the fucking uniform bit and square-bashing, I didn’t even think about that.
When I got to the school of music there was the clarinet guy, who’d gone in first, there was (trombonist) Paul Rutherford there, there was (saxophonist) Trevor Watts there, (saxophonist Bob) Downes… So there were quite a few of us who were like-minded who were in there.
At that time I was moved by what Ornette was doing, what Coltrane was doing, what the Bill Evans Trio was doing, what Mingus was doing and what Eric Dolphy was doing. I was stationed in Germany and I actually depped for Kenny Clarke Trio at a rehearsal with J.J. Johnson, Jimmy Woods, Sat in with Tubby Hayes, Albert Nicholas the New Orleans clarinet player, If I’d been here I don’t think that would have happened, and, the influence of Coltrane and Ornette was much more prevalent there than it seemed to be here. There was a tenor player called Horst Jager, I played with him, Manfred Schoof, the trumpet player, Alex Schlippenbach, the pianist and Buschi Niebergall on bass. I never thought, ‘This is avant-garde,’ this was 1962 and though we would be playing tunes in time Horst floated and flowed over the top of this in an amazing abstract fashion. Later a mate of Hors’ came up to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re John Steven’s, the avant-garde drummer,’ and I went, ‘Pardon?’ I didn’t even know the word, I didn’t even know that expression, for me I was just playing time and conversing off the time….
You see, what you were saying about spontaneity, Dadaism and all that stuff, was that an influence or whatever, I didn’t know anything about any of that stuff, my involvement with ‘art’, if you like, was an applied thing, I didn’t have any knowledge about the development of it, didn’t know much about abstract painting, not really, or any of that. It was a very personal creative thing that I was involved in, it was all the inspiration of listening and with a bit of luck playing. I didn’t think so much about the tradition, what appealed to me was the modern music of that time, which would be when Sonny Rollins came in, and Elvin (Jones); all the bits that were the newest bits really appealed to me the most. It was a thing of just playing, even at the school of music. I’d go out into the corridor and I remember there was this very straight brass band cornet player and I said, ‘Come in here!’ y’know, ‘Come an have a play!’ and he said, ‘Well, what shall I play?’ I said, ‘Play anything you like, I’ll play along with you’. So the enthusiasm and, in a way, the confidence, was enormous. I had such a taste for playing and it didn’t matter what it was, I just wanted to play. And this all tied in very much with the improvisational thing because that’s what appealed to me, this instant having to play sort of business. One of the reasons I think I had such a passion for that, as opposed to the study of playing in a certain way, was because of the painting and drawing thing. Because your free aren’t you? If I want to do a figure with 5 heads, I can do that, it doesn’t matter, it’s me and the piece of paper.
There was always people looking over my shoulder saying, ‘This is what you should do, this is the way you should do it’. But I warded it off, I thought ‘Right, nothing’s gonna stop me now, doing this in the way that I want to do it’. That’s the sort of feeling I had. But there were bits that you had to learn. So gradually I learnt to read in a certain way that was acceptable, so that I’d get by. And when we were on the march and we had to learn specific pieces I’d improvise. I could go on and on about that, how I got away with all that stuff I don’t know, but the point is I maintained the lowest rank you could possibly have for five years! I was officially thick anyway so, well, what do you expect from somebody who’s got such a low rank? So, I sort of coasted and just got on with my bit and I survived it like that.
When I came out of the forces it was a bit like coming out of school, you’re again in that situation were you’ve got to work, but I wanted to play music. Well, as it happened almost as soon as I got out I was invited to start playing. It wasn’t exactly jazz, it was with a vocal – instrumental group, but it had the influence and the material was derived from stuff like Count Basie and Frank Sinatra and the people in it were jazz players, the person who ran it was a piano player, Don Riddell. At first I was pleased to have a gig, I went round saying, ‘I’ve got a gig! a gig, I’m a professional!’ But I moved through that and thought, ‘the thing I’ve got to do is start playing the Ronnie Scott Club’. And after I’d been out about a year I got invited and started playing there. So I’m playing in the place with players that I admired. But even that didn’t suit me, and I didn’t always go down that well. Pete King, who used to run it, actually said to a bass player, Bruce Cale, ‘Why do you play with John Stevens? He should learn to play the drums properly before doing all that other stuff’. So it was a mismatch of what I wanted from music and what was actually going on in there.
My burning ambition was to find a way to be free and to get the opportunity to see what potential there was in system-free interaction. That strong feeling got to the point, in 1965, where I had to do it, I had to… So I gave up all my conventional jazz gigs, having found the Little Theatre Club space. I just gave up, and I could go on and on about all the fucking ripples that caused, it still affects me now. There was a lot of animosity. You see you’re not really supposed to go and do something on your own and turn your back on what is supposed to be the epitome of what you’re doing. You’re not supposed to make those choices. Anyway, I did that and took a day-job in order just to have the freedom to just play whatever I felt like at the time.
One of the things that I’ve relied on about myself, having recognised that it’s there, is that I might never do anything particularly brilliant as an individual but what I can trust in with myself is total application in terms of anything I might do, and that includes playing the drums, and hopefully that will project in a positive way to other people. I rely on that totally because I didn’t have the ability to develop skills in the conventional fashion, So there’s not a backlog of stuff I can rely on, it was all in relationship to the playing experience. But at least when I did it I would do it completely, whatever I was doing.
The clearest idea about it that I had was that I felt us (the Spontaneous Music Ensemble) playing freely together as a group, collectively, was one of the closest examples that human beings can get to nature, in the sense of the demands made by the situation that you’re in. Being in tune, as close as possible, with all the people that are around you and at the same time contributing within that and never contributing to the extent that you couldn’t hear what the other people were saying. So nothing you had to say was more important than an awareness of the whole. A group of people doing that together have a real feeling of, ‘This is it!’ And it doesn’t matter what it sounds like. You’re listening to the interaction and that’s what you’re giving over to other people. I remember sitting out in the back garden and saying, ‘Look at that tree Trev!’ and there’s this tree, a willow tree, ‘look at all that movement there, all that stuff, and listen to these birds singing while that trees doing that’ – this was the vision, if you like – ‘that’s what we can be.’
But there was such animosity and anger. People would come in and attack, and write things in the toilet about what a shit I was, and that Trevor Watts and I were gay. I was told by another drummer that playing that music and playing that kit, with the little gongs and this that and the other, ‘If you play like that how can you fuck?’ We were on our own down there yet people got really fucking annoyed. Of course, we also got a lot of attention for what we were doing, by people like Victor Schonfield, who thought, ‘This is it! A major step,’ and he compared it with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. I mean, I got a fucking lot of press really. But there are other people sat out there going, ‘What a load of shit! This is just a load of crap, there’s John Stevens again talking about fucking peace and love and fucking collectivism,’ and all this blubber. And it was insulted and put down as ‘egoless music’, that was an insult at the time!
If anything, I was, like, the stalwart believer in this fucking collective bit. I had a real passion for this non-performance type approach… it was, like, everything but being impressive. So Evan (Parker) and Derek (Bailey) would go ‘Urgh, it’s all getting a bit too fucking cosmic’. Because in the end, when you think of it, a lot of the people who were involved in that sort of collectivism later established themselves as virtuoso soloists, or original players. And I used to go, ‘It’s not really important what I play or how I sound it’s what I’m attempting, the way I’m attempting to integrate myself’. I used to feel that where I’d like someone to say, ‘Oh, that was well played!’ was the recognition of how I maybe managed to integrate myself so totally at a certain point in the playing that it became one, that I couldn’t be identified as an individual because I was so involved in what it was. There would be an overall organic sound and you weren’t saying, ‘Oh, listen to the way that saxophone player played’ or whatever. You can only get close to doing that if you’re with people who are prepared to give wholly to do that. It’s got nothing to do with how brilliantly someone plays the saxophone or the drums or whatever. But there’s no mileage in it is there? It’s not in keeping with ‘being a musician’ and hopefully being employed as a musician, or any of that. It’s so far removed from that, the intimacy of that experience. People outside don’t get the opportunity to say, ‘Fuckin hell, what a great player that is!’so it doesn’t appeal to people, it’s not enough to be a good experience… So I gave up working with all the heavies. I thought, ‘Fuck this,’ their attitude would be ‘Oh, how long do I have to do this for?’ really just doing it because I asked them to. Not out of a real feeling for the possibilities of a collective. So a lot of the workshops I did came about because there were these people around who weren’t skilled musicians to the degree of an Evan Parker or a Kenny Wheeler or whatever. So I thought, ‘Mmm, well, I’ll play with them’ and find ways where we could have the experience together and for them to be able to work within the potential of their own skills or lack of them. Ha ha! I mean we actually did the Montreux-fucking-jazz festival! I took this team of people who were scared shitless…
I saw a TV programme the other day with two American jazz musicians, a load of self-fucking-promotion shit which went on for an hour and a half under the banner of Albert Ayler. I was dis-gusted by it. That’s when the idea of free music and free expression turns completely on its arse and goes in the opposite direction. People are interested in showing you how virtuoso they are, and telling you they’re great and pretending that they’re being free and pretending that they are interested in the idea of freedom. That aspect has now come through to free music, as well. To me the health of free music has lied in the collective possibilities within it, which are getting thinner and thinner on the ground. And the people who play freely on their instruments and show you their achievements are what’s being associated with free music now. You see it was valid for John Coltrane to play for 40 minutes non-stop and to search in public, it was valid for Albert Ayler to be the dominant leading sound of the environment that he was in but it’s not valid anymore I don’t see that as being valid.
Like I mean Evan (Parker)’s solo playing isn’t the most important aspect of free music; it’s like an art object, a piece of sculpture which he shows off and which you can appreciate, and it shows you his amazing applied creativity towards the potential of an instrument, which is all very creditable, and it can help something he might do in a collective because people know he can ‘officially’ play the instrument in an amazing way. But, to me, it isn’t that important as a statement politically. When Evan goes out to play his solo saxophone he knows what it’s going to be like, he knows where he’s going to go and adds more and more bits in it or leaves bits out…. I’m not attacking Evan, because I love him, but the thing he’s getting attention for is not the most valuable bit.
Somebody I know is really choked about the fact that they haven’t got recognition for certain innovations that they brought about on their instruments and they hear other people using those things, and all this stuff. And I’m thinking, ‘Imagine going around thinking something like that’. Forget it! It’s all gone. What it’s about is how we get on now, What we are an example of, our love of the possibilities of communication, not worrying about whether someone on the outside thinks you’ve got the greatest shirt on or whether you’ve had you’re hair cut right, or how fast and clean you play the trumpet, or any of that load of shite.
I think that the women musicians are now the prime movers from point of view of doing something in a way that is a healthy way to do it; not hung up about being a super-duper ‘gunslinger’ but getting on with the true nature of the music.
That collective potential is a valid human experience. I believe in that… I believe in that expression, if you like. I believe in the collective expression. What I mean by that is us integrating as a collective, the expression of a free group of people. The expression is an example of us getting together and producing something which I see as being a valid statement. It’s valid for us as an experience, and is very, very worthwhile, from the point of view of taking part in it. And I also think that it’s a very valid thing for other people to experience externally.
My strong feelings for that experience have something to do with the lack of that within the society that we live. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if that was more of a norm, but it becomes a big deal when it’s quite a rarity. People assume this has a relationship with politics, so over the years it’s been assumed that I’m a Marxist, it’s been assumed that I’m this and that I’m that, because of what I do. But there isn’t a political philosophy that appeals to me, though there would be aspects, if I was reading it, that would ring true. But when that philosophy becomes a particular politics, and people join that politics, and they join it as a group expressing coordinated ideas, it loses something for me. It’s like a religion. Whereas, the thing that I’m involved in, in terms of the experience of the collective, isn’t an idea it’s a way of being involved with each other; an activity which allows for it to go in whatever direction it goes in. And your own input is always fresh, it is not based on an idea, it’s an experience that we re-experience and re-evaluate. Let me quote myself, from the sleeve of Karyobin, from 1967;
“Music is a chance for self development, it is another little life in which it is easier to develop the art of giving, an art which makes you more joyous the more you practice it. The thing that matters most in group music is the relationship between those taking part. The closer the relationship the greater the spiritual warmth it generates, and if the musicians manage to give wholly to each other and to the situation they’re in, then the sound of the music takes care of itself. Good and Bad become simply a question of how much the musicians are giving, that’s the music’s form.”
It’s free. It’s beyond politics. I am, in a sense, you could say, ‘political’, because I look at everything and judge it, this, that, boom, boom, boom, all the time. But I like this thing of moving freely. I play music, I am not going to align myself to somebody else’s ideas of politics. It’s obvious where my heart lies… You see, spontaneity between human beings is a way of serving the community and in fact realising the ideals of a Marx, or a Jesus…
So, Ann, that’s my wife, my son Richard, me, and his girlfriend, go down to the pub, last Sunday I think it was. Now Ann is very happy for her son, ‘See I told you, Richie’s got his head screwed on, Richie’s doing well, I always knew he’d do well’. Okay, so I have to put up with a lot of this, and she goes to me, ‘Well? Why aren’t you successful?’ So I went, ‘I am successful, aren’t I Rich? Considering the nature of what I’m involved in’. She says, ‘Yeah, but look at Rich’. You see the thing that Richard is involved with is something that he doesn’t have to compromise with, which he loves doing, which is completely his creative bit, but it happens to fit in with somebody else’s idea of what they like as well.
I mean, I am successful because I’m here and we’re doing this and I can think, ‘Fuck me, I got away with that all these years’. Shit, there’s stuff which I did in the past that I think, god, I’d never be able to do that now. When I look back I think, ‘Shit, I actually did that’, I found a way of doing that, of making that statement, knowing, while I’m sitting here, that if I wanted to make that statement now in the way that I did then it would be virtually impossible. So I’m like duckin and weavin in corridors, trying to find a way to carry on with that sort of work; the way things are going I think it’s going to become more and more constricted. You are in a situation where you are alien to the main motivation of society and you’ve got to prepare yourself for a lot of abrasiveness and a lot of fucking challenges to your own security. The experiences that I’ve had, the negative side of it, it seems to me, it was relatively easy compared with what it could well be in the future; meaning that it’s gonna get fucking harder.
What’s nice about looking back into your own past – especially when you didn’t know fuck-all, where your just doing things – and trying to figure out who I am and why I’m doing this, having gone through this with you, which I’ve never quite done to that degree, is that you can actually arrive now and go, ‘What am I worried about? I should just carry on with it because it’s obviously alright’. Cause I really go, ‘God, what am I doing? Should I be doing this? Have I been fooling myself for the last 30 years?’. You know, really, I go through it every day; my self doubt is enormous. But this, what we’re doing now, puts into perspective a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t have so much self-doubt. It’s counterproductive. But at least it keeps me working at trying to find out what it is that I’m working at. It keeps me doing that, I can’t let go of it. And I’m always hoping that I’m going to arrive at this wheel of continuity where I know I’m pretty close to what I am and I can function within an environment in a harmonious way.
(27th August 1987)
A very fair appreciation of John Stevens and his work written by Martin Davidson is here