by Trevor Bannister
April 24, 2020
Guest contributor Trevor Bannister tracks down the details of the 'Jazz Goes To College' broadcast featuring the Max Roach Quintet with guest Sonny Rollins at Reading University in November 1966.
Jazz Goes To College - A Musical Detective Story.
One has to look for positives in the self-isolation that currently faces us all, and first and foremost stands the communication made possible with friends and family, far and wide, by the jaw dropping wonders of modern technology. Links with the present have been firmly maintained and many from the past restored, together with the memories they stir. A particular flurry of emails conjured images of distant school days and provided the final push to finish a story that has been long waiting to be told. Here it is:
Sonny Rollins in Concert – the gig that I missed
It’s November 1966 and I’m a third-year sixth former at Ashmead Boys’ School, a tough and uncompromising school on a similarly tough and uncompromising estate in south Reading. Ashmead takes pride in opening windows of opportunity to boys who may otherwise have been written off by failing their 11+, either by advancing through the ranks of the school itself, joining the Building School at 13 or, as in my case, transferring from a secondary modern post O’ Levels. On occasion it even accepted a subversive reject or two from the local grammar school. Though unbeknown to me at the time, Derek Watkins, destined to become one the world’s greatest ‘lead’ trumpeters, was a recent graduate (his father directed the school brass band) and in later years, Ricky Gervais sharpened his comedy skills on the playground.
Waking up rather late to the previously unlikely possibility of applying for a place at university, I returned for a third year in the Sixth in what I hoped would be a successful attempt to improve my A’ Levels from the previous summer. Enough of the background. On with the story …
The gleeful face of my trombone playing friend greeted me when I stepped into the scruffy Sixth Form Common Room on the morning of 7th November. ‘Never guess who I saw last night, mate?’ he exclaimed with barely concealed excitement.
‘Can’t imagine,’ I replied.
‘Only Sonny Rollins and Max Roach!’
‘Up the road at the university, in the Great Hall. The BBC were there for ‘Jazz 625’,’ he explained, adding casually, ‘Freddie Hubbard played as well.’
‘How ever did you get tickets?’ I demanded.
He gave me a knowing look and tapped his nose. ‘Last minute job, mate,’ he apologised. ‘Otherwise I would’ve let you know.’
Crestfallen, I spent the day thinking of what ‘might have been’ and the evening scouring recent copies of Melody Maker to see if I’d missed an announcement. I hadn’t.
Two-weeks-too late, I did find an ‘advance’ notice in the Crescendo magazine that I bought at a Paddington Station news stand on my way to a Norman Granz ‘JATP’ concert at the Royal Festival Hall. The concert featured a truly ‘all-star’ cast – Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, James Moody, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot, Sims, Teddy Wilson, Bob Cranshaw, Louie Bellson and T-Bone Walker, but the sound quality from my seat at the back of the hall was poor and I couldn’t help thinking about what I’d missed at Reading. When you read the Crescendo notice, you’ll understand what I mean. Not only had I not seen Sonny Rollins and company playing literally on my doorstep, but it might even have been John Coltrane.
‘It seems a great pity to us – and at a great loss to British jazz-lovers that the Max Roach/Sonny Rollins package now touring the Continent is not doing any concerts here. The Quintet led by Roach replaces that of John Coltrane, which was to have come, and lines up Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Jimmy Spaulding (alto, flute), Ron Matthews (piano), Jymie Merritt (bass) and Max on drums. The Rollins tenor has been added as a guest attraction.
They’ll be at Reading University on Sunday, November 6th, recording a TV show for Terry Henebery’s BBC 2 series Jazz Goes to College.’
My chances of ever seeing the broadcast were remote, as neither my family nor any of my friends had BBC 2. I recall that many programmes first shown on BBC 2 were later repeated on BBC 1, but don’t ever remember this being the case with ‘Jazz 625’.
What’s more, though I didn’t know it at the time, video tapes were regarded by the BBC as such precious items that they were routinely ‘wiped’ so that they could be re-used for future recordings. As far as the BBC was concerned, it was the maintenance of strict financial controls that mattered; b…. posterity! Just think of it, all those classic ‘Jazz 625’ sounds and images, and much more besides, consigned to oblivion at the press of a button! Clarinettist Sandy Brown was so outraged when he heard of this that he described it as “an act of vandalism unsurpassed in recent history”.
As the years passed, ‘Jazz 625’ recordings sometimes emerged and found their way to the TV screen on rare evenings dedicated to jazz. Some began to appear commercially as VHS tapes, reflecting the earlier enterprise of past enthusiasts who recorded them, at what must have been huge expense, for their own use. The advent of DVDs added momentum to the market for these treasures. Alas, there were never any signs of the ‘Rollins’ gig.
And there the matter might have lain to rest, but for a fateful discovery in the most unexpected of quarters. In 1993 Roy Pellett, creator of the popular BBC2 Radio 2 panel game ‘Jazz Score’, published a compilation of anecdotes, one-liners and reminiscences drawn from the thirteen series of the programme which ran from 1981. Readers may remember that an eclectic mix of British musicians, plus the occasional visiting guest form ‘over the pond’, vied for points under the benign chairmanship of Benny Green in a seemingly spontaneous battle for the most humorous story. To my astonishment, I found a truly surreal account from Humphrey Lyttleton of Sonny Rollins’ visit to Reading University –THE visit to Reading University. It must surely have swept the board when first related in the inimitable tones of Humph:
“I remember compering a BBC TV outside broadcast from Reading University which featured Sonny Rollins. Terry Henebery, the producer, had set everything up and told me I could start announcing the rhythm section while he quickly retired to the control wagon outside. However, no sooner had I started announcing the rhythm section than Sonny Rollins broke into his composition ‘St Thomas’ from the depths of the band room and emerged playing the tune as he made his way to the bandstand”.
“In fact, Terry hadn’t even reached his controls when Rollins had started. The floor manager appealed to me to stop the music as he was getting panic messages down his headphones, but I decided it would be better to let Rollins finish the tune and Terry could start recording from the next number”.
“It was a thirty-minute programme and Sonny played ‘St Thomas’ for forty-five minutes! Meanwhile Terry Henebery had decided he could use what he’d got as long as he could get the first two or three minutes repeated to use behind the opening titles. I asked Sonny Rollins for the opening two minutes again. He just nodded and played the same tune for another forty-five minutes.”
It was time to take stock. I had the date and place of the recording, the personnel and now the music that would have been played over the opening and end credits. What about the date(s) of its actual transmission? After a further interval of 19 years, could the launch of the BBC Genome Project, a digital listing of the Radio Times from 1923 onwards, provide the answer?
I dived into this wonderful new online resource and YES, there it was – or rather there they were – three listings for 1967: 6th February, 20th March and 12th September.
It was billed in the Radio Times as being part of a series, ‘presenting the best in international jazz recorded in concert from Britain’s foremost colleges and universities – this week – THE UNIVERSITY OF READING - Sonny Rollins (tenor sax) and Max Roach (drums) two of the biggest names in modern jazz join forces for a unique jazz session’.
This left one question remaining. If as Humphrey Lyttleton suggested, only a few minutes of Sonny Rollins’ marathon performance of ‘St Thomas’ were salvaged to cover the opening and end credits of the programme, what tunes were played to fill the twenty-five minutes in between? Might a visit to the BBC Written Archives Centre, conveniently located no more than 5 miles away from my home in Reading reveal the answer. I posted off an enquiry and booked an appointment.
The BBC Written Archives are housed in a collection of single-storey buildings in a pleasant residential street in Emmer Green, a Reading suburb north of the town. It stands as a poor relation to the grandeur of its immediate neighbour, Caversham Park, until recently the home of the BBC Monitoring Station. The nondescript exterior gives no clues to the wealth of broadcasting history stored within the Centre’s archives. There is but one display cabinet in the Reading Room. It barely warrants a second glance, but then I spot a signature at the end of a brief, neatly handwritten letter – ‘Roy Plomley’ and the date ‘1941’. It’s the original outline for a programme Plomley has in mind, whereby an invited guest will choose eight gramophone records they would like with them should they be marooned on a desert island. Eric Coates evocative theme tune ‘By the Sleepy Lagoon’ introduced the first ‘castaway’, Vic Oliver, on 29th January 1942, and over 3,000 editions later ‘Desert Island Discs’ is still a fixture on BBC Radio 4. A second letter catches my eye, this time bearing the signature of a certain Brian Jones, seeking an audition for his rhythm group, the Rolling Stones. Whatever happened to them I wonder?
A courteous and infinitely patient Research Assistant explains how I will find the information I’m seeking on the celluloid Microfiche files that will need to be fed through a cumbersome viewing machine. It sounds like a straightforward process; 30 minutes and several calls for help later I think I’ve mastered it. The PaB (Played as Broadcast) files themselves, however, are something else. Dated by year, month, day, hour and minute they list the content of each BBC broadcast in exact running order. One would expect them to be easy to follow. Not so. They have a sequence entirely of their own with a logic that eludes me.
More by accident than design I eventually stumble upon what I’m looking for. “Here it is!” I gasp. Four tunes are listed complete with composer details. The first, Duke Ellington’s ‘Chocolate Shake’, I later discover, was written for his first stage musical ‘Jump for Joy’ and recorded with a vocal by Ivie Anderson in 1941. The remaining numbers stem from the band members: trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s seven-minute ‘DP’, bassist Jymie Merritt’s ‘Nommo’ (a typo – it should have been listed as the ‘No More’) and finally Max Roach’s ‘Five for London’, a title which bears all the hallmarks of a hastily ad-libbed blues.
My quest was complete, all the more precious for being the faintest echo of a long distant event. And what of the protagonists? Max Roach, Ronnie Matthews and Freddie Hubbard all passed away within a short time of each other, in August 2007, June 2008 and December 2008 respectively. Jymie Merritt died on the 10th April 2020, only a few days before I began to put this article together. James Spaulding and ‘Saxophone Colossus’ Sonny Rollins live on and at ages 83 and 89 continue to work their magic on stage. May this article stand in dedication to those six musicians and the enduring spirit of the music they created on that night at Reading University in November 1966, even if I never got to hear it.
The ‘JATP’ concert is available in full on a Pablo double-CD (Pablo Live PACD 2620-119-2) – in excellent sound. For some unknown reason it’s titled as ‘JATP London 1969’ even though it was recorded on 25th November 1966. The BBC captured highlights from the tour for ‘Jazz 625’ from Poplar Town Hall on 1st December 1966. These were transmitted in two parts on 12th and 26th November 1967 respectively and can be viewed on Youtube:
BBC ‘Jazz 625: Jazz Goes to College’
The list shows the first date on which each of the transmissions was made on BBC 2:
Stan Getz Quartet; London School of Economics; 11th July 1966
Horace Silver Quintet; Chelsea College of Science & Technology; 10th November 1966
Chicago to Kansas City; Oxford Union; 17th November 1966
Stan Tracey Quartet ‘Under Milk Wood’; University of Cardiff; 24th November 1966
New Orleans All Stars; University of Leeds; 31st November 1966
Dave Brubeck Quartet; University of East Anglia; 1st December 1966
Ronnie Ross Big Band, University of Bristol; 8th December 1966
Astrud Gilberto; London School of Economics; 22nd December 1966
Tubby Hayes Big Band; Queen Mary College, London; 29th December 1966
Wild Bill Davison with the Alex Welsh Jazz Band; University of Keele; 2nd January 1967
Thelonious Monk Quartet; Cambridge Union; 8th January 1967
Sonny Rollins with the Max Roach Quintet; University of Reading; 6th February 1967
Modern Jazz Quartet; Hornsey College of Arts & Crafts; 13th February 1967
Further details of these broadcasts can be found on the BBC Genome Project:
My thanks to Tony Shoppee, editor and compiler of ‘American Jazz Visitors to the UK (Plus a few ‘Non-American’ items of interest)’.
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