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“You Didn’t Look Like a Drummer” (Part 1) - An interview with John Marshall.


by Trevor Bannister

March 14, 2019

In the first episode of a three part interview with Soft Machine drummer John Marshall, conducted by guest contributor Trevor Bannister, John recalls his school and University days.

Photograph; The Dave Watkins Trio: Dave Watkins piano, Rudolph Ferrier bass and John Marshall drums, the Great Hall, Reading University December 1961.

“You Didn’t Look Like a Drummer” (Part 1)

John Marshall fondly remembers an occasion from early in his career when he depped with Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band, one of the most popular and successful ‘trad’ bands of the day. ‘I got a last-minute call to do one gig with Acker. The band bus picked me up in Charing Cross Road and we drove to an American air base in great comfort, with aircraft-style seats that you could swing round to form a circle – very handy for passing the whisky bottle round after the gig. Acker had a good band, all went very well, and I really enjoyed myself, mainly thanks to the pianist Stan Greig, a fine drummer himself, who led me through the arrangements. On the way back to London, Acker looked at me and said, “Sorry I didn’t speak to you on the way up, but you didn’t look like a drummer to me.” 

Appearances apart, it’s not a mistake anyone could make once John is settled behind his drum kit. Then and now, he brings a palpable sense of energy and excitement to the stage, and the remarkable skills and unique feeling for time that make him one of the greatest drummers of his, or any, generation. At an age when many would be content to settle for the ‘pipe and slippers’ of retirement, he has just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Soft Machine, and his own forty-six-year membership of the band, with a gruelling tour to touch base with fans in Japan, Canada, the east and west coasts of the States, and the Netherlands. In between hitting the road for dates in the UK and looking ahead to his appearance at the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival with John Surman, John Warren & The Brass Project, John kindly found time to reflect on his musical career. 

I was born John Stanley Marshall in Isleworth, Middlesex on the 28th August 1941 and grew up in neighbouring Hounslow. I had a fascination for drums from an early age and used to love watching the pit drummers at the variety theatres in Chiswick and Kingston that we visited as a family. And then one year I followed the Borough Road Teacher Training College Rag Parade back to the college where a jazz band set themselves up to play in the grounds. The drummer just played ‘ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting-a-ling-a-ling’ on the ride cymbal. I thought to myself, ‘I quite fancy doing this’, and got into playing. I used to play along to Buck Clayton records at a friend’s house while he strummed a guitar and later on formed a little band at school. I took lessons on Saturday mornings with Jimmy Marshall (of Marshall amps fame!) and joined the Bernie Simmons Swinging Students Big Band.

Americans weren’t allowed to play here when I was younger, so I grew up listening to English big band drummers. Phil Seaman was a force of nature who either played like a dream or was absolutely dreadful. I didn’t mind! Who’s counting? In later years I got to know him and would give him a lift home after a gig. Allan Ganley was an immaculate drummer and a very generous guy who took me for some lessons. Getting information out of people was often quite tricky; they’d spent years getting their ‘thing’ together, so you could understand why they were reluctant to pass anything on to a young ‘whipper-snapper’ who could put it altogether in a matter of seconds. Allan wasn’t at all like that. Great guy! Bobby Orr, a lovely guy and very original player, was another hero of mine.

We were brought up to think that we lacked the magic ingredient that made American drummers like Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes and Dannie Richmond so special and that we would never get near to them. It fostered a sort of inferiority complex. They were certainly very exotic, but gradually we began to realise that there was an ‘American’ way of playing and a ‘European’ way, and even an ‘English’ subset of playing.

I didn’t realise that until years later when I toured in the States for the first time. People turned up at gigs with tapes they’d taken off the radio and stuff we’d done. ‘These are Americans?’ I thought, ‘They’re fans and they think we’re great!’ Then the ‘penny-dropped’. We were DIFFERENT. The stuff that WE thought to be exotic was run-of-the-mill to them – our music had a different quality and that’s what they liked.  As for me, having worked with so many electric bands, I played much louder than the norm. My ‘home’ volume is more; I’m a loud drummer and that’s it!

The other two things that separated us from the Americans, and again I didn’t appreciate this until much later, were how they were trained and how they held the sticks. They came up through the school of rudiments and used the ‘orthodox grip’ - with the right-hand above the stick and the left-hand below it, whereas the ‘rudiments’ were less a part of my training and I was taught to use the ‘matched grip’ - you held the sticks in exactly the same way in each hand. I’ve always assumed that Phil Seaman was responsible for us using ‘matched grip’. It was pretty controversial at the time and when I took some lessons with Philly Joe he shouted, ‘You can’t play drums like that!’ Anyway, when the Americans saw Ringo Starr using ‘matched grip’ they started to think that if he was so successful, that must be the way to play and copied him. It’s not an issue any more, but do you think the Americans will own-up to the technique coming from this side of the Atlantic? They’re very resistant to that idea.

Having said that, there’s a certain ‘openness’ about some American drummers which is very attractive. I loved Dannie Richmond’s playing with Charlie Mingus. Roy Haynes is very special, which I think is not unconnected to his working with great singers like Sarah Vaughan for much of his career. He’s still playing. He spent a lot of time talking when I saw him a couple of years ago, but who could blame him at age 93! You also come across total eccentrics like Bobby Moses, who played with Gary Burton. He used to do these amazing solos without ever hitting the drums. He went through the whole thing, with everybody yelling at him.  Crazy, but a very nice guy.

Philly Joe Jones was a fantastic character and a very funny man. I took some lessons with him when he was living in London in the late-1960s and sharing a flat with the bassist John Hart. He was doubtless here for some dodgy reason and didn’t have a work permit which meant that officially he couldn’t play, but he could teach. I’ve already mentioned that he shouted at me for using ‘matched grip’. He was very conservative, but he introduced me to a whole area of military-style playing which I’d completely ignored and written-off as being irrelevant to jazz; the rudimental system.

I’d always dismissed the rudiments as being nothing more than exercises, rather like performing PE at school. Philly Joe, I soon discovered, didn’t make a move without using a rudiment. He showed me how to use them creatively to make phrases. It was the way he used them that gave his playing its special quality. And of course, he was probably the world’s best brush player. ‘When you’re playing with a singer,’ he would say, “You play like this (John imitates the grace and elegance of Philly Joe’s brush strokes) and everybody watches you. No one’s watching the b….’  Incredible! He claimed that he was the first black tram driver in Chicago and used to stop off to play and take a drink at various bars en route. How much was true I don’t know, but they were great stories. Some pupils had a hard time with Philly Joe because he was so often ‘out-of-it’ but I got on well and he was a great teacher.


There were three Marshalls in my class at Isleworth Grammar School - J.A., R.S. and me, J.S. There were also a lot around on the scene in later years.  I would sometimes get panic phone calls asking, ‘How quickly can you get to the studios?’ They’d booked the wrong John Marshall, thinking that I was John Marshall the trombone player.  That problem was solved when he eventually joined Kurt Edelhagen in Berlin. There was the singer John Marshall in Germany and Johnny Marshall the baritone player who played with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. 

I wasn’t considered ‘university material’ by the staff at school and I joined the Civil Service as an Executive Officer in the Public Trustees Office after A Levels. The father of my then girlfriend, a university teacher, however, encouraged me to apply the following year. He explained that I would qualify for a grant so that everything would be paid for; talk about the ‘good old days’! I chose to study Psychology because it was something new and completely different to the arts subjects I’d studied at sixth form. My choice of Reading was made for me because it was the only university that offered the subject as a BA rather than a BSc which would have needed a background in science. I eventually made a late application in the summer of 1960 and was just about to set off with a friend on hitch-hiking trip to the Continent when a letter arrived offering me a place. The Trustee’s Office wasn’t too pleased, but my mother was delighted. She thought it would get drums out of my system – little did she know!

Reading was a very small university in those days with about 1,500 students, mostly based in the Edwardian red-brick campus near the town centre. Whiteknights Park was very new and apart from the Physics Block and the Faculty of Letters everything else was still being built. I spent my first year in digs with the lovely Mrs Entwistle. I enjoyed the Psychology course but spent far too much playing. The formidable head of department, Professor Magdalen D. Vernon, who didn’t suffer fools gladly, once remarked to me, ‘Mr. Marshall, I understand that you play the drums. It would be nice of you if you could show up in the department occasionally.’ 

There was a lively university jazz scene in those days, with at least four bands playing in various styles and a Jazz Club that met every Monday night during term-time at the Lower Ship pub just off Reading town centre. Adrian Bull led the Ad Hoc ‘trad’ band, which included the pianist Bob Stuckey, who’s still very active and with whom I later worked in a quartet with Dudu Pukwana. Guitarist Geoff Staines had his quartet, with Nick Georgiades on drums. I joined a trio led by the pianist Adrian Read, a post-grad Education student who styled himself on Oscar Peterson, along with Rudolph Ferrier on bass. We also formed the rhythm section of the Swingtet led by the trumpeter Don Richards. 

When Adrian and Don graduated the following year, Rudi Ferrier and I joined Dave Watkins, a brilliant pianist and original composer. None of us, it should be said, were from the Music Department; jazz was a definite ‘no-no’ in those days, and they wouldn’t have anything to do with it. We came from all sorts of subject backgrounds: Post-Graduate Education, Agriculture, Chemistry, Geography, Classics, Psychology in my case and in Dave’s, Fine Arts.  

Dave Watkins was married to Wendy Ramshaw, who was studying for a teacher-training diploma. They were fantastic people and hugely talented. Dave could turn his hand to anything; he wrote a hit song for Andy Williams – ‘It’s So Easy’ which reached #13 in the UK charts in 1970 and became an eminent figure in British design. He designed the medals for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Wendy’s signature ringsets are part of permanent collections in the V & A and other museums across the world. She designed the new Edinburgh Gates at Hyde Park in 2015, the Millennium Medal presented to Queen Elizabeth II on 31st December 1998 and was honoured with a CBE in 2003. Her death in December 2018 was a great loss.

Dave was a great innovator and shook the place up a little when he took three numbers from the Johnny Dankworth/Cleo Laine album ‘Shakespeare and All That Jazz’ and arranged them for the trio. Chris Worth, a French language student delivered the vocals suitably attired in Tudor costume We performed at the ‘Jantaculum’, an annual pre-Christmas gala of music and poetry, in the rarefied atmosphere of the University Great Hall in December 1961. It was considered very daring at the time!

I played with Adrian’s Trio and Don’s Swingtet at the first ’Reading Standard’ Jazz Band Contest on 11th November 1960 in front of a packed crowd of about 1,000 at the Olympia Ballroom. Three local bands, the Just Jazz Quintet, the Alvin Westcot Seven and the Kid Forsyth Jazzmen completed the line-up. The resident Don Turk Orchestra, which had an excellent drummer in Byron Davis, provided the ‘continuity’ music from the ballroom’s second stage to keep the dancers happy. I remember that Benny Green was one of the judges.

Adrian’s trio took second place to the Just Jazz Quintet and that earned us an interval spot at the New Luton Jazz Club early in 1961. Don’s third place was rewarded with a booking for Reading’s first ‘All-Niter’ on 20th January 1961.  The bill included ‘trad’ stars Mickey Ashman, Ken Colyer and the Clyde Valley Stompers, as well as the Just Jazz Quintet and Alvin Westcot’s Jazztet. A free breakfast was promised to those who lasted the full course of the event. As the ‘Standard’s’ jazz correspondent noted at the time – ‘not a bad performance from the two student bands!’

I was back the next year with Dave Watkins. The ‘Standard’ hyped-up the event in the week’s leading up to the second contest on 3rd November. The BBC producer Terry Henebery, guitarist and broadcaster Ken Sykora and Matthew Turner, well-known locally as the leader of the Silver Bell Jazz Band, were enlisted as judges. The star bandleader and drummer Eric Delaney drew the running-order at a gig he was playing at the local Majestic Ballroom a few days before the contest. The line-up included four ‘trad’ bands, Alvin Westcot Jazztet, the Blue Jays Jazz Band, the Olympians and the ‘Kid’ Forsythe Jazz Band, and two modern, the Dave Price Quartet and us. The Ad Hoc Band had been scheduled to compete but withdrew at the last moment.

We won and Dave stepped up to receive the Golden Trumpet Challenge Trophy. I was voted ‘Top Musician of The Evening’ and awarded a separate trophy and a record voucher from Barnes & Avis, a local music and record store. It’s the only trophy I’ve ever received apart from winning the Melody Maker jazz poll in 1973 and 1974, when Soft Machine was also voted top small group.

In addition, we were promised an interval gig at the Marquee, then in Oxford Street, and a BBC audition. Ken Sykora is reported to have said that, ‘we were a very promising group destined for higher things’, while Les Mason, who ran the Robinson Crusoe Club at California Country Club, Wokingham said that he, ‘would like the group to play with Ronnie Scott on Ronnie’s next visit to the club’.

The ‘Reading Standard’ covered jazz pretty extensively at that time, not just the popular ‘trad’ bands that appeared at the Town Hall and Olympia Ballroom, but our university Jazz Club as well. I got several mentions in the summer of 1961:

“Although Kenny Ball was the main attraction at Olympia (Ballroom) on Tuesday of last week (a capacity crowd turned out to hear him play), a large share of the honours must go to the Don Richards’ Swingtet (who played the interval spot) … The really outstanding member of the group was drummer John Marshall. He had some excellent ideas and carried them out with a skill and confidence which caused people to praise this polished performance. One fan thought the group by far the best in Reading and even went so far as to suggest that they should get together when they leave university and turn professional”.

“… Incidentally, John is due to play at the Festival Hall next Thursday (6th June), probably sitting in with the Mike Garrick Quartet (‘Jazz and Voices’ concert). He has already played with this group three times this year, including a London date and the Bushy Club”.

The paper even reported on my plans for the summer vacation:

“John hopes to spend the vacation across the Atlantic and I hope we will be hearing some first-hand news from that scene”.

I flew to America that summer with a friend from Bristol University on a trip organised by what was known as the Canada Club; the Club chartered a flight, dumped you in Canada at the beginning of the summer and then flew you home six or seven weeks later, leaving you to make your own arrangements in between. We made a bee-line to New York and Manny’s famous music store in West 48th Street where I bought a beautiful set of Ludwig drums, otherwise unobtainable at home.

My friend’s uncle worked on one of the Cunard Queen liners, so we put the drums into a taxi and drove to the docks for him to ship home. The customs duty would have been insane, but he somehow got away with only paying £10.00.  It cost me a crate of whisky when we got home – a lot of money in those days - but still cheap at the price. I was aware of only one other person at home with a Ludwig kit. I’ve still got it!
The Inter-University Jazz Federation Jazz Band Competition was an important part of the calendar in those days. Fifty or sixty bands of all jazz styles would compete each year and the top dozen or so would progress from regional heats to the Finals held just before Easter.

Don Richards Swingtet was eliminated in the semi-finals at Southampton on 22nd February 1961, but I made it through to the Finals at Queen Mary College, London with Adrian Read a few weeks later. We were competing against bands from Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle, Exeter, Southampton and Cambridge, and two from Oxford. Benny Green Alun Morgan, Steve Race and Johnny Dankworth formed the team of judges and the whole show was compered by George Melly.

The following year, playing with Dave Watkins, we took second place in the semi-final held at Reading Town Hall and earned this comment in the programme for the finals which took place once again at Queen Mary College:
“The Dave Watkins Trio produced the first outstanding drummer of the evening (John Marshall) and were also the first group to show an understanding of balance and dynamic contrast. The quality I admired most in their performance was the ability to create tension – a hallmark of a good group. Dave himself is a pianist with a highly developed sense of form and melody.”

I was selected as a ‘musician deserving special mention’, which was great, but we found ourselves competing against tough opposition in the final with bands from Leeds, Birmingham, Southampton, Liverpool, Leicester, Nottingham, Queen’s Belfast, Oxford and Cambridge. Just as they had a year earlier, Cambridge wiped the board. They had a heavy-duty band of professional standard comprising Art Themen, Dave Gelly, Lionel Grigson, and John Hart, a very good bass player, who I mentioned earlier in connection with Philly Joe Jones, and who tragically died in a car accident in France. The drum chair was occupied in 1961 by George Walden, later to become a minister in the Thatcher government, and by Jonathan Lynn in 1962. He, of course wrote ‘Yes Minister’ with Anthony Jay.

There are several other names that spring out from those competitions: Bryant Marriott (Oxford) and Roger Eames (Nottingham) who both became jazz producers for the BBC; Tony Faulkner (Sheffield), an excellent drummer who became an educator at Leeds College of Music; Dudley Hyams (Southampton) who had a great band; Miles Kington and Bill Ashton (Oxford), respectively a distinguished writer and broadcaster and the founder of NYJO. Bill later became known as the ‘gig king’ for weddings, bar mitzvahs etc and I did a lot of work with him. I remember the Oxford guys as regarding themselves a ‘class apart’. They’d be standing round the bar before the competition in a very urbane manner, discussing what they were going to play in the next round as if the result was a foregone conclusion. All these guys from university. Can you imagine that now?

Johnny Taylor, a Geography student and fine bass player was a pivotal guy in the Jazz Club. He was an energetic and very sparky guy, with lots of connections, who always seemed to be organising things and inviting guests like Dick Heckstall-Smith, Michael Garrick and Shake Keane down to the Lower Ship. He also set up the ‘Jazz and Voices’ concert at the Recital Room of the Royal Festival Hall in June 1961, in which I played with the Mike’s Garrick Quartet. That was very special and a key event for Mike that set him up to launch his career as musical director for  ‘Poetry & Jazz in Concert’.  Another guest, pivotal to my career, was the vibes player Dave Morse. You might say that Dave belonged to the ‘second tier’ of London jazz players; excellent players who played one-off gigs on a regular basis, but not part of the studio ‘elite’.  Dave had his own quartet and after a gig at Jazz Club he said, ‘Give me a call when you come down after finals because I’m looking for a drummer’. And that proved to be my introduction to the London jazz scene.

There is one other guy from those Reading days who I should mention. He would turn up at Jazz Club every now and then and ask if he could ‘sit-in’ and sing some blues. We didn’t give much thought to it and would usually oblige. Fast forward a few years and I got a call to do some tracks on an album – ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’. Our blues singer was none-other than Arthur Brown himself! I remember Kit Lambert, a big name in those days and manager of The Who, being at the recording session. No personnel details were ever given on the original album, but I’m listed on the re-issue – along with about four other drummers. I play on three tracks. We did a version of ‘Fire!’, but the one they used on the hit single, and by far the best, was actually the demo with Drachen Theaker on drums. He played perfectly on that track. Ours was nowhere near as good. You have to own up sometimes! 

Arthur talked to me about joining the band, but our ideas were worlds apart. He was into simple, straightforward stuff, whereas my idea was to play as complicated as possible but make it sound simple. I didn’t hear from him again after that.

Despite Professor Vernon’s misgivings, I put the work in and came away from Reading with a respectable degree in Psychology. I only ever returned to the university once after that and that was to play a gig with Nucleus.


From Steve Mardell via email;

I read these with great interest, having known and played once or twice with John at the Lower Ship, Reading when we were undergraduates. He was an amazing drummer then, and Dave Watkins a really outstanding piano player and leader. I was an indifferent guitar player, but did what I could. When I started with the band in 1959, it was known as the Brass Monkeys, a title inherited from previous trad years, and regarded by Dave and Don Richards, tpt, as not entirely refllecting our rather faltering trend towards bebop. Dave led us into more progressive directions, with careful arrangements and, for me, rather difficult harmonies ! But he was always gracious enough to write them out for me. John was way ahead of the game.
Liz Barclay was on bass, Colin….on trombone, and the clarinettist, who’s name I never knew, was a serving member of R.E.M.E. at Arborfield, and a very good musician.
At the age of seventy-nine I still play a Gretsch 6120.
 Best Regards,
Steve Mardell
(BA Hons. Classics, Reading, 1961.)

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