Jazz legends’ Scottish pub recordings unearthed

Sonny Stitt ' who played on 100 albums ' used to set musical traps for session musicians at the Black Bull. Picture: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Sonny Stitt ' who played on 100 albums ' used to set musical traps for session musicians at the Black Bull. Picture: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
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IN THE wee small hours after the doors of the tiny jazz club on the outskirts of Glasgow were locked, small groups of Scottish session musicians would sit back and enjoy a malt whisky with visiting legendary US jazz musicians, hearing the gossip from the New York scene.

Now private recordings made by a Scots session musician at the Black Bull jazz club in Milngavie – regarded as the hub of jazz in Scotland – will be heard in public for the first time this week.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Sunday night sessions in the club, located outside the Glasgow boundary for licensing reasons, regularly attracted American jazz stars of the calibre of Al Cohn, Sonny Stitt, Bill Davison and Michael “Peanuts” Hucko. Not only were these great musicians in their own right, but they had played alongside some of the best in the business. Hucko, for example, toured Europe in the Second World War with Glenn Miller, and afterwards played in the bands of Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong, among many others.

The touring Americans loved their Black Bull gigs. Not only were the audiences less reticent than in England, but Scottish session musicians were among the best in the business. Playing in Scottish country dance bands gave them a rhythmic vocabulary with a particularly strong sense of syncopation. Because of all this, Scots were regarded as “naturals” for jazz.

In turn, the Scots were able to “learn from the masters” – older famous American musicians, usually in their sixties and seventies, taking advantage of a musicians’ union agreement that allowed musicians in Britain and the US to play in each other’s country.

The recordings, which were made on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder at the Black Bull before being transferred to CDs, will be played at what is believed to be the first “Jazz in Scotland” class, a one-day course at the University of Edinburgh on Friday.

Ken Mathieson, 72, a former director of the Glasgow Jazz Festival and a drummer with The Classic Jazz Orchestra, who often worked as a session musician at “the Bull” when it was in its heyday, recalled: “Al Cohn said he liked to finish his tour there because he said the audiences got more responsive the further north he went.

“He said that in many of the London clubs audiences seemed to be sitting on their hands but in Glasgow they would be jumping up and shouting. He said it was like playing in a baseball ground, and this in turn influenced the music. He used to say he really had to stretch himself and that ‘they really made me work’.

“Peanuts used play at the Black Bull every year as part of the international touring circuit. If you got past the stage of playing once with Peanuts and he liked you he’d say ‘Please call me Michael’ which was his real name and that’s how you knew you’d got to the inner circle.

“Sonny Stitt would try to provoke the musicians on stage with musical traps but we were forewarned by tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffen and Sonny stopped the music, laughing and saying ‘who told you?’ leaving the audience bemused.

Mathieson added: “I remember the Americans being pretty keen on malt whisky which they hadn’t come across in the States. Most of them were real pros and did much of their drinking after the gig. It was a great time for tall tales and stories.

“I was in my thirties at that time and one of the amazing things was working with people who went back generations before us, and getting them to talk about it. One was Benny Waters who played for King Oliver who was Louis Armstrong’s mentor and who was around at the start of jazz.”

Dick Lee, who plays the clarinet with Dick Lee’s Swingtet and who is running the jazz course, in which the recordings will be heard, points out that the history of jazz in Scotland goes right back to just after the First World War.

“Will Marion Cook brought his band over from the US to Scotland in 1919. This was when jazz started to take over the world. He’d been playing military music in the trenches and was able to play on a platform here because the colour bar didn’t apply. It was very subversive, a thunderbolt in the music world.

“Scots were just as keen on jazz as everyone else and there was quite a homegrown scene in the 1920s and 1930s. Then
in the 1950s we had a thriving coffee bar culture for jazz
clubs in basements in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and a few elsewhere.

“Bebop had been big at the end of the Second World War but wasn’t music for dancing and a lot of people in Scotland and the UK took against it and formed bands, including Mike Hart who started the Edinburgh Jazz Festival.”

The Black Bull jazz club ran from around 1972 to 1985 before folding due to lack of funds.