The word “legendary” has worn out in the recent years being applied to too many people who doesn’t deserve such an epithet. Yet there’s no other definition for Dick Heckstall-Smith, a man without whom British blues scene wouldn’t be what it rose to the ’60s, and London wouldn’t be swinging as hard as it did if not for Dick’s sax mastery. Music, still, is not everything the Septuagenarian artist is interested in: long shelves along stretched the corridor of his Hampstead apartment demonstrate an amazing assortment of books – musicians’ biographies, geography magazines, Marx’s writings and works on Russian revolution… What’s the common denominator? That became clear when, having listened to the rough mixes of new COLOSSEUM album, “Tomorrow’s Blues”, we proceeded to Dick’s “laboratory”.
- If asked what kind of person Dick Heckstall-Smith is, how would you describe yourself?
(Looking extremely puzzled) You’re asking me?! Oh, good Lord!
- I guess you know yourself a bit better than anybody else does.
I like the sound of that! That’s a good presumption. I think I need some time to think about that. Uh-uh! I think, I’m very nice, I’m really nice bloke. (Laughs infectiously.) But other people don’t all think that at all, some of them think I’m monstrously stubborn. There’s all kinds of words that lead up to the same thing: ‘stubborn’ is a half-way downy, and ‘self-willed’ means the same… and it means you don’t ultimately pay much attention to what anybody says or does, you’re sort of focused to an unaccessive degree. That’s what my girlfriend thinks, that I’m focused excessively and I can never change my mind – but I can. Although I don’t change my mind very often, I do it as a result of some lengthy deep thought. And sometimes I might change my mind as a result of eruption.
I might continue with the way I think my life is going until I notice that I have changed my mind. It happens quite a bit – and it does work out, especially at crucial points of my life – that I’ve made a decision unconciously, without realizing that I was making it, and the first I know of it is when I’ve already started doing what it is, whatever it is. So I think it’s quite right to say that I’m very stubborn. And I think it’s also quite right to say that I’m very impulsive, and it’s also quite right to say that I spend a long time thinking about things before I do anything, though none of those things I really doubt. Also I think I’m very soft and gentle.
- And how all of this projects itself into your music?
I don’t know. I think at that point you would probably have to listen to my music and start expressing your opinion. Nice thing about me being a musician is that I can get on with playing music without having to think about all this shit. This is what goes on: when I play is something that doesn’t involve analysis, it doesn’t have to.
- If you had an option to become not a musician but somebody else, what would you choose?
In 1971 we stopped COLOSSEUM, then I made my first album [“A Story Ended”], and then I nearly finished making my second album when, in January or February 1973, my back folded and I collapsed – as a result of being too stubborn and self-willed and just ignoring the fact that I was pretty obviously getting iller and iller. My back injury made me a cripple for a period – I was unable to stand up and was lying on the floor in the next room for a long time, about six months. I was actually incapable of moving for three months. I couldn’t go on, and this was supposed to be a matter of willpower – that was a lesson – so before, gradually, I stood up again, I spent a long time thinking about what I’d been doing and I decided, There are unsatisfactory things about being a musician. None of it is music, they’re all things from outside music, they’re all to do with personality, which is not the same thing as music at all. I got really pissed-off with not having any position on politics, I didn’t know anything about the world. All I knew about was music, really.
There were things like political arguments going on around me, and what the arguments consisted of wasn’t rational and logical, it wasn’t even sientific, and I thought, “This is complete lot of bollocks, and I really don’t want to have my life ruled by people who argue in this kind of way, by shouting louder”. So I decided that I would go to college – I was there by the time I was forty – and my choice for what I was going to study was social sciences: sociology, social theory, anthropology and stuff like that. All of those things were vaguely interesting to me, and I wanted to find out more about them. I didn’t realized at the time but it was what I wanted to do, it was kind of finding out whether I still had a brain, cause I felt as if my brain had run out through my ears, as if at the age of forty I coudn’t think anymore. It worked out that I was actually quite clever – I was a lot better than most of the people at the college, because I was very motivated, very focused, doing reading, doing essays. I completely turned my back on any kind of music for about three years, I didn’t touched saxophone. Why, there simply wasn’t time! I had too many books to read.
- Wasn’t there even an urge to play?
Oh, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t have any motivation to relax by playing music at all, it wasn’t relevant. In fact, I’m not very good at relaxing, I get pretty pissed-off when I go on holiday, and I don’t go on holiday – I like to work. I did undergraduate degree, I chose to do social theory, because what underlie in social theory is a grasp of politics, so I learnt what I wanted to learn, and I did well enough that I was invited by the London School of Economics to go straight there after my degree. I was dead pleased, I have to tell you, and I did that at the age of forty-three. What I wanted to end up doing was a Ph. D., to be a scientist. The main thing that I was focused on while I was getting to start doing a Ph. D. was the most important, the most material science of all, namely physics.
You could say that I was doing a Ph. D. in philosophy of physics, but you wouldn’t be quite right then, because there were other things, the ground was already moving under me. What’s the name of the greatest American songwriter of all? Bob Dylan? As he said one day in one of his songs [“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”], “a carpet was moving under you”. I wasn’t stuck with physics, things were beginning to change. I was looking for characteristics of how scientists go about doing their jobs, how they go about doing the work that ends up with some kind of truth. It’s a very dangerous thing to start talking about – but the one thing we’re not talking about is music.
- So how did all this knowledge inform your music?
It didn’t! And I didn’t play anything until 1979. The scientific thing is where it’s at, that’s where the real life is, while music is just fun, it’s enjoyable, it’s a pleasure. I’m a musician because I earn money through playing music, but you have to enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy yourself, it will come out in your music, whether you like it or not, which means that you will stop playing. It’s a weird situation to be in, being a musician, because you have to play in order to make some money, but the whole issue, in one sense, isn’t really serious because it has to be a matter of pleasure. It absolutely must be: if it’s not a matter of pleasure, forget it!
- But did you enjoy all the things that surround music, like being in a band, like showbiz?..
Yes, I do. If it gradually became not a pleasure, I would stop and do something else as I did before.
- About ‘something else': most people associate you with COLOSSEUM, whereas you did a lot of work beyond the band, so isn’t it a bit insulting when they say, “Dick is COLOSSEUM”?
I don’t find that insulting at all, I think that’s a huge compliment – especially it’s a compliment to the band. Looking at past history, me and Jon Hiseman [COLOSSEUM leader] found each other in THE GRAHAM BOND ORGANISATION, and that’s a long time ago, and a lot of the [band’s] muscular strength is rooted in long relationship that me and Jon and the rest of COLOSSEUM have.
- What was the original idea of the band?
It started in THE GRAHAM BOND ORGANISATION when Jon and I began to want to have a group in which there were no drug addicts or other time wasters, no ‘passengers’. We wanted to put together a band that had none of these disadvantages. and when it came to actually putting the band together, it was Jon who made the first move – he was the one who knew Tony Reeves and Dave Greenslade. The crucial thing that Jon did was to make contact with Gerry Bron and arrange for a business input, and that was why the band is Jon’s. And it’s a good thing this it’s Jon’s and not mine, that suits me just fine. (Laughs.) We had arguments about relative force of the input way back, in 1968, as he was a bit idealistic, but it ultimately had to be Jon who made the final decisions. Jon is a democratic kind of a bloke anyway, all he demands is when a band has made a democratic decision, then they should stick to it, and I agree with that.
- What strikes me the most about COLOSSEUM is that it’s primarily a band of soloists and everybody’s comfortable and has a total freedom while playing together. Is it difficult to not be clashing musically?
That’s amazing, thank you very much! (Laughs.) If that’s the impression that comes across from COLOSSEUM, then I’m a happy man, I’m very pleased. Total freedom means that all of us is free to voluntarily restrain ourselves. [Oh, that’s Marx! – DME] The success of the band resides in all of us being sensible chaps – we don’t go bananas.
- Was there ever a desire to push your part further without treading on the others?
I think it’s healthy that there indeed is such a desire. It’s a desire to compete withing a framework, and that particular framework is a framework of COLOSSEUM, and the colossal desire is that we all want to shine – everybody wants to shine more than everybody else, but that’s a part of being a good musician. Everybody in the band is old enough now to know instinctively when there is something wrong with the band, when the band is out of balance within self. We can all recognize that when it happens, and agree that something is not quite right, and we can work out what’s wrong with it. But even then there weren’t particularly vicious arguments, just deeply felt arguments – the great thing about the band in those days was that we were able to express ourselves enough for that the other people in the band could understand what we were trying to say, and it was on that base that we reached an internal balance.
- A rare thing, really. You saw what happened to CREAM who were torn apart by their own talents.
Well, I don’t know what to say as I was never inside CREAM, but I have to say that I am proud of COLOSSEUM in that we continued to be friends when it stopped – and we continued to be friends to such an extent that we were able to successfully go back on the road about thirty years later.
- Are you proud also of being the keeper of the British blues scene flame now, when Cyril Davis and Alexis Korner are gone? Or do you consider yourself the keeper?
Oh… No, I think that’s not my place – that’s not my place to think like that. (Thinks deeply and then laughs.) If after I’m dead people could say what the hell I was like and if they want to say nothing at all, then that’s alright with me. The ‘keeper of the flame’ stuff is a little bit romantic, the whole concept is fragile. Blimey! You know, maybe it’s just a phrase that makes me feel suspicious about it. There was a bloke ten or fifteen years ago, a white American alto player who had an album called “Keeper Of The Flame”, and I think I knew what he was trying to say: he was protecting the flame of Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker died in 1955, a long time ago – it’s very nearly fifty years ago – so I can see why that guy was trying to say that. But again, it’s a little bit romantic.
- Is romantic a bad thing?
No, romantic is not a bad thing, but you also need to get a bit realistic as well.
- Is music a realistic thing?
Yeah, I think so.
- Then, what do you put mostly in your music: a feeling or a thought?
Okay, I don’t want to use the words “synthesis” and “analysis”, but I’m going to get clever here because I’m suspicious of the balance, of distinction between thought and feeling, and I don’t think that in the real world there is such a clear, serious distinction other than linguistic. I don’t think there is a realistic situation in which logical analysis and emotional feeling are separate – it works out as the same thing. We’re back to good old science.
- So is improvisation a thought or a feeling? It must be a pure emotion, as you don’t have much time to think there.
From my point of view, there’s a circular thing going on, because when you’re playing you operate by listening to yourself, listening to what you’ve played, and hearing in your head what you got to play next.
- Like in chess? Thinking ahead?
You have to! If you find that you’re not doing any thinking at all, it’s just your fingers are doing something kind of automatically, and actually that does happen quite a bit.
- Which you obviously don’t like. And here I see a Jack Bruce’s first album, “Things We Like”, which I listened to just recently and found amazing.
Well, McLaughlin [the guitarist on the album] is absolutely fucking stunning! Isn’t he?
- Sure, even Miles Davis had a composition called “John McLaughlin”!
I always liked John, I always thought John was one of the best things to hit the surface of the Earth. I always had a great affection to John, because all the time I’ve known him he’s hated the way he plays. That’s lovely, I think that’s great. He’s not exactly liable to collapse and to self-satisfaction.
- What’s better – to hate your playing or to adore it?
It’s probably better to hate it. (Laughs.)
- Okay, but that’s not McLaughlin’s album, it’s Jack Bruce’s. What freedom Jack allowed you there?
It was my group to start off, it was my choice, and I never thought anything more about it – I just thought that was a gig that I’d done. Somewhere in the summer of 1968, John Jack, who was an entrepreneur on the London jazz scene, came to me and said, “Would you like to do an interval at the ‘100 Club'”? And I said, “Yeah, you bet I’d like! And I’ll tell you who I want to do the interval with”. John Jack was very pleased to hear that I already knew what I wanted to do, which meant there would be no more silly questions or arguments. So I told him, “It’s going to be a trio – me, Jack Bruce and Jon Hiseman, and we’re going to play what we feel like playing on the night. You don’t have to pay us very much – three pounds each or some stupid little fee”. We’d played it and we had a wonderful time, and I still remember the sensation of being on it – everyone had one hell of a great time! We just played this trio for about an hour – it was supposed to be for forty-five minutes but it ran over to an hour – then we packed up and ran off into the night, giggling. I wanted to do a gig with the people I wanted to do a gig with, and I didn’t care what everybody thought about it, I didn’t give a shit.
Then Jack finally got hold of some money from [manager Robert] Stigwood – I think Stigwood had realised that whatever the real situation was in financial terms, he was going to have to give Jack some money, otherwise there would be any more money coming back, so he gave Jack enough money to make any kind of album that Jack wanted to make – the first thing he chose to do was to make “Things We Like”. So Jack came straight to me and said that he’d like to do a trio album with me and Jon Hiseman. He already had a long list of thematic statements – not so much numbers, but motifs – of what he would like to do. I said, “Yeah, fine, no problem!” and went over to his place that’s also in West Hampstead, and we practiced these numbers until Jack was satisfied with the way I was playing them and I was satisfied with the way he was writing and playing. I mean, was I not going to be satisfied anyway, if I wanted to get paid? (Laughs.)
Jon Hiseman wasn’t involved in the rehearsals, because we both knew instinctively that Hiseman would be at his best in a situation where he would instantly respond to it – that’s better than getting done some stuff which is already some kind of a performance. He don’t want to do that – what you need is to rehearse the notes and a little bit of the timing, but you don’t have to rehearse the music side it, you leave that to the three of us up together. That’s what you hear on it, you know there’s a trio on half of the album, and half of that is a quartet.
- May I ask why do you keep the LP right here, in the room where you work? Do you listen to it frequently?
No, I can’t remember why it’s here. (Dick’s manager explains it was him who took the record out while compiling the discography for the new edition of Heckstall-Smith’s book, “The Safest Place In The World”, out in early 2004.) No, I wouldn’t listen to that anyway, because it’s vinyl. If I was going to check something out, I’d listen to this one (pulls out a CD re-issue of “Things We Like”) because this has a number on it that I wrote [“Ageing Jack Bruce, Three, From Scotland, England”] which didn’t get off to that (points to the old LP).
- Do you often listen to your music at all?
To be honest, not very much, no. It’s not as an extreme as McLaughlin who hates everything he’s ever played – or he did anyway when I knew him, when we worked together – I’m not like that, but I’m not interested in what I’ve played, it doesn’t fascinate me, except when I’m listening to it as with the COLOSSEUM stuff that we’re reproducing right now. And I’m listening to it critically.
(The manager asks permission to chip in.) One thing that Dick does which I find really interesting is he records all the live work that he ever does, and he does looks at some of his improvised solos to give him musical clues for future compositions. So he does actually listen to his music, while the only other musician I’ve heard of who did that was Frank Zappa.
(Dick, looking amused) Well, well, Zappa, uh? I always thought he was bright! (Laughs.) Sorry, sorry, sorry.
- Was this record happening around the same time that COLOSSEUM was starting?
I think there was a week’s space. There must be a date of recording. (Reading the notes on the CD booklet) “August 1968, IBC Studios”… No, COLOSSEUM was already beyond rehearsals, we already decided on the final line-up.
- How did Jack’s “Theme For An Imaginary Western” end up on COLOSSEUM’s “Daughter Of Time” album?
Because we liked the song! We thought it was a terrific song and it would be good to play. And Jack’s been a friend of mine since – when the hell was it? – 1962.
- I guess, almost every musician wants to make a solo album, often using it as an outlet for the ideas he feels restricted to realise within the band he’s in. What about your solo records?
You’ve got to use the people you want to use to pursue your own musical motivations, as far as they will go, and the people that I choose to play with on my albums are always great. You do what you want to do, if somebody will pay for it, while COLOSSEUM is like a setting stone, and it isn’t not going to change its personnel.
- What the new COLOSSEUM album is like?
So far I’ve been pleased, but I can’t describe the new COLOSSEUM album yet because it isn’t finished – we haven’t finished mixing it. The great thing about the new album is that, like all the COLOSSEUM albums, it’s different: they all represent our progress, and this one represents our progress too – we are not repeating what we’ve done before, and I’m proud of that.
- A tricky question: if you were me, what would you ask yourself about?
(Slowly, weighing every word) If I was you, what would I – as you – ask yourself – me – about? (Thinks for some time.) Quite a long pause here, cause it doesn’t come up immediately, so I have to think about it. (A long pause follows, indeed.) If I was you, I would be asking how long I – as me – expect to go on playing. (Laughs.) Honestly, cause from the point of view of someone who’s young, I must be really old. There’s a lot of people around – apart from the people who’ve died, like Graham Bond – who are still playing in their eighties, and assuming that I’ll live that long, my question to myself is whether I’ll be able to play. The thing about being a saxophone player is you’ve got to be in reasonably good health to be able to blow.
- What simple things can make you happy?
It always makes me happy to get some good gigs in, to have something to look forward to, but there’s other stuff like that – not just music. Speaking as an Englishman, a Brit, you always must be thankful when you get some sun, though the nice thing about being on the island is that you don’t have extremes of temperature, and that’s something that I’m pleased about. And another thing that I’m pleased about is that so far so good I don’t seem to have any symptoms of dementia.
- Is it right to be playing blues when there’s sun outside? Isn’t blues a rainy music?
Yeah, it’s right, as blues is about life, it’s about everything.
- And what is British blues?
I think that there is something about British music – British jazz music, blues music, whatever – which is learning to be distinctive. We’ve had a long history: Sidney Bechet came here more than eighty years ago – he played in London in 1919. The two most important influences in my musical life are Sidney Bechet and Wardell Gray, and they are the reason that I play music at all. Put both of them together and the result is me. As it says in my book, “If mothers come first, then Bechet was my mother”. I don’t know how true this is but what I feel is that American blues arises in the first place from black people in the country, and when black people in the deep South play music, it brings with it slavery that whites inflicted on them and also the deep strength of the blacks. And Britain as a nation had a big role to play in helping to create a slave trade.
But American blues is not just the black skin of the people who first played it, it’s also the culture, and the culture is partly black and partly white, and there’s a lot of modal and chordal structures, chordal relationships that black people picked up on. They heard it and learnt how to use for their own purposes – not for white purposes but the black purposes – there’s a lot of chordal stuff going on in there, which I think is not specifically black, not specifically African, and that’s what I think is American. It’s a combination of white culture and black culture that produces something new, and the new thing it produces – and we’re going back a hundred years at least – is a thing of such enormous strength and power, musically, that it spreads across the whole world. No one’s ever seen anything like that before.
As of British blues as opposed to American blues… The America’s history is very different to British history, and while there’s racial prejudice going on in Europe and especially in Britain, we never had to cope with the horrors of the slave trade. I’m glad to say that there was one or two British people who were quite instrumental in gradually stopping the slave trade. So we, the Brits, have a very different character to the Americans; I’m not sure how exactly it’s connected with the difference between the British blues and American blues but it looks to me like this: when I listen to American blues, the good part of it is deeply emotional and the not so good part of it is technically very accomplished, very smooth, and there’s a contrast between American music and British music in this blues area. On there, I think, in the last fifty years the British have begun to focus to produce music, which is a bit less beautiful than the American cultural approach – sometimes harder, sometimes more acid. But it’s all a bit silly, really, cause America is gigantic compared to Britain.
- What did you personally find so catchy in this American music to make it the core of your life?
I have to say Sidney Bechet and Wardell Gray to start off with: for me, Sidney Bechet is strength and beauty and Wardell Gray is celestial, supernatural kind of happiness.
- Then what do you feel you’ve brought to the British music?
I don’t know, I don’t know… I would be very happy to have it said – because I regard it as a great compliment – that I started off with a broad, a wide conception [of blues] – not focused, not exclusive but inclusive. That’s what I would like to think that other people believe about me. We shall see.
– Is that a continuation of your stubborness?
Oh, probably! (Laughs.)
Many thanks to Dick’s manager, Pete Grant. Peter Grant, the manager – that sounds great!