On Friday, December 17th, Dick Heckstall-Smith, the blues saxophone legend, passed away. What a loss!
“All I want is to play music, I miss it greatly”, said Dick Heckstall-Smith this November, seated on his hospital bed and looking out the window at the bleak London sky. That must have been torturous for him – no, not the illness which Dick battled stoically, but the distance between the musician and his wailing saxophone left alone in Heckstall-Smith’s Hampstead flat for about a year that Dick spent struggling. It was not the first battle he had led yet the first he’s lost – but the British blues lost more.
Dick’s place in music history could be secured if only by the fact that it was him who brought Jack Bruce from obscurity to the wide audience, introduced him to Ginger Baker and advised, a little later, to check out Eric Clapton, but this bit of trivia is nothing compared to the man’s overall significance. Dick Heckstall-Smith was a staple of the British blues scene, that same staple which holds it all together. Having graduated from bebop – and carrying the love to the cutting kind of jazz through all his life – Dick was one of the first traditional jazzers who broke with tradition and opened his ears, and his heart, to the new sounds. Blues and rock enchanted him and set him on the blazing trail through Alexis Korner’s BLUES INCORPORATED, THE GRAHAM BOND ORGANIZATION, John Mayall’s BLUESBREAKERS and the band he thought up together with Jon Hiseman, COLOSSEUM, where the sax player shone most brightly. And a bright man he was, indeed: dry, English-way, and sharp as a diamond. Heckstall-Smith was the thinking person, he looked like a professor – and he almost became a professor. In mid-’70s, laid on that same flat’s floor because of the back problem, Dick, instead and inspite of being spineless, developed a philosopher in him and, when up again, took up classes and almost ended up as a real scholar – yet music’s clarion call sounded stronger, and the instrument that rested in a case, untouched, for three years in a row had been brought into the light again.
The light lived in Dick. The word “charismatic” is too common to use to describe him, but Heckstall-Smith exuded this special aura which made it hard not to fall for his charm. As for descriptions, that’s what he said last summer, “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”. He had all of this in him – and more.
An impish smile appeared on Dick’s face when this scribe informed him of the forthcoming COLOSSEUM tour. He wanted to get on-stage again but doubted he’d be able to. “How?” asked Dick, “Maybe in wheelchair?” He was dying to make it – and he was simply dying. What a loss!
“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”, said Richard the first time we met. There’s no words now to spill out the grief, yet there’s so much to be said when the tears dry out.