Wednesday, May 25, 2022


© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights 


Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he also developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.

The following article was published in the September 2006 edition of Jazz Journal. 

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© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

  I only ever achieved a moderate level of competence on the saxophone but it has always been my proud boast that I gave John Horler who has worked with Zoot Sims, Chet Baker, Pepper Adams, Herb Geller and Maynard Ferguson his first paid engagement. It was 1964 and as usual on a Friday evening I had telephoned the union asking if any pianists were available for a Saturday gig in London’s Balls Pond Road, Dalston – my little group only worked in the best locations! John was recommended and we met at the Kings Head pub where we were booked to entertain the guests at a wedding reception from 7 to 11 pm, for the princely sum of £2.50 per man. 


Pointing at a beaten-up wreck of an upright, the landlord proudly told us that it had been “painted only last week” but a few random arpeggios from our visiting virtuoso revealed all we needed to know – it was a semi-tone flat and missing a number of notes. During an evening of what must have seemed to John like interminable medleys of foxtrots, waltzes, cha-chas and pop tunes of the day, I desperately tried to reveal some hip jazz credentials to him by enthusing about my latest purchase which featured Bob Brookmeyer, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock and Gary Burton. Later while the rest of the band took a break and uninhibited by an instrument that should have been condemned before the war, I vividly remember him playing a swinging version of Brookmeyer’s “Jive Hoot” from the album to the uncomprehending guests. 

John carried on slumming musically with my group for a few more weeks. Despite this unfortunate beginning to his musical career he still talks to me and readily agreed to this interview which took place at his home in West Norwood, South London. 

“I was born in Lymington, Hampshire on the 26th. February 1947 and started classical piano studies when I was six years old, eventually getting a Distinction at Grade 8 from the Associated Board when I was ten. It was thanks to my father who was a professional trumpeter that I became interested in jazz. He introduced me to Art Tatum and I remember we both worked on transcribing Art’s “Embraceable You” soon after I passed Grade 8 so that I could play it on a local radio station. We got the gist down on paper and although I couldn’t play it exactly like Tatum, I heard a tape recently and it wasn’t bad – I must have been pretty good in those days!  I appeared at a lot of music festivals because the piano was all I lived for and it was very exciting but eventually something inside me said, ‘For God’s sake, stop all this!’ I needed a rest although my parents, who were great, didn’t really understand the pressure that I was under from so much performing. 

“My father often had friends around to listen to records and one of them left the Gerry Mulligan Paris Jazz Fair album with Bob Brookmeyer at the house. We all loved it, especially my brother Dave who plays trombone and has been with the WDR Orchestra in Cologne for the past 25 years. We really started to listen to jazz then. We had been dazzled by Tatum’s technique of course but that Mulligan record really ‘clicked’ with both of us and never left us. My grandmother started buying us an LP each month and those records turning up were big events. We acquired all the Mulligan quartet LPs as they came out as well as Brookmeyer’s Blues Hot And Cold and Oscar Peterson’s trio playing Porgy And Bess. Another favourite was Stan Getz and J.J.Johnson at the Opera House with those two classic ballads – “Yesterdays” and “It Never Entered My Mind”. One of the albums that had a particular influence on me was the Brookmeyer and Stan Getz LP recorded in 1961 with the wonderful Roy Haynes on drums. Steve Kuhn was on piano and he was the one who indirectly introduced me to Bill Evans. Instead of a two-handed chord like Oscar would do, Steve played a single note in the right hand which was repeated as a chord in the left. He did that all the time and I thought it was great because I had never heard that approach before. I started to absorb those ideas into my own playing and when I heard Bill Evans I realised where Steve got it from. 

“The first Bill Evans record I bought was Waltz For Debby. I played that LP over and over and funnily enough it was Scott LaFaro who blew me away before Bill – I haven’t heard bass playing like that even to this day. Of course I collected all of Evans's albums after that but I was a little disappointed with the LP he made with Brookmeyer. Bob’s ideas of course are amazing and he can certainly play the piano but the difference in pianistic ability is too great. Bill was almost concert piano standard and Bob is a trombone player who doubles – he does it very well but he’s not in Evans’s league. I believe he went to the date expecting to play trombone and was surprised when he saw two pianos set up. It’s such a shame he didn’t play the trombone with Bill and I’m not really a fan of two pianos playing together anyway.

“I studied at the Royal Academy from 1963 to 1967 and towards the end of the’60s I started working at the Penthouse Club in Shepherd’s Market with Bob Layzel’s band. We backed artists like Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks and I also occasionally got a call to play with Maynard Ferguson’s big band when he was over here. I did a few deps when the regular pianist wasn’t available and Maynard was very good to me and great to work with – although the remuneration wasn’t wonderful! Unfortunately very often when I was there the rest of the rhythm section were replacements too. This created problems with the geography of the music and led to some confusion regarding repeats and where they went back to. It was better when the regular guys like Randy Jones and Dave Lynane were there because one of them would say, ‘OK John, go to letter C now’ so I knew where I was. I remember one piece though where I was supposed to bring in the tempo on piano and I got it completely wrong. Maynard just cued the band in and played my part with me bringing it up to the right tempo with no fuss at all. That’s real class because he didn’t leave me with egg on my face.

“I often worked with Ronnie Ross and we got on very well. He usually used my great friends Allan Ganley on drums and Chris Laurence on bass and we did a number of broadcasts, either as a quartet or a quintet with trombonist Chris Pyne. Ronnie had a big sound on baritone and I was very touched when Sue, his wife, sent me a letter after he died in 1991. She told me that he had really liked my playing and thought a lot of me. I wish I had kept that letter.” (Just as an aside, it should never be forgotten what a superb player Ronnie Ross was. John Lewis, who asked him and Joe Harriott to tour Europe with the MJQ in 1959 once said that Ross was his favourite baritone soloist. One particularly excellent example of his work is a 1963 album on World Record Club (E)T346 with Bill Le Sage, Spike Heatley and Allan Ganley – unfortunately not available yet on CD).  

“By the mid 70s I was starting to get a lot of calls for session work with people like Engelbert Humperdinck, Harry Secombe and even Placido Domingo. Classical singers had started to record standard tunes which they didn’t do very well. I remember Placido who was charming to us incidentally trying “Blue Moon” which he must have attempted about 20 times. Normally you would put the track down so the singer could come in later and add the vocal but he did it live which meant we had to play it 20 times too. I got pretty fed up with “Blue Moon” which has never been one of my favourite tunes anyway. 

In 1976 I did a European tour with Shirley MacLaine and I loved working with her. She was very nice to all the musicians and a tremendous artist – an amazing singer and dancer.

“I played a lot with Tony Coe who of course is a genius which at times makes him a little unpredictable.You just have to accept that he’s ‘Tony’ and as I’ve got more mature and experienced over the years I understand him better. We made an album in 1978 titled Coe-Existence (LAM 100) and we also worked together more recently in Malcolm Creese’s Acoustic Triangle. We aren’t with Malcolm any more but we have a group with a similar line-up with just Alec Dankworth on bass. 

“In 1979 I played with Chet Baker at The Canteen for a week which was one of the most memorable musical experiences I’ve ever had because he was straight and he played wonderfully well. He had a few dots and we actually had a rehearsal with him so you can see how together he was. A lot of musicians came to listen and I particularly remember Henry Lowther being there because he loved Baker. Chet introduced me to Richie Beirach’s music and he sang quite a lot although I preferred it when he just played the trumpet. I must give credit to the rhythm section – Jim Richardson and Tony Mann – who played so well for Chet who was not a powerful player. At our rehearsal he told us that he didn’t want things to be too loud so Tony played brushes for him but when it came to me he switched to sticks. We could stretch out as much as we wanted, which Chet liked because it gave him long rests.” (Baker had very definite opinions about drummers. He once said ‘A drummer has got to be very good to be better than no drummer at all’.) 

“Jim Richardson has the recording from The Canteen and it’s pretty good. When the legalities are ironed out, let's hope it can be released because Chet played so well. He told Poppy my wife how much he enjoyed working with me and he even asked me to do some more dates in Europe with him. A few years later in 1985 I played with him again this time at Ronnie Scott’s but by then he was really out of it. Sometimes he wouldn’t appear and when he did he was stoned – it was terrible really and I didn’t enjoy it at all.” (Thorbjorn Sjogren’s Chet Baker discography lists private recordings of the Ronnie Scott  and Canteen dates. John also worked with Chet at The Canteen later in 1983. These performances were released commercially in 2016 on Ubuntu Music UBU0003.)

“Getting back to 1979, that was the year Bob Brookmeyer came over to do a tour with Jim Hall as well as some dates with Cliff Hardie’s big band. My brother Dave and I got a chance to play with him because we were in Cliff’s band at the time. Bill Holman had written a suite for Bob who also brought some of his own arrangements for us to play and we did three concerts with him which unfortunately lost money. Dave later went to Germany to join the WDR band. Over the years Brookmeyer often played with them and he and Dave became good friends.

“Zoot Sims was booked for two weeks at Ronnie’s in 1980 and I enjoyed working with him. He didn’t seem too happy though because he had a medical problem at the time which meant he wasn’t able to drink. The group sounded pretty good with Bobby Orr on drums and Lennie Bush on bass who are both British jazz legends. There was one tune that gave us all problems with Zoot because we couldn’t agree on the bridge for “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me”. I tried every way with that bridge but my changes never seemed to fit with what he was doing. I went to the trouble of looking up the song copy but whatever I played didn’t suit Zoot - even Lennie who was a tremendous busker didn’t know what he wanted. I was pretty confident in those days and I wasn’t overawed by playing with him so I said, ‘Zoot, why don’t you write out what you want me to play?’ That was all I needed but he never did. 

“Jimmy Rowles had written a whole bunch of chords for him to give to pianists when he was touring. Being an ‘ear’ player Zoot didn’t know everything Jimmy had written and occasionally there would be a discrepancy between the chart and what Zoot played. I was never quite sure if he wanted me to follow him or play exactly what was written – you have to be a mind reader sometimes. I remember telling him how impressed I was with one of his solos on a Mulligan CJB live recording. One night he turned to me and said, ‘Here’s something I know you’ll like’ and he counted us off into “The Red Door'' which he had played on the album. Even though we had our problems he was just fantastic. 

“I also played with Pepper Adams at the Pizza Express in Dean Street followed by a TV show in Liverpool. Pepper was a great soloist and a very nice guy who had a fondness for Guinness. We had long chats and although I don’t recall all the things we spoke about, he did tell me that he wasn’t totally happy with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band because he didn’t get too much solo space from Thad. I saw the band at Ronnie’s and it did seem like a lot of trumpet solos with very little from Pepper. 

“I’ve played a lot with Pete King over the years. We started working together around 1980 and at the time I think we had one of the best groups in the country.  We did an album in 1982 (Spotlight ESPJ520) and one of the numbers was a free duet called “New Beginnings” which was the title of the LP. That idea started one night on a gig when I joined in on his cadenza to “My Old Flame”. He turned round and said, ‘Keep going’ and we used to try that quite often in those days. We did another album in 1983 called East 34th. Street which featured two of my tunes – “Evans’s Song” and “3/4 Peace” (Spotlight SPJ 424). 

“As far as free playing is concerned it depends on the musicians but as I get older I find I am not so keen on it anymore because the idea of just playing anything doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sometimes though I play a phrase with someone like Tony Coe. He can hear and then embellish it before moving into something else which can be rewarding. I remember hearing Brookmeyer and Jim Hall doing some free things which had form and a theme where they just played lines without chords. It was successful because they are both such fantastic musicians. 

“1982 was the year I played on the movie soundtrack for Yentl with Barbra Streisand. Michel Legrand had written the music and he conducted a large orchestra with four keyboard players including the magnificent classical pianist Howard Shelley. His part was completely black with dots and I remember looking at it feeling glad that he had to play it and not me. We had a problem because when Barbra came into the studio she said the music was too high for her. We were given a few minutes to transpose everything down a minor third and I remember Howard did brilliantly even though he had the hardest part. 

“1983 was the first year I recorded with John Dankworth (Sepia ERSR2012) and after the session he said he would like me to start touring with him and Cleo Laine. I was very flattered but I was doing a lot of free-lance work and I was a little concerned about losing my connections if I was away for too long. It all seemed very exotic because they were travelling the world then and Cleo of course often worked in America. I took a chance but when the schedule came through the first dates I saw were at Hull and Tunbridge Wells! Anyway, I joined and I’ve been with them both ever since. John usually has a quintet with Mark Nightingale, Alec Dankworth and Allan Ganley although occasionally he expands to a big band. We sometimes play one of my originals – “Around In Three” which Cleo recorded in 2005 as “Once Upon A Time” with her own lyric (QMT 10108).    

I’ve also played with Tony Kinsey off and on since the mid 70s and I’ve been involved in quite a few of his recording projects. The great Alan Branscombe who was one of my favourite pianists was there before me and when he died Tony asked me to take over.

“I’ve sometimes accompanied Herb Geller when he is in the UK and he is a really nice guy and a wonderful player. It’s all a bit ‘eyes down’ with Herb though because he plays a lot of originals and some really obscure standards so you’re reading all the time which can be hard work. It’s nice if the leader lets the guys busk something they know so they can relax a little. 

“I don’t listen to many new jazz records these days because I prefer the ‘old masters’ like Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, Getz, J.J. Johnson, Jim Hall, Mulligan and Brookmeyer. Mulligan’s CJB played some of the best music I’ve ever heard incidentally. I also like Jim McNeely, Richie Beirach, Chick Corea, Victor Feldman, Wynton Kelly and early Herbie Hancock. Obviously I’ve listened to Tatum and nobody can do what Peterson does in his particular genre. I listen a lot to modern writers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Debussy and Alban Berg as well as classical composers like Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven. I also like the Rachmaninov piano concertos – that ‘over the top’ stuff doesn’t seem so ‘over the top’ as I get older and more romantic! I think it’s good for jazz musicians to be aware of other forms. Bill Evans introduced Miles Davis to Ravel for instance and if you look at the structure of some of their pieces you can see where they absorbed European harmonies into their own material.

“I must just mention some of my recent recordings. Alan Barnes and I have worked together quite a lot over the years and our duo CD – Stablemates - which we did in 2004 on Alan’s own label turned out very well (Woodville WWCD107). I also recorded a duo album with Ken Peplowski in 2001 titled Ellingtonian Tales on Mainstem MCD 0021 that I’m very happy with and my latest trio album – The Key To It All – is currently being mixed and re-mastered and should be available soon.”

The last word here should come from one of John Horler’s former colleagues - Bob Brookmeyer. He was quoted on the cover of one of my favourite Horler CDs - Gentle Piece, which John recorded for the Spotlight label in 1993 with Dave Green, Phil Lee and Spike Wells (SPJ-CD542). As always with Brookmeyer his comments are concise and succinct – ‘I find a quiet dignity and a sense of deep feeling in John’s music. The touch, the musicality and the well-thought out presentation provides ready access to his thinking and the support is always sensitive and helpful.’ 

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