In the early 1970s, and within a few years of the saxophone great Sonny Rollins inquiring in the music press if anybody in Britain knew how good Stan Tracey really was, the London-born pianist and composer was on the dole and considering becoming a postman.
Times were tough, with a shift from jazz to rock leaving even players with Tracey's talents struggling. But in the decades following, the reputation of Tracey, who has died aged 86, rose to match the natural talent that sharp listeners had been noticing since he was a postwar teenage forces entertainer.
With his wry and unsentimentally eloquent take on the legacies of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, Tracey became a bandleader with the cream of the British jazz scene at his disposal, and a festival celebrity at home and abroad. He turned into a collector's artist whose early classics began trading online for big money. Made an OBE in 1986 and a CBE in 2008, he was a class act who could fill St Paul's Cathedral, as he did in 1990 for his reappraisals of Ellington's sacred music.
A trim and robust figure who kept his hair, his mix of quiet ribaldry and acerbic realism throughout a long life, Tracey took a pragmatic view of human nature, distilled from years on the Tin Pan Alley duck-and-dive. All of which gave him immense charisma for a man of few words. Above all, he was a consummate piano improviser. His thudding, flat-fingered chords which bristled with metallic dissonances; his potholed-road runs; and his episodes of unexpectedly tender ballad playing amounted to one of the most distinctive musical signatures on the British jazz scene.
Born in Denmark Hill, south-east London, and raised in Tooting, Tracey learned the accordion as a child. His father, working late and sleeping late as a general factotum in a West End club, was a distant figure who did not much like music. But Tracey, an only child, had fond memories of spending time with his devoted mother, who would not let him be evacuated from London when the blitz began.
He left school at the age of 12 and taught himself the accordion and the piano. At 14 he began taking odd jobs and factory work before joining the forces entertainment organisation Ensa. Sporting bandanas and bellbottom trousers, the teenage Tracey and his partners worked in a fake Gypsy band before he joined the RAF Gang Show. There he met Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers and Bob Monkhouse. "I knew he was a musical genius in 1947," recalled Monkhouse. "He could hear any melody once, and instantly play a dozen brilliant improvisations on it."
Tracey joined Vic Ash's dance band, toured the country supporting the swing star Cab Calloway and graduated from the accordion to the piano through a new devotion to boogie-woogie. He also discovered Ellington and Monk, his two primary jazz influences. Tracey found a kindred spirit in Monk's crunching harmonies, chord voicings and wayward humour – and what seemed like an understanding of some of the percussively dramatic potential unique to the piano.
Guided by an infallible musical ear, Tracey learned fast enough to be playing on the transatlantic liners to New York in the early 1950s, hearing the American jazz idols at first hand. He worked as an accordionist with the pianist Eddie Thompson and as a pianist in the trumpeter Kenny Baker's octet, in the Caribbean-influenced bands of Carl Barriteau and Kenny Graham, and with the drummers Ivor and Basil Kirchin.
Tracey then joined the jazzy dance-bands of Roy Fox and Ted Heath, working for the latter from 1957 to 1959, and performing on the Heath band's successful trips to the US. Tracey's talents expanded in the Heath years, and he worked as an arranger and occasional vibraphonist as well as a pianist.
Tracey had been married twice (in 1946 and 1954) by the time he met his third wife, Jackie, a jazz lover who was working at Decca Records. They married in 1960. With Jackie's encouragement, Tracey had by then begun recording as a leader, his debut being the trio and quartet album Showcase (1958).
In 1960 he began the job that changed his life. The British modern jazz scene at that time was a very different world to the one it became after the ascendancy of the Beatles and the British rock boom. In his early career, Tracey was often working six nights a week, frequently in the company of such powerful British jazz performers as the saxophonist Ronnie Scott and the drummer bandleaders Laurie Morgan and Tony Crombie. When the relaxation of musicians' union rules allowed a flood of American jazz stars to work London club seasons for the first time, Tracey became the new club-owner Scott's first-call accompanist for the illustrious guests.
Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Rollins and dozens more changed from distant idols to up-close jazz legends whom London fans and players could now meet and hear. Accompanying those originals night after night was, said Tracey, "like Christmas every day". On the night bus home, he would scribble snatches of melody he had heard on the bandstand, receiving an informal version of the education he had never had. He began to write tunes he never suspected he had the imagination to conceive, then orchestrations, suites and extended pieces.
During these years, Tracey had also evolved a sublime playing partnership with the lyrical, Getzian Scottish tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins. In 1965 Tracey and Wellins made the album Under Milk Wood, inspired by Dylan Thomas's radio play. It was to be Tracey's most famous recording, an evocative collection of variously dancing and sidelong jazz themes, and featuring one unquestioned masterpiece. In the brooding Starless and Bible Black – a piece of rippling tone-poetry for the piano and Wellins's softly hooting sax – the pair conjured up one of the alltime great jazz performances.
The success of Under Milk Wood brought a burst of new recording opportunities for Tracey big bands and small groups in the 1960s. He became a regular member of the New Departures Quartet, mingling jazz with the poetry of Michael Horowitz and Cream lyricist Pete Brown. He wrote and performed the big band suite Alice in Jazzland (1966), composed all the music except the Burt Bacharach title track for the film Alfie (1966), in collaboration with Rollins; arranged for the Ellington tribute We Love You Madly (1968); and wrote another extended big-band feature, Seven Ages of Man (1969). Tracey also worked as a sideman with the gifted Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott, and with a classically influenced Ellington disciple, the composer Neil Ardley.
But then came the downturn, both for jazz and for Tracey personally. The bottom fell out of the straight-jazz record market with the coming of jazz-rock fusion, and Tracey – exhausted by the Scott years, and recovering from the destructive recreational habits so widespread on the Soho jazz scene of the time – hit his lowest point.
But a new generation of British jazz musicians remembered who Tracey was, and why he mattered. The young saxophonists John Surman, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore, and the pianist Keith Tippett, were among those who encouraged him to get back into the saddle. Tracey's wife and her friend Hazel Miller helped found the Grass Roots co-operative in south London, using the first trickles of public money for jazz to help reinvigorate the ailing scene.
Tracey felt challenged and stretched by working with musicians of the post-John Coltrane generation who had very different ideas to his own. He even enjoyed forays into free-improvisation, even if he did later confess to playing God Save the Queen all through a squalling collective blast one night with nobody else noticing.
From the mid-1970s on, Tracey's musical horizons expanded. He discovered outlets for his unique mixture of musical bolshieness and romanticism in a remarkable variety of settings, and formed his own record label, Steam Records, with Jackie in 1975. Later that decade he taught at Goldsmiths, University of London, and formed a punchy and infectiously entertaining octet, a sextet, a quartet and an orchestra. His son Clark was now his regular drummer, and before long would become a powerful bandleader in his own right.
In the following decades Tracey played in the Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts's big band, worked with Clark and with John and Alec Dankworth in the quartet Fathers and Sons, and in December 1996 celebrated his 70th birthday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with a concert that featured everything from unaccompanied piano to full orchestra. Five years later, on a 75th birthday British tour, Tracey even tried collaborative composition for the first time, working with Clark on the suite Continental Drift – a celebration of their globetrotting as musicians, together and separately, over the years.
Tracey continued to perform and record prolifically into the 21st century – releasing a stream of small-band recordings with Clark and the bassist Andy Cleyndert that were among the most vigorously creative of his life, and demonstrating his enduring openness and spontaneous creativity in free-jazz encounters with the improv saxophonist Evan Parker and the South African drummer Louis Moholo.
Monk's saxophone partner Charlie Rouse had said back in the 1980s that recording with Tracey was the nearest thing he had experienced to working with Monk himself. However, Tracey's expansion of the Ellington and Monk traditions bore no resemblance to the respectful neo-classical homages that came to dominate so much jazz marketing.
Tracey was heading for his mid-70s when the 21st century arrived, and the Rollins question about his stature – not just in Britain, but worldwide – now had its conclusive answer. Tracey's orchestra was the first jazz band to perform at the new Tate Modern in 2001, and the following year he received a lifetime achievement prize at the BBC Jazz awards. Channel 4 broadcast an informed documentary of his life (The Godfather of British Jazz) in 2003, and the quartet revisited the Under Milk Wood music for the Jazz Britannia TV series two years later.
A raft of new recordings emerged (including Live at the Appleby Jazz Festival and Tracey/Wellins - Play Monk) and there were reissued archive classics including the pianist's 1960s dialogues with Webster, and his 1970s free-improvising exchanges with Tippett.
Jackie died suddenly in 2009, shortly before the release of the new quartet session Senior Moment, which Tracey had dedicated to her. He made a memorable appearance on Later … With Jools Holland, toured in Britain and the US, reworked the Dylan Thomas short story A Child's Christmas for narration by Tracey's grandson Ben, and performed Ellington's sacred music at York Minster in 2012. In 2013 he received a parliamentary jazz award for services to jazz and reaffirmed his productivity as a player and composer with the typically taut and pungent quintet set The Flying Pig, inspired by a trip in his father's footsteps to the first world war battlefields.
Tracey was awarded an honorary DLitt from the University of Hertfordshire, which tickled him, as he had only the barest bones of a formal education; an honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music; and a fellowship of Leeds College of Music, for his immense contribution to the self-confidence of British jazz.
But then Tracey had been his own man since his career as a leader began, and the independence and character of his playing made him widely respected by musicians and fans – and loved too, though such a sentimental possibility would undoubtedly have elicited from him the characteristic shrug and an offhand one-liner. It was the quality of spontaneity and surprise in jazz that "keeps me interested after all this time", as he once put it to me. "After all," he continued with his almost silent laugh, "I wouldn't have been in it for the money, would I?"
Tracey is survived by Clark. His daughter, Sarah, died last year.
• Stanley William Tracey, pianist, composer and arranger, born 30 December 1926; died 6 December 2013
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