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Mike Westbrook: England’s Dreamer

Mike Westbrook
Mike Westbrook (photo: Nick White)

Pianist Mike Westbrook and his wife, vocalist Kate Westbrook, like to escape the London rat race to chill out in their cottage in Dawlish, situated on the southwest coast of England. Once the haunt of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, life in this picturesque town passes at a much more agreeable pace. Even the postal service works at its own speed, which mean deliveries are, to say the least, slower.

It’s mid-morning, and Westbrook checks to see what’s in today’s delivery. He thumbs through the usual junk mail and bills, but he doesn’t expect a gig offer for his big band. Even after a career spanning more than 40 years, innumerable accolades for his work and an Order of the British Empire award for his services to jazz, Westbrook says that if he ever did receive an offer to take his big band on the road he’d figure he’d received somebody else’s mail in error. He’s only partly kidding.

Westbrook has been hailed as the British Charles Mingus or Duke Ellington for his widescreen compositions, but his last regular working big band broke up in the mid-1990s because of the usual problem: it couldn’t find work. But that doesn’t mean Westbrook doesn’t still write for large ensembles. His most recent CD featuring a big band is 2002’s double disc Chanson Irresponsable (Enja), is an ambitious suite. (As with many of his recordings, you can buy this set at

Westbrook was disappointed, however, that he was unable to tour behind the recording. “You have to ask the music business why I get turned down regularly by people, including in England,” he says. “I can come up with a piece like Chanson Irresponsable, which I put everything into-marvelous band, a CD by young players and established players, and music that nobody else is playing or nobody else is writing-and it’s very difficult to get anybody interested in putting [on a performance]. In a way it’s more to do with the music business than me; I’ve fairly consistently carried on delivering.”

He’ll keep on delivering, too. The 69-year-old arch conceptualist can’t wait to tour his latest work. “I thank God we haven’t run out of ideas. We have a marvelous new project called Art Wolf with a new quartet. I’m crazy about it, tackling the whole thing of art head on,” he says with enthusiasm. “The ideas keep coming, all kinds of projects from opera, shows, multimedia as well as jazz-it’s been very hard work, very exciting, but we’ve still got the energy to do these things.”

Even within the broad definition of jazz, Westbrook has created an oeuvre that makes the word eclectic seem inadequate. Other Westbrook projects have embraced free improvisation, New Orleans brass-band music, jazz-rock, standards, dance-music-theater collaborations, jazz-and-poetry, cabaret, opera, soundtracks for TV and film and jazz adaptations of everyone from Rossini to the Beatles.

Yet when Westbrook began his career in the 1960s, his musical personality was more sharply defined. “With the opening of Ronnie Scott’s club there was quite a lot of interest in the British scene,” says Westbrook, whose sextet at the time included legendary Brit-jazz multireedist John Surman. Alto saxophonist Mike Osbourne was a regular feature at the club as well. “During that time at Ronnie’s you had Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and my group [as house bands]-there was a lot of activity.”

During this period Westbrook was an art teacher by day, but says “jazz had become a very serious commitment. One did an awful lot of playing back then,” he says. Then in 1967 came the break Westbrook was waiting for: a chance to record and document his music. He had a big band then as well, and he combined it with the sextet for Celebration (Deram), recently rereleased on CD by Universal in the U.K. Jazz Journal said of the album, “Mike Westbrook has had to wait for far, far too long…to record. The band have established themselves as one of the finest in Europe.”

“It was possible to mount a new work at Ronnie’s,” Westbrook says of the preparation for Celebration. “You didn’t have to wait for somebody to commission you; the space was available, so just do it. It was a place to rehearse, so using the nucleus of the sextet and using musicians who were around at the time, we did it.”

In 1969 came the impressive two-volume Marching Song (Deram; rereleased by Universal in the U.K.), a progressive anti-Vietnam war suite that took him to the top of the talents deserving wider-recognition section of the 1969 Down Beat critics’ poll. Westbrook won for composing; for context, winners in other TDWR categories included Albert Ayler, Roland Kirk, Lee Konitz and Chick Corea.

“It is, beyond any doubt the supreme achievement in jazz composition and arrangement to date,” Coda said of Marching Song. “A milestone in jazz composition,” echoed the London Sunday Times.

Then and now, Celebration and Marching Song figure among the finest albums by a contemporary European big band. But despite the critical acclaim for the recordings, Westbrook says, “There was very little opportunity for a band like that to work.” He continued his day job, and “the big band thing became very occasional.” But wanting to be a full-time musician, Westbrook eventually broadened his scope. “I got drawn into music theater,” he says, “and then I formed a jazz-rock group called Solid Gold Cadillac.”

The jazz-rock influence can be heard on Metropolis, Westbrook’s 1971 big-band project for RCA (rereleased in 1999 by BGO). “I wasn’t committed to doing a jazz-rock thing; it was just a phase that one went through” he says.

In 1975 a commission from Swedish Radio resulted in Citadel/Room 315 (RCA) for big band and John Surman’s baritone saxophone. Westbrook considers the album one of his major achievements. “I had a period of hardly any work. I had a year on which to work on this piece,” he says. “In many ways it’s an exceptional record, which is due to John. He was on the top of his game. But the big band was not characteristic of what my life was like at the time; it was my work with the brass-band project.”

The brass band took jazz into the community, “trying to make it part of the daily lives of people,” Westbrook says. “It was a good idea, and everybody in the band felt the same way. That really went on through the 1970s.”

He also met his wife then. “When Kate became involved in what we were doing, we became fascinated with songwriting-musical settings of poetry, or writing cabaret. A whole new direction seemed to open up.”

This aspect of Westbrook’s ever-broadening musical palette culminated in 1994 with the stage opera Coming Through the Slaughter, based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel about Buddy Bolden. “A powerful premiere-you come out humming tunes,” said the London Times. Despite Coming Through the Slaughter’s opera tag, Westbrook says, “Throughout the instrumental elements, the main themes-my roots-are in jazz.”

In 1984 came On Duke’s Birthday, commissioned by two festivals, Le Temps du Jazz and Jazz en France-Angouleme, to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Duke Ellington. (HatArt released a live recording of the suite.) The five-song suite features Westbrook playing with the big-band genre and its boundaries in an acutely observed refraction of Ellington’s music that makes use of what the composer inscrutably calls “The Smith’s Hotel Chord,” a metaphor for the suave use of polytonality.

Also dating from 1984 is Westbrook-Rossini (released by HatArt in 1986; the label also put out Rossini, Zurich, Live 1986 in 1995). Evolving out his brass band, Westbrook treated the “Barber of Seville” composer’s themes and arias in much the same way he might approach a jazz standard, customizing them with his imagination and utilizing New Orleans swing as a new way to interpret Italian opera. Later he expanded the score for a 20-piece jazz orchestra in response to commission from the NDR Big Band in Hamburg and subsequently performed it with the Swedish Big Band and the Brisbane Big Band.

Even then, however, despite the critical acclaim On Duke’s Birthday and his Rossini project garnered, Westbrook did not have a regular, working big band during the 1980s. “The last one I had was with The Cortege,” he says, referring to a two-hour composition for voices and jazz orchestra commissioned by the Bracknell Festival in 1979 (eventually recorded as a triple album in 1982 for Original and then reissued by Enja as a double CD).

“Since then I’d been working with all kinds of ensembles,” Westbrook says. “Then, in 1991, I decided I wanted to form my own big band again, having worked with small groups for so long.”

Westbrook’s new big band was a huge success initially. It toured Europe extensively prior to making its British debut at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1992 Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, European’s great classical-music showcase. While it wasn’t the first jazz ensemble to appear at the Proms, it was the first to appear as part of the main program. A good representation of this period is on the CD The Orchestra of Smith’s Academy (Enja), recorded live at the Bracknell Jazz Festival in 1992.

“It has a piece called ‘Measure for Measure,’ which really is about as far as I have been able to take writing for a large ensemble,” Westbrook says. “Very difficult to play. That album has that kind of material on it; more dense. I really felt I was pushing myself and the band. That was the last time I had a band of that sort of size. I tried to keep the band going around London for a few years, but it was getting impossible. I feel the pieces on that album are very personal and couldn’t have been done by anyone else or at any other time.”

Big-band works such as London Bridge Is Broken Down (Venture, 1987)-a two-and-a-half-hour work for jazz orchestra, voice, and chamber orchestra, which was the first time Westbrook used a classical ensemble-Bar Utopia (Enja, 1996) and Chanson Irresponsable (Enja)-which takes its starting point from “the anarchic and eclectic nature of the song of the sedge warbler,” says the album’s description-represent Westbrook’s continual creativity in reimagining the big band in a contemporary context. But if he is frustrated at the lack of opportunities to tour, he doesn’t show it. Westbrook really is too much of a gentleman for that, and besides he doesn’t have any time to dwell on the negatives because of juggling an already busy workload.

“I’m very lucky because I have this ability to take on different things,” he says. “I think one gets a stronger grasp on things and what is important as life goes on. People would like to book [the big band] for festivals but we just can’t afford it-unlike Vienna Art Orchestra or Orchestra Nationale or Willem Breuker we have no subsidy. We go hand-to-mouth, something which I’d like to see changed. Those groups get their travel costs paid by their government.

“But things are going on at all levels at all times,” Westbrook says. “I can’t imagine how it happened-musical theater was another way of working when the jazz world wasn’t interested, for example. But by hanging on to the impetus we’ve got from the American jazz tradition, we’ve always wanted to find our own space. I don’t know why, but that’s the way jazz is-you want your own voice.”

And that, most certainly, is what Mike Westbrook has found.

Originally Published