THE VARSITY DRAG episode one



Cambridge University was blessed with an unusual number of talented jazz musicians in the early sixties.

Distinguished pre-cursors included Dick Heckstall-Smith and Colin Purbrook but by 1962, the undergraduate modern jazz scene revolved around Lionel Grigson.

Grigson was at that time primarily a pianist in the Horace Silver mould but he also played trumpet and was a budding composer with a solid knowledge of jazz harmony. After graduation, he settled in London and led the  Sunday afternoon sessions at the Troubadour Café in Earl’s Court. He later became involved with West Indian music as well as jazz. He published a successful chord book and eventually became Professor of Piano and Improvisation at the Guildhall.



I knew Lionel well and played in many of his groups. We recorded a beautiful trio session in Bob Cornford’s flat in 1970 and I have added a track from this to the Music page this week.

Lionel’s closest university friend and musical soul-mate was the gifted young bass player John Hart who sadly never fulfilled his considerable potential because he was killed at a very young age in a car crash in France. John also became a friend of mine and is the bassist on the Joe Harriott Oxford concert (They can’t take that away on the Music Page) of which more anon.

Also on the Cambridge scene at that time were saxophonists Dave Gelly and Art Themen.

Dave is a distinguished author and critic. He has written, among other things, an excellent biography of Lester Young (Being Pres) and a superb analysis of the British jazz scene in the Fifties (An unholy row).

Art of course has gone on to combine working as a consultant surgeon with become a world-renowned musician, playing in countless contexts including a notable spell with Stan Tracey’s quartet and larger groups. Currently, I play with him on a monthly gig at the Bull’s Head, Barnes.


Lionel (on trumpet), Art (on tenor), Dave (on alto) and John formed a sextet with piano and drums which won the Inter-University Jazz Competition at Southampton and went on to make a recording, engineered by another Cambridge alumnus – Ray Dolby of later noise-reduction “fitment” fame.

Supporting the sextet, and responsible for organising this recording, as well as acting as agent/manager to get gigs for them,  was the President of the Cambridge University jazz club – yet another talented young alto-player, Paul Zec, who was kind enough to provide me with a copy of this unreleased recording.

 I have put the best three tracks up on the Music Page this week.

The line-up for the recording was completed by Mike Barrett on piano (on whom I have no information but he’s an excellent player) and on drums by a student called George Walden who went on to become a Tory MP and a junior Minister in the Thatcher government!

He’s written a memoir called Lucky George presumably referring to his political career but I would say a substantial slice of his luck (in his role as a modest time-keeping drummer) was to have played in such august jazz company and to have been in a rhythm section with John Hart on bass!



Enjoy the music – it’s of a very high standard.

 (When I get round to THE VARISTY DRAG episode two, I’ll be reminiscing about the scene at Oxford between 1964 and 1968. We weren’t blessed with such a galaxy of talent among the students but lurking in the city outside the college walls were two top class musicians –  saxophonist Pat Crumly and pianist Brian Priestley. Watch this space…………………)




Spike Wells