THE VARSITY DRAG episode two

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OXFORD 1965-1968

 What was happening at Oxford in the autumn of 1964 when I arrived as a nervous “fresher”?

NOT A LOT as far as the university jazz scene is concerned!

There was a decent trad band that played for dancing once a week. The O.U. modern jazz club was moribund – modern jazz had been the default music for drunken “staircase” parties until 1963 but general undergraduate musical tastes had then quickly shifted to the Beatles and the rest of the British pop explosion. There remained therefore only a small hard core of be-bop aficionados and hardly any musicians – certainly not of the calibre (since Dudley Moore, organ scholar at Magdalen college) of the previous Cambridge generation described in THE VARSITY DRAG episode one.

 I was a keen 18 year-old, eating, sleeping and breathing jazz and dreaming of becoming a musician. How was this going to happen?

My salvation was the discovery that there were two seriously good players on the doorstep, though neither of them was a student.

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Pianist Brain Priestley was six years older, had previously led his own jazz band at Leeds University and was now living in Oxford and working at a bookstore. He later went on of course to become a well-known broadcaster and author, writing acclaimed biographies of Mingus, Coltrane and Parker. He also taught piano for over 15 years at Goldsmith’s college London and continued gigging.

(We were reunited in 1998 when I played with Brian’s Mingus Sextet featuring Martin Shaw (tpt), Olaf Vass (reeds) and the late Derek Wadsworth (tmb). I’ve got some tapes of this band which I will dig out and upload to the Music page.)

Brian emigrated to Ireland (lucky bugger - no Brexit nausea) in 2006 and has his own programme on Radio Kerry.

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The other great talent in our midst was altoist (later tenorist) Pat Crumly – an Art Pepper and Herb Geller fan -  who was living in nearby Kidlington with his first wife and children and working in a menswear shop in the City. He was already semi-pro, playing odd dates at nearby American airbases.

Pat later worked as a journalist for the Oxford Mail and finally became a full-time musician in 1979 when he was offered a six-week stint depping with the Dankworth band.

Pat went on to tour with Jack Jones, Zoot Money, Chris Farlowe and others as well as fronting his own jazz groups. Returning from a trip with Farlowe in 1996, he discovered that his champion Ronnie Scott had just died and Pat promptly formed the “Ronnie Scott legacy band” which was very popular. Pat died in 2008.

 So, going back to 1965, we formed the Pat Crumly quartet and played regularly in pub rooms and larger venues. Sometimes we were billed as the Oxford University jazz quartet and got into trouble because only me and the bass player were undergraduates.

Jimmy Witherspoon with Pat Crumly (alto) Brian Priestley (p) Stan Johnstone (bs) and Spike Wells (d)

Jimmy Witherspoon with Pat Crumly (alto) Brian Priestley (p) Stan Johnstone (bs) and Spike Wells (d)

My diaries and scrapbook tell me that we somehow got a slot on BBC TV Late Night Line-Up in November 1966 and performed two numbers (Joy Spring and a blues by Pat Old Grandad named after his favourite Bourbon). I have fuzzy snap shots of the TV screen (but alas no soundtrack) to prove it.

Brian and the rhythm section provided backing for guest soloists from London, including Don Rendell, Peter King, Ronnie Ross, Tony Coe, Shake Keane, Kenny Wheeler, Bobby Breen and notably Joe Harriott (I’ve added another track from his 1966 concert introduced last week on the Music page) and Bobby Wellins (I’ve put up a new track from the 1965 pub gig when I played with him for the first time ever).

Pat Crumly was joined in the front line in 1968 by a promising young flugelhornist Pete Duncan and on several occasions by the excellent American singer Arlene Corwin (who was in Oxford for a time and is now a poet based in Sweden).

Somehow I managed to fit in enough study to get a degree but it was my Ancient History tutor who, although he saw an academic future for me, encouraged me to give jazz a go for a few years. Or. as he put it, “play for the county for a season or two and get it out of your system”.

I was now 22. My dreams of being a professional jazz drummer were still very much alive and about to be fulfilled – only 3 months later. I have never of course got it out of my system………………….

Spike Wells