………...COE that is (aka TONY). 

I address him formally with his full given names (his father was musician George Coe) because for some reason I’ve never discovered Tony always calls me Michael (my given name) rather than “Spike”.

 Tony was born in Canterbury, Kent in 1934 and has reached the ripe old age – for a British jazz musician of his generation – of 84. Unhappily, he is now seriously incapacitated but he remains widely renowned as a very original jazz saxophonist and clarinettist  and also as a classical clarinettist, having worked alongside maestro Alan Hacker in the ensemble called “Matrix”. Tony is also a formidable composer and arranger.


Having put up one of my desert island discs last week (Phil Seamen on “Aristotle blues” with the Tony Coe quartet at Ronnie’s), Tony Coe has remained on my mind and what I want to do on this occasion is to write a few grateful words about the part Tony has played in my own musical development.

I always admired his alto and later tenor playing with Humphrey Lyttleton in the late 50s and early 60. His style was out of Coleman Hawkins via Paul Gonsalves but he had his own unmistakable harmonic approach, technical dexterity and swing.

 I first met him when I was an undergraduate at Oxford in the mid 60s. He came up to guest several times with our local rhythm section (which featured Brian Priestley on piano) and, unlike other visiting London musicians, he was in no hurry to get back to base but liked to stay over and spend much of the following day wandering about the city of gleaming spires. Luckily, I had a large room in college and Tony was happy to crash out on the sofa.

He would slowly surface in his vest with much scratching of the head, roll a few fags from his tin of Golden Virginia, and we would set off for a stroll round the bookshops and a pub lunch. Then I would see him off on an afternoon train. (I don’t think he has ever learned to drive.)

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Since we had become friends in this way, he was one of the very first musicians to help me when I graduated and moved to London in 1968. (Tubby Hayes was to come a few months later.)

I remember lovely mainstream/modern sessions at the Six Bells and other venues, finding myself playing with Tony, John Picard, Colin Purbrook and Ken Baldock. It was a dream come true.

A bit later on, I spent a year as a member of Humph’s band, Sometimes Kate Stobart was on tenor, sometimes Tony, sometimes both. On a memorable tour of Germany (West – although we did get in and out of East Berlin for a concert), Chris Pyne was on trombone, Eddie Harvey on piano, Dave Green on bass and Tony on tenor. Tony made a little nest for himself in one corner of the coach. Chris, Eddie and I got up to mischief at the back and the three of us were fired after the tour for “disciplinary” reasons…………….

The same year I also camped on a march larger bus with Roland Kirk, Philly Joe Jones and the Clarke-Boland big band of which Tony was in the saxophone section.

 In the 70s and 80s, I continued my association with Tony. He formed a quintet with Kenny Wheeler (well, actually, pianist Pat Smythe held the whole project together), there were gigs with pick-up groups and Tony wrote the string arrangements for Bobby Wellins’s record Birds of Brazil.

Tony was of course notorious on the scene as a maverick eccentric (shall we say ‘at a slight angle to the universe’ rather like altoist Bruce Turner) and one of his foibles was to let it be known that he didn’t like drums! He made several recordings without them. There were however a few drummers that he did like working with – especially the free-wheeling Tony Oxley but also Trevor Tomkins and me.


Tony on clarinet. Might have been our last gig together

Tony on clarinet. Might have been our last gig together

For my part, life would never have been the same without the experience of playing with Tony Coe: his genial company, his dazzling fluency on the clarinet, his rich mellow soprano sound (light-years from the reedy, acidic Coltrane) but above all that huge, noble, sinuous, swinging tenor saxophone which I revelled in ever since I first heard it.


 This week, I have added to the top of the chart on the music page no less than six tracks by Tony on tenor. ENJOY!




Spike Wells