INTERVIEW: Alyn Shipton (Buck (Clayton) and Billie (Holiday) - featuring Lady J. Pizza Express Dean Street 26 July)

The Buck Clayton Legacy Band at the Gateshead Jazz Festival
Photo credit: John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk

On 26 July the Buck Clayton Legacy Band will present a new programme Buck and Billie  i.e. a commemoration of the music that Buck Clayton (with Teddy Wilson) made with Billie Holiday. Alyn Shipton explained the background - which includes an intriguing recurring theme of  singers and stage names. Interview by Sebastian: 

LondonJazz News: How long has this Buck Clayton legacy band been going on?

Alyn Shipton: The band was launched at the Ascona Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 2004, and played sporadically on and off for a few years after that, including a memorable set at Keswick in the Theatre By The Lake. But in 2011 we decided to make it more of a regular thing and to get together several times a year with (as far as possible) the same personnel, and that is what we’ve done since then. As well as a mini tour in the UK each year, we’ve now played plenty of festivals at home and abroad, including the EFG London Jazz Festival, Gateshead, Cheltenham, Swanage, Pershore (where we’ll be back this year) and Upton, and we’ve also been abroad to events in Holland and Germany with another Swiss tour coming up this autumn. We now have a very stable personnel with several leading figures on the UK jazz scene in the line-up including Alan Barnes, Martin Litton and Bobby Worth.

Alyn Shipton with Buck Clayton
Photo courtesy of Alyn Shipton


LJN: Can you remind us what started it off in the first place

AS: Back in the ‘80s I worked as Macmillan’s editor with Buck Clayton on publishing his autobiography “Buck Clayton’s Jazz World”. It was one of a series of books that also included the autobiographies of Bill Coleman, Arthur Rollini, Sammy Price and Andy Kirk — all swing era survivors — but uniquely Buck and I hit it off very well personally and spent time together in New York, and also in the UK, when he came over with some new music for Humphrey Lyttelton. Buck was a mentor to me, and took me to interesting gigs in New York, where I met many more of his generation. But we also just enjoyed getting together for a drink and a chat, with a few favourite haunts in Manhattan where we’d watch the world go by and he’d regale me with stories of the Basie days.

When Buck Clayton  died, his co-author, Nancy Elliott, got in touch to say she had something for me and it turned out to be a box of Buck’s music with a note saying: “You’ve kept my memory alive with the book, maybe you can do the same with my music?” So with my friend the German saxophonist Matthias Seuffert, we sorted out the box of lead sheets, parts, scores and notes and he worked the first tranche into a playable set of arrangements, that became the basis of our repertoire.

LJN: And we understand there's something new and rather special to do with Buck Clayton's association with Billie Holiday. What's the story of their working together ?

AS: Buck always maintained that his first records were made with Billie and Teddy Wilson’s band on 25 January 1937 and not with Count Basie four days earlier as most discographers assert. So in his mind, the association with Billie was hugely significant. The Basie band had travelled to New York from Kansas City via Chicago, and had only recently arrived in the Big Apple when those records were made. Buck went on to play on dozens of Billie’s sessions and indeed he can be heard on the recently issued anthology of her “last recordings” in a live concert just months before her death. He always described his muted obbligati behind her vocals as “filling in the windows”.

LJN: What's in the programme ?

AS: We originally devised this show with Gywneth Herbert who toured with the band often in 2013-2015, so Gwyn and I chose our favourite Billie Holiday repertoire, including some songs she’d only done with big orchestras which we re-arranged for a Wilson/Clayton sized group. In the event we only did the programme once before Gwyn’s work with her own band, writing musicals, working on the Aldeburgh outreach programme and so on got in the way, so we’ve now re-shaped the show a little, and it also includes one or two pieces that featured Billie with that other great swing era trumpeter, with whom I became close friends and ghosted his life story, Doc Cheatham.

LJN: You have some rather smart arrangers in your team if I remember right?

AS: Yes we do - and aside from the charts that were by Buck himself, and tweaked by Matthias, we have music here arranged by our trombonist Adrian Fry and by one of our regular trumpeters, Menno Daams, from Amsterdam. And the way we’ve approached the music is to be respectful to the 1930s and 40s “feel” of Buck and Billie’s records, but to reflect the broader style and slightly looser approach of the bands with which Buck toured in Europe in the late 50s and early 60s.

LJN: Is this a 'premiere'?

AS:  Yes in terms of this new repertoire, and our first outing with our new vocalist.

LJN: There is definitely a 'stage names' theme here. Billie Holiday was really Eleonora Fagan, and your new singer - we gather - also has an alias...

AS: We are featuring a wonderful singer who goes under the name of “Lady J”. I’m sure some London Jazz readers will know her by that name from her appearances at places like the Pheasantry working with a piano trio. But this is the first time she’ll have presented a whole evening with a band, in much he same way that Billie did at Cafe Society in New York with Eddie Heywood or Teddy Wilson’s groups. When our audience arrives they will realise that “Lady J” is actually a very well-known young singer on the UK scene with several records out in her own right, but several of us met her when she made a guest appearance on one of Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company concerts at Cadogan Hall, and realised she would be perfect to take our “Buck and Billie” project forward.

LJN: What / where / when is it?

AS: We’re at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street London on Wednesday 26 July - doors open at 7pm. We’ll also be performing this programme at Pershore on Sunday 20 August and at the Durham Jazz Festival at Ushaw on Saturday 26 August. BOOKINGS

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