Photograph copyright Ruth Davis.
Born London 10 June 1940, died London 13 September 1994; drums, percussion, cornet.
These samples are taken from Incus video VD04 Gig a duo performance with Derek Bailey in August 1992. They are not good quality but hopefully give some idea of John Stevens in action.
John Stevens was a larger than life character. When he died a couple of years ago aged 54, Evan Parker pointed out that he had led a much fuller life than most people who lived longer, because he seemed to cram about 72 hours into every day. He was not only a musician, but also a teacher - always guiding and encouraging young (and not so young) musicians. The list of musicians, many of whom subsequently became well known, who passed through his various workshops is much too vast for an article like this. He was also a highly original musical theorist, who devised several radical and original concepts that became commonly used in performance and workshop situations by both himself and countless others.
He was a man of extreme contradictions. He gave an enormous amount, but he also took a lot too. He could be one of the nicest, most intelligent, most interesting and most inventive people around, but could also (particularly after imbibing) be one of the most obnoxious and foolhardy. This dichotomy, combined with his apparently inexhaustible energy alienated many people. Just about everybody who became very close to him, went on to fall out with him, and then come back at a slightly further distance. This applies to his wife Ann (with whom he was divorced and remarried), to musicians like Evan Parker and Trevor Watts, and to non-musicians like myself. Why did we go back? Because, when he was at his best, he was responsible for some of the finest music and most inspiring thoughts around, which seemed to make it all worth while. (But then, at other times, he was also responsible for music and thoughts best forgotten.)
The most important of his extreme contradictions was in his music. As a jazz drummer, he was extremely loud and very interventionist. Yet he was largely responsible for devising the generally quiet and largely ego-less music that came to be associated with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) and numerous other groups that involved musicians who passed through that band or were influenced by it. This to my mind was his greatest achievement and legacy.
He was always exploring, always looking for something new. Whenever he achieved a modus operandi that worked and made magnificent music, he had to move onto something else, more often than not to the detriment of the music. He was thus impossible to package from a commercial point of view, because the package kept changing. Plus there would normally be more than one package at any given time - thus a quiet SME gig one day would be followed by a loud jazz-rock gig (featuring one of his other bands) the next. He seemed to love all music, and want to make of it as much as possible. When he was not making it or teaching it, he would be listening to it - he had a large record collection that encompassed a vast range of musics - jazz, blues, "classical", traditional (particularly from Africa and Asia).
John Stevens was born in 1940 in the western suburbs of London - an area he lived in all his life. He decided to become a musician early on in his life, influenced by his father who was a tap-dancer. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1958 to play and learn music formally, and found himself in the company of other voracious musicians, notably Paul Rutherford and Trevor Watts. Away from the RAF bandroom, the learning consisted of listening to the music of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Ornette Coleman and many others. (The highly influential Giuffre-Bley-Swallow and Ayler-Peacock-Murray trios came later.)
Back in London in the mid-1960s, Stevens became one of the leading young jazz drummers, much in awe of the immensely talented Phil Seamen. As well as being one of the regulars to play at The Ronnie Scott Club, he formed a septet that included some of the other young jazz musicians on the scene. Around 1965, he met up again with Rutherford and Watts who were then co-leading a quintet, and became their drummer.
At the very beginning of 1966 they found a space in which they could regularly perform their version of free jazz - then considered too far out by other venues. The Little Theatre Club was a small room up four flights of stairs right in the West End of London. As its name implies, it was a primarily a theatre, but the musicians had use of it every night after the play had finished, for a couple of years. (Visually, the musicians were thus often surrounded by some very dramatic scenery.) Around this time, the Watts-Rutherford Quintet became the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, initially a co-operative band.
The most important personnel change at this juncture was the addition of Kenny Wheeler, who had been one of the most distinctive and original musicians on the London conventional Modern Jazz scene since his arrival in England in the mid-1955s. Stevens asked Wheeler to play with the SME, but Wheeler was initially unsure as he had never played Free Jazz. Thankful, Stevens persisted, and the end resulted is that Wheeler also became one of the most distinctive and original musicians on the free music scene as well. The first SME record - CHALLENGE [Eyemark EMPL 1002 (LP)] made early in 1966 - can best be described as Free Jazz with only a few hints (such as a tendency towards collective improvisation) of the music that was to come a year later. Each piece featured a composed beginning and end, featuring the excellent writing of Rutherford, Stevens or Watts.
In the middle of that year, Stevens met Evan Parker and asked him to join the SME. For some months, this was not very significant, as Parker felt overawed in such company and did not contribute very much. Performing just about every night of the week meant there was a lot of experimenting going on, and the music evolved, becoming more and more collective improvisation. At the start of 1967, there was an additional move towards creating a wide variety of colours using multi-instrumentation - something the AACM was doing in Chicago at the same time, although neither group was then aware of each other. The SME at that time comprised Wheeler, Rutherford, Watts, Parker, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy and Stevens - a veritable Who s Who of the London free improvisation scene that was to follow. Music from the period can be heard on WITHDRAWAL - Emanem 4020 which contains studio recordings released for the first time some 30 years later.
What was to be the most important change then occurred. Rather than the typical Free Jazz collective improvisation in which everyone tried to outplay each other, Stevens decided to go in the opposite direction and create a music in which everyone listened to each other and left space for each other. He also wanted to do away with the jazz hierarchy of front line and rhythm section, and in order to do this, he had to build himself a new, much quieter percussion kit that would not drown out acoustic string instruments. The result was a music in which each musician's contribution was not complete in itself, but rather an essential part of the group whole. Yet, each musician's part was distinctive and recognisable as theirs. (In this last respect, the SME method differed from that of AMM in which, by then, the individuals had been completely submerged into the group sound.)
The percussion work became much more dry and translucent. This went with the small drums and most of the other items in the kit, since their sound died almost instantly after being hit. There was generally no overall tempo or continuum, yet all the phrases played seemed to be rhythmical. There was very rarely any of the bravado usually associated with drummers, yet he was obviously a skilled percussionist - one simply had to be to get anything out of such a dry kit. He described his playing of this kit as being akin to the playing of the left hand of a Modern Jazz drummer. Sometimes it was much more than that - sometimes much less.
This new direction was not initially accepted by all the members of the group, and they dropped out one by one. By the middle of 1967, Stevens was the sole leader of the SME, and Parker the only other full time member, although Wheeler and/or Bailey sometimes joined in. As well as being the first musician to appreciate Stevens new direction, Parker almost certainly contributed to the actual direction, with both inventing new languages for their respective instruments. Some newly discovered recordings [SUMMER 1967 - Emanem 4005] by this duo reveal how original, sparse, clear and gentle their music was. (A major influence was the music of Anton Von Webern, particularly his Quartet Opus 22 for piano, violin, clarinet and saxophone.)
Other musicians started joining in, such as Peter Kowald (visiting on a brief vacation), Barre Phillips (dallying in London before settling in France) and Dave Holland (before being "discovered" by Miles Davis and being whisked away). The early 1968 quintet recording KARYOBIN [ Island ILPS 9079 (LP) - Chronoscope CPE 2001-2 (CD)] (which was released at the time) with Stevens, Parker, Wheeler, Bailey and Holland is another superb document of the period.
Around this time, Stevens began to codify his methods so that they could be used by larger groups and/or workshops. The main approach became known as SEARCH AND REFLECT (which recently became part of the Open University s syllabus), whilst two very basic concepts became the CLICK PIECE (in which everyone makes short repeated sounds in their own rhythm) and the SUSTAINED PIECE (in which one inhales as deeply as possible then sustains a note for as long as comfortably possible on the exhale). Examples of these also occurred during SME performances, such as the superb 1969 quartet recording OLIV II [Marmalade 608008 (LP) - Polydor 2384009 (LP)] by Stevens, Watts, Maggie Nicols and Johnny Dyani. (The other side, OLIV I, is a remarkable example of Stevens then tendency to do something "special" when a recording opportunity arose, rather than document what was usually happening. It ends up with Wheeler and Bailey improvising over the incredibly tense combination of both a driving piano-bass-drums jazz rhythm section and a static drone supplied by three voices and a saxophone.)
From 1968 to 1976, Trevor Watts became Stevens only full time partner in the SME, and modified his usual playing style to suit the music. Various other musicians were added from time. One quartet, that unfortunately went unrecorded, had Mongezi Feza and Johnny Dyani in it. This tended to specialise in extremely fast but quiet music - an area that was often used by later SMEs. In 1971 there was the magnificent quartet with Ron Herman and Julie Tippett (who had just abandoned a successful career as a rock singer using her maiden name). This used Stevens compositions to initiate collective improvisations. [BIRDS OF A FEATHER - Byg 529023 (LP) & ONE TWO ALBERT AYLER - Affinity AFF 81 (LP)]
Prior to this time, Stevens had often used his voice to add a non- percussive aspect to his playing. In the early 1970s he took this further by taking up the cornet (later replaced by a mini-trumpet). On this he was completely untutored, so much so that when he first started using he would hyper-ventilate, resulting in him fainting during a performance, then lying flat out motionless for about ten minutes whilst the rest of the band carried on.
During 1972-4, the Little Theatre Club became available again on certain evenings. Around that time, I made numerous recordings of groups of various sizes and various abilities. The most successful were of the duo (which came out as FACE TO FACE Emanem 303 (LP) - Emanem 4003 (CD)]) and some trios (which have not been issued yet). FACE TO FACE (a strong early influence on John Zorn, incidently) reveals both how the basic concepts devised in 1967 had worn, and how they had evolved. For a concert early in 1974, Stevens put together what can only be described as a supergroup SME with Watts, Parker, Bailey and Kent Carter, who played together as if they had been a long standing group rather than a one off quintet [EIGHTY FIVE MINUTES PARTS 1 & 2 - Emanem 3401 & 3402 (LPs)]. (Bailey & Stevens met Carter the previous year, when they were all in a Steve Lacy group for a couple of concerts.)
Stevens continued to experiment with larger groups made up of various mixtures of experienced and trainee musicians with varying success throughout this period. Inevitably, the individual contributions became mostly lost in the sound of the overall group. Usually the performances were improvisations around Stevens loose compositions - maybe concepts is a better word. Two very different, better than average, examples of these were released on record at the time. [FOR YOU TO SHARE - A 001 (LP) & SME += SMO - A 003 (LP)]
On THE LONGEST NIGHT [Ogun OG 120 & 420 (LPs)] of 1976, Stevens and Parker were united for a recording session that produced two LPs of exceptional music. Once again, these showed how much the music had both remained and changed since the time they had actually worked as a duo and invented it.
For the next edition of the SME, Stevens chose three younger musicians who had all been through his workshops and larger groups - Nigel Coombes, Roger Smith and Colin Wood. They all played unamplified string instruments, making this one of the quietest groups around [BIOSYSTEM - Incus 24 (LP)]. With hindsight, one can say that there was one too many string instruments, and the music made after Wood departed for India in 1978 seems better balanced than before. (This is not meant to be a put down of Wood s playing - rather a comment on the group s instrumentation as a whole.)
Unlike the earlier editions of the SME which used to perform and/or rehearse frequently, this SME became a very occasional affair. Part of the reason for this, was the difficulty of "marketing" such a quiet group. As a result, the SME discipline became much looser, although Stevens was quite capable of delivering mid-performance lectures if things moved too far from his concepts. The trio lasted until 1992, though there were often gaps of months (perhaps even years) between performances. A selection of their best captured moments (from 1980 and 1991) can be heard on HOT AND COLD HEROES [Emanem 4008 (CD)] - a name I found by the roadside in America which somewhat describes the tensions within the band.
The final version of the SME was somewhat different again, with John Butcher replacing Coombes. In earlier days, Stevens had convinced both Parker and Watts (quite correctly, I think, from the evidence) that SME music worked better on the soprano saxophone rather than the alto or tenor. In this last group, Butcher turned this upside down by mainly playing the tenor successfully - a measure of how the music had changed, as can be heard on the appropriately named A NEW DISTANCE recording [ACTA 8 (CD)] of concerts from the last year of Stevens life.
If I have concentrated on Stevens activities with the SME it is because I consider them the most important and musically successful. At various times, he also ran or helped to organise groups that were more jazz or jazz-rock based, such as Splinters, the John Stevens Dance Orchestra, Away, Freebop, Folkus, Fast Colour, PRS, and the John Stevens Quintet and Quartet. He also contributed significantly to Trevor Watt s group Amalgam and Frode Gjerstad's Detail, as well as collaborating with Bobby Bradford on several occasions.
Special mention must be made of two other recordings. A fine 1976 example of Free Jazz (using composed themes and overtly swinging tempos) was originally issued as CHEMISTRY [Vinyl VS 102 (LP) - Konnex KCD 5045 (CD)] featuring Stevens with Wheeler, Watts, Ray Warleigh and Jeff Clyne all playing magnificently. (This has the additional appeal of being a rare instance of Warleigh being captured at his best on record.) Then there is the duo of Stevens and Dudu Pukwana in a heartfelt 1987 tribute to the memory of Johnny Dyani [MBIZO RADEBE - Affinity AFF 179 (LP) - Affinity CDAFF 775 (CD)] - alas both of them are now just memories too.
Fortunately there are many recordings of Stevens, both issued and unissued, so that his music will live on, and his importance can be appreciated for time immemorial. I recently heard a tape of an SME concert on which he says to someone just before the music starts: "I will say goodbye now, just in case you are not here when we finish." Unfortunately it was he who left before he had finished.
[I make no apologies for including records that I produced on my Emanem label. I do not like records because they are on Emanem - on the contrary, records are on Emanem because I like them. To the best of my knowledge, all the LPs listed are out of print - some are veritable collectors items - and all the CDs are in print.]
Fordham, John (1994), Let's sing to him (Obituary), Guardian, Friday September 16.
However, from October 2002, I am extremely proud and pleased to announce that Paul Wilson's monumental and surely definitive John Stevens' discography is available on this web site. Due to the size, I have split it into five parts to make it easier for downloads. Also, because some have had problems with the formatting of these, I'm including them in both pdf and html format. The files are:
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