The Brian Auger Quintet & the Rick Laird Trio: Fleeting Moments in 1964

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Rick Laird, who died on 4 July 2021, very kindly talked to me for Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond (Jawbone, 2014) about a time long before he and John renewed their acquaintance in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, when they were both in the Brian Auger Quintet for a residency at London’s Pigalle nightclub and also a short-lived trio.

Baritone saxophonist Glenn Hughes was common to both groups. Glenn and John had previously played together in Georgie Fame’s (pre-fame) Blues Flames in 1962-63 and in the Tony Meehan Combo (October 1963-January 1964). John and Glenn would have a last musical hurrah together with a version of Brian’s quintet in August 1964, reassembled for a German residency. By that point, Rick had moved on to become house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, backing a series of American headliners at the club and on TV. He left to study music at Berklee College, USA in early 1966. By the end of that year, Glenn Hughes was dead – dying in a house fire, but essentially a victim of a ‘jazz lifestyle’ involving hard drugs. Having played around London’s jazz pubs and in Berlin bars during much of 1964, sometimes heading his own trio, he re-joined Georgie’s Blue Fames in November ’64 – in time for its sudden chart successes from early 1965 onwards. He would find it amusing that after years of playing jazz to a high level, for peanuts, he was finding a level of success by playing one parping note in Georgie’s hit single ‘Get Away’.

For decades it was impossible to properly ‘hear’ the late Glenn Hughes. His recorded work was limited largely to a backing role on Georgie Fame’s pop/soul records. Record Collector magazine, however, released Live at Klooks Kleek, credited to Don Rendell, in 2017 – a superb double vinyl LP (500 copies) recorded on reel to reel at the London venue on 13 September 1963, uniquely featuring Glenn on baritone in a modern jazz sextet setting.

The Stage magazine printed a photo of Brian Auger’s Society Club trio (Brian, Rick and drummer Phil Kinnora) in early January 1964. On 16 January, the magazine praised the ‘nice accompaniment from the bass and drums of the Brian Auger Trinity’, plus pianist Laurie Holloway, backing San Francisco cabaret singer Julie Tate – ‘nice to look at, pleasant to listen to’ – at the Society. On 6 February, there was a further puff, declaring that ‘some of the sweetest sounds in the West End are coming from the Brian Auger Trinity at the Society’.

The Brian Auger Trinity and the Brian Auger Quintet (the Trinity plus McLaughlin and Glenn Hughes) ploughed through their residencies at the Pigalle and Society Club for six nights per week spanning January to March 1964.

The Rick Laird Trio (Rick, John and Glenn) managed at least two gigs: Monday 25 May 1964 at Ronnie Scott’s Club, London and Wednesday 25 June 1964 at Klooks Kleek, West Hampstead (in the advert: “Ricky Laird Quartet featuring Glen Hughes” for three shillings).

The Brian Auger Quintet reconvened, with a replacement for Rick, on Saturday 4 July 1964 for a one-off booking at the New Ricky Tick, Windsor (‘Britain’s first drive-in R&B club’, entrance five shillings) before a month’s residency at the Schwabinger Keller, Mannheim in August.

After that, the moment was over and Brian, Rick, John, Glenn and Phil (soon to reinvent himself as Philamore Lincoln and then Julian Covey) went their separate ways – with a lot of separate and occasionally intertwining adventures ahead of them.

                                                                        *

Adapted Extract From Bathed In Lightning (2014):

EARLY IN 1964, John received an invitation he would have found difficult to have turned down: the chance to join a quintet with his friends Brian Auger and Glenn Hughes, with an open-ended nightly residency at London’s Pigalle Club. 1964 would turn out to be a good year for Brian Auger, winning the Melody Maker readers’ poll award in both the ‘New Star’ and ‘Jazz Piano’ categories. He had only just turned professional the previous year:

“[Prior to that] I was slogging away doing a nine-to-five then playing in the evenings. However, I saw the beginnings of the R&B world and what interested me was – coming out of a blues-edged jazz, like the [Jazz] Messengers would play – I could step from the Flamingo into Ronnie’s and play straight-ahead all night, all the different tunes. I was playing stuff by Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans…”

Coming into a quintet playing that kind of repertoire and with a solid booking must have been bliss to John. Since chucking in the day job, Brian had been working to try and establish his piano trio, with Phil Kinnora (who would later front soul and psychedelic rock records under the pseudonyms Julian Covey and Philamore Lincoln) on drums and Rick Laird, an Irishman brought up in New Zealand and experienced as a musician there and latterly in Australia, on double bass. Rick was a devotee of Oscar Peterson’s bassist Ray Brown, and of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans.

Arriving in 1962, Rick’s first gig in London had been with pianist Pat Smythe at satirist Peter Cook’s now legendary Establishment Club. By the time he left London, for a period at Boston’s Berklee School of Music in January 1966, Rick had been lucky enough to have enjoyed almost constant work as a jazz musician and huge if demanding experience, from September 1964 onwards, as house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s club, backing a wide array of visiting and local stars of the jazz world. At one gig towards the end of 1963, playing with Pat Smythe at a club in London’s business district, he had been on hand to witness the shape of things to come:

“The Beatles were just getting started when I was in London,” he says. ‘One night we had this gig, playing [at] some show which was kinda like a Peter Cook type of comedy/variety thing. Pat and I and Maurice Duronsky, the drummer, were playing the intermission. And all of a sudden, the club owner came in and asked everybody to leave and not to worry about their tabs, they’d be picked up. The next thing I know three of the Beatles came in with their chicks – they’d simply bought up the club for the night. All the public were out, they were in, the show went ahead – and they enjoyed the show.’

Brian’s trio had debuted at the Edinburgh Festival over three weeks in August 1963, then scrabbled around ‘doing any jazz club that would book us… despite the abysmal bread’. [1]

As Rick recalls, their repertoire was “hard-driving straight jazz, like the Miles Davis rhythm section – straight-ahead”. To Brian’s recollection, a couple of the better bookings were support slots to Zoot Sims and Roland Kirk, probably a four-week engagement each, at Ronnie Scott’s Club in Soho’s Gerrard Street. Capacity was 90 people officially, 150 in practice. If Brian’s unit got the support opportunity, it was most likely been for a week of each act’s season. Sims had been the first ever international visitor at Ronnie’s, back in 1961, and was always a popular repeat booking; Roland Kirk, a blind multi-instrumentalist who could play up to three saxophones at once, in harmony, and do so for extended periods with a remarkable new circular breathing technique, was a sensational coup for the tiny club in September 1963.

“Kirk was the best public relations exercise any jazz club could conceivably embark on,” opined Scott’s biographer. “[He] was only interested in producing a music that drew crowds. Many came to watch what seemed like a sophisticated freak show… [But] he proved to be that rare thing – an all-round entertainer who could play first-class jazz, and remain true to his principles.” [2]

Even the Beatles came to see Kirk’s act on one occasion during the run. Getting himself noticed in this kind of situation was precisely what would fuel Brian’s poll-winning accolades the following year.

*

“AT A CERTAIN point I got a gig at the Pigalle, in Piccadilly,” says Brian, “that allowed me to have a five-piece band for about three months, and I brought John in on that and Glenn Hughes on baritone sax – who was a phenomenal player. Glenn was the best baritone player I’d ever seen, at that point. And I had records with Pepper Adams on them, and Serge Chaloff, people like that who were making albums over in the US and I thought Glenn was better than either of those. He was a tall guy, and he handled that horn like a tenor. He called me and said, ‘Look, Brian, if you can use me, I’d really like to come and play with you’. I think he was missing the freedom of really playing what he wanted to play.”

“Glenn wasn’t terribly well-known,” says Rick. “I think Ronnie Ross was the main baritone player around London at that time. [But] Glenn was a rising star kinda guy… John and I were good friends right away.”

Brian had no knowledge of Glenn or John’s adventure in the Tony Meehan Combo [a package tour, a single and a couple of TV appearances spanning October 1963 ­– January 1964]: “I [just] knew they were just trying to keep their heads above water, like we all were.”

The Pigalle was a pretty sophisticated scene for London in the early ’60s. Seeing its neon lettering in black-and-white verité of London nightlife from the period automatically brings to mind New York, which was no doubt its owners’ intention. London wasn’t quite “swinging” yet and cultural aspirations for a nation still recovering from the experience and hardships of war were still very much focused on the affluence and otherworldly allure of America. Mostly a high-end cabaret club, off the touring circuit, no less an icon than Gene Vincent had nevertheless performed at a private party there in February ’63 and somehow the Beatles had been secured for the place on a Sunday in April that year, reputedly playing to an audience of mostly Jewish people, thanks to the gig advertising being limited to the Jewish Chronicle. The veneer of sophistication had not yet stretched to marketing.

Backing onto the Pigalle was a smaller venue, the Society Club, owned by the same people and facing on to St James Street. Brian’s contract meant performing at both places in staggered sets:

“I would jump from playing the main room and then run through the kitchens towards St James’ Street, [to this] little club on the other side of the kitchens. So we’d play 45 minutes at the Pigalle and I would dive through, with just a trio, to the other place. We were playing, I think, three or four sets in the Pigalle [every night] – it was a nightly residency.”

Particularly slow diners at the Pigalle during the Brian Auger Quintet’s tenure at the place might have noticed the sounds becoming gradually more outré and uproarious as the evening rolled on. From mellow arrangements of Gershwin and Cole Porter, things might progress to more groove-based ‘stuff that we could modify, like ‘What’d I Say?’ or ‘One Mint Julip” before caution was thrown to the wind: ‘On occasions we would let loose, ‘cos we had three 45-minute sets so by the time we got to the third set we more or less did what we liked!’

“We had a manager named Pamela Manson,” says Rick. “She was very keen for us to be more commercial, to get off the hard jazz stuff. We were playing standard tunes but not really hard-driving jazz… I don’t even remember the material we played [but] I wouldn’t say it was straight-ahead jazz – I think it was leaning more towards popular music.

“[But] I never considered John a jazz guitar player – not in the sense that I would think of Jim Hall or someone like that. He wasn’t a hard-core jazzer in the same way John Fourie was… He didn’t know the repertoire in the same way that I did, because I’d been exposed to it a lot with Ronnie Scott and even before that when I lived in Australia. He didn’t really strike me as being a real jazz enthusiast – more individual, and he did become quite individual. I still don’t consider him a jazz guitar player… The way I would describe jazz guitar at that time was someone who knew the repertoire of material that was popular at the time, like Miles Davis compositions, all the jazz standards – ‘All The Things You Are’, ‘Stella By Starlight’, those kind of standard jazz things. He wasn’t very knowledgeable in that area at all. Not a criticism, just an observation. He was an interesting guitar player, but not a jazz guitar player.”

Brian appears to have been one of the very few musical associates of John’s during the early ’60s who knew anything of the latter’s domestic circumstances at the time. It would seem that John kept his domestic life very much separate to his musical life. Brian was aware that John had been married at 17, had met his wife and first daughter, Julie, and had happened to be present when John had first seen his second daughter, shortly after her birth. Conversely, though their paths crossed several times later in the ’60s and into the ’70s and beyond, Brian had no idea that John had a son, born in 1965 (during a period when their paths obviously didn’t cross much for a while).

“I think there was a lot of marital problems and lots of stuff that weighed down on him,” says Brian. “I mean, I know that he was particularly under incredible stress when he was in the Pigalle band – sometimes he would just leave the stage, go into the wings and try to compose himself. I think he had various things happening – where his marriage was going, he’d found somebody else… I really couldn’t say what the hell was going on but whatever it was it really put him in the vice.”

“I believe he was recently separated,” is Rick Laird’s recollection. “I just know that he was living alone – we used to go to his flat after we finished at the Pigalle and listen to jazz late into the night. I don’t recall ever meeting [his wife] or the kid, but I knew he had a kid.”

“The only reason it ended,” says Brian, of the Pigalle gig, “was because they [also] had a show and they had a show-band, probably a 15-piece – all these guys with incredibly soup-stained tuxedos, and they were on whatever the union could get for them at the time, which was pitiful. [3] And all of a sudden, this guy appears from the union and says, ‘Right, there’s going to be a strike’:

I said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a strike for the [show-]band, but we have a contract with the club’.

“‘Oh no, one out, all out,’ he says, this horrible, grimy guy whose shirt hadn’t been laundered for several months, who stank and who had this Mackintosh which looked extremely furtive. So I looked at this guy and said, ‘Look, you’re asking me to break my contract, is that right?’

“‘Er, well, yeah, I suppose so….’

“I said, ‘Okay, well can you guarantee you’re going to get my band back in here afterwards?’

“‘Oh, we can’t guarantee anything.’

“So I said, ‘Well. fuck you then! You go and look after your little red book somewhere else and I’ll look after my band’.

“And then he said – and this was really funny – ‘Right! You know what? In that case you’ll never work in England again!

“I just had to go home and laugh. But in the end, they more or less closed the club down – the club gave in and they didn’t renew our contract.”

Following the collapse of the Pigalle gig, the musicians went their separate way. John, Glenn and Rick formed a trio, which John would refer to briefly but affectionately on occasion in interviews during the following decade. In one such, he refers to Glenn as the leader. Rick, however, recalls that the trio’s only booking – to his recollection – was under his name as leader:

“Yeah, I think it was. We had a one-night gig at Ronnie’s. I mean, I didn’t call it my trio [but] I had had gigs at Ronnie’s before. I’d worked with Ronnie Scott and his quartet before Brian Auger, so I knew Ronnie and sometimes on Monday nights at the old club they used to have odd groups. I think we only played one. It wasn’t like a committed group.”

Seven years down the line, John would remember Rick Laird and seek him out for a band of his own, the first Mahavishnu Orchestra. He would be absolutely the right man for the job.

Sadly, as with the Brian Auger Quintet, there were no recordings made of the Hughes / Laird / McLaughlin trio:

“[It] was the days before cassette recorders, and a [reel-to-reel] tape recorder was a mighty investment – too mighty for me,” John later lamented. “Glenn Hughes – God rest his soul… We had such an incredible relationship as friends, and as musicians we had fantastic rapport. We used to do Jimmy Giuffre/Jim Hall things; and Chico Hamilton; Miles; and Sonny Rollins tunes – Sonny Rollins is a musician and a man whose influence is not small in my life. [So] finally Glenn and I formed a trio with Rick Laird on upright bass, but there are no tapes, it’s gone forever.” [4]

*

IN AUGUST of that year, Brian Auger may not have been on a mission from God but he wanted to get the band back together, for a month in Germany. As it was, Rick Brown would replace the by then unavailable Rick Laird:

“I got a gig playing at Harry’s Bar, one of those fancy places in Mayfair,” says Rick. “It was just real commercial music – we had a guy who played drums and sang Frank Sinatra songs and it was just the three of us, and I made probably 30 quid a week. So I was playing at this place during the summer and in September Ronnie approached me to play [as house bassist at his club]. The first American… it was probably Al Collins and Zoot Sims and then there was Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery – they just kept coming! It was a great gig because, you know, most of them didn’t have music written out – you were just supposed to know all this material. John [McLaughlin] didn’t work in that way and couldn’t have worked in that way. Because when you’re playing with Art Farmer and he turns round and says, ”Stella By Starlight’, Bb’ – I mean, if you don’t know all the changes, you’re in deep shit, you’re just not gonna make it, ‘cos there’s no chart, no chords, nothing. You either know it or you don’t! [5]

“We played in Mannheim for a month,” says Brian. “John and Glenn were in the band. Again, we played in this club, the Schwabinger Keller – three three-hour sets with an hour off in between, so it was a long night, and four sets like that on Saturdays. But at least we were able to play stuff we wanted to play and the experience with Mick Eve [of playing US air bases] kinda kicked in and we played some of those [popular] things. It was amazing, because there was a guy who came from the Mannheim Conservatory of Music who was a guitar player who befriended us, and a piano player from there who befriended us – and when the guitar player saw what John played, he called his professor, from Stuttgart. And this professor turned up and sat in the front row – very tall, icy grey eyes, steel-rimmed glasses, grim-faced, and sat in the front watching John play – and was absolutely, totally impressed.”

It was most likely on this German trip – probably his first professional engagement in mainland Europe – that John had a profound experience which would affect his approach to music thereafter:

“I had one experience in music, with Brian Auger’s band,” he said. “One night we were playing, and suddenly the spirit entered into me and I was playing, but it was no longer me playing. The music was, is and always will be… I was just there, and it was coming through me, in a never-ending stream, and it was just delight, and fulfilment, and joy. In that little moment, the consciousness expands… and you can see things during that experience. I became aware that this thing was a permanent state, if one could reach it…” [6]

John wasn’t alone in his quest for this unbuyable drug. Dizzy Gillespie, one of the founding fathers of modern jazz, pursued it all his life. Ronnie Scott’s biographer describes a conversation between the two during one of Dizzy’s residencies at Ronnie’s club in the ’70s:

“One night in the back room where they talked and played chess, Scott began talking with the trumpeter about the magic of jazz, the pull that kept musicians in thrall to it.

“It happens so seldom,” Scott said to Gillespie. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time you play within boundaries. Then sometimes something happens and you break through it for a night, or an hour, or eight bars.”

“That’s what the incentive is,” Gillespie agreed.

“How often do you think it’s happened to you?” the Englishman enquired.

“About once every two years,” Gillespie unhesitatingly returned.’ [7]

“Some nights I’m there,” John mused, nearly 20 years later. “Rare nights I’m there, and those nights it’s everything I live for. It may not even be all night. It may just be 15 minutes, 10 minutes, five minutes a night. But even if you have 30 seconds, it’ll go on for six months. Because in that 30 seconds, or minute, whatever it is, you see everything. You see everything and you know everything. And everything is perfection at that point.

“But of course, then that’s your yardstick. Everything is measured against that, that experience and that kind of playing that you do at that moment. Anything less than that is just not enough. The first time I experienced it, it was like a self-evident reality. And to get to that is the reason for everything I’ve done in my life…

“At those moments, which have happened on a few occasions during my life, there’s no comparison to any other experience. Except maybe incredible sex with someone you are totally in love with. The difference in music is that you can touch a lot of people at the same time. But even if you only touch one, it’s enough.” [8]

One commentator in the 1970s characterised John’s performances at that time as watching a man engaged in a lonely battle with his instrument – a battle, by then, of gargantuan proportions, like something out of Norse mythology, conducted for the masses at epic volume and velocity: Gandalf hurtling toward oblivion, locked in combat with a balrog, every night. But even regardless of volume, the martial analogy would have been one that John would not have dismissed. Whether musical nirvana was achieved or not, there was nobility in the quest itself:

“From the point of view of going to concerts myself,” he explained, “if a musician is struggling that night and he’s fighting and he doesn’t have his shit together, the fact that he’s fighting is, for me, something beautiful to behold, because it’s a human being fighting with his feelings. He wants to get the notes out but he has to formulate them, to go through the notes and go through the rhythms – and not repeat himself – and be elegant and accurate and eloquent and profound. That’s something beautiful to see. And sometimes, if after a whole hour that doesn’t mean anything, there’s five minutes or one minute before the end of the concert where you’re really liberated from everything that’s gone down before, then it’s worth it. That’s really what I’m living for, that one moment.” [9]

Or, as John’s own idol John Coltrane once put it, “I’m not sure of what I’m looking for, except that it’ll be something that hasn’t been played before. I don’t know what it is. I know I’ll have that feeling when I get it.” [10]

NOTES

[1] The Beatles And Some Other Guys (Omnibus Press, 1997), Pete Frame

[2] Jazz Man: The Amazing Story of Ronnie Scott and his club (Kyle Cathie, 1995), John Fordham

[3] [The stage show at the Pigalle during this time was ‘We’re No Angels!’ a ‘lavishly spectacular all-girl glamour revue’, according to The Stage, with a cast of 40, led by singer Maureen Kershaw. It opened on 30 January. The Pigalle finally closed in late May 1964.

[4] ‘After Mahavishnu And Shakti, A Return To Electric Guitar’, Don Menn and Chip Stern, Guitar Player, 8/78. John confusingly mentions the ages of 18 and 20 in this interview as the period when he had this trio; they were clearly vague, passing ballpark references and both are incorrect. From other sources, the trio clearly existed in the brief time following the Pigalle Quintet and presumably before Rick Laird became house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s club in mid-1964.

[5] Rick Laird: ‘Very few people in London had steady gigs. I was lucky, and a lot of people used to be pissed off that I had this gig [at Ronnie Scott’s club] that had a steady paycheque. But, first of all, it wasn’t an easy gig. It was a very hard gig physically, emotionally – we used to play three sets a night, you know, and on the weekends, I think we sometimes played four, playing another set at two o’clock. Of course, we didn’t have amplifiers in those days – we had to make the noise out of the instrument… Not all the Americans were easy to play with, for different reasons – like Freddie Hubbard was very difficult. Ben [Webster] was a problem ‘cos he used to drink and he was completely out of it when he drank… Like I said, it was a hard gig, [but] I kind of remember it fondly.’

[6] ‘The Inner Flame’, Richard Williams, Melody Maker, 15/1/72

[7] Jazz Man: The Amazing Story of Ronnie Scott and his club (Kyle Cathie, 1995), John Fordham

[8] ‘John McLaughlin’s Discipline: Ultimate Devotion To The Instrument’, Peter Keepnews, Guitar World, 7/81

[9] ‘Johnny McLaughlin: Acoustic Guitarist’, Lee Jeske, Down Beat, 4/82

[10] John Coltrane interviewed by Nat Hentoff, quoted in Hentoff’s notes to the CD reissue of Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1997)

© Colin Harper(Jawbone Books), 2014

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