The following sleeve note by Jeff Cloves to Big Chief’s first album ‘It Don’t Make Sense’ is a good introduction to the band. He writes:
“Give or take, jazz is a hundred years old and has been recorded for around eighty. It’s a young music, but its rapid evolution from New Orleans street parades and red light honky-tonk to its current sophisticated internationalism is phenomenal. That Big Chief (BC) is still blowing strong after twenty years is also phenomenal and that it has taken nearly a quarter of a century to get its music recorded is quite extraordinary, even outrageous. Whatever, here at last is the band – loud, lovely, and as unfashionable as ever.
“BC was conceived by Tony Edwards, Tony Desborough, Adrian Paton and John Fry in 1976 and in no time at all they added Dick Heckstall-Smith and singer, Janice Ponsford to the line up. At that time, jazz was popularly held to have stalled down a blind alley. Thirty years after the bebop revolution, Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman’s free-form experiments had lost jazz its popular base, it was argued, and as rock n’ roll was superseded by the altogether more demanding and intellectual pretensions of rock, the death of jazz was announced.
“Its death was greatly exaggerated but its popularity declined and, undeniably, some of its practitioners lost confidence in its form. One consequence was the birth of jazzrock. The theory was that by combining jazz with elements of rock, a musical form which appealed to both camps would evolve. To invent a band like BC at this time was, to use the language of politics, either progressive or reactionary, depending on your stance. Actually, BC was in the vanguard of something which later became the so-called “jazz revival” of the eighties. Perhaps jazzrock did contribute to that revival – my life has been peppered with jazz revivals – but BC came from other directions altogether. These directions are evident on this CD and reveal that, from the off, BC was concerned not with the fusions of jazzrock, but with repertoire and a particular feel.
“In my experience, jazz musicians are always more broad-minded about musical styles than their followers. When I first heard eighteen-year-old John Fry, circa 1958, he was playing clarinet in a New Orleans-style trad band. When I first heard Tony Edwards, circa 1971, he was one of two drummers in the anarchic People Band which lived on brown rice and played anything in any key, often at one and the same time. When Big Chief came together in 1976, what its members had in common was catholic taste.
“This open approach to the music was further enriched in 1979 with the arrival of bassist Tony Reeves, formerly with Curved Air and Colosseum, the addition of Mike Jacques, also ex-Curved Air and at that time playing ska/reggae guitar with Rico Rodriguez, and the band’s long term association with Dave Chambers of the O.K. Band and from the Mike Westbrook stable. What they and all the other distinguished musicians who’ve played with BC have is a fundamental commitment to good feel and a belief that the jazz repertoire should acknowledge no limits.
“Thus, BC plays Duke Ellington and Fats Domino, Alain Toussaint and Horace Silver. Whether the numbers originate in boogie woogie, rhythm and blues, rock n’ roll, township kwela, big-band swing, bebop, or post-modernist freeform, BC puts its liberated stamp on them and lets the good times roll. Just a glance at the roll call of musicians, past and present, who’ve made the band what it is today will confirm that BC’s music has always been in safe hands – and why it is always unmistakably rooted in jazz.
“Jazzrock fusion failed because it managed to combine the worst characteristics of jazz with those of the worst of rock Perhaps BC has failed to make the mark it feels it ought to have, because there is still some resistance to a band that is difficult to categorise by repertoire. John Fry’s seventeen-year-old son Christopher plays trombone in the band now, yet when John was his age he was playing a limited repertoire in just one style. By the time Chris is John’s age, jazz will have died many deaths and undergone many revivals. But jazz, like BC, will survive. It will falter when it is hide-bound and narrow-minded and flourish when it is open to change and broad-minded. But it won’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Jeff Cloves 1997
Since Jeff wrote these words, Big Chief has brought two new players into the line up. Trumpeter Edward Benstead, who features on their mini-CD and the latest live album, brings a new exciting sound to the band and replaces Dave Chambers, who wishes to concentrate on work with his own band. More recently Mike Jacques has moved to France, and his place in the band has been taken by the exciting guitarist Barry Langton.
Big Chief would like to acknowledge the contribution made by the following musicians, who appeared, guested or just 'sat in' with the band over the last two decades:
Django Bates, Brian Green, Bill Pallett, Harry Beckett, Mark Green, Jan Ponsford, Ollie Blanchflower, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Butch Potter, Louis Boreniu,s Ron Holloway, Dai Pritchard, Bob Brearley, Deian Hopkin, Paul Robinson, Chico Castillo, Terry Disley, Mike Jacques, Alan Ross, Geoff Castle, Roland Lacey ,Pete Smith, Dave Chambers, Pete Lemer, Art Themen, Les Cirkel, Henry Lowther, Jean Toussaint, Cliff Collins, Neil Martin, Mad Mike Walker, Steve Cook, John McCartney, Nick Walker, Steve Crease, Phil Mead, Ray Warleigh, Les Davidson, Brian Miller, Arthur Watts, Tony Desborough, Digger Miller, Martin York, John Dillon, Nigel Nash, John Etheridge, Nick Newall, Will Gaines, John Parricelli, Mike Goffi, Gary O'Toole.