Sonny Stitt
Spike Milligan

A Truly Remarkable Interview 

The comic Tony Brown interviews British/Irish Spike Miligan, the comedian, writer, musician, poet, playwright, soldier and actor, in 1970.

Interview: 1970

Source: Jazz Professional 

Stan Getz: Interview 1

Spike Milligan

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I happen to know from the old days how involved you’ve been with music. Can you say what music means to you?

What stopped me becoming a musician was that my lip went. I really wanted to be a trumpet player. When my lip went—it was during the war—I went back on to guitar and became a member of a trio. Ultimately we did variety shows . . . one thing led to another and I became what I am. But music has been my unending and constant love. It gives a tranquillity such as no other medium can give you. It is not a language, it’s an emotion. It’s something that I am hooked on forever. I am completely and utterly hooked on music.

Sometimes I escape into music. I lock the door and play my music. And I resent any intrusion. There’s no such thing as really sharing. Someone can listen with you, but that’s not quite sharing. I want to share it with myself.

The trio I worked with was the Bill Hall Trio—which became Hall, Norman and Ladd eventually. Bill Hall died from consumption; Johnny Mulgrove, who used to play bass with the Ambrose Octet before the war, he died—also from consumption. I think the act is still going.

I find music at the moment very disturbing. Miles Davis, who I love—I went to see him at Ronnie Scott’s. I can only put one appendage to it—it’s crap. I wondered at first whether it was because I’m no longer on the scene. But most of the coherent musicians that were there that night—and I know most of them by name—were in agreement.

To me, a musician has to be articulate. Trying to baffle you with the thunder of drums comes out of the Congo. We have an articulate mind now. Apart from the emotional stimuli of the music, one needs some intellectual quotient as well. Suddenly, I think, Miles has run out. He’s reached the limit of his intellect—but he still wants to go on somewhere ahead; and there is nowhere else to go, except back where he started.

I went to listen to Ornette Coleman. I discovered straight away that he ignores harmonic structure. If he’s playing in F, say, he stays on that, playing the scale of F even though its a C sharp diminished chord. I didn’t like his attitude . . . this f–off–white–trash attitude. I said : “I’m a musician and I’m intelligent: what are you getting at?” He said: “Oh . . . man . . . ” He was very hung up, you know. He’s lost touch. He doesn’t like his fellow-man. Which is a bad thing—because they’re the ones that listen.

If you don’t want people to hear you, play silent music.

I said to him: “Why do you keep to one scene?” He said: “Why shouldn’t I?” “I noticed at one time that you and the bass and the piano were playing in three different keys.” “Yeah.” “It’s painful.” “Whoever gets the most pain drops out.” That’s like the jungle again. You beat the s— out of somebody, but it’s not good for the people listening. It might be an egotistical triumph to make some of your fellow-musicians shut up from sheer agony.

Sure, music has to be a means of communication. It’s turned inwards now–and they turn their backs on the audience. It has become masturbation instead of love-making with an audience.

Somebody has to make a stand.

Benny Green was very kind to Miles Davis in one of the Sunday papers. Benny said that if Miles is saying something, will he make it known just what it is? This is good. Benny asked me what I thought and I said that I’m going back to Victor Silvester.

For me, the jazz success of the year was the Kennv Clarke/Francv Boland band. I didn’t hear the other one—Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. They told me that was great. If it plays better than the Clarke/Boland band, then Hallelujah—there’s hope for me!

I was with Bill Evans last week. An articulate player. I noticed that it was contained within two-and-a-half octaves of the piano. He doesn’t spread out, you know, not the musical diarrhoea that Phineas Newborn and all these jokers have got. They’re so insecure. They’ve got to baffle you with technique. But they don’t say anything. You could put it in a computer and bring it all out. But Evans is articulate. Beautiful.

He states the theme, like Mozart, goes away from it and comes back to the melody—back to the womb every time. This was beautiful.

Mind you—the wretched jokers that go there to talk. Ronnie Scott’s is becoming a Chat Club with musical background. So much so that I asked Ronnie if I could have a pair of earphones for my personal use. And he’s going to have it done. It’s the only way.

Gary Burton, too. This is a wonderful new scene. This is the best fruit of the pop scene and the jazz scene. Neither one thing nor the other, but a wonderful marriage. I miss knowing the tune, not being able to improvise with Burton. They are all original themes. Once again, it’s becoming very personalised. I would like the group to play some standards.

Looking back, I was part of our own particular pop scene—as you were, Tony, being one of those local musicians. What kept the scene going for the young then was dance music.

It was the big thing. We used to talk of players like Lew Davis and Max Goldberg and Tommy McQuater—who is still with us, thank God—with the same reverence that the Beatles are spoken of today. There wasn’t so much money around, so we couldn’t buy as many records. Consequently, we couldn’t saturate the market. We would have come on much faster had there been a higher standard of wages. I would have bought discs and discs and discs. Then the jazzmen might have become much bigger much sooner. But we kept it alive, this sort of thing.

Isn’t it true, though, that we were the hip minority of our day, the lads with some musical insight? We weren’t part of the mass market at all. We were something special–young musicians with an ear for jazz.

That’s true. But we still played our sociological part in keeping it alive. That’s for sure. We were so involved with it at the time. All the gigs we used to do, the practice. I used to go around to Cyril Welsh’s house—he was another young guitar player of our set—and we would discuss if Eddie Lang did this, or that, talk about the Chocolate Dandies and Benny Carter. I still rate Carter as one of the greatest of all time, incidentally. And we used to go to the jazz sessions at the rhythm clubs. Do you remember the rhythm clubs? The Number One Rhythm Club—and the local one, at the Tiger’s Head at Lee?

Harry Parry the clarinettist came down one week, and that was like one of the gods visiting. They were great, stimulating days. I didn’t know it at the time. Now I realise that all that gave us tremendous insight into jazz. I understand jazz so much more because of that.

You see, my boy is having to work backwards. He likes pop. So I play him something middle-cool—say, Lester Young playing “Taxi Ride”. That’s got the twelve-bar pattern and he digs that shape. He can’t quite understand innuendo behind it. I took him to hear the Clarke/Boland band and he flipped. He suddenly realised how big it was.

We were raised on big bands, and to me they’re the most exciting sound in the world.

They’re coming back, daddy-o. Oh yes, I think they are. There’s that big, thick Glenn Miller sound—sort of medio-jazz. Syd Lawrence packed the bloody Festival Hall. There were so many people who couldn’t get in that they are going to have to do it again. This is incredible. Mind you, there is a lot of our age group going along. I wanted to go, but couldn’t make it. I had to see Miles Davis. I wish I hadn’t!

Do you think that enough money will be put into staging big bands, unless they can attract the younger people?

Well, jazz concerts are a sell-out. Big bands can’t become resident. That’s where the money is not. But who can? I don’t think anyone is resident any more. Music is a Bedouin scene, isn’t it? You have to keep on the move to make money.

Incidentally, I went to see Manitas de Plata last night. The young people ! He represents something to them—freedom . . . liberty . . .success . . . money . . . indifference to power and politics. He’s made it without them. The plus that Manitas de Plata offers is excitement.

What started off your interest in music?

I had a very ignorant musical upbringing. My mother used to play ragtime piano and my father used to do step-dancing in India during the army days. I heard tunes like “Roll On, You Mississippi, Roll On”. Then one day, in the grounds of the British cantonment in Rangoon, in the sergeants’ mess, they had a gramophone. On it there was a record called “You Rascal You”. When I put it on, I had a feeling that I’d never experienced before. It was Fats Waller.

I never forgot this record. That’s what really set me off.

What was your first instrument?

I had a ukulele when I was seven-and-a-half in Poona. I remember strumming it in the moonlight while Sergeant Kidd of the Ulster Rifles was trying to kiss my Auntie Eileen. I was playing “What’ll I Do When You Are Far Away?” I suddenly realised what was going on, but I couldn’t leave. I was embarrassed. The sergeant coughed and said: “Could you play that in a lower key, lad?” My mother bought my first guitar for eighteen shillings from Len Stiles’ shop in Lewisham High Street. I was about seventeen. I didn’t know about the plectrum guitar. All guitars were Hawaiian to me. My mother, who was always one for saving money, said: “I’ll teach you to play.” She got hold of a knife and slid the blade up and down the strings, and that was my first lesson.

Then someone I met Phil Stevens I think it was, a pianist—said : “You want to learn to play the guitar like Eddie Lana.” Around that time I started playing the guitar.

I went on the drums for a while, but then I got back on guitar. After, I switched to bass.

It was as a bassist that you did a couple of gigs with our band.

Right. On bass, though, I was eclipsed locally by Ron Archer. He was killed when his ship turned turtle in an air-raid on Plymouth Dockyard. I switched to trumpet because I couldn’t be heard on guitar. I used to hear these dreadfully corny trumpet players who came along on gigs on a bike with bicycle clips on their trousers and played cornet-style on very good arrangements. They could drive you mad. I used to sing choruses to myself much better, so I bought a trumpet. I thought I could do better—and I did.

You also had vocal aspirations at that time, as I recall. I can still see you at the church hall in Brockley up at the mike singing “I Wished On The Moon”. And didn’t you go in for one of those Bing Crosby competitions at the Lady Florence Institute at Deptford?

That’s right. And I won a cup. I used to be able to do that. But then I heard Armstrong, and that was the end of me. The record I heard? “Just A Gigolo”. The way he played used to hit you—right out of your seat.

What is there about Armstrong? No-one has even sounded like him, really, except those who have deliberately set out to imitate.

Bobby Hackett, they say, can play so like him. Well, he did. He backed Armstrong in a record they made of “Blueberry Hill”. You can hear him in the background and he sounds exactly like Louis. I thought at first that they’d done an overlay, but they hadn’t. It was Hackett taking the part of Armstrong! There’s an articulate player. And Ruby Braff. What a player! That strange rubato style of his. He’s almost behind, man.

Does it ever occur to you that you might not have come into show business without music?

I suppose that’s true. Music led me into it. What might have become of us if it weren’t for music doesn’t bear thinking of. I might have ended up still working in Woolwich Arsenal and doing gigs.

The wara tragedy for some peoplereally gave us a new start.

It did. By God, it did! I can’t believe that it took a war to get a break. A very expensive way of becoming a clown.

When did you become actively involved with music in the army?

Strangely enough, directly I went in. When I arrived at Bexhill, I met a bloke called Harry Edgington who played the piano by ear. He had never mixed with anybody and he played in F sharp and C sharp all the time—which is murderous for the trumpet. So I became brilliant in these two keys. Bit by bit we worked in together. We knocked off a kit of drums and a chap had a guitar. We got together primarily to avoid doing guards and to make a few bob on the side. We became the night life of Bexhill.

Resented. no doubt, by the other soldiery.

Yes. But actually, they loved it because we brought some life and without us there wouldn’t have been any. In Italy, I got wounded and after that I left the regiment, which meant the end of the band for me, Broke my heart. Then I got sent back to the offices of Second Echelon, where there was a big band. I played second trumpet with that. Difficult to recall the names now—but Joey Brown was on first trumpet, and he was the best. He used to play at Green’s Playhouse Ballroom in Glasgow. It was a wonderful band and we used to play all round. We were attached to the Fifth Army and we were getting the big arrangements. like Charlie Barnet’s “One O’Clock Jump” and “Two O’Clock Jump”.

They were happy days. Wasn’t there something existing then that is lacking today?

It has fragmented now in so many directions that the energy is decimated. But the main stream is the one that I have always come back to; Getz will make me happy in a hundred years time. Or someone like Burton, who says something. Mark you, I only speak one language and I concede that there might be another language that I don’t understand. But it’s a bloody awful language.

Who have meant the most to you over the years?

Eddie Lang, Karl Cress, Dick McDonough, the Venuti syndrome… Then there was Don Redman and his Orchestra. The Chocolate Dandies, Chu Berry, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson on piano. What happened to him when he came to Ronnie’s? He went all to pieces, playing funny things like “The Donkey Serenade” at fifty miles an hour.

I was being weaned off the English scene. At one time I thought Freddy Gardner was the world’s greatest alto player. And he wasn’t. He’d be playing with Victor Silvester today. Buddy Featherstonhaugh was a great player, though. And that chap who was killed by a tube train—Harry Berly—he was a superb player.

There was the Spike Hughes all-Negro band and that wonderful arrangement of “Donegal Cradle Song”. That was so way-out. Then there was Alec Wilder’s Octet. Extraordinarily advanced for its time. He wrote things like “The Neurotic Goldfish” and “Debutante’s Diary”. He collaborated with Artie Shaw on “I’ll Be Around”. He’s still around, a great individual.

The Woody Herman band came along and blew my mind. He left Goodman behind. When you think of who they had! I was with Getz two weeks ago and we sat down and he played “Four Brothers”. I said: “You rate that?” and he said: “Yeah. It’s still good.” John Kirby and his Onyx Club Quartet. They were a wonderful group.

You haven’t mentioned Reinhardt.

When we first heard Reinhardt everyone gave up. It was impossible. It still is. He had that personalised tone. He was influenced by Armstrong–but he had this remarkable tone and vibrato for a guitar player. He must have had wrists like an ox. And he didn’t leave that vibrato out over the fast passages, either. A tremendous talent.

Do you still play at all?

Mostly on the piano. I play choruses to myself; try to move along and improve and work out some new harmonies. During the Goons period, I used to get together with Ray Ellington and others occasionally And I’ve played with George Chisholm. That was a good TV scene they did, with Kenny Baker and George from Scott’s. Lovely. And Lennie Felix. A superb player. He’s very funny, too, Lennie.

Music is a great soporific for people who are mentally or emotionally disturbed. It can make you cry and feel better or sadder. But it does something. So far as the importance of the musician is concerned, just try to visualise a world with music, but with no musicians. People take music for granted. Great musical talent should be respected and the workaday musicians should get a fair wage.

A musician is an emotional craftsman. He has to carve out in your mind a picture–and if he does it badly, it just doesn’t come off. The musician has got to be good. Like the man said, you can’t mess about with music.

Yes, I’m all for an improvement in the musician’s status. They live through some frightening professional moments. Trumpet players live in mortal fear of losing teeth. It can spell the end of a career. I know violin players who get arthritis in their left hands. You need a lot more confidence as a musician than you do as a mechanic. It’s very frightening when you think about being a musician.

Spike Milligan died at his Sussex home on February 27th, 2002, aged 83

Copyright © 1970 Tony Brown