Barney Kessel: Interview 3
Basil Kirchin

A Profile of the Brilliant Drummer & Controversial Composer

The British drummer and composer Basil Kirchin is profiled here, celebrating his experimental style. 

Written: 2000

Source: Jazz Professional

Ben Webster

Basil Kirchin

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Basil Kirchin first started playing the drums in December 1941 at The Paramount, Tottenham Court Road, London, where his father Ivor had the resident band. In those days life as a civilian was not an easy one, the family having to spend every night in the underground tube station as the German blitz raged overhead.  The work schedule also was a demanding one commencing at 3 p.m. every afternoon and carrying on until 5.45 p.m.  Then, after a quick meal, the band would return to The Paramount to play  from 7 p.m. until 11.45 p.m.  The band worked 14 sessions per week other than every alternate Monday night, which was the only time that they had off.  Basil was so consumed with music, however, that even on his night off he would usually join in with the relief band, in order to broaden his very youthful experience.

Eventually, the war came to an end, and, having enjoyed (in the true sense) a baptism of fire, Basil was ready to take his place in the wider world of music.  After five years, to their great credit, his parents realised that it would be in the best long term interests of their son to let him accept one of the many offers that had been coming in, which he did, joining a newly formed band called Harry Roy and His New 1946 Orchestra.  This was literally the first of the "big bands" and Basil was featured as a solo drummer.  Harry Roy had his own night club, the renowned "Milroy" and was also under contract to produce seven broadcasts every fortnight for the BBC.  

During the period of his membership with the Roy Band Basil learned to play every kind of music in jobs ranging from theatre tours to concerts, dances, night  clubs, jazz  clubs  and hundreds  of  hours  spent  in broadcasting and recording studios.  By the end of the 1940's he had joined the Ted Heath Band, at that time the most highly regarded in Europe, and several continental tours followed.

Mike Senn: I was on lead alto in one of the first bands that Basil led, (without Ivor) in the early fifties. We went to a residency at the Ritz, Manchester. Although we had rehearsed, the band was rough, and I am reliably informed that Mr. Binks (the demon manager) phoned Mecca headquarters and got us the sack the first night. We lasted a month, at the end of which Binks had the grace to say that if the band had sounded at the start as it did at the end, he would not have complained. It is hard to remember the guys, or their names after all this time. But in the trumpets were Ronnie Baker (not the alto player) and Paul Berman. Johnny Weed was on piano. The tenors were Roy Sidwell and Gray Allard. We had some tenor leads (Four Brothers style) played by Roy and Gray. I got some flak from musicians in Manchester for having a "funny tone" on alto, the Four Brothers sound apparently not having reached there then.

The next time I played with the Kirchin band was at the Royal Tottenham; this was with Basil and Ivor. The personnel included Harry South on piano. Trumpets were Stan Palmer, Trevor Lannigan, Tony Grant. Saxes: Me, Roy Sidwell, John Xerri & Lennie Dawes on baritone.

A bit later they went on the road, and enjoyed their greatest success. I had left and the lead alto during this time was Brian Hayden.

It is interesting to note that one reason for the band's success was the ban on jiving. In dance halls then, you were only allowed to jive during Latin American sets. Basil solved this by playing a lot of LA sets, to the kids' delight. (Mike Senn)

The Kirchin band, co-led and directed by his father Ivor, originated when Basil took their London-based band up to Edinburgh for a residency at the Fountainbridge Palais, beginning there on September 8th, 1952. The band made several broadcasts from Fountainbridge with the following line-up:
Tony Grant, Stan Palmer, Bobby Orr, Norman Baron, trumpets; Ronnie Baker, Duncan Lamont, Pete Warner, John Xerri, Alex Leslie, saxes; Harry South, piano, Ronnie Seabrook, bass, Basil Kirchin, drums, Johnny Grant, vocals, John Clarke, arranger, Ivor Kirchin, leader.

 

The Kirchin band at the Fountainbridge Palais in 1952.
Harry South, piano; Don Percival, Bass, Basil Kirchin, Drums
Trevor Lanigan, George Boocock, Dennis Roberts, Stan Palmer, trumpets
Alex Leslie, Pete Warner, George Borg, Johnny Xerri, saxes
Far right, rear: vocalist Johnny Grant

Right, front: Ivor Kirchin

The Fountainbridge was followed in November 1953 by an engagement at the Plaza Ballroom in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which lasted until March of the following year. During this period the band recorded a thirteen week commercial radio series with the singer Ruby Murray for Radio Luxembourg. Near the end of the engagement in Belfast Bobby Orr left with embouchure problems, switched to drums and became one of the finest drummers in the country. After a string of appearances at various ballrooms the band took up summer residence at the Royal, Tottenham. There Jimmy Paxton and Buddy Featherstonehaugh joined for a short time on alto and baritone, to be replaced later by Mike Senn and Roy Sidwell.

Ron Simmonds: Basil was a great drummer, one of the best, and I enjoyed playing with the band, mostly on record dates and TV shows. It was a demanding book, especially exciting for trumpets. Occasionally either Bobby Pratt or myself would get booked to play on Ivor’s broadcasts or record sessions. On the records Bobby went by the pseudonym of Big Tarp, because he was under contract to Ted Heath at the time.

Shortly after this Ivor Kirchin was involved in a serious car accident and asked Basil to take over the leadership of the band whilst he was in hospital.  This engendered a desire in Basil to have his own band.  However in practice Basil found his first band, although small in number, extremely difficult to deal with, due to having to handle the day to day business management and at the same time continue to write his own music, which, being original, required many hours of rehearsal.   This, together with Ivor Kirchin's return to fitness, resulted in the birth of a new idea — the creation of a jointly led big band to be fronted by Ivor, who would also manage all the business side, leaving Basil free to play the drums and utilise his  creative  energy  in  creating  the  music  and  perfecting  its performance.  

The new line up  consisted of  four trumpets,  four saxophones and three rhythm — literally everything about the concept was new and it caught on very rapidly.  At the end of the first year, for instance, the band had broken attendance records wherever it played, and after only ten months in existence was voted the fourth best band in the Melody Maker poll.  

In the following year two major record companies  were  bidding  for  the  Kirchin  Band,  Decca,  and  EMI's Parlophone label under George Martin.  The band made four singles and an EP for Decca and a further two singles for Parlophone with whom they eventually signed, as they were allowed considerably more musical control by George Martin.   A substantial amount of recording took place between 1951 and 1957 under both their own name, and several other splinter groups. 

Outside of the music business the band had acquired a number of illustrious fans, including  Sean  Connery,  Jose  Ferrer,  Rosemary Clooney, William Bendix, Dana Andrews, Elizabeth Taylor and her then husband the late Mike Todd.  The band were also extremely popular at this time with the general public and played their first Poll Winners Concert to a standing ovation.   It was during this period that many friendships within the business were forged that still exist today, stronger than ever. These include the entire Duke Ellington Orchestra and Count Basic's Band of that time, as well as dozens of jazz musicians whose names are legend.  

Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan would only tour England if the band’s agent, Harold Davison, promised that they could have the Kirchin Band to accompany them.  One point that should be mentioned here is that Basil and Ivor were the first band to take their own P.A. system around with them.  This meant that Basil, who was obsessive about recording everything the band did, even rehearsals, could get very good recordings, as his tape recorder was plugged direct into their P.A.  system.   Because of this the following Billy Eckstine eulogy was actually on tape, recorded at the last show of a concert tour in Bradford's Alhambra Theatre:

 "As most of you know, I once had a band of my own with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, amongst others whose names may be known to you, but, I must tell you that I have been standing in the wings for every single show this week without missing one of their spots, and never in my life have I heard such a band.  It is very difficult for me to believe that they are not American let alone that they are not coloured — ladies and gentlemen please, your applause for what I sincerely believe to be one of the great bands in the world today, to be ranked alongside Duke, Count and Dizzy — I give you the Kirchin Band."

Another tour de force occurred at the band's fourth Poll Winners Concert which again took place at the Albert Hall following their rendition of a 12 minute version of the jazz classic "Sing Sing Sing". The end of the piece brought the entire Albert Hall audience to its feet in spontaneous applause and it was only with some difficulty that the stage manager and promoters were able to persuade an excited audience that an encore was out of the question because other bands were waiting to follow in their wake.>Having by now gained acceptance on an international basis, Basil found he was trapped within the image of wild uninhibited music, this in spite of the fact that over 40% of his output was not the wild stuff, but beautiful orchestral tones and colours woven into music. Also he was burning to write more "expanded" music.

There was only one way to do it—he disbanded the band in spite of the furore that caused and the next years were spent around the world.  There were 5 months in the Ramakrishna Temple at Dakshineswa on the River Ganges in India, some time in America visiting friends made during an earlier sell–out tour, that the band had done in exchange for Norman Granz's 'Jazz at the Philharmonic', and two years in Australia.  It was here that Basil suffered a blow which has never healed.  

During those years of the band, every note ever blown was recorded, and Basil had compiled nine 7" tapes that contained only the absolute cream of the wild stuff and five 7" tapes of the gentler side of the band.   Every track was actually perfect, even by his own perfectionist standards, and of some titles there were two and even three different takes, many recorded years apart and sounding like totally changed pieces of music in the time honoured tradition of jazz.

In effect the tapes were literally "his life" encapsuled for all to hear.  They were with him on board the ship which arrived at Sydney harbour at about 5.45 on a Friday afternoon.  The main luggage in the hold could not be collected until Monday so Basil went to the new flat.  Monday late afternoon he got a very apologetic phone call from the docks telling him they were very sorry but,  as the net containing the luggage was being swung over to the docks, something had snapped and everything had dropped into the sea. 

When they were eventually retrieved, full of water, they were left stewing over the whole weekend on  the dockside instead of Basil being contacted immediately to see if anything could have been salvaged.  Tapes, write–ups, publicity—everything was ruined.  That was it—perfection gone, and only word of mouth now to verify.

By Easter of 1961 Basil had been back in England for some months, staying with Ivor and Kay who were living in Hull. Ivor, again highly successful, had the resident band there. Basil spent his time writing scores for "imaginary" films and recording them with the help of a friend, Keith Herd, a local lad of enormous talent in electronics who had his own recording studio.  When the work was finished Basil went to London and, slowly, via a lot of "ghost writing", work started to come in under his own name.

From then onwards Basil was responsible for producing a truly. impressive range of work in films,  television,  documentaries and theatre, much of it utilising new concepts never before tried in these medias, and setting trends and styles that now today are imitated all over the world.  Again, a selection of some of the more popular works are catalogued at the end.    In the middle 1960's several further important landmarks in Basil Kirchin's life were reached.   One was that he met his present wife Esther a Swiss lady and they were married in 1968.

The second was that in 1964 he had discovered a musical concept that more than anything else validates him as being one of the great innovators of the post war years. Called "Worlds within Worlds" the concept is still so startling today that it requires a place all of its own in this review, involving, as it does, sounds never before heard by human ears.  

It should be remembered that at this stage technology and recording equipment had not been developed to anything like its present levels.  However, by 1967 a Swiss man called Kudelski, who worked for Nagra, a Swiss firm of tape recording manufacturers, had designed a machine and microphone that was at last sufficiently sophisticated to enable Basil to create the reality of his vision. Because of its very importance, from a subjective point of view to its author, it would perhaps be a better testament to "Worlds" to quote the  opinion  of  David  Greene,  the  world  renowned  film producer, director and writer who produced the following sleeve notes for the two record companies involved in its recording and production.

DAVID GREENE ON WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS

In this work Basil Kirchin has created his own musical language. Nothing less would have enabled him to express a musical vision so utterly personal.

It is a vision of intense pain, and equally intense love.

Music,  like other forms of art,  has experienced a revolution during the last fifteen years.  The traditional concepts of melody and harmony have not merely been changed, they have been supplanted by entirely new goals.

New destinations sometimes necessitate new modes of travel.  Or is it that new modes of travel open up visions of new places to go? In Basil Kirchin's case his present position has been reached after many years of travelling along more traditional music routes.

Composers having pushed orchestral timbres to their furthermost extremes  are  now turning  to  "Extra—Musical"  sounds.    This  work incorporates both.

Soprano saxophone, Bassoon, Marimba, Organ, Cello and Bass have been combined by painstaking editing, with animal cries, birdsong and the amplified sound of insects, to make music of almost overwhelming power and originality.  Kirchin has orchestrated his instrumental and wildlife voices so that they blend.  A "slowed down" canary performs a duet with the soprano saxophone, and both are joined by a robin and a blackbird in a quartet of great beauty and complexity.  The awesome growl from the depths of a lions throat is accompanied by marimba and guitar in another astonishing section.

Remarkable throughout the work is the playing of Evan Parker on soprano saxophone.  His incredible virtuosity extends the vocabulary of that instrument.

Rock, Jazz and "legitimate" music have come so close together that the boundaries between them have grown fainter, and in some cases are no longer discernible.   "Worlds within Worlds" is by a composer who can think and feel in each of these three areas and is the first truly important work to be thus all embracing.  It is in every sense music of our time. When you enter the sound worlds of Basil Kirchin it isn't much use taking along your favourite map, because this is new territory, and you very soon realize you haven't been there before!Yet far out is near when you get there.   As the strange and beautiful landscape becomes familiar you find rewards not to be found nearer home, which makes it a trip well worth taking.

For this is music that cannot be experienced at a distance.  You have to go there.  "And once there" says the composer, "the listener is on his own.  My aim is to take him there and then leave him to whatever he is looking for.   In this way "Worlds" is a different personal experience for each listener who makes the trip with me".

The journey image is not far fetched, because Basil Kirchin has travelled deep into the  largely undiscovered territory of  "inner sound".  Using slower and slower tape speeds he has "stretched" sounds until fantastic patterns appear which are inaudible at normal speed. This  slowed—down world  resembles  the  surface  of  another planet, abundant  with  granules,  rills,  and  even  mountains  never  before contemplated by man.   And these wondrous new sound shapes form the basis  of  "Worlds within  Worlds".    Sometimes  separated  from  one another, other times, during hundreds of hours of painstaking editing, mixed into new patterns of awe—inspiring density.

But, original though the method of composition may be, its the result that counts, and here Basil Kirchin has used all his musical powers to produce an album which, on repeated playing, becomes more and more emotionally gripping.

The previously released Parts 1 and 2 of "Worlds within Worlds" were scored for a jazz sextet and various bird, animal, and amplified insect sounds.  Parts 3 and 4 are touchingly notable for the inclusion of the autistic children of Schurmatt, both "as themselves", and, treated   with   the   aforementioned   technique   until   totally unrecognisable.    Other  sounds  are  extracted  from  the  following sources:   1 gorilla,  2 hornbills,  4 flamingo's,  various amplified insects, animals, birds, jets and other engines, and the sounds of the docks in Hull.  The integrated music played for Basil by several close friends is scored for 1 flugel horn, 1 alp horn, 2 woodwind, 1 cello, 1 arco bass and one organ.   So — my advice to purchasers of this record is to put it on, turn it up, and — happy landings!

It is of great significance that Basil Kirchin had only been in a position to produce these works by courtesy of the Arts Council of Great Britain, who had given him a special award presenting him with, amongst other things, a Nagra tape recorder, a special telescopic microphone and equipment to enable him to pursue this totally original concept.  This, in the event, also led to his gravitating to Switzerland on a permanent basis.  Fortunately in those days the money required to purchase all the necessary sophisticated musical equipment and to move to Switzerland was readily available.   It was in this phase of his life  that  further difficulties  arose which were  to  cause  great problems for Basil.

The first record company completely botched the release.   Not even living up to the terms of the contract regarding distribution and P.R. they were forced to free Basil from it or face a court case. While still smarting from the experience and praying that the "secret" wouldn't be exposed, Basil was approached by a good friend who worked for another record company and who promised that if they brought out the other two movements they would not change anything or re–mix as the other company had while Basil was in Switzerland working on the other movements.   Basil agreed to this but in the event they too proved to be untrustworthy,  doing the very things that in their promotion they had put the first company down for, and, bringing out "their" version of "Worlds".  

It seemed that the main objection was squeamishness  because  of  the  autistic  children  of  Schurmatt—whatever, suddenly records of "Whales" started to appear, birds were chirping away in music, and the whole concept was  out in the open. Fortunately to date, no one has applied the laws of physics to the sounds to break them down to first, molecules, then atoms, protons, neutrons or electrons in the technique described by David Greene, yet this is why "Worlds" works — all the time while listening, one is aware that no human ears have ever heard these sounds before, coming as they do from a different world in time.

Very depressed by all these politics, Basil determined to go right back to the thousands of hours of recorded sounds and "out takes" and do it all over again as it had been originally.  The two record companies  having the original masters,  apart from "their" version of them, it was the only way to restore "Worlds" to what it had been.  It was a labour of love of course, but now, finished, at least the original concept is preserved, and stands as a monumental "first",  it took until 1978 as, to augment their income in order to continually update the equipment, Basil had to do more film, t.v. and ghosting work.  Once again however his distinct personal style, even in so called "orthodox" music was recognised in a film going the rounds in America and Robert Weibach, a good friend from over there whom Basil had done much work for, found the Kirchin phone number in Turgi, Switzerland, and phoned from Hollywood to say he had a thirteen week film series to do for television in England, and ask Basil if he would do it? Basil of course accepted as the series meant guaranteed work for a period of five months which would produce more earnings than he would normally have achieved in a full year.

Basil and Esther decided that they would move to a small seaside village called Hornsea on the East coast of Yorkshire which was only a few miles from his parents retirement home in Hull and the studio belonging to his friend Keith (where Basil had mixed down the "home­made" versions of "Worlds").  The plan was that when the series was finished everything else would be conveniently available for Basil to take on the next stage of the "Worlds" project.  Within a short period of time the couple had moved to Hornsea to a cottage overlooking the sea and suddenly the first two episodes of the television series had been recorded.  Everyone involved with the series was deeply impressed by Basil's music and he received great personal praise from the normally reserved session musicians.

Some of Basil Kirchin's works (from 1961 onwards)
Doctor Phibes (Film)
The Mutations (Film)
I Start Counting (Film)
Wars Of The Roses (TV Film)
The Shuttered Room (Film)
Negatives (Film)
The Strange Affair (Film)
Assignment K (Film)
Strategic Command (Film)
The Madison Equation (TV Film)
Ronnie Barker Playhouse (TV Comedy Series)
Indian Guide ("pure" Indian music) (TV Film)
Paris (Film Documentary)
The Freelance (Film)
The Suspended Fourth (Film)

Richard the Third (modern "Sound Score" for Stratford Shakespeare Theatre)
"Pure Asian Music" (Chinese Porcelain Exhibition "Tang" Period -
Berkeley Square, London) 
"Worlds Within Worlds" Parts 1 & 2 L.P. 
"Worlds Within Worlds" Parts 4 & 5 L.P.

Photographs of the Kirchin Band kindly supplied by Pete Warner

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