Many of one's friends are now younger than ever - or to put it another way, one has far more young friends than those near one's age, as contemporaries die or somehow disappear from view. Young as many of my friends have become, most of them have heard - or heard of - Ken James. Some have told me they have been listening to him with The Last Straw on iTube. As a musician he was an exemplar of sound practice and theory. As a stylist and creative improvisor an inspiration. For those of us who knew him well he seems to be still here. It was not until I began writing these recollections that I fully realised he was gone.
Ken James had been a part of, or had led, many of the bands that have influenced the way Sydney jazz, in its many manifestations, sounds today. Until 2010 he could have been heard playing here in Sydney in Ten Part Invention
, in which some of the most inspiring musicians and composers of Australian jazz have mingled. These come straight off the top of the head: John Pochee (the leader), James Greening, Sandy Evans, Steve Elphick, Bob Bertles, Bernie McGann, Roger Frampton, Warwick Alder, Miroslav Bukovsky, Andrew Robson, Hugh Fraser, Paul McNamara. All but three of these were, like Ken, founding members twenty five years ago. In 2010, however, Ken and his partner, the singer Cheryl Kelly, moved to Hamilton in Victoria, where Cheryl was born. They moved into their home on Anzac Day.
Ken had not retired. He continued to write charts for Sydney club performers, as he had done throughout his playing life, and became involved with local music projects, including Trax big Band, the Hamilton Symphony Orchestra, the Ken James Quartet and many other groups which he played in or rehearsed, including a voice/saxophone duo with his partner. Lisa McDonald, music director of the Good Shepherd College, appointed Ken as a flute, clarinet, saxophone, drum and jazz piano teacher. Ken also joined in the activities of the school band - Good Shepherds - playing whatever instrument was required. He also taught individual musicians in the area. Ken was admired and embraced wholeheartedly by everyone.
The deaths of certain jazz musicians have become the stuff of legend. For instance, I believe that Stan Getz fell and died - or died and fell - on stage while playing Out Of Nowhere. Ken James's death was perhaps less dramatic and poetic. Or was it? It was certainly as resonant. In the circumstances of Ken's death elements are present which must remind us of a life of enthusiasm, perseverence, courage, and perhaps even heroism. Certainly a life in which enthusiasm was sustained in spite of much that would have disheartened many.
In April 2012, Ken - who had been asthmatic most of his life as well as suffering bouts of pneumonia and other pulmonary trouble - died of a massive heart attack following a period of intense activity, which entailed among other things driving at least six times between Hamilton and Ballarat where he was musical director for Sebaclear Big Band, which he was rehearsing at the time for an upcoming concert. At one point the stress of driving had forced him to conduct sitting in front of the band on a chair, and during one leg of the journey he had felt a definite warning, but said nothing. He fulfilled all his musical committments during this time, including teaching. Warnings from the chest area were not new. While working alone at home on Wednesday April 17, Ken experienced the begining of a heart attack around 3pm and called an ambulence which took him to hospital in Hamilton, where he was admitted to Intensive Care. Cheryl spent two hours at his bedside. he was conscious and in good spirits, managing a few jokes. Back at home Cheryl learned that Ken had been flown to Geelong Hospital, where he lost consciousness. Cheryl drove there and spent the nextweek at his bedside, but Ken did not recover consciousness. He died of a massive heart attack and his damaged lungs were bleeding. This was Wednesday, April 25 (Anzac day) 2012. The death certificate recorded multi organ failure, elevated myocardial infarction - 7 days Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Ken had been no stranger to hospitals. After one recovery, doctors were astounded to learn that he had played saxophones and flute. He had been doing so on 20% lung capacity. Those who heard him regularly were astonished too. At the same time, one doctor said that it was probably playing that had kept him alive.
Ken James was sometimes called Cranky Ken by those who had shared accomodation with him over the years. To those of us who had not he was funny Ken, happy Ken. Small things made him cranky, apparently, such as being woken too early by flatmates. We never heard him complain about lack of recognition or ill-health - or anything that would have made most of us cranky. If Cranky Ken was the worst anyone ever called you, you would have done well! As with most high level artists, Ken was greatly appreciated by many of his peers, and pehaps underestimated by some. If you were to compliment him - as I was moved to on many occasions - on a particularly fine solo, he would thank you with a deep and tangible warmth, and he would be as pleased as any up and coming performer recieving early acknowledgement. Then would come the jokes, to turn attention away from himself.
Now that I am fully aware that Ken has gone, two attributes suddenly intensify the absence. Ken was a great listener and he was a keen observer of people. If you had some funny stories to tell, affectionately or otherwise, about someone you both knew, Ken was your man. His eyes and teeth became positively ravenous in his bony and curiously pleasing face (was he actually handsome? You would have to ask a woman). Then he would tip his face up at the ceiling and laugh, and your story would soon be embellished by Ken's own sharp supplementary observations. Where are you, Ken? I have a few I'd like to get off my chest.
Before discussing Ken's playing - particularly on tenor and soprano saxophones - it's worth giving a brief indication of the range of his musical activities. The association and deep friendship between Ken and drummer John Pochee began in the early 1970s when they were both recruited by pianist and composer Judy Bailey for The Judy Bailey Quartet
- which comprised Judy, Pochee, Ken, bassist Col Brown and, on occasion, vocalist Linda Keene. The band was quite early in absorbing rock and exotic world music and using them in its own way. A distinctive feature was the use of Keene's voice both in songs and in wordless lines that were very much part of certain arrangements. Their two albums are One Moment
(Eureka) and Colours
( Phillips. Colours
was re-issued two years ago). The band performed regularly in Sydney toured extensively in Australia and also performed in South East Asia for Musica Viva.
As well as club playing and arranging, for which his musicianship and experience ensured he was in demand, Ken played or led a range of jazz groups, including, notably, The Ken James Reunion Band
with trumpeter Keith Stirling, Pochee, pianist Dave Levy, bassist Ron Philpott and sometimes guitarist Peter Boothman. Part of a Jazz Action Society performance by this superb band was videoed by Ken's friend, drummer Barry Woods. At the time of writing Cheryl said she hoped to make copies available for sale and she also recommended to me an eponymous album by bassist Steve Hunter's band Nine Lives: Steve Hunter - Nine Lives
(ABC). Ken apparently plays sublimely here on tenor and soprano, and can be heard on flute. Having heard him play with one of Steve Hunter's bands I do not doubt this for a moment and Steve Hunter also said that Ken played beautifully on this disc, which is still available through the ABC. In 1999 Ken was recruited by American drummer Bobby Previte for his Miles Davis inspired project centred on the electric funk/rock/fusion period. This was presented by SIMA at The Basement in Sydney with a different band in Melbourne performing for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. With the Sydney band Ken played soprano, representing in his own way the role played by Wayne Shorter on that instrument and Previte was full of praise for Ken's combination of authenticity, depth and originality.
Apart from the long stint with Ten Part Invention
, Ken's tenure with Pochee's band The Last Straw
was probably the most influential project with which he was associated. This band comprised Ken, John, alto saxophonist Bernie McGann, bassist Jack Thorncraft (later Lloyd Swanton) and pianist Tony Esterman (Dave Levy had played in the original line-up). This band was formed, fortuitously enough, just as the Basement opened in Sydney in 1974 and the Conservatorium of New South Wales began its jazz course.The Straw often played on Monday or Tuesday night at The Basement (the non-commercial end of the week as some knew it), presenting original compositions (often by McGann) and works by Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner and Gerry Mulligan. They excelled at hard driving bop, surging Afro Latin feels and free interludes. The latter were approached in a very different way to other free projects of the time. After at least two disastrous attempts, thwarted successively by rain penetrating the recording van parked in Reiby Place outside the Basement and an emergency rush to the hospital by Ken James, the band produced an eponymous album (some years later),The Last Straw
(Spiral Scratch, now through Rufus) which is essential to any collection of Australian jazz.
It was in The Last Straw
that Ken and Bernie McGann were heard most often in juxtaposition. The contrast was wonderfully effective although McGann's perhaps more immediately striking originality tended to overshadow Ken for some. Ironically, it was McGann who had been rejected by many in the past. I had a few arguments with people who seemed not to hear Ken's superbly integrated and distinctive distillations of a range of influences from Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson through to Lester Young. Listening to Ten Part one night, art critic Terrence Maloon and I fancied we even detected elements of Warne Marsh in there. "So elegant and beautifully constructed," said Maloon. "There is something to be said for graciousness." Maloon did not know Ken, but graciousness also applies to the man behind the music. Sandy Evans has more to say about this further on, but I will add that Ken's beautifully modulated tenor tone could be deployed with both subtlety and power. Where McGann might leap in with raw and startling energy, Ken tended to build from thoughtful elegance to dancing speed and bluesy power. He ran oiled on the beat and manipulated the time with an effect that was both intellectually intriguing and joyfully propulsive. Ken's was not a ballooning, vibrato-laden sound, bending and slithering and breathy with machismo of the old school - though he could do all that if required. It was a modern jazz sound, beautifully centred, compact, defined. But it was also a big sound, as Joe Henderson's was a big sound, ammenable when Ken was moved to fulminate, to radical extensions and bluesy, funky colouration. Listening to the James and McGann solos onThe Last Straw I scarcely hear a run or scale that is not part of a melodic phrase, often a long one. The blending of the two saxophones is also superb.
Following a tour of Russia at the time of Glasnost/Perestroika by The Engine Room - Roger Frampton, John Pochee, Steve Elphick - and the first jazz band from the west to tour Russia in many decades, Ken, with the The Last Straw
spent three weeks touring Russia in 1990. With Ten Part, Ken toured Indonesia in 1994, China in the late 1990s, North America in 2004 playing at Iowa University, the Chicago Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival and clubs, as well festivals in New Zealand.
From Peter Reniewski:
The passing of Ken James was a great shock for those of us who had been enriched by his music and, in my case, who had been fortunate to have known him as a friend for over thirty years. Ken contributed much more to Australian music than can be discovered via a quick trawl through a list Australian jazz recordings. His presence in such important groups as the Judy Bailey Quartet, the Last Straw, Ten Part Invention and Steve Hunter's Nine Lives and his own Reunion Band (which never released a recording) ensured that he played a vital role in mapping the direction taken by one strand of Sydney (especially) and Australian jazz. He was a character on the scene and was loved and respected by so many. What follows is not a standard obituary. It contains several voices which speak in their own tone. John Clare, who was an admirer of Ken's playing since the 70s and who introduced many people to it via his reviews, previews and features on the bands in which Ken played, has contributed the major part of the text, followed by Sandy Evans, Cheryl Kelly and John Pochee. For myself, I just want to say that Ken's music, which gave me so much pleasure and spurred about jazz in general, will never leave me.
From Sandy Evans:
'I feel so privileged to have had so many great experiences with Ken. I always loved hearing his beautiful sound in Ten Part Invention. He was one of the first players I played with who really understood the beauty of the depth of tone that could come out of the saxophone. He could tap into that expressive, vocal power In the way that someone like Wayne Shorter could. Combine that with a great sense of melody and groove and you have the wonderfully unique and joyous player that was Ken.
I'm eternally grateful to Ken for the way he looked after us all when we went to Taiwan and China without our fearless leader Mr Pochee. Althoug we didn't know it, Roger [Frampton] had his brain tumour at that time and wasn't well. Bernie McGann's partner, who travelled with us, was also experiencingh panic attacks and thinking she was going to die. Through all of this Ken remained the voice of reason, making sutre we got to gigs on time, knew what we were playing and had a damn good time playing it. He was a huge help to John and me both, many times in the years after that.I was thinking this morning that I can't remember him ever saying a bad word about anybody. Of course he had that briliant sense of humour with which he could convey all kinds of irony. But he never did that in a malicious way. He was a thoroughly good human being. I'll always remember him as a comedy double act with John on Ten Part tours. I don't think I've ever laughed quite so much as when the two of them would get going with their impromptu stand-up comedy routines in a hotel room after a gig. If somebody had a camera back then and posted some of these routines on U Tube today they would get millions of hits!
From Cheryl Kelly:
KJ or Kenny J was born in Sydney in 1944. His parents were Jack Henry and Jean Emma James (nee Kenny). Jean's brother Jim Kenny was president of the ACTU before Bob Hawke. Ken has an elder brother Frank who lives today with his partner Marie. Ken is also survived by a niece, Karen, and nephews Lloyd and Phillip.
From what I can gather, Ken had a normal Sydney childhood and went to Maroubra Junction Primary and South Sydney Junior Tech. He was at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1965. His education was interrupted on a regular basis by bouts of asthma. I think he worked as a store person before becoming a full time muso in his early 20s. His father played the violin and saxophone semi-professionally and was a tailor, working in Oxford Street, Sydney. [John Pochee has reminded me that Ken was always neatly dressed- JC]. He died when Ken was in his teens. his mother became the breadwinner, working as a school cleaner. She eventually married again (surname Turner) and became stepmother to Linda and Geoff. Ken married a local girl, Elizabeth Helen, in 1965 when he was 21. They were divorced in the 70s and there were no children.
Ken had a happy disposition for the most part and loved to laugh. He was a good and loyal friend but he had a solitary nature. He was a gentle soul, animals loved him and, in turn, he had a great love of cats. He was also loved Australia, cricket and all sports, playing golf and tennis and enjoying going to the gym. He was reading the autobiography of cricket umpire Dickie Bird and Gwyneth Barnes's book about Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe before he died. He was also heavily into a book called Arranging For Large Jazz Ensemble by Dick Lowell and Ken Pullig. Ken loved Sydney Harbour and the beaches at Coogee and Maroubra and often talked about going fishing with his father. He also loved cars.
Ken started singing in the choir in the Anglican church [presumably St John] at Maroubra, and was a soloist until his voice broke. His first instrument was violin, but he longed to play the saxophone, like his father. in 1953, at nine years of age, he passed Violin, Second Grade, with a mark of 92 out of a hundred.the examiner's comment: "An outstandingly itelligent and musical child. Very well prepared."
Ken lived in the Eastern Suburbs and South Sydney [pretty much where the two merged at Coogee and Maroubra, living at one stage at the top of Torrington Road in a house once occupied by the notorious lady of crime, Tilly Devine - JC]. He was in Perth 1978/9 with his own Jazz and Funk Group, for the WA Festival, and made tapes for ABC Perth, amongst other West Coast activities. He toured and taught in Fiji in the early 80s. His Revival band did opening sets for several visiting American bands, including Eddie Daniels/Mike Nock and Herb Ellis/Ray Brown/Monty Alexander. Ken toured with Dionne Warwick, Marlene Dietrich, Al Martino, Dick Emery, Pat Boone, Harry Secombe, Natalie Cole and The Supremes. Amongst many other activities Ken played at the Mount Pritchard Community Club in Sydney for nearly 20 years with Ross Connors. This club band won the Mo Award year after year. Ken was deeply loved by all his music contemporaries and friends for his easygoing nature, hi all round knowledge, his great stage presence and his astounding ability to build extraordinary solos. Ken's influences were many but in my opinion Miles Davis was the seminal influence. Among the saxophone players, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Lester Young. He was a keen listener and was interested in all types of music.
From John Pochee
What a great time we had in the forty years since we began out musical association!
We began playing in the Judy Bailey Quartet
in 1974 and recorded two albums (the second album Colours
was re-released two years ago). Then we started the quintet, The Last Straw
with Ken playing beside Bernie McGann. This band had a cult following and performed over 25 years until the Wangaratta Festival in 1999. Our one album won an ARIA Award for Best Auastralian Recording. Studernts at the Conservatorium have recently discovered this album and have been asking me about it and wanted to play some of the tunes.
Ken, during these years and since has been involved in many other projects, leading his own Quintet, which I played in, and playing in rock and backing bands. He was a wonderful composer, arranger and bandleader as well as being a great teacher. In 1986 I formed the ten piece ensemble Ten Part Invention. This has also just clocked up 25 years and Cobb and Co delivered Ken's gold watch to him shortly after he moved to Hamilton. As he did with The Last Straw, Ken always stepped in and led the band whenever I suffered health problems. Ten Part won several awards and, like The Last Straw, travelled all over the world to many great jazz festivals, with The Straw even winning 1st Prize at the Leningrad Jazz Festival. When I took the band to the Chicago Festival in 2005 we also appeared in a variety of small combinations and in these Ken really cut loose. I still remember the great jazz writer John Litweiler - who wrote A Harmelodic Life, which was a biography of Ornette Coleman - running over and asking if Ken had an album he could have. He said to me, "That Ken James sure can play!!!"
He sure could and it was my great pleasure to have him in our bands and spend a lot of time in his company.
Thanks for the great music and spirit you gave us, Ken.
Till we meet again,
With love from your old mate