Davey Payne of the People Band and the Blockheads: Something Else! Interview

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“I believe there is a divine music; it goes on, it’s automatic, without anger, greed, lust, attachment and egoism.”

Davey Payne is an extraordinary free-playing jazz saxophonist. He has been a member of those iconic grandmasters of free form called the People Band since the late 1960s. Of course, he is also known for the considerable period when he played with the Blockheads — the British band who backed vocalist Ian Dury. He is a musician whose life has been full of twists and turns.

First and foremost, he is a free-form jazz player. From the mid ’60s, he played in the UK, Europe and had one or two trips further afield in free playing ensembles with various musicians. This was largely his playing life until he became a member of the People Band, then the Kilburns and eventually the Blockheads, with whom he enjoyed a number of hits including “What a Waste,” “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3).” Since leaving the Blockheads, Davey has been relatively quiet musically but has never stopped playing. Keen to share his experiences and take free-form jazz to a wider audience, Davey’s take on life is intriguing and, while there are one or two regrets, he makes an interesting subject.

Davey was born in Willesden, London, when V2 doodle bugs still regularly appeared in the London skies. He told me: “We lived at the Wood Green end of White Hart Lane. My dad had a small precision engineering space in Canning Town; one lathe, one capstan, a milling machine, a drill and one Polish helper.”

As a child, Davey fell in love with the idea of playing the trumpet after being enchanted by films including The Five Pennies with Danny Kaye playing cornet player Red Nichols and featuring trumpeter Louis Armstrong. He also remembers The Fabulous Dorseys — a film about the lives of the Dorsey Brothers — and Paris Blues, about jazz musicians living in Paris. He says: “It was the trumpet that inspired me — a gold, shiny trumpet. I could say it was Satchmo but really it was whenever a trumpet turned up.” He admired players like Duke Ellington’s trumpet man Cat Anderson and Maynard Ferguson, who played with Stan Kenton. However, when he first tried a trumpet, Davey couldn’t get a note out of it. Then he heard Acker Bilk on the radio and was captivated at how the clarinet weaved in and out with the brass. He listened to jazz clarinettists including Barney Bigard, Artie Shaw, Buddy DeFranco and Woody Herman. He loved, as he puts it, “the pure sounds of silver keys on ebony.”

Classical music pieces such as Dvorak’s “Cello Concerto” and Bartok’s “Sonatas for Solo Violin” with Yehudi Menuhin; Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro,” Albert Roussel’s “Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola” and Debussy’s “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un Faune,” had a lasting effect on Davey — with the latter piece remaining a favorite. His musical tastes later encompassed the avant-garde music of Stockhausen, John Cage, Lamont Young and Schoenberg.

Davey’s family moved to Clacton, where he studied clarinet and it was there that he found his instrument. “While I was squeaking on a clarinet with a reed that was too hard at the Alice St. Johns’ music salon,” he explains, “this guy walked in and opened a tenor sax case. The vision of this golden saxophone in its plush, red velvet case persuaded me to take up the sax.” Soon, he was listening to saxophonists Charlie Ventura and Earl Bostic. Then he heard an inspirational recording of the Jazz Concert West Coast with the songs “Rock ‘n’ Shoals” and “Disorder At The Border” featuring Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray on tenor saxophones, with Sony Criss on alto.

Jazz guitarist Barney Kessel was also featured on the album and his playing sparked a life-long love of jazz guitar. “I still listen to a lot of Tal Farlow, Jim Hall and many other jazz, classical, Brazilian and flamenco guitarists,” Davey recalls. “So, first it was instruments that inspired me to play and later my influences ranged from Bilk to Gray, then on to Jimmy Guiffre and John Coltrane.” He recently told me: “If you get time, see the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, The scene near the beginning with Jimmy Giuffre playing ‘Train and the River’ influenced me a lot. Giuffre played bebop with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and various other great bands. I now prefer some of his later work with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and pianist Paul Bley.”

Today, Davey listens to composers including Toru Takemitsu, Oliver Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, bassist Orlando Lopez, trumpet player Toshinori Kondo, French flute music, violinist Nigel Kennedy’s Kafka and vocalist Salli Terri. Whilst his musical taste always bridged genres, Davey was drawn inexorably to jazz from early on and listened to pianist Alice Coltrane, bassist Charlie Mingus and saxophone players Roland Kirk, Andre Vida, Pharoah Sanders, Gato Berbieri, Coltrane and Junior Walker and the All Stars (a favorite). His main musical influences on the jazz front included traditional jazz, be-bop, Coltrane, Walker and Albert Ayler.

At 16, Davey moved back to London. He remembers: “We moved to Clacton because we had a holiday bungalow there and my Dad bought a larger work premises in Brightlingsea (Essex) which involved more machines, four ladies and two school leavers.” Davey had a brother and younger sister at the time and neither they nor Davey’s mum had really wanted to leave London. Davey’s grandmother lived in Hornsey, north London and they were close so he had family there. “In Clacton,” says Davey, “instead of going to art school as advised by my school, it was taken for granted that I would work for my dad. He soon realised that working on machines while singing Louis Armstrong solos wasn’t for me.”

Davey moved back to London, leaving home just before his younger brother Barry was born. Barry would later carve out his own musical career as a bass player playing with artists such as Gary Numan and he toured with Davey when he was 17. He has played with various bands and is a musician in his own right, recently playing with Bex Marshall. Back in London, Davey found a job in Nathaniel Berry’s music shop in Holloway Road, four doors up from Joe Meek’s studio. Mike Berry and members of the Outlaws (including Chas Hodges) and Dave Peacock (who later would team up with Chas to form Chas and Dave) used to come into the shop.

The job may have been mundane but it provided the opportunity for Davey to immerse himself in the London jazz scene. “I was not that interested in the job,” he says, “and looked forward to weekends when I would go to Ronnie Scott’s and the Flamingo all-nighter, then walk back to my little room in Holloway with the sounds of Ronnie Scott’s and Tubby Haye’s solos ringing in my ears.” At Scott’s, Davey saw many American musicians — including sax players Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Lucky Thompson and pianist Victor Feldman. He saw Roland Kirk when Ronnie’s club moved to its new premises and Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey at the Hammersmith Odeon. He saw Blakey again at the Finsbury Park Astoria with Giuffre playing his Free Fall with Paul Bley — who was booed. Looking back, Davey reckons the audience weren’t ready for Bley just yet.

Although mostly associated with saxophones, Davey plays other instruments including flute, harmonica, clarinet and others. He once told Eric Goulden (aka Wreckless Eric, with whom he toured in the late ’70s) that he played more than 56 different instruments, not all of them ones you blow — including guitar, trumpet, piano and a host of others. On stage, Davey will switch from flute, to tenor, alto and soprano sax as well as the harmonica, various whistles and noise making instruments.

His first sax was a Dearman tenor with a plastic mouthpiece but he switched to a Berg Larson metal after biting a ridge in the top and then going through the mouthpiece in just a few months. He had a Buescher tenor and was bought a new King Super 20 tenor, which he swapped for a Selmer Mk 6 and 500 Guilders in Amsterdam in 1968. He was given the tip by a guy who worked with Don Byas: The secret of a louder, brighter sound was to use softer 2½-3s reeds — so he did. Davey has had 3 Mk 6s since then and a silver Selmer Super 80 alto; a King Silver Sonic alto and a Selmer Mk 6 baritone and tenor; a Leblanc clarinet, Pete Fountain model, signed by Bob Helm from the Turk Murphy Band; a Yamaha low A baritone; a Conn silver C melody and a rare sarrusophone. Davey has also owned 3 Graftons — the rare plastic saxophones used by Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. A few years back, Parker’s was sold at Christie’s for £84,000. Davey part-exchanged his King Silver alto for a turquoise Buffet Prestige baritone and sold his Graftons to Dennis Lewington’s music shop in Shaftesbury Avenue. They ended up in America. Now, he uses a range of saxes including a Dave Guardala tenor sax, a Keilworth Silver SX90R alto, an LA Sporano, Dukof and Lakey mouthpieces, LA Sanyo and Silver sonic flutes and a Leblanc clarinet.

Davey’s playing debut was at the Shangri La holiday camp in Clacton-on-Sea in 1960. By 1964, he was playing with his own trio in the Crypt and the Latimer Hotel in Notting Hill. He also worked in the gardens for Hornsey council, and it was while there that he began to question politics and religion. This began a spiritual journey which is still important to Davey. He got involved with structural artists on projects like the Fun Palace in St Katherine’s Dock, London. He says: “In 1967, I was playing in the Crypt, Notting Hill. We played totally free there. Percussionist Glen Sweeney from the Third Ear Band sat in with us. Shortly after that, I worked with mixed media experimental and environmental artist Bruce Lacey. I used a sine-wave generator, amplified piano frame and soprano saxophone.” For a while, Davey regularly took part in outdoor art events. At one show, they created a meal with spaghetti and edible plates. At another event, involving a double bed and the Three Little Pigs there was a mixed audience which included, unknown to Davey at the time and maybe the first time their paths crossed, an art mentor named Peter Blake and a young teacher named Ian Dury.

In 1968, Davey met free drummer Terry Day, clarinettist Albert Kovitz, saxophonist Paul Jolly, pianist Mel Davis, bass player/pocket trumpeter Mike Figgis and bass/violin player Charlie Hart. These would later form the core of the People Band — a group that remains one of the iconic free jazz playing ensembles in the UK. To give this some context, in the UK in the early ’60s, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble was an important influence in the free-jazz scene. Around the same time the Continuous Music Ensemble, a free-flowing group of players, was formed. In 1965, three musicians from the Continuous Music Ensemble — Terry Day, Russell Hardy and Terry Holman — formed the Russell Hardy Trio. With the later additions of Payne and others, they became the People Band. The People Band considered the word “spontaneous” meant just that: without boundaries, or pre-conceived structures. They were considered anarchic due to their attitude towards anyone who wanted to structure things and the musicians collaborated with the People Show – a group of painters, visual artists and eventists. The whole ethos was based on improvisation and the music being continuous with no beginning or end.

Variations incarnations of the People Band would play at small venues across Europe for several years. As the musicians became better known individually, they took part in a variety of musical collaborations but they were drawn together enough times and had enough talent to make an impact and become grandees of the free jazz scene.

For a while Davey lived in Amsterdam with other musicians. It was a time when free-form jazz was becoming popular in Europe and Davey and other players found themselves at the center of the change. At the time, playing music they felt was from the heart was more important than riches and fame. Players from the People Band would join other bands on stage at times with varying responses. Sometimes, they got asked to leave as audiences were maybe not ready for completely free playing, When they were in London, they sometimes joined Ian Dury’s band, the High Roads on stage. Briefly, Terry Day, Charlie Hart and Davey joined — and the group became known as Kilburn and the High Roads.

Davey gained himself a reputation for being volatile and of this he says, by way of an anecdote: “It was in the early Kilburn and the High Roads days, at a gig at Hornsey Art College and Kilburn and the Highroads were supporting George Melly. After smashing my saxophone, the flute went, and half of the PA went in to the audience. A very young Madness were in the audience. I was pissed off with the sound and flipped. I think Lee Thompson, Suggs and Co. were quite impressed with the stage show, which led them to be the masters of naughtiness on stage.” The Invaders (later to become Madness and including Graham “Suggs” McPherson and saxist Lee Thompson) often went to Kilburn gigs, as well following other bands on the London pub circuit — which, at the time, proved a melting pot for many bands which would emerge in the new age/punk era. Another prominent occasional audience member was John Lydon, later of Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. fame.

Davey worked with Ian as a member of the Kilburns and they made the Handsome album, and worked the pub scene in the UK. He was asked to play on Dury’s iconic first album for Stiff records New Boots and Panties, released in 1977. Only Davey survived various changes in the line up to become a Blockhead with Ian, however. Charlie Hart went on to play with Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance and Chris Jagger (Mick’s younger brother), and currently plays with the Equators. Terry Day remained loyal to avant garde and has worked with a host of artists. He regularly plays Cafe Oto in collaboration with other musicians. The late, great Mel Davis lived self sufficiently with his animals and nature in Lincolnshire, and Mike Figgis made films — though all of them came together when they could to play.

In spite of ups and downs, Davey’s working life with Ian survived almost 25 years, but Davey has always maintained his identity as a jazz player and never left the People Band entirely. That the People Band did not continue to play together regularly is probably one of the great losses to the UK free-jazz scene but other things took priority — not least the fact that Davey found the Blockheads took an increasing amount of his time and, gradually, the times the People Band musicians got together diminished.

Davey has some regrets and says: “In the late ’60s, Mike Figgis and I returned from Biarritz, where we had been playing in a soul band called Loco Weed. I then traveled with the People Band and we spent three years playing in Holland with occasional gigs in Belgium and Germany. We also played two gigs in Paris with jazz pianist Burton Green, who had played with Roland Kirk. Other musicians joined from time to time — even John Surman sat in with us once. Over the next few years, Day, Hart and I worked in Holland as Ommu the Smooch. In England, we continued to do gigs with the bigger band, which included pianist Mel Davis and Paul Jolly on saxophones and flute. We often played at the Wood Green Arts Centre and the Robert Streets Art Laboratory near Warren Street. Charlie and I, as part of an Arts Council grant, played at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Later on, because of the volume of work with Ian, there was no time for much else. In retrospect, I wish I had taken the band to Europe. Don Cherry asked me if I would take the People Band to Sweden but I was tied up with the family and the Blockheads. But I wish I had and tried to keep the People Band playing over these years.”

Davey readily admits most people know him for the considerable length of time he played with the Blockheads. His brooding presence on stage added to the Blockheads’ image — and his unfettered playing was part of their distinctive sound. His stance of staring straight ahead when not playing and his distinct lack of words on stage led to Davey gaining something of a reputation of being aloof, though it originated because he had no sax part for some of the songs. There were also a few tales of him losing his temper on stage and off, and fisticuffs in the dressing room which added to the public perception of him as a player with a volatile temper. Whatever the antics off stage, the Blockheads’ audiences were always delighted when he played because he brought a definitive feel to the music. Though he does not regularly play with the band now, he has a place in most Blockhead fans’ hearts and when he plays with them the gigs are always popular. He would like to play some specials with them soon.

Although pop music — both with the Blockheads and a range of other performers, brought Davey recognition on a wider scale, free form is where he soars and where his soul appears to find peace. He expands: “Ideally music should be free, with no preconceived ideas, just floating on spontaneous improvisation. This music has an energy about it which is felt by the listener if they are ready to open up to it.” His advice is to “play from the heart but be angry also. Angry and discordant was the avant-garde jazz, a music to change the social system, born in the late ’60s in America with musicians that wanted to create a universal movement for freedom and honesty.”

Davey has played with many artists other than the People Band, starting in 1977 when he recorded with Wreckless Eric before officially joining the Blockheads. Over the next few years, he worked with Nico, the Clash, Desmond Dekker, Howard Jones, Jona Lewie, Pearl Harbour, Ellen Foley, The M Band, Elvis Costello, The Stranglers and Japanese singer Kyoshi. In 1984, he recorded and toured Britain, Europe and Australia with Feargal Sharkey. In 1986, the People Band reunited after a long hiatus and called themselves Mummy. They played at the Luton Arts Centre before being featured in Mike Figgis’ film Stormy Monday, where they appeared as a free-form Polish group called the Krakow Jazz Ensemble.

Through the ’90s, Davey recorded and gigged with the Blockheads, making the album Mr. Love Pants, released in 1998. He left the Blockheads for good that year, after a gig in Victoria Park. (That is all he is saying for the moment; it depends who you speak to what people think happened but it does not matter now as it was a long time ago.) Still, as the Blockheads’ Mick Gallagher recently told me: “If ever we are in the West Country, we give Davey a call and see if he wants to come along and bring his saxes.” He has since made occasional appearances with the band in London and elsewhere.

Of his erstwhile bandmates, Davey says: “The Blockheads are a great band. How it worked was Ian would come up with a lyric and often a riff or musical idea. Chas would bung in a few chords and the band would add their magic to it. “What A Waste” was initially a simple chord structure penned by Rod Melvin for the second Kilburns — Ian Dury and the Kilburns — formed after Keith Lucas and myself left Kilburn and the High Roads. It was disappointing and Ian, disillusioned with it all, was about to take a job as a lift attendant at Harrods. As he was always star struck, I think he liked the idea of going up and down with the rich and famous. Fortunately, Andrew King and Peter Jenner took him under their wing and recorded New Boots and Panties at the Workhouse Studios on the Old Kent Road. The Blockheads totally rearranged “What A Waste.” I remember Johnny and Mick working hard on the middle section. I added the riff after the solo. But the band were never credited for it. I think, musically, it was one of our best singles.”

Davey continues: “When we were in the charts selling records, we were often headlining at large festivals and venues. In Roskilde we headlined above U2 and Toots and the Maytels. In Maastricht PinkPop, we headlined with Madness and UB40 below us. Later, about ’97, we were at Riskilde on the main stage with Beck before us, playing to about 30,000 people. Unfortunately the crowd drifted off to the various large tents — in one Supergrass were playing, in another Isaac Hayes. Our crowd had dwindled down to about 3,000, maybe less. Ian wasn’t on form and I could see he was losing communication with the audience — rare for Ian. In England, we have a loyal following but in Europe, when the record sales dropped with less radio plays, press, promotion, etc., the interest wanes and bands are forgotten. But the Blockhead fans appreciate the band; I think they respect the fact that the Blockheads keep playing, whatever the venue.”

Being a perfectionist, when Davey has joined The Blockheads, he tries to make sure it goes well musically. Even at small venues such as the Water Rats in London (which holds around 250), he travelled up from Cornwall to London and worked really hard with the band, with whom he had not played for some time, making sure everything went well on his part at the gig. Their manager Lee Harris told me that at one point Davey came up and told him he probably would not play with them again as the sound was so awful that he could not hear himself play. Later, however, he came and said everything was fine and the vibe was great.

Writing with Davey has been interesting. It can take several emails to get one line of copy, so it has been a long-term exercise — and I have learned about the man himself and his family. Tangents are taken aplenty from both of us, largely because I find his take on free form so interesting. I have met up with him at a gig or two, and he is affable with a ready grin. At a People Band gig, the sense of musical connection and friendship between the musicians is palpable and works its magic on the room. At the last one I attended, I was welcomed warmly by Terry, Charlie and Davey and met several people who had been at other People Band gigs.

Where, I wonder is the volatile, explosive saxman of legend? He, as it turns out, is a bit of a myth and Davey has, in fact, only lost his temper a few times. (Ahem.) While he remains a difficult nut to crack, largely because of his obtuse way of looking at things sometimes, the wild man was largely mythologized. Not that there have not been “occasions”: He is a perfectionist, which is why when things don’t go quite right, he can get frustrated. But this is part and parcel of Davey’s make up. He brings a musicality to a performance and the difference between a gig with Davey and one without is not only the style of playing but the additional musical touches Davey brings. Little riffs, odd little insets, whistles, the odd bar or several on a harmonica, all contribute to a performance and he seems to know just where to draw the line between adding to the sound or going off at tangents which would be too much for the audience — or some, in any case.

Davey comments: “I don’t really have a reaction to the audience as such, though obviously it’s great when people are shouting ‘Davey’ — especially when I’m flying away with a crazy free solo, as opposed to a more planned one. I react more with the band if it’s going well and the sound balance is good, which is very important. What upsets me more is a bad sound, when the guitars and bass are so loud that I can’t hear what I’m playing, or a sound man hasn’t noticed that my monitor is not on. Out of frustration, I might end up throwing a mic stand at someone, or worse still, smashing my saxophone but I’ve only thrown one mic stand, and smashed two saxes. Maybe a few scuffles on stage but, hey, rock and roll!” It does not happen when he feels fulfilled creatively. There are a few encounters he chooses to forget, but which I have been told about with relish from others. They have become the stuff of legend.

Davey works to his own time scale, with little regard for deadlines or writing schedules. His priorities are completely right in that, like Churchill, he puts family above all else. He may reply to a query in a day, take several weeks or you may get two emails in a day — it all depends. He readily discusses many things but music is where he comes to life, and he has a sensitive side if you are prepared to look. His character is complex and the real man is quite different from the persona he tries to project. Writing with him, you get two distinct people depending on the mood, which can throw you a little. He can switch from being open to defensive, with no apparent reason, friendly to distant, which sometimes comes as a shock. But he has something which attracts people to him and makes an interesting subject to observe.

Fortitude bears fruit and Davey has a lot to say about music and is patient with writers. He will correct or give snippets that he feels enhance what has been put, which is great in a contact. Sometimes we disagree, which is fine, but free form is what I like and Davey possesses an inordinate sense and understanding of the music and a more than decent knowledge of the genre. He is not particularly interested in jazz history, but still took time to read and comment on pieces I have worked up from time to time, contributing ideas and occasional corrections. My experience has been that he is a serious musician with a sense of humor, one who is well aware of where he stands in terms of what he wants to say with his music, the fickleness of commercialism and a desire to share musical experiences.

Davey can give the impression of being arrogant. He seems self assured, yet there is something else — something intangible unless you analyze it, yet which is apparent from the moment you meet him — and that is his vulnerability. He cares deeply about what people think, about his music and about his image. Everything he writes is measured, weighed and tested to make sure it hits the right note. He enjoys observing reactions. Yet behind the bravado, the self description of the anarchic sax player and the legendary temper (which is exaggerated) is a man who is sensitive, spiritual and seeking approval still — though he would never admit it in a million years. This comes through and it is this which, in my opinion, is a reason (along with his playing) why people are still drawn to him as a musician. I also believe that, in time, his music will prove his identity. I have seen Davey play at full throttle and then, only then, when everything else is forgotten for the moment, do you get a glimpse of the real person behind the mists and screens. That is his appeal as a musician — that delicious revelation.

Playing with others is important and he regularly plays with musicians where he lives. Davey says: “When I play with others, I’m totally aware of them. That’s what it’s all about; dialogue, communication, to create a oneness, to lose the ego, so if you need to play a thousand notes you do that but if only one note is required you do that also: This is when free music is at its best. It is said that you have to be intelligent and in control of the music. Well, I like to be out of control; it’s a different intelligence and control. OK, sometimes tell the music what to do but try letting it speak to you also.”

When with the Blockheads, he comments that sometimes he would glance across at Chas or Norman and think: “Yes, this is it, we are a band.” The audience warm to Davey, largely because of his playing. Something happens when Davey is afforded a solo. At a recent gig I went to, Davey gave one of the best solos I have heard for a long time. I even may have closed my eyes at some point. Afterwards, Davey asked about it and I joked it was rubbish. He just laughed and said, “Yeah!,” like I meant it.

Of free music, Davey says: “I don’t believe that it is necessarily true that you have to learn the rules before you break them. Rules can and often restrict. An abstract painter scumbles and explores, takes chances and begins to learn how these more radical techniques work. Then, you might focus in and explore a more conventional way: another color to your palette, if you feel the need to. Obviously, if you want to play like Stan Getz or Kenny G or paint a Constable, you would need to, like, paint by numbers. I think it’s probably best to do both — stretch out, blast away, move your fingers fast, scream, growl, have fun, be angry, or sad, think about things that you know and express them with your playing, talk through your instrument, then maybe play a scale, but don’t be a parrot; move on and let the subconscious rule. If people say that’s not music, say that you are expressing and communicating through sound. All music, as we know it, was just made up with tunes probably nicked from a gypsy band or street performer. Mozart improvised at parties, and Liszt: Wow! And the Indian sitar, that’s another story, not to mention the sound of the real cosmos. Play from the heart, find your divine light and be angry, also.” Angry, meaning the political frustration expressed in music.

We have, of course, discussed jazz and Davey comments: “To me, the word ‘jazz’ can be used for improvisation, because I see jazz as improvisation and the theme, the tune, a formula, music, entertainment, opening the door. The jazz part, to me, is a spontaneous improvisation. So even if you are sounding like Schoenberg, maybe using saxes, ‘a jazz instrument’, or a more ‘classical’ instrument, violin, flute, oboe, if you are improvising you could call it jazz or improvised music. The improvised solos in the ’20s were free-ish but the total freedom — as Jimmy Giuffre puts it ‘free fall – I let my fingers fall freely’ — is I think, ideally, no preconceived ideas, often atonal and see where it takes us, a journey through sound. Also, I could also have preconceived ideas and that could be OK or it could throw you out of orbit. I would say that Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre and John Coltrane were the guys who started to break the boundaries of jazz. They were influenced by Schoenberg, other European avant-gardists, and Asian music and the microtones of the sitar.”

Davey adds: “I like the bluesiness of Mingus and the way he collaborated and used musicians. I like some soul jazz and Funkadelic and bizarre arrangements as well as bandleader/writer George Clinton and William Earl Bootsy Collins’ bass. It would have been great to have heard Ayler’s screaming sax over some of those great grooves. I am intrigued by some of Sun Ra’s music, but maybe it’s too theatrical; too much is thrown in and it becomes a circus, a bit like Shostakovich — a bit of this and a bit of that, a marching bit, a pretty section. Having said that, I think it works with Mahler, as you journey through his symphonies full of surprises, windows opening into his wonderful music. The 7th is my favorite. I sometimes listen now to Astor Piazzolla, Cuban music and Indian sitar which, to me, is the nearest to free improvisation — with its microtones and free-flowing lines.”

Good musicians like talking music and Davey is no exception but he will also talk about a range of other subjects and is ready with an anecdote. His stories will shortly be in print as he is working on a book that has taken him some twelve years to write. He hopes it will possibly be completed next spring. He paints, writes poems and enjoys his life in rural England and of course, he practices. When he is ready again, Davey says he may well hit the jazz scene, but he has gone solo before.

In 1979, buoyed with the success of the Blockheads and his own popularity, he recorded the single “Saxophone Man,” backed by a distinctly Kirk-esque version of Gershwin’s “Foggy Day in London Town,” but it had limited success. He also went to the U.S. and recorded an album Blowtorch. The idea was Davey would record an album with funky/disco grooves and some tracks were recorded including the self-penned “Razor Blades,” as well as cover versions of standards like “Say a Little Prayer” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” but there remained disparities between what the record company saw as commercial and what Davey wanted to do. He used Terry Day as his drummer on the album, but Terry was a completely free player and on one session might play drums, or he might squeak balloons or read poetry depending on how the mood went. Davey says: “The last thing they wanted was a mad saxophonist and bonkers drummer on an album.” The album was never released.

Regarding the commercial aspects of playing, Davey says: “If you are a spiritual player, some of this will come across whatever you play but it will be watered down (to be commercial). A bit like Malcolm McLaren mixing ‘Madam Butterfly’ with rock rhythms to get opera to the masses, but it misses the point somewhat. However, if you need to make a living and don’t want to chop wood, you can’t be blamed for that. Monet wouldn’t chop wood, stuck to his art and become rich and famous. I was lucky and able to more or less play my own thing and be fairly free over the tightness of the Blockheads. And I like chopping wood.”

He is very aware of public perceptions, not only of the music he plays but also of his own image. After a recent People Band gig, he was concerned that there was nothing (as he put it) “they could do about looking like a bunch of old farts,” but his response was that they “must simply be very, very special.” When Davey was in the Blockheads, he was cast as the enigmatic one. He wore wrap around shades and a range of jackets — often with attachments of badges, even candles at one gig. He is still aware of image and its importance, though nowadays his taste in jackets and shades is perhaps more tasteful. At a gig in London a couple of years back, it was amusing to hear Davey asking people if he had on the right jacket. Most could not have cared less; it was having Davey there that mattered but, to him, it mattered a lot.

When I recently asked him about image and showing off (as I put it), he commented: “Personally, I have a lot of jackets and shades — show business — and I think maybe when I was younger, people recognized a spark of something. Some people rely only on jackets and shades but some people have talent as well. Look at Sonny Rollins with his Mohican, Roland Kirk with his plastic jackets, Sun Ra with flashing lights on his head. If someone plays in a way that digs deep into the soul and projects that power and truth, they probably have a persona that attracts also, like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Miles Davis and Bootsy Collins. Also, people like a bit of show business whether it’s a sequined suit or a dirty rain mac.”

Naturally, not everyone shares Davey’s penchant for free-form jazz and there have been some derisive comments from musicians preferring straight-ahead genres. Davey’s reaction to comments on free-jazz players such as those who might comment that genre opens the door for under achievers and wannabes (as one of my good friends recently put it) — and those who doubt “if the cat (Davey) and any of his kindred spirited friends could/can even blow a 12-bar blues chorus using the proper changes” is: “Well, we can, and what do they think of Schoenberg and atonal music? Or abstract expressionism? The point is, I would sooner listen to a child blow the sax for the first time, with the purity, texture, the broken notes, multi-phonics, and natural and interesting spacings, than a twat trying to play ‘Desafinado’ or painting the Haywain. And don’t forget ‘Giant Steps’ is only nine chords and 3 2-5-1s – it’s not rocket science.”

He won’t admit it readily, but Davey actually loves the reaction of people to his playing. Some time back I caught the end of a People Band set and afterwards spoke briefly to Davey, his wife and some other people. One woman bustled nervously over to Davey and told him in no uncertain terms she had always loved his playing and that today he had been brilliant. Davey gave her time and chatted, clearly relishing the experience but also making her feel good about speaking to him.

On stage, Davey prefers to let his playing do the talking, though he delights in the spotlight when it falls on him. He wanders around stage, turning his back on the audience, completely absorbed in the music. In typical contrast to what he said before, he admits to getting carried away with audience interaction on occasion and has thrown jackets, shades and other items into audiences, notably his Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren satin jacket, covered in badges and stickers. As he says: “Who knows what was in the pockets?” This treasured jacket was thrown into the audience in a moment of excitement, never to be seen again.

At a Graea Theatre production of the Paul Sirrett play Reasons to Be Cheerful (based on the story of a lad trying to get to a Blockheads gig which uses the group’s songs as loose narrative in the story), word got to the cast that Davey and his family were in the audience. John Kelly, vocalist in the play and Dan McGowan — who plays a version of Payne’s double sax solo in “Rhythm Stick” in the show — were understandably nervous. Davey visited the cast just before they went onstage. He presented Dan a tie he had worn for a gig and John with one of Ian’s jackets. John has been a life-long Ian Dury fan and was overcome by the generous act.

Of that night, John says: “We’d just finished sound check and in came that smiling, friendly face of Davey, with a plastic shopping bag in hand. After saying hello to all the gang, he came to me and said, ‘I’ve got something here.’ He paused and then said, ‘You might not want it but …,’ and then pulled out one of Ian Dury’s jackets; it fit like a glove. I couldn’t believe the love and generosity Davey showed, and the casual way the jacket was in a shopping bag. The jacket only comes out now for special shows — including that night, of course. Davey smiled when he saw me in it and gave a thumbs up from the front row. He sent me a lovely message after we did ‘Spasticus Autisticus,’ at the opening ceremony for the Paralympics too. That meant the world to me.”

Davey has strong beliefs, which have changed over time. When he was 18, he joined the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain in London and became a vegetarian. He was introduced to Sat Sang (an Indian philosophical idea) and now follows a form of third-eye meditation taken from the philosophy of Guru Nanak called Radha Swami Satsang. Since then, he has gone on his own spiritual journey and developed his own theories on how people should treat each other and interact. He says: “If the universe as we know it started with a speck smaller than an atom and was created within a second and there are at least eleven dimensions and possibly trillions and trillions of universes, I believe anything is possible.” Mind you, when I met him at a People Band gig last year, he opened the conversation with something along the lines of: “I have just spent ages with a man who went on about fucking multi–universes and so on. I am a bit that way myself but really!” As part of his beliefs, Davey is vegetarian and meditates regularly, though he is no saint.

Of the changes in music, Davey comments: “I know this is not a good thing, but human nature as it is, I think maybe young people want to see young people — and, if the music is challenging, it could be that they need visual energy, a new take on an old genre. I’m not saying that us old gits should give up, just that we could become like those old trad-jazz dad guys: black shirts, beige, graydom and boredom, man. And now we have Alan Wilkinson, Steve Noble, John Coxon. Just scout through The Wire magazine and see the vitality and young blood, including my son Jaxson Payne, who was reviewed at Café Oto in the September issue. My old sax teacher Don Rendell told me he just couldn’t get gigs, even though he was one of our finest sax players, playing with such bands as the Stan Kenton European Orchestra, Johnny Dankworth and many more collaborations, but as he reached his late 60s the work fizzled out. ‘They’, as he said it, ‘just wanted Courtney Pine and the younger generation’. It is the same in classical music concerts. The new audiences want Yo-Yo Ma; forget Pablo Casals and Paul Tortelier.” So, perhaps he feels the market is no longer welcoming to established players.

Davey keeps in touch with musicians he has played with, and there are often talks of gigs to come. He also plays in his local scene, taking part in small festivals and regularly plays with local musicians. Family life is important for him (he has eight children), so journeys to London are rare. He paints and is an observant and pragmatic artist.

He says: “Recently, I’ve been involved with some poetry and jazz. I have a large family and that keeps me busy. But I’m practicing a lot, so maybe when I’m ready I’ll hit the jazz scene and blow some minds. The (local) university has a thriving scene and the local radio station is encouraging live music and has good jazz and Latin programmes. Just down the road is a venue, Miss Peapods, which was voted one of the best small clubs, along with Cafe Oto, and we have a local jazz club where top names come to play — started by painter and pianist Ralph Freeman. I get a kick out of playing because I think my playing is better now but I’m not quite ready to show off. Soon though, I just have to find the right jacket and shades. I play more than ever nowadays. It’s a challenge to go somewhere else. In the past, when it came to practice, it was more about different techniques. Now, it’s about making the right changes and being in tune, but also remembering to stay in tune creatively.” Somehow, I think if Davey decided to take Cafe Oto by storm, he would not be short of an audience.

Davey has not lost hope of reuniting with The Blockheads and some of the other bands he worked with. He comments: “It would be great in the near future if the Blockheads with guests and old friends, past drummers, Dylan (Howe), Steve Monti, plus maybe some of Madness, Mick Jones (guitar and vox in the Clash and later Big Audio Dynamite) and Paul Simonon (bass guitarist in the Clash), Phill Jupitus, Keith and Lily Allen, (singers), Lene Lovich, Wilko Johnson (guitarist and vocalist), and maybe some of the old Kilburns could get together and have another Ian Dury tribute concert — with film footage of Ian as backdrops, stills, and anecdotes from friends, including Peter Blake (artist and Ian’s art teacher), Denise Roudette, Humphrey Ocean. We have just got to find the venue — simple! I would like to do some specials with the Blockheads and ideally an album so I could play my own parts. The book is still moving on, it’s not ready yet and I just need a publisher.”

As far as free-form playing goes, at the moment Davey is keen to do more with Terry, Charlie and Mike — and they may collaborate as Ommu (the smaller version of the band comprising Davey, Charlie and Terry). Davey is keen to try some different influences such as African, Mingus and Messiaen mixed with free-form improvisation, so who knows how interesting the next gig might be!

Davey’s poem on saxes goes:

The cosmic bagpipes or the primal screams of the devil? Are they cries of help from our deepest neuroses or celestial sounds from our inner soul?
Is it the divine music of the astral plane or cacophony from the ego?
Is Stan Getz or Kenny G the road to hell? And Pharoah Sanders the divine transcendent music? Is one man’s hell another’s heaven? Albert Ayler’s screaming for freedom beauty from chaos may be whipping people into a false sense of spiritual attainment. So will we gain wisdom through the music of Pharoah Sanders or be dumbed down by Kenny G’s Songbird?
I believe there is a divine music; it goes on, it’s automatic, without anger, greed, lust, attachment and egoism. I think I experienced this once with a free music blow at the Paradiso in Amsterdam and I hadn’t been taking drugs, just mu tea and brown rice.
Personally I like Pharoah Sanders and Stan Getz, Albert Ayler and Lester Young, and even a little Kenny G. I also like a cream cake from time to time but get a pain in the stomach if I have too much.
Now where’s the alternative medicine?

Hopefully, we shall hear more from this intriguing musician in the not too distant future.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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  • Yatesy

    A great interview, us Blockheads keep talking about the gig at The Water rats..you met us before the gig and chatted to us.
    A great musician whoom i’ve met many a time, hope to see you again at a Blockhead gig sometime.

    Yatesy

    • sammy stein

      To be honest John you should send an email direct to Davey as he won’t read it here. He has not got much interest in published articles. Ho hum…

  • Paul Bryant

    Yeah Sammy – and you said this guy was hard to fathom? You make it look easy. I reckon you could get stones to tell you their life stories cos everyone loves you and you are gentle with them. Never stop writing Sammy – promise us.

  • Paul Bryant

    Re-read this again and got even more – this and Evan Parker piece are really special. I could read you all day Sammy, and I may well do so – how is the book coming along? Should be amazing come March!! You putting contacts and experiences in music in? Let me know for reviewing and excerpts in press etc.

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