Terry Day, of the Continuous Music Ensemble and the People Band: Something Else! Interview

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“You can be the flashiest bastard in the world but what matters is how you hit the beat.” That’s how Terry Day sums up the art of drumming.

Terry has been around for as long as … well, as long as most people can remember. He is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, lyricist, painter and poet who has travelled across Europe and Asia and played with countless improvising musicians. During that time he seems to have discovered something of the secret of life. Interviewing him is like getting a lesson in the history of free jazz, delivered by a lively, animated, slightly dishevelled but extremely engaging professor of music.

Our interview began when we met at the Vortex at the agreed time and date. However, Terry felt it was not the right venue — too noisy. So, we found a nearby pub (too bright and noisy), then a café/bar (too busy) and finally a Latin-themed bar on Dalston High Street. Just one table move, and we were settled with cups of tea. I had met Terry Day briefly a few times before and he opened the interview by telling me he did not feel he had a lot to add to our previous conversations. “OK,” I said, “Let’s just chat for a bit.”

Good move. Soon the stories came and then the animation. Terry Day cannot help himself. It is a question of “light the blue touch paper and stand back.” All I had to do was wait. We had scheduled about half an hour between events I was committed to, but we talked for over an hour, Terry keeping the momentum and ideas coming all the time and me just listening, taking notes and thinking about how music brings life to the soul.

Terry Day was born in 1940, the youngest of four brothers. His father was in a dance band called the Gainsborough Rhythm Boys, which rehearsed in the family home. His eldest brother Tony was into bebop, and introduced the music to his younger brothers. By the time he was 9 or 10, Terry was going to jazz concerts, had his own bebop collection and was heavily influenced by bebop and other jazz genres. One of Terry’s brothers, Pat, was a gifted drummer and joined his father’s band at just 10 years old. As a teenager he was playing with some of the biggest jazz musicians of the day, including bandleader Gerald Walcan Bright (Geraldo) in the mid 1950s. Musical innovator Graham Bond rated Pat highly and would allow him to sit in on drums during sets. Terry Day, 9 years younger than Pat, spent time watching his brother play the drums at all sorts of gigs with all sorts of musicians. He himself would pick out rhythms, banging whatever came to hand.

Early on, Terry wanted to play alto sax, but his brother encouraged him to try the drums. This proved a perceptive insight, as drums provided the perfect outlet for Terry Day’s innate creativity. (Sax and many other instruments came later.) When he was 14, Terry decided he was going to go to art school and in order to earn some money to subsidise fees, he began to learn drums. He played rhythms and kept time and his brother encouraged him to practice until he got things right, but he found that when he went to do a four-bar break his head would, as he puts it, “go out the window, my hearing would go and my emotions would rise and heighten, the timing would go all over the place. I’d start playing all sorts of crazy patterns, rhythms, textures, concepts, accents, dynamics and ideas. In effect I was improvising without even being aware.” His brother encouraged him to experiment and improvise more.

Coming from a home steeped in music, Terry was influenced by many musicians, including a lot of bebop players. Influences included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Ornette Colman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Tayor and arrangers like Gil Evans and Stan Kenton. He saw John Coltrane play with sax/flute/bass clarinet player Eric Dolphy, pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bass player Jimmy Garrison when he brought his quintet to the UK, and the quintet had a marked influence on Day — particularly the playing of Eric Dolphy, who died when Terry Day was just 16. Drummers like Sunny Murray, Art Blakey and Roy Haynes were influential. Of Murray, Terry says, “Once I heard Sunny Murray, I knew I was not alone — that I could indulge in my own ideas of pulse, texture, high energy, swish cymbal swishing and that I could indulge in my own touch just like I’d heard my brother doing.”

Terry Day’s improvised playing led him to form a trio with Russell Hardy and Terry Holman in the early 1960s where he could develop his improvisational ideas in a group context. The Russell Hardy Trio as they became known, was probably the first group to play free improvisation exclusively. Terry began to find new ways to communicate with other musicians. He enjoyed playing with Russell Hardy, but says: “Russell played really quietly but he was a great pianist. I was a drummer and very loud, so I and the audience were missing out on Hardy’s great playing. To help with this, I first shaved my drumsticks down. Even these proved too loud sometimes, so I played using knitting needles and that worked. People thought I was improvising and I was, but not for the reasons they assumed!”

Like many other European musicians at the time, they took a dislike to the formatted start / tune / melody / end style of playing. They soon found others followed and Terry coerced Hardy towards improvisation. They met other players including trumpeter Henry Lowther. Many musicians Terry Day met were playing in “structured” ensembles and Terry suggested doing something different. The Continuous Music Ensemble was formed and had its home at The Starting Gate pub in Wood Green. This was the first large group Terry Day played with, and it became a magnet for freeform players during the 1960s. The group expanded, playing music loosely based around Ayler, Coleman, Mingus, Monk, pianist Satie and US composer Charles Ives. It attracted many musicians with a more anarchic approach to playing.

Terry and other musicians like George Khan would play improvised music. Trumpeter and bass player Mike Figgis joined them a little later, and for a while became the youngest member of the Continuous Music Ensemble. The CME became an important part of the London improvising scene. Initially many musicians were jazz purists but some non-purists including pianist Mel Davis became important components of the Continuous Music Ensemble and encouraged others to play freely. Mel was an innovator who really helped develop the group’s improvised side.

In order to extend the communication and language of his playing, Terry Day found he had to keep adding new drums, cymbals, woodblocks, non-percussive things and bowing things. At one point, his kit grew to the extent that it would take three quarters of an hour to set up. He met other improvising musicians like sax player Davey Payne and bass player Charlie Hart. They also played regularly at the Little Theatre Club with John Stevens but got little recognition. However, soon other musicians like Steve Beresford, John Russell and others joined them and the Little Theatre became quite a hub for improvisational music.

Terry Day, Davey Payne and Charlie Hart went to Holland and played at a jazz club. From that gig, they gained 2 more and at each gig, they got asked to do more, eventually playing 18 gigs around Holland. They performed mainly as a trio but brought others in on occasion. This formed the nucleus of what later became The People Band — one of the most influential free-form ensembles in the UK. A quintet of Terry Day, Paul Jolly, Albert Kovitz, Charlie Hart and Davey Payne was formed and the trio of Davey, Charlie and Terry, played gigs separately, calling themselves OMU. “As we went to one gig,” says Terry, “we got offers to play more.” He grins, adding: “Somebody obviously liked what we did.”

With core members of the People Band playing, Martin Davidson of the Emanem label showed an interest in what they were doing. Recordings were made, some sold and at the same time the audience for free jazz grew in the UK and Europe. The People Band used rehearsed compositions which incorporated solos alongside slices of completely improvised playing where any, all or just one of the players might play at different times, tempo and rhythm — connected only by being on the same stage at the same time (or off it). The ethos was that music is continuous, based on improvisation and has no beginning or end.
Terry Day readily admits that their style was “a little out of mainstream” and they were told by one producer that they had no commercial impetus but this suited them fine at the time.

During the 1960s, Terry Day played with Derek Bailey’s quartet and also in a duo with him but they made no recordings. In the late ’70s, Terry got involved with Pete Cusack’s group in Holland. He then joined a trio with Maarten Altena on contrabass and Maurice Horsthuis on viola. Steve Lacey occasionally sat in. He has also played in groups with Evan Parker, Gus Johanson and Pete Cussack. The long list of names Terry has played and written with is like a list of improvising jazz luminaries. It also includes Dave Solomon, Ron Tereman, Trevor Watts, Maarten Alkena, Maurice Horsthuis, John Russell, Javier Carmona, John Edwards, Phil Minton, Maggie Nichols and many, many more. Groups include the Lovely Band, Mummy, Alterations, Amazing Band and quite a few more — Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Diani, Mongezi Fezzi and the Nigerian Highlife Band.

Terry Day has, in his 55 years or so as a musician, collaborated with many musicians and taken part in many projects including groups, dancers, painters, poets, artists across the globe, alternative theatrer and rock and roll. He was in the original Kilburns with Ian Dury. He has played many instruments including saxophone (I have it on good authority he is a great player), bamboo reed flutes, sopranino, recorders, piano, cello, mandolin and balloons.

From 1987 to 2000, Terry had to have a break from music due to a crippling back problem. When I asked him how he spent the time he said: “Well, for about two years I was flat on my back, staring at the ceiling, then I used two crutches for a while. I did, however get an education about other music, due to a neighbor who introduced me to rock and roll, [Frank] Zappa, Steely Dan. I ‘got educated.’”

When he came back to improvised music in 2000, Terry Day found a changed scene, and for a while found it difficult to get gigs. “One of the things about getting gigs and why it might be difficult for me,” Terry says, “is that when people book me, they never know what I am going to do. Sometimes I play the drums, sometimes I might squeak my balloons or read poetry.” Terry has no desire to conform, and is the embodiment of a truly free player. He plays what and how he feels according to the moment and there is, for him, no other way. He says, “It depends on the audience, the mood and the feelings.” Of balloons, Terry says with a grin: “They are underestimated. It is surprising how many different sounds you can get from a balloon. One lady recently told me I was a balloon maestro but I told her, ‘I am not yet a maestro; a master perhaps but not a maestro — yet.'”

Of the current jazz scene, Terry noticed that when he returned from his enforced break in 2000 the audience had become younger. He comments, “There is a healthy stock of improvising musicians in America, Australia, Asia, Europe and the UK. There are lots of great players coming up of nationalities like the Spanish and the French. The Malaga festival is for largely Spanish musicians, but they also welcome people like me with open arms. The musicians are really schooled so very adaptable. People can swap genres and try different styles and bands at festivals.”

Day concedes that if you are an aspiring jazz player — and perhaps more if you are playing free form, improvising or experimental — it is a hard game and not easy. “Seize every opportunity,” he advocates. “Get good tools when you see them, take gigs whatever else is offered to you. Play with as many musicians as you can, and be polygamous. Everyone plays their own way, but it is also important to play with others. There are few prima donnas in jazz and you will find musicians support each other. Experiment in all kinds of genres. You will not know what your own creativity is until you join a group. Then your creativity will be drawn out. It is hard to get gigs but don’t let it put you off if you want to do something.”

Terry Day continues: “In the late 1960s and early ’70s, when me and a lot of others were starting out, there were small audiences for free form — and this is still true today — but while capturing free form on CD or vinyl remains difficult to master, live gigs are something else. From small gigs in places like Wood Green Art Centre in the late ’60s, crowds have continued to tune into improvisation and free-form music. only a few get to the top and whether they are better than other players is a question. Sometimes you meet exceptional players who never got gigs but don’t give up.”

Terry has had some incredible experiences in his long career. Once, he accompanied sax player Davey Payne to America when Davey was making his album Blowtorch, which was recorded at night due to studio timings. So, he and Davey became tourists by day, taking in the sights and sounds of New York. “I went as chaperone,” Terry Day says with a grin, “as well as to drum a bit on the album.” Due to the differences between what the producer wanted and the two free-playing musicians involved felt the album should deliver, it was never completed but it was an experience.

During their travels, Terry Day recalls one time in Holland when they played in a small theater. From the front, it looked like a café. “You had to walk through the café to get to the theater,” he says. “Well, the manager said to us, the musicians, “Help yourself to tea and cakes if you like.’ I was having a break and came through to the café, and saw Mel Davis sat at a table in the window eating some bread and cheese. He looked tired but I spied a huge chocolate cake the girl serving had just put out on the counter. When she went off to do something, I went and cut two large slices and took them over to Mel and said, ‘Surprise — chocolate cake!’ As we were about to tuck into the cakes, the manager and the serving girl appeared. She was livid. “There they are. Told you. These tramps come in, eat bread and cheese in our window and steal our cakes!” she shouted. I realized we probably did look like a couple of tramps, unshaven and Mel sporting a very old bobble hat. But we had been on the road for a bit. The manager had to explain to the girl that we were musicians, and we ended up laughing, but it made me realize how we must have appeared.” While Terry told me this story, he got up and mimed cutting the cake, taking it to Mel and eating.

I reminded Terry Day of another story I had been told by his friend Davey Payne. Davey had said: “One time, we were staying in France and playing with Albert Kovitz, a Canadian clarinet player — huge, bear like, with a bushy beard. We had a long drive to Paris and on the way Kovitz wanted to stop and buy fish and other things so we ended up late for the gig — so late the venue had virtually shut. Not to be put off, Terry decided to do the gig on his own, playing sax, drumming, running around, trying to entertain the crowd and it was pretty amazing. People began crowding back in to watch. Then, when he finished, we asked to get paid. The manager said “no,” as we had not done the full gig so we had a bit of an argument. We ended up getting half.” “Oh, yes, I do remember that one,” Terry said. “Davey has a great memory, you know!”

When Terry did his first tour of Japan in 2010, he played at the Pit Inn, which was a bit like Ronnie Scott’s. He was put with a pianist who was built like a boxer, young, strong and was known to play loud. Terry looked at him and decided he had to “go for it” if he wanted to keep up. Also on stage was a young guitarist. As expected, the pianist played really loudly and so Terry played loud too. Terry says: “The guitarist played even louder than me, and I found it really difficult with all the noise. I thought he played far too loud and dreaded playing with him again.” The organizer was a lady called Mia and another night, Terry asked her who he was playing with. She told him it was the same guitarist as before. “I thought, ‘Oh no! He is going to be far too loud again.’ However, what I did not know was that in Japan there is a protocol that younger players send a note or message to older players thanking them for giving them the opportunity to play alongside them,” Terry explained. “Mia had got a message from the young guitarist who was too embarrassed to call me, but asked her to thank me. He had apparently commented that he had played loudly because I was ‘so incredibly loud.’ I realized that because I had tried to play as loudly as the pianist, I had forced the guitarist to play even louder. Mia said normally the guitarist played more delicately, and much quieter. So, the next night when we played together, I deliberately played softly throughout the first set, allowing the guitarist to realise I am not always loud. After the gig Mia told the guitarist of my reaction when I heard I was playing with him. The relief on his face was amazing and we had big hugs all round. When I toured Japan in 2014, I played 11 drum sets in 2 weeks as I went from gig to gig — incredible.”

One of Terry Day’s engaging traits is that, although he has probably influenced more musicians than you can count in one way or another, he remains decidedly unaware of his own importance. I met him recently at a Peter Brotzmann gig and he told me with a huge grin that he had just asked Peter if he remembered playing with him. He described a big poster with the names of himself, Brotzmann and others on it. Peter did remember and, for Terry, that seemed to make his evening. Peter Brotzmann later told me he recognized Terry as soon as he saw him. And it does not stop here. Terry is as busy today as he has ever been, and plays with various musicians in collaborations including Dominic Lash, members of The People Band and he is a regular at Café Oto and the Vortex and other venues.

Still, he continues pushing boundaries. Terry Day’s latest project is the film Unpredictable, which is being made by Blanca Regina with the intention of evaluating Terry’s groundbreaking work. The film brings together some of the founding members of the free improvisation music scene in Europe to reflect on their ideas and memories and features Terry Day, Steve Beresford, Evan Parker, David Toop, Charlie Hart, George Khan, Mike Figgis and Han Bennink among others. The film uncovers previously unknown aspects of Terry’s music, as well as a lot of his artistic output. His artistic skills are perhaps not so well-known but, at a recent fundraiser event for the film, some of his work had been reduced to postcard size and sold at the gig. At that gig, some 15 musicians — including David Toop, John Butcher, Hannah Marshall, Thomas, Steve Beresford, Max Eastley, Satoko Fukeda and Phil Minton — joined Terry Day in an evening of improvisation quartets, duos, trios and solos and Terry was at the heart of it all, encouraging, cajoling and inspiring.

Watching Terry, you cannot fail to wonder at his energy. He is one of the most inspiring musicians I have seen. He may suddenly decide to get every musician present on stage for an impromptu free improvisation session or, as he did at a recent gig, he may ask them to improvise while he reads some of his lyrics. He always has time for a chat, will talk about drums and music endlessly. (He thinks African beats are the most natural, for example.) Meeting him, you feel you may have known him for ages. He even might ask you to look after his bags while he pops to the loo or tells you (nicely) to push off while he puts his drum kit away. Either way, it is natural and unforced.

Terry Day inspires those around him to push just that little bit more, seek a little further. Most of all, he communicates the music, his big heart, sense of fun and quite simply — life. He believes in what he does completely.

More information on musicians Terry has played with and his discography can be found at www.terryday.co.uk.

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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