From the vaults of Fly interviews, we present Brian Auger and tales of London Jazz.
Although it was barely nine in the morning, it had already become intolerably
hot in the hotel dining room where the interview was to take place. Brian, like
a true native of California – his adopted homeland – had sniffed out air
conditioning and led us down to a deserted bar in the basement. Over coffee and
vast quantities of tea – Brian’s chosen tipple – we looked over a career that
had enraged almost as many as it had delighted.
His early passion for music soon led him into the fifties London jazz scene. It
was not long before this young pianist had got his own thing going and was
playing at clubs like Ronnie Scott’s. In 1963, Brian won the prestigious
Melody Maker jazz poll and his future seemed set as a young, hard
bop pianist. He turned his back on the whole thing.
R&B had started to invade the clubs in London, particularly the Flamingo with
bands like Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. “I became aware that I’d like to
have that kind of rhythm section.
“It was a big leap because these scenes were very much separated. Some of the
R&B players had played on the fringes of the jazz scene but hadn’t quite made
it to Ronnie Scotts. It was therefore even more taboo for me, having won a jazz
poll, to then step into this other camp. There were people in the jazz world
that cut me dead in the street.”
Brian has made his name as a Hammond organist but it was not love at first
sight. “When people talked about jazz organ, I had this image of the Blackpool
Tower.” But two chance occurences would change all that.
“I lived in Shepherd’s Bush and my local music shop was the W.G. Stores.
Whatever they were playing in there you could hear outside. I wandered by and
there was this amazing sound and of course I rushed in and bought it
The record was the jazz organ of the mighty Jimmy Smith, but it was back at the
Flamingo that Brian first played the instrument.
“The Flamingo was a place where they had modern jazz but they started having
R&B bands. At the weekends, you’d have a mixed audience: half white and the
other half split between West Indians and GI’s. It was the funkiest place in
“One night Georgie Fame was ill and I was asked to take over.When I got there I
looked for the piano but there was just Georgie’s organ. After a couple of
nights, I learnt how to get my stops going and realised I had a natural feel
By this time, Brian had become deeply influenced by the music of people like
Miles Davis and John Coltrane. “What we were aiming at was to bridge the gap
between the separate scenes of jazz and R&B or rock and roll.”
What made this really feasible was a record by Ben E. King called What is
Soul?. “There was a drum intro by Bernard Purdie that went: Stata
tako go gonch, shaka taka . . . and Bernard had taken that whole thing
to another level. When that happened it was another turning point.
“In 1968, we did the Open album, which opened a lot of doors for
us. On one night, we topped the bill for the Berlin Jazz Festival, which was
probably the most purist in Europe. We had to go on after all these jazz greats
but because our album had done so well, about 60% of the audience had come to
see us. So on we went with our crushed velvet. Immediately, a big section of
the audience started booing while another section was cheering. When it calmed
down I said: ‘You may not like how we’re dressed but if you don’t like the
music, then you can boo.’ And we didn’t have any more trouble after that. I
thought it was fantastic – at least people had a reaction.
“So there was this fight between the purists and what was obviously to be a
coming music form. In 1970, I heard In a Silent Way and I thought
even Miles was now affected by R&B. Up till then I had been holding a candle in
the dark and seeing more dark.”
By the end of the sixties, jazz had gone firmly electric and it was now common
to see jazz and rock bands sharing the same stages at festivals and big
concerts. A whole new audience had come into jazz and a whole new jazz had
grown to fill these arenas. By 1973, what had started out as the unloved spawn
of jazz and rock had moved centre stage.
“When I went to the States and the Closer To It album came out, it
broke on the Billboard rock, R&B and jazz charts simultaneously. My record
company had never seen anything like this and they held a meeting and called me
in. They didn’t know what it was.”
Over the next four or five years ‘fusion’, as it was now called, blew up but
then as 1977 turned into 1978, the bottom dropped out of fusion just as
dramatically as success had come its way. While some blame record company
fickleness and others maintain fusion had simply run out of juice, Brian
believes it had more to do with the advent of blank tape.
“What was happening was that for every album sold, at least ten people recorded
it. If you’re selling a hundred thousand units, suddenly you’re selling ten to
fifteen. That happened to all of us – within six months the industry
collapsed.What replaced this was disco, suddenly followed by punk. Now that had
so little to do with what we were doing that all the doors started closing
“I came over to Europe and toured the club scene, and did TV stuff. It worked
itself out but the eighties were a very tough time for many people.”
Now though, Brian Auger is back to rapturous audiences in the States and this
summer he played his first live gigs in this country for a decade. It’s a very
exciting time for him and the re-issuing of many of his finest tracks on Tongue
& Groove’s Augernisation – The Best of Brian Auger is bound to
help him reach new listeners. Take my advice: get yourself Augernised.