This interview with John Marshall was conducted by mail in December 1998 (with some later additions)
Could you tell us more about your beginnings in music?
I started playing at school with some friends who were interested in New Orleans Jazz. Although I was not interested in that type of jazz it was an opportunity to play. My taste was for big band music which I listened to on the radio, in particular that of the Ted Heath Band. I'd become fascinated with playing the drums watching a drummer in a theatre pit orchestra. While at school and immediately afterwards while working in the Civil Service I played in a rehearsal big band and various small bands at dances, weddings etc. I took lessons from several drummers at this time including Jim Marshall (no relation) who was a really good teacher and who went on to great things with amplifiers - yes, that Jim Marshall ! Just before going up to university to read psychology I studied with Allan Ganley - who is still playing as wonderfully as ever. Later, at the end of the 60's I had the chance to study with Philly Joe Jones when he was living in London a privilege indeed. Until university, playing was a hobby. I had no thought of doing it for a living. However at that time there were lots of really talented jazz players among the students at universities all over the country - none of them studying music! jazz was unacceptable in music departments - and I spent a lot of my time playing. I was also chosen for the Tubby Hayes Student Big Band. - although final exams meant I could only play with it a few times. We ran a jazz club at the university and were able to get well-known players down from London to play with our rhythm section. One of them, a vibes player, Dave Morse, offered me the gig with his group when l'd finished my course. So, having got my degree I decided to give it a go as a professional musician. I started playing on the London jazz scene both with Dave and with lots of other people, subsidising this by some school teaching and psychological research work.
Your debut on the professional scene were with Alexis Korner, whose band in the early 60s was the starting point for many crucial bands of the late 60s in both the rock and jazz fields. How do you account for this, what are your memories of this band?
The first gig as a regular member of a regular band was with Alexis Korner's Blues Inc. This I got presumably because l'd played with and got to know the some of the existing band members : Danny Thompson (also in the Hayes band), Ray Warleigh, and Tony Roberts (the singer was Herbie Goins). We all had an interest in the music of Charlie Mingus which was not shared in general on the jazz scene which seemed to me to have become a bit moribund at that time. And this combined with the fact that Alexis normally preferred to have jazz musicians (it's sometimes forgotten that Jack [Bruce] and Ginger were originally jazz players). I'd often listened to Alexis's band as well as, later, the Graham Bond Organisation and Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and found in them some of the elements missing from a lot of 'pure' jazz. Alexis's band was a very good band and I enjoyed playing with it a lot. I really enjoyed the mixture of hard instrumental blowing and r'n'b material (James Brown, Bobby Bland, John Lee Hooker, etc.) - it really chimed in with the Mingus spirit. I followed this with a stint with a big band, an experience which was both enjoyable and valuable. Then a period of freelancing in London : all kinds of gigs and recording sessions - all kinds of music. I wanted to learn in as many different situations as possible. Through this I found playing in 'rock' contexts offered a lot of creative possibilities and I started to bring that kind of approach to jazz gigs where I could. This approach was particularly apt for Graham Collier's band which as well as doing Mingus-influenced stuff was doing a lot of pieces in different time signatures. This type of thing works best with a rock approach as it's based largely on patterns. Through working with Graham's band I got to play on the circuit being developed by the "new", younger musicians around London.at that time and which eventually centred round Ronnie Scott's Old Place. Perhaps because of the breadth of my experience and interest I got to deputise in a lot of the bands at that time and so came to play with practically everyone, in all kinds of contexts from straight ahead to free.
After spending several years in Graham Collier's band as well as playing sessions, you were a founding member of Ian Carr's Nucleus. At the time, Carr expressed frustration with jazz both as a musical style and a way of life. Did you share his views, or at least this state of mind?
I remember hearing Ian Carr had become disillusioned with the scene and his exceptional band with Don Rendell had broken up. I had done a couple of gigs with him (I still clearly remember one at the Roundhouse when I got to play with bass player Jeff Clyne for the first time - magic!) and I think Ian liked what Karl Jenkins and I were doing in Graham's band and in an occasional quartet we had together. When he rang up to see if I would be interested in being part of a new band I got the impression that he saw the opportunity in this different, non-narrowly jazz approach to things, for a wayforward. In fact at the first rehearsal when I put a rock feel to one of his compositions he became very enthusiastic and seemed convinced that this was the way to go. This general approach was shared by the other members, except Ray Warleigh, who didn't like the rock content - he was replaced by Brian Smith - and Bernie Holland, who perhaps wasn't interested in the project in general - he of course was replaced by Chris Spedding. This line-up plus the compositional talents of Karl and Ian were responsible for the distinctive character of the band.
After a couple of years in Nucleus, you joined Jack Bruce's backing group. This was the closest you ever came to being in a rock group. Did Bruce's music seem more appealing to you, or were you simply bored with being in Nucleus?
I'd met and played with Jack Bruce in Mike Gibbs's Orchestra and we immediately got on well together. He also depped for Jeff in Nucleus a couple of times. He asked me to do a couple of tracks on his album Songs for a Tailor and the whole of his next album Harmony Row together with Chris Spedding. When he said he'd like to form it into a regular band (with Graham Bond and Art Themen) I jumped at the chance. We'd done some gigs with Chris and Larry Coryell which were very lively and for me Jack was a kind of hero. I've always really relished playing with bass players and l've been lucky to have played with a lot of the best. Here was a chance not to be missed. The recordings with Jack remain among my favourites and I learned a lot from him.
In 1972, you joined Soft Machine. Were you at all aware of their past works? Did you feel you were recruited to bring back a "rockier" rhythmic sensibility to Soft Machine after they'd gone a bit too far in the "free" direction on the early sessions for the "5" album?
When I was asked to join Soft Machine, although l'd heard them briefly at Ronnie Scott's, I had very little knowledge of their music. My attitude was, as in most situations, that "the music begins here". The group's tradition would reside in the existing players and the interaction between us should produce something new but relating to what went before. Mike [Ratledge] later told me that they had wanted to ask me to join when Robert [Wyatt] left, but I was with Jack's band. When I joined them the atmosphere was pretty tense. There had been disagreement between Mike and Hugh [Hopper] on one side and Elton [Dean] on the other, in essence with Elton wanting the music to be freer and Mike and Hugh favouring a more structured approach. Perhaps they saw my bilateral approach as capable of reconciling the situation... Or perhaps not. Elton left not long after to pursue the freer approach with Just Us. Karl [Jenkins] was a candidate to replace him firstly because he was interested in this area of music (like me starting from the jazz end of things) and secondly he was a keyboard as well as a horn player. Karl and I had of course played together a lot and were very good friends (we even shared a flat) and so I thought he would make a good replacement. I said however that he should join only if the other two thought it right. His influence on the music became stronger over time as he became more and more interested in composing and less in playing. He was writing a lot of very good stuff and so we played it.
On "Six Album", particularly the live album, the emphasis in Soft Machine's music moved significantly to the rhythmic element, bringing the style closer to jazz-rock or "fusion". This evolution continued on the following albums. To what extent were you responsible for that?
The philosophy of the band for me was that everyone was equally important and the style of the music was a synthesis of everyone's contribution. My approach was that the drums were an equal, interactive voice - i.e. not a "backing" role. The compositions allowed a lot of scope for this approach and if I had any effect on the direction of the music, it might have been the presence of rhythmic movement in what is a potentially static context.
What was the motivation for bringing guitar into Soft Machine's sound? Was the band unanimous in supporting this move? Did commercial considerations haveanything to do with it, as some music critics (particularly in the jazz field)said at the time?
When we played the material from the 7th album live we had the feeling that somehow there was a lot of energy with nowhere to go and maybe another soloist could be a channel for it. As it happened, I'd become aware of this amazing guitar player. So we tried out a few things together. It felt good and so we asked Allan Holdsworth to join. I've never understood the idea that adding a guitar was "commercial". A commercial move would have been to stop being an instrumental improvising band and get a vocalist in !
On the whole, how do you look back on the evolution of Soft Machine between the time you joined and the end of the band's career in the early Eighties? Did you have a big influence on the musical direction, as your credit of "musical director" would lead to think?
I'll leave a judgement about the musical evolution of the group to someone with an outside perspective, since I see it merely as a process of playing musicwhich allowed people the maximum opportunity to develop their talent, both as players and composers. The development of the music reflected the personnel at any one time. If someone left, the criterion for a replacement was the musical personality of the new member rather than duplication of rôle, or even instrument. The common thread was the presence of Karl and me. The title "musical director" reflects this - I was the longest serving member, and while Karl was eventually composing all the material, I was concerned that it contained a strong improvisatory, interactive element.
Why did Soft Machine come to a halt as a touring band after the "Alive And Well" album ? Was the band at all active between the series of gigs in Paris and the "Land Of Cockayne" sessions in 1980 ?
The main reason the band stopped touring was financial. The short version is that with the oil crises of the 70's touring became too expensive. This, plus management difficulties, made playing gigs uneconomic. As far as I remember there were no other gigs after Alive & Well except one gig on December 8th 1978 in Dortmund. It was a good gig too.
While in Soft Machine, you kept playing on the jazz scene, particularly on the Continent. Eventually you joined Eberhard Weber's excellent group Colours, recording for ECM. Were you looking for a contrast to Soft Machine's music? Did you tour a lot with Colours, was it enough to keep you busy during this period?
I had met Eberhard when we played together on an album for the guitar player Volker Kriegel - Missing Link - we did another later called Lift. Eberhard asked me to do the original Colours of Chloë gig (which eventually led to the formation of Colours) at the Berlin Jazz Festival (I can't remember the year) but I was unable to do it because of Soft Machine commitments. He asked me to join the group in 1977 after Jon Christensen had done it for a while, and we toured quite a lot in Europe, plus two long American tours and one in Australia and New Zealand. I loved playing with that band - it worked so well and I found that Eberhard's special bass had a feel between double bass and bass guitar which suited me perfectly.
There were a couple of one-off reformations for Soft Machine. The "Land Of Cockayne" album in 1981 (with no gigs in support as far as I know) and the series of gigs at the Ronnie Scott's in 1984. Why didn't Soft Machine carry on as a permanent group in the 1980's?
The reason we didn't do any gigs or record was that there was no interest from promoters or record companies to allow us to do so. Land Of Cockayne was conceived primarily as a recording project. Management difficulties and lack of resources meant that gigs were't possible. As for the Ronnie Scott's gigs, the repertoire was, I think, mostly existing material - "Bundles", "Hazard Profile", "Tale Of Taliesin", etc. - plus some new stuff written by Karl, some of it with pre-recorded tapes. I don't have any titles - they were always added later. We asked Dave MacRae to join us because we knew and liked his playing. He liked playing in this area of music and was - and doubtless still is - a great improvising soloist.
Have you been in touch with Karl since Soft Machine stopped ? Have you ever talked of working together again ? Does the commercial success of Adiemus make it more unlikely?
Karl and I have been in touch quite often, mostly in connection with trying to remedy the problems left over by the management. We've played together only once : November last, for a BBC Wales documentary on Karl. The band was Karl, John Etheridge, Ray Warleigh and Laurence Cottle on bass. We played "Elastic Rock" !! Karl has been deservedly very successful with his jingle writing with Mike and his "classical" projects. This area of music overlaps very little with the sort of music I'm involved in and so the likelihood of playing together seems limited. But you never know...
In the 1980s, you worked with many jazz greats such as Gil Evans, Sarah Vaughan, Ben Webster, etc. Would you say this was a "back to the roots" period for you? Can you detail the work you did with them (and others) - albums, tours, etc.?
The reason for working with the artistes you mention is that I like playing and if the situation allows the possibility of making good music and learning something then l'll do it. Another reason is that I was asked to! As for its being "back to the roots" I don't think so because there's no one area of music which is "home" to me - I feel equally out of place in many areas !
In the late 1980s you joined the re-formed Nucleus. To what extent was the band similar and different to its early incarnation?
The later Nucleus was similar to the first in concept. The difference lay in the musicians whose experience was different in that the idea of "fusion", "jazz-rock" or whatever, was no longer new. Music is people and so being a good band, it was great to play with. I was a little surprised because in general I don't like to go back and do things again.
Most of the albums heard in recent years featuring your playing were John Surman albums. What has been the extent of your collaboration - how many albums and tours ? Is playing with him your main musical activity these days?
Playing with Surman has been a constant source of inspiration. He is such a special musician and person that it's been a privilege to play with him and have him as a friend. The quartet is very special to me - it's a great group. It dates back to Morning Glory in 1971. Sometimes we don't do anything for quite a while but it's always there and we just continue from where we left off. As a matter of interest our next gig is at La Coursive-Scène Nationale in La Rochelle on December 8th 1998, next week in fact. Other work this year has been with Marshall-Travis-Wood, NDR Big Band, Dieter Glawischnig & Cercle, Jasper Van't Hof, Neil Ardley, Ian Carr, John Etheridge, Arild Andersen, Joe Sachse plus recordings with Christoph Oeding and Wolfgang Mirbach .
As a conclusion, what would be your assessment of your own career so far? Of what in your past work are you most proud, nostalgic? If you had to set yourself a challenge for the future, what would it be?
As for an assessment of my career, that's difficult. I suppose that l'm proud of my involvement with music which is honest and of a high standard despite the fact I wish l'd played better. The intention was at least honourable. I've been lucky in the opportunity to play with some of the very best musicians there are. I still like playing and would like to continue trying to get it right.