Art Themen - the jazz doctor calls
In David Niven’s Hollywood memoirs, the suave actor recalls how those with an early appointment next day with a well-known doctor, who specialised in a particularly delicate branch of medicine, would watch nervously as he became more and more oblivious to the lateness of the hour.
There are no such incidents in Art Themen’s story. Themen, who for forty years combined practising orthopaedic surgery with a career in music that has included backing up Joe Cocker on his classic With a Little Help from My Friends as well as remaining one of Britain’s most distinctive saxophone soloists, was always wary of the connotations behind his byname of “the jazz doctor.”
“The thought of people saying, ‘Oh you don’t want to have an operation done by Art if he’s been playing at Ronnie Scott’s till closing time’ or even just thinking that I might be arriving in the theatre with shaky hands just didn’t sit well with me,” he says. “If I was playing at Ronnie’s until two in the morning, you could be sure that I’d have had eight hours’ sleep before reporting for duty.”
Themen wouldn’t deny that being a qualified doctor has come in useful on occasions in his other life – there was the time when he had to stop on the M1 and lance a boil for the late drummer Phil Seamen, a heroin addict who had injected himself with a dirty needle. But incidents such as that and his hasty departure from a concert in Dundee with Stan Tracey to catch the sleeper that would allow him to keep an appointment in London have been relative rarities, chiefly because, he says, his decision to go for the “soft option” in both medicine and instrument made it easier to follow both callings.
He may be being modest in his choice of phrase here but whereas a concert pianist or violinist will practise for six hours or more a day, Themen was able to keep “match fit” on the tenor with a half-hour daily routine, allied to the gigs he played. Plus, although he didn’t realise it when he chose orthopaedics, there was no night work and therefore no clash with concert times.
Describing himself as one of those annoying children who know exactly what they want to do from an early age and go ahead and do it, Themen studied medicine at Cambridge. It was here that the former schoolboy clarinettist in a trad jazz band in Manchester also saw the light musically, bought a tenor saxophone and converted to the modern jazz persuasion.
“There was a lot of modern jazz being played around Cambridge back then [the late 1950s] and the university jazz band was very successful, habitually winning the inter-university jazz contests, except for the year that the great West Indian trumpeter Shake Keane was studying at the University College of London and gave them a bit of an unfair advantage over us,” says Themen.
His bandmates at Cambridge included pianist Lionel Grigson, who went on to become professor of jazz at the Royal Academy in London, saxophonist and journalist Dave Gelly and Dick Heckstall-Smith, the saxophonist who would go on to play most famously with drummer Jon Hiseman’s jazz-rock powerhouse Colosseum and who introduced Themen to British blues godfather, Alexis Korner, whose Blues Incorporated was about to lose alto saxophonist Graham Bond, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce in a mass defection.
“Working with Alexis was my first big time gig,” says Themen. “I’d come down to London to finish my medical studies at St Mary’s in Paddington and had pretty much decided that I could continue to practise medicine and play saxophone, and Alexis, being heavily into blues as well as taking in jazz influences like Charles Mingus, furthered my knowledge of music quite a lot.”
As well as Bond, Baker and Bruce, whose first post-Cream solo album, Songs for a Tailor featured Themen in the horn section, during his time with Korner Themen came into contact with George Harrison, Eric Clapton and various Rolling Stones and dabbled in pop sessions, which resulted in him earning a princely fifteen guineas (£15.75 in today’s money) for his contribution to Joe Cocker’s breakthrough hit.
By this time Themen was a consultant and effectively his own boss, so he was able to take up the many offers of jazz work that his reputation as an original saxophone stylist attracted.
“I’d started out listening to Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon and not long after I moved to London, John Coltrane made his first UK appearance but left me a bit bemused. I thought, it’s very clever but it didn’t really touch me,” he says. “Then, of course, about a year later I began to see what all the fuss was about. So these were the ingredients, I suppose, that I tried to make my own musical personality from.”
Leading British bandleaders of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Mike Westbrook, Michael Garrick and Graham Collier, appreciated what he brought to the bandstand, with Collier composing the saxophone concerto Symphony of Scorpions especially for Themen. Then in 1974 Themen began an association with pianist Stan Tracey that lasted for twenty-five years and showcased Themen’s consistently creative saxophone playing in bands ranging in size from quartet and sextet to full jazz orchestra.
The Glasgow Jazz Festival concert that brings Themen back for an all-too-rare appearance north of the border next week finds him in a role he both relishes and finds slightly daunting, as featured soloist alongside the BBC Big Band. Despite his assertion that he wouldn’t get past the audition stage for one of the saxophone chairs in the band, his ability to conjure up original ideas spontaneously makes him a natural choice as guest.
“It’s certainly a challenge and I enjoy that aspect of playing, whether it’s accompanying singers, which I do quite a lot and which requires a particular skill and approach, or in my more usual situation of a quartet or quintet,” he says. “Essentially, though, all of us jazz musicians are egomaniacs, we all want to play the solo and there’s nothing quite like the adrenaline you get from having a roaring big band booting you up the backside.”
From The Herald, June