The Book Cooks
Excerpt from

Pianos, Toys, Music and Noise: Conversations with Steve Beresford
Andy Hamilton
(Bloomsbury Academic; New York, London, Oxford, New Delhi, Sydney)


Saxophonist LOL COXHILL (1932-2012) was born in Portsmouth. As a teenager in the late 40s, he organised club sessions that mixed live music and recordings of musicians including Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. He briefly served in the RAF, before returning to work with jazz ensembles and visiting US musicians. In the late ‘60s he was a member of Delivery, and of Kevin Ayers and The Whole World; he worked in duos with David Bedford and Steve Miller. From the ‘70s, Coxhill performed internationally, and collaborated with Tony Coe, and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. He was a member of The Recedents with Mike Cooper and Roger Turner, 1983-2012 – as Cooper put it, “scandalously under-recorded, underpaid and under-employed we continued to groove.” Coxhill also worked in film, theatre and television. An eloquent obituary from The Association of Musical Marxists commented that “Lol was there at the origins of practically every worthwhile style of Anglo pop – Ska, Bop, Hippie, Improv, Punk, Noise – but peeled off as soon as the movement came to be about fame and money rather than playing.”

 

You had a close affinity with Lol Coxhill.

I produced the double-album Spectral Soprano on Emanem – the tracks are all archive. A guy who worked in Mole Jazz wanted to do a retrospective album of Lol, and a friend of Lol’s put some money in.[1] We did lots of picture research – the pictures are fantastic. We included some old, crackly acetates.

One of Lol’s first gigs was with [r ‘n’ b vocalist] Rufus Thomas, who practically invented rock n roll – he did “Do The Funky Chicken”. He was from Memphis, and made fantastic records. Lol was in his pickup band that toured England.

Lol at that time was playing tenor with Tony Knight’s Chessmen, whose uniform was chequered – there’s a picture of them, with Tony Knight, who was dressed in armour, sitting on a horse! I think it was in Denmark Street – this was the early ‘60s, I’d say.

 

Could Lol sound like a tough, bar-room tenor?

I would say yes. He was a great r ‘n’ b player – greatly appreciated among old school Jamaican musicians. In bebop vein, I always said he sounded like a more lecherous Bud Freeman.

Lol was a showman – but not a bar-walking showman. He was fearless as a stage-act. He was a good actor, but he was always Lol.

When I was living in York after university, Lol came up several times. It took him a while to remember my name, but then I’m like that with people myself. I didn’t know much about him at that time. He probably played a solo, and then we’d jam.

 

Was he not particularly organised?

He was and he wasn’t. Famously, he once showed up for a gig a year early. But that’s easily done, isn’t it!

Lol was naturally a very funny person.

 

Lol by name, LOL by nature.

Most musicians are funny, in my experience. Paul Lytton and Max Eastley can tell very funny stories. Lol was a great raconteur. He was very conscious of his image. He liked getting dressed up, and he liked posing. He was in a few movies, like the Sally Potter movie Orlando – I think that’s her best movie. He was also in a short she made called London Story. There’s an element of Jacques Tati in his performance there.

 

He was a bit remote with people?

He was vaguely friendly, because he wasn’t that good with faces. There was a sort of vagueness – certainly when I was just an ex-student from York playing piano.

I just read a piece on a Scotland Yard unit called the super-recognisers, employed to recognise people on CCTV. Lol was not a super-recogniser.

He was extremely benevolent – everyone loved him. Sometimes he would enjoy doing something that shocked people, like being rude or offensive – but it was never malicious.

Lol was never a part of the showbiz thing in the way that Derek had been. He never sat in a saxophone section with the Northern Dance Orchestra.

 

He was a showman as an MC.

Of course he was. But he was never like Kenny Wheeler or Tony Coe – you’d switch on Cilla Black on a Saturday night, and there was Kenny Wheeler, in the orchestra.

 

They had commercial careers.

Lol was never a super-efficient reader like those guys. That’s what you had to be – it was a real craft.

Lol took an oblique approach to all musics.

 

And to life.

Yes, absolutely! That oblique approach was very flexible, in terms of moving into different genres. He could play Palm Court favourites with the Johnny Rondo Trio, go on tour with The Damned, and then sit in with a ska band – and play with a Dixieland band, and play free improvisation.

 

He would be gently, affectionately subversive with a Dixieland band?

Yes, but it was organic subversion. Not like a teenager going, “Yeah, I’m going to take the piss out of these people by playing feedback all through ‘Strutting With Some Barbecue.’” I mean “organic,” because that was what Lol was like. It came naturally to him.

He was naturally oblique, and sometimes that took the form of subversion.

He loved New Orleans music.

 

But he might take a different view to those who are trying to re-create it commercially, and not particularly effectively.

Exactly, no doubt.

I remember Lol giving me a bell, and saying, “You’ve got to come and hear Harry Gold, he’s playing in the crypt of the church just off Clerkenwell Square.”[2] Lol had played there with The Recedents at some point. This was so wonderful, it was perfect Lol. It was a little local event – a festival or something, probably introduced by the vicar. There were ladies bringing tea and cakes, and saying, “Ooh, thank you.”

Harry was around 90 at the time. He played bass saxophone – he was possibly shorter than his instrument. Maybe that was the first time I heard the bass saxophone. He didn’t do a lot of blowing, because he was very old. It was fantastic to see him. Lol loved that – he could see the funny side of it, but he liked Harry Gold, and he loved Dixieland very much.

Lol had an incredibly wide musical scope. He was a big record collector – unlike Derek, as we saw.

 

You worked with him in The Melody Four, which we discussed, and The Promenaders.

The Promenaders were born on Brighton beach. Max Eastley, Paul Burwell, Terry Day, Lol Coxhill, David Toop and I were playing the Brighton Festival. I think Alterations played there too – various permutations played free improvisations in small rooms in Brighton Art College, and on the beach.

We decided to busk through some popular songs – which of course Lol was very good at, no one else was. So it became this strange group – soprano saxophone, euphonium, two one-string fiddles, an acoustic guitar, a drum-kit and sometimes a cello. We played “Sleepy Lagoon” – the Desert Island Discs theme – old Albert Ayler tunes, Prince Buster tunes, 1930s pop songs.

We weren’t thinking that we’d attract the proletariat, we just thought, “As we’re on the beach, why don’t we do things vaguely associated with end of the pier entertainment – though we won’t play it like they’d play it on the end of the pier.”

That was the nearest we got to bringing our music to the people. 

That band played quite a lot, actually. Nigel Coombes sat in a few times on violin.

 

 

[1] Mole Jazz was a record store in King’s Cross, North London, since closed.

[2] Harry Gold (1907-2005), British Dixieland saxophonist and band-leader.


© 2022 Andy Hamilton

 

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