John Stevens

Stevens was one of the founder fathers of British free improvisation. Stevens was instrumental in the founding of Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which included many of England’s most prominent experimental jazz musicians. Although the band’s line-up changed and evolved, it was still made up of Paul Rutherford and Trevor Watts, Kenny Wheeler and Julie Tippetts. Stevens’ father was a tap dancing instructor, which played a significant role in his decision to be a musician. Stevens joined the Royal Air Force, 1958. There he studied music and met other musicians like Watts and Rutherford. He also played in Dixieland and skiffle bands while in the military. Stevens’ love for jazz seems to have been a natural progression. He started with bebop, which he continued to play with Tubby Hayes, a hard bop saxophonist. Then he moved on to the free jazz dialects of Albert Ayler and the Giuffree-Bley Swallow trio. In the middle of the 1960s, he was one of London’s top jazz drummers. He was a regular at Ronnie Scott’s club and formed his own band with Wheeler. A New Distance He joined the Rutherford-Watts group in 1965. Their music was more avant-garde that was accepted in regular jazz clubs. They began playing their free jazz at the Little Theatre Club in London’s West End. Spontaneous Music Ensemble was formed from the Rutherford-Watts band. Wheeler joined the group soon after, and then Evan Parker. SME released its first album in 1966. The band was a septet by 1967, when Bailey and Barry Guy joined the group. Stevens’ playing became more minimal and textural. The band’s music became less edgy at his insistence. The other members left, except for Parker. Stevens became the band’s sole leader by 1967. Parker eventually joined the ranks the SME’s sometimes members. Stevens-led groups saw the likes of Barre Phillips and Maggie Nicols as well as Johnny Dyani, Peter Kowald, Barre Philips, and Maggie Nicols over the years. Stevens employed younger players in the late 1970s: Roger Smith, Nigel Coombes and Colin Wood. Wood left in 1978 and the other players played together (very occasionally) until 1992. Smith and John Butcher were the last members of the SME. A New Distance, the group’s last album, was compiled from live performances that were recorded one year before Stevens’ passing in 1994. Stevens was most well-known for his association with SME, but he also played in many other settings, including rock and bop. He was a member of the large Spontaneous Music Orchestra, and also led the jazz-rock band Away at various times. Stevens, 54, died from a heart attack.

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