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Accomplished Defender of the Bebop IdiomCopyright © 2001The Scotsman
Bill Le Sage was part of the first wave of British bebop musicians to emerge in the late 1940s, and remained a lifelong devotee and highly skilled exponent of the form throughout a long and distinguished career.
He was a founder member of the most famous British bebop band of its day, the Johnny Dankworth Seven. The band was launched in 1950, by which time he was already fully conversant with the exciting new sounds which Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had developed in the clubs of New York's 52nd Street.
Le Sage made his own pilgrimages to that shrine, working as a musician on the transatlantic liners in order to hear the progenitors of the form at first hand, a course adopted by many of his contemporaries. He told the story of his introduction to the famously grubby mecca of bebop many times.
The liner on which he arrived docked at dawn precisely opposite the famous street, and Le Sage wandered along the deserted sidewalk until he encountered the only other person to be seen at that hour, and asked where the jazz was to be found. The man turned out to be trumpeter Red Rodney, then working with Charlie Parker. The became fast friends, and eventually worked together in Le Sage's band after Rodney's comeback in the mid-1980s.
William A. Le Sage was born into a musical family. His father, also named William, was a drummer, his uncle George played trumpet and sax, and his uncle Ernie was a guitarist. His first instrument was ukelele, then he took up drums, before moving onto piano.
He began to play professionally as a teenager, and formed his own Sextet in 1945. He played in military bands during his period of national service in the Royal Signals from 1945-8, and joined Dankworth's famous band in 1950 (they had already worked together as teenagers in the mid-1940s). Although he was self-taught on piano, he took some lessons from the famous jazz teacher and theorist, Lennie Tristano, while in New York that year.
He began to play vibraphone as well as piano while in Dankworth's band. He was a member of the sextet until 1953, and then of the saxophonist's big band for a further year. He joined drummer Tony Kinsey's trio in 1954, and worked with him until 1961, playing accordion as well as his more familiar instruments. His work with Kinsey included experiments combining jazz and poetry, and writing the music for The Lily White Boys, an experimental musical staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1960.
As well as working with Kinsey, he was a regular member of Kenny Baker's Dozen in the late-1950s. In the early 1960s, he worked with saxophonist Ronnie Ross and with drummer Jack Parnell's ATV Orchestra, and more occasionally with John Dankworth and Chris Barber.
His formidable technique and ability to adapt to any jazz setting kept him in constant demand, but bebop remained his first love. He often accompanied visiting American soloists, including annual tours with Tal Farlow which continued until the guitarist's death in 1998. He formed his ten-piece band Directions in Jazz in 1964, then flew in the face of the growing trend toward jazz-rock fusion by launching another band, the defiantly titled Bebop Preservation Society, in 1969.
He continued to lead it into the 1990s, along with several other bands, including a Latin group, Echoes of Brazil. He worked with a variety of leaders in a range of styles in those years, including Dankworth (1979-83) and the jazz group led by The Rolling Stones's drummer, Charlie Watts (1985-6), as well as Jubiaba, a more fusion-oriented band led by saxophonist Barbara Thompson (1971-8).
He was a highly accomplished arranger and composer, not only of jazz tunes, but also of music for television and film. He remained active throughout the 1990s, leading his own bands and occasionally playing vibes in pianist Tony Lee's group, while aslo devoting himself to caring for his wife.
She was seriously ill with Alzheimers Disease, and died just two weeks before his own death from cancer.