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British blues and fusion saxophonistby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2005 Todd S. Jenkins
Saxophonist and composer Dick Heckstall-Smith, a catalyst of the British blues and jazz-rock fusion movements, died of a heart ailment on December 17, 2004, at the age of 70. He is survived by one son.
Richard Malden Heckstall-Smith was born in Ludlow, Shropshire, U.K., on September 26, 1934. During troublesome times at various boarding schools, including one where his father taught, Heckstall-Smith happened upon his calling after hearing a Sidney Bechet record. He took up the saxophone and was soon leading the jazz band at Dartington's Foxhole School. Later he made his way through agricultural studies at Sidney Sussex College, though it was clear that music was his primary love.
After losing his job as a hospital porter and having few other options, he became a professional musician by default in 1957. He gigged around London, worked with clarinetist Sandy Brown for six months, and freelanced for a few years before guitarist Alexis Korner brought him into Blues Incorporated. The band ignited a craze for jazzy blues in London during its year or so of existence, and Heckstall-Smith was right up front to ride the wave of popularity. Often he would blow two saxophones at once, in the spirit of Roland Kirk, boosting the visual and auditory excitement of the band's sets.
After Blues Inc. folded, the saxophonist joined the Graham Bond Organisation where he played alongside two future members of Cream, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. Like his friend, drummer Charlie Watts, Heckstall-Smith was a bit older than his compadres and acted as a sort of father figure at times. After organist Bond broke down due to drug abuse, the saxophonist moved on to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. He stayed long enough to record one album, Bare Wires, before leaving to form the jazz-rock fusion band Colosseum with drummer Jon Hiseman. From 1968 through 1971 Colosseum was one of Britain's most impressive and far-visioned units.
After Colosseum's demise, Heckstall-Smith recorded his own album, A Story Ended, and fronted Manchild before being sidelined by a back injury. He retreated into academia, studying sociology until his music career picked back up through work with the bands Big Chief and Mainsqueeze. He continued to stay busy with American rock-and-roller Bo Diddley, Jack Bruce, and bands like DHSS. In 1989 his autobiography, The Safest Place in the World, was published.
In 1994 Heckstall-Smith joined the reunited Colosseum and remained for a few years (Bread and Circuses, 1997). Following a heart bypass, he wrote the extended work Celtic Steppes, which united rock, jazz and blues with folk musics. It was recorded in 1995 for the 33 Jazz label, through a grant from the Arts Council of England. In 1998 33 Jazz issued Heckstall-Smith's impressions of Charles Mingus' music, On the Corner: Mingus in Newcastle. For Blues and Beyond (2001, Spitfire) Heckstall-Smith reunited with some old cronies including John Mayall, Mick Taylor and Jack Bruce. Despite his being sidelined due to health concerns, 2004 saw a resurgence of interest in the saxophonist; his autobiography was expanded and republished as Blowing the Blues, and Castle Records reissued A Story Ended on CD with bonus tracks.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.