Tony Cummings met up with composer and arranger SCOTT WILLCOX
In America aggregations like Denver & The Mile High Orchestra have established big band jazz as a popular subdivision in the Christian music scene but in the much smaller UK arena rare indeed are recordings and rarer still concerts that reflect the glories of Glenn Millar, Count Basie and the dozens more fondly remembered ensembles of the past. Truly a pioneer in bringing the joyful sounds of big band jazz to church-goers' attention is a 73 year old retired insurance investigator from Shepperton, Middlesex, Scott Willcox. With his aggregation known as Backbeat Band Scott arranged and produced the 'Good News Good Music' CD in 2004 and when that aggregation fell by the wayside formed a new ensemble, Band Substance, whose debut album was launched at a powerhouse concert in Barnes, in 2008. About the album the Cross Rhythms reviewer enthused, "A very accomplished set, well worth a listen if the big band sound is your thing."
So who is this rather unlikely champion of big band music? On a visit to the Cross Rhythms HQ the veteran composer and arranger spoke about his musical, and spiritual, journey. Born in Walton-on-Thames, Scott had piano lessons until National Service "put paid to the music a bit." Later on he learnt Spanish guitar at Cardiff School Of Music before returning to piano. Scott spoke about his childhood. "When I was about six a neighbour knocked on the door and asked if I wanted to go to Sunday school with their child. So I did go for a little while, to the Baptist Church in Twickenham. I actually became a Christian eight years later at a youth club where I met my wife. But at Sunday school I heard that Jesus had died for me. The fact that someone died for me meant a lot, I thought 'this was serious' even at six. I'm now in Upper Halliford Church in a small area near Shepperton and have been for 41 years since I got married. This church started as an off-shoot of Walton-on-Thames Church. When I got married at Walton, the minister discovered I could play the piano and asked if I could help the church at Shepperton. So I said yes, and eventually played there every week. They were very pleased because it eliminated uncertainty about who was playing every week. I started a singing group, St Andrew Singers (as the Church was called St Andrews), and then we organised festivals and won a couple of competitions, etc. I got a bit fed up of trying and failing to find something fresh to use as Christmas material. So I decided to write something new."
When Scott reached 60 years of age he took early retirement. He recounted, "I was working in insurance, investigating claims as my day job, and attended Trinity one day a week as a part time student of composition. Insurance was actually quite interesting, covering the entire spectrum of society and meeting some well known people in the course of it all. But when I got to 60 the firm merged so there were a few early retirements available. I took one, and since then I have been working on getting to know God better and developing the writing. One reason for getting into writing for jazz ensembles was because you can actually get it played and do something with it."
By the mid '90s Scott had pulled together an ensemble of Christian musicians dubbed Backbeat. With some gifted vocalists, studio-seasoned singer Nanette Welmans (or Courtenay as she briefly called herself), English-born Asian singer Vasantha and classically trained Debbie Cottrell the band played a gospel jazz programme arranged and conducted by Scott, Good News Good Music. Scott looks back on the whole project with a mixture of pride and regret. "We only got to perform four or five times and never really got it to the standard that I wanted. Obviously you have to have good players, but it can be difficult to get people together. They rehearsed in the afternoon and performed in the evening. We did get to make a recording and UCB broadcast a track from the CD." But then the Backbeat Band concept "sort of went into a drawer." But the highly talented Scott continued to write and arrange and around 2004 took the first tentative steps of forming a "telephone band" (a phrase meaning a group of musicians, usually jazzos, who are prepared to meet, rehearse and play together for a fee). Said Scott, "I am not really a very confident person. I wasn't sure if they would actually play for me. I had to phone them up out of the blue and wave money in front of them - luckily they did it."
Many of the musicians Scott was able to draw to him for the Band Substance recording session in 2007 were of the highest quality and musos like Kelvin Christiane (tenor sax), Pablo Mendelsohn (trumpet) and Alex Hutton (piano) were able to bring zest and panache to Willcox's punchy compositions "Three In One", "Workout", "Psalm 98" and "Regular Fries". There was also a delightful arrangement of Stuart Townend's "How Deep The Father's Love" featuring a vocal by Philippa Stuart. The album 'Band Substance: The Music Of Scott Willcox' has launched with a Band Substance concert at the Bull's Head in Barnes, Greater London.
Scott is pretty pleased with the album. "A band member called the track 'Workout', 'Gil Evans meets Stravinsky'. This is going a bit far perhaps but it is a number which while it could be placed in the 'almost jazz' category, certainly calls for jazz players. In this sense some of the album qualifies to my mind as proper crossover music. Too often crossover just means unsympathetically adding a rhythm section to an orchestra to the detriment of both. Here we have a slightly more formal approach to big band writing but which still has to swing and with plenty of soloing opportunities for some very able players. Concert jazz maybe. Some of the numbers started life as simple songs and the theme of 'Workout' was originally a basis for a piece for harpsichord! Another track began life as a choral piece!"
In 2009 the band briefly changed their name after one or two more uptight citizens complained about the ensemble's name (Band 'Substance') but after a couple of concerts as Under Twenty found that that too was causing problems ("they thought we were a youth band!" chuckled Scott). So, they have returned to the Band Substance moniker and with the addition to their ranks of such highly regarded musicians as Chris Biscoe and Tony Woods (alto saxes) and Gabriel Garrick and Raul d'Oliveira (trumpets) - the latter a committed Christian - are creatively going from strength to strength. What is still hard for Band Substance though is the general reluctance of the Church to book them. Commented Scott, "The last concert we did was for Help For Heroes. Several local churches (not just my own church) agreed to pay the 17 band members £100.00 each, if they had to. On the back of that, they plugged it hard and an audience of 220+ at £10.00 each covered the band expenses and a good sum was sent to the charity after we added refreshments receipts and money from collection buckets."
Scott continued, "What I'm looking to see is groups of churches or para-church organisations seeing the big interest there is today in big band music and consider booking Band Substance. A lot of people who would never consider attending a church service would come out to see a quality big band play - and remember musicians like Chris Biscoe and Raul d'Oliveira are right up there as top jazz musicians - and in the process hear something of the Gospel message. When we play 'Amazing Grace' I take the opportunity to talk about John Newton and how he went from being a slave trader to an abolitionist via the Gospel. You can feel the humility in that song. Churches Together groups in smallish towns could get real penetration into a community if they would put on a Band Substance concert. So I hope and pray that more bookings will start to flow in."
To contact Band Substance and Scott Willcox email email@example.comThe opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.