Sunday, 10 May 2015

Jack Bruce - Gone but not forgotten.

'Lie in the dark where the shadows run from themselves.' Tales of Brave Ulysses

Napoleon famously said "the only immortality is the memory we leave behind in the minds of men." Well, aside from expanding that to include both the lives and minds women, of course, I think he was dead right about that. And, speaking of being dead right (right?), I was terrifically saddened to read today of the passing of Jack Bruce, singer, bassist composer and more.

Cream were a band of fundamental importance in my development as a musician, thanks to a record in my dad's collection, The Best of Cream. I was drawn to the album both for the music and for its unusual cover, including the moody looking trio of hairy hipsters pictured on the back of the sleeve. The assortment of veg on the cover turned out to be a painting by Pop artist Jim Dine; it's arguably the least dated looking album cover to grace a Cream recording.


Jack Bruce was a real gem. I must admit I was rather slow to appreciate his role in the group. And perhaps I only truly appreciated it with his passing? Upon learning of his demise I began seeking out and watching various YouTube clips of him in action, amongst which I found footage of him playing upright bass in a trio with drummer Jihn Hiseman and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith (a number called 'Over The Cliff'). 

You see it was Ginger Baker that had really turned me onto the Cream sound, thanks to his baggy syncopations on the cover of the Albert King song, 'Born Under a Bad Sign'. I can pinpoint that specific song as being what got me started as a drummer! Much later I recall thinking Ginger Baker was a cocky mutherfocker when, as shown in Beware Mr Baker, he boasts of tag-teaming with such jazz drumming luminaries as Art Blakeyn, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams (and others). [1] 

I'd long known that Baker saw himself as a jazzer slimming itmin the rock world. I even knew that Bruce had played in a group with John McLaughlin and Tony Williams. I like music that all three had done in other contexts, but the sounds they made together have yet to 'reach' me. However, seeing Bruce holding his own on upright in a frenzied near-free-jazz mode with a couple of British heavyweights of the UK's jazz scene, was both an eye-opener and a reminder that many musicians back in those days were rooted in a jazz background, even on our perhaps more parochial side of the pond.

But because Clapton went on to so throughly eclipse both Bruce and Baker, and because, as a drummer - and not just any drummer, but the one who got me started - Baker held a privileged position in my life, Bruce was kind of squeezed out of the picture, in my mind. Indeed, whilst I admired his muscular electric bass playing with this early power trio, I was never all that keen on his singing. No doubting he had a good strong voice. But unlike Clapton's occasional and very straightforward vocal features with Cream, whose straight-ahead delivery would ultimately form the basis of his charm, Bruce had a rather strident and, I felt, mannered vocal delivery. 

And indeed, although there were some bona fide classic in their small catalogue, much of the music Cream made, like Bruce's voice, their clothes and their record covers, was really rather too '60s, almost to the point of cliché. As open-minded and omnivorous as I am musically, yet it was only really Clapton of the three who went on to do any great work, post Cream. Both Bruce and Baker, whilst they remained active musically, never really attained the dizzying heights their younger promise had suggested. It must have been hard for them to watch Clapton's ascent and compare it to their own fates.

One certainly senses anger and bitterness with Baker. But, to his great credit, Bruce always came across, post Cream, as a decent solid guy, with a ready wit, a gleam in his eye, and an essentially positive vibe. Of course with Bruce this is based on very minimal sightings, usually on BBC music docs! Clapton and Baker are still with us, the former in vigourous health, the latter looking and sounding pretty ropey. 

Okay, so I'm not one of those who spouts only the most positive of hyperbole here. But nevertheless he was an essential part of some truly magical music, and so, without overdoing it, I can trouble say I loved the man and what he brought to the music. And so it is that hearing of Bruce's passing was very sad news, as it adds him to the roll-call for the great jam-session in the sky, beyond the reach of my email or phone. I had, and still have, vague plans for a book on music of the late sixties to early seventies, and would've loved to have interviewed him for that. And every month brings new losses: Alice Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello... I think Bruce would be pleased to be counted amongst such august company, even if it was attained only in passing.

I'll conclude with a quote from Bruce's family that I read in an online Guardian obituary: 'The world of music will be a poorer place without him but he lives on in his music and for ever in our hearts.'


I found this on YouTube. A 30 minute (or thereabouts) German program from 1971 called Swing In, dedicated to Brucey and his band du jour (or der tag?), which includes Soft Machine sticks-man John Marshall. Not watched it yet myself! As soon as time permits...


[1] From Ginger Baker's Facebook page: 'I battled Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Phil Seaman, Max, Roach [sic], and Tony Williams. Bonham played in Zeppelin. If he was still alive today, ask him! How I am grouped with Bonham and laughable...'

No comments: