Davey Payne | Blockheads and beyond

Written by | Articles, Artists, Featured Artist, Interviews, News

Davey Payne has been a jazz musician for over 40 years. He has played with important players like Burton Green, Albert Kovitz and others and been part of the iconic ensemble, the People Band since the late 1960s. He collaborated in various projects with Ian Dury, including being the saxophone player for his backing band, The Blockheads, interspersing free blowing solos over the tightness of the band helping create their distinctive sound. However, even when The Blockheads were at the height of their fame Davey remained a jazz musician and today still plays with various ensembles and collaborations in large and smaller venues.

Davey was born in 1944 in London. He told me, “I was born in Willesden, north London. My Dad had a small precision metal engineering place in Canning Town. We later moved to Clacton because we had a holiday bungalow there and my Dad got a larger premises. None of us, that is my twin brother, Mum or sister had really wanted to leave London. In Clacton, instead of going to art college as advised by my school, it was taken for granted I would work for my Dad. After a fall out with my Dad I moved back to London at 16.”

Davey’s early influences included Duke Ellington’s trumpet man Cat Anderson and Maynard Ferguson, who played with Stan Kenton but although he initially wanted to play the trumpet, he found it difficult to get a note out of one. Later came influences of clarinet players Acker Bilk, Artie Shaw, Buddy DeFranco and Woody Herman. While still in Clacton, Davey learned clarinet but later changed to saxophone. Soon he was listening to Charlie Ventura, Earl Bostic, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Sonny Criss, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and guitarist Barney Kessel.

After moving to London Davey found a mundane job in Nathaniel Berry’s music shop in Holloway Road. His new location gave him the chance to engage with the avante-garde jazz scene in London. He was a member of Ronnie Scott’s in 1960 and saw many musicians from America including Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Lucky Thompson and Victor Feldman. Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk and Jimmy Guiffre. He remembers at sitting on the front of the stage watching the musicians, cigarette in hand, hat on head, being asked if he was old enough to be in the club.

He took other jobs including working in the gardens for Hornsey Council and it was at this time he began to think about religion and philosophy. He joined the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain and became a vegetarian.

He also became involved in outdoor art projects, working alongside painters, visual artists and eventists. At one event with Bruce Lacey involving a double bed and the Three Little Pigs there was a mixed audience which included an art mentor named Peter Blake and a certain young teacher named Ian Dury.

By 1968, he was playing in a trio of guitar, drums and sax, performing at the Latimer pub and the Crypt in Notting Hill. He comments, ”we played totally free there. Percussionist Glen Sweeney from the Third Ear Band sat in occasionally.”

Davey was drawn to places where free improvisation was played such as The Starting Gate pub in Wood Green and there met other musicians of a similar mind. In the late 1960s, many musicians had come to dislike the standard start/tune/melody/end style of playing. They soon found others followed and Terry Day, a drummer, encouraged players, including Davey towards improvisation. Many musicians they met like trumpeter Henry Lowther were playing in ‘structured’ ensembles and now they did something different. The Continuous Music Ensemble (CME) was formed and became a magnet for freeform players. The group expanded, playing music loosely based around Ayler, Coleman, Mingus, Monk, pianist Satie and US composer Charles Ives . It attracted musicians with a more anarchic approach to playing including saxophone and flute player Nisam Ahmed (George) Khan and trumpeter and bass player Mike Figgis. The CME became an important part of the London improvising scene. Initially many musicians who came along were jazz purists but some non-purists including pianist Mel Davis became important components of the CME and encouraged others to play freely. Mel was an innovator who really helped develop the group’s improvised side. From these beginnings, musicians met and formed collaborations. Davey says,

“I met clarinettist Albert Kovitz, who invited me to play with the People Band, starting at the Wood Green Arts Centre where we had guests including Music Electronica Viva, Cornelius Cardew and Jeff Nuttall. Later we played at the South Bank Purcell Room with Cardew and Viva. The People Band played regularly at the Roberts Street Arts Lab and were filmed by Hoppy (John Hopkins). I also played in a soul band called Loco Weed with Mike Figgis and we went as far as Biarritz. When Mike and I came back I traveled with the People Band and we spent three years playing in Holland with occasional gigs in Belgium and Germany. Other musicians joined from time to time — even John Surman sat in with us once. In England, we continued to do gigs with the bigger band, which included Mel Davis and Paul Jolly. We played at various venues in England and Jim Haynes’ Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, later making a move to Holland where we played at colleges and clubs, including the Cosmos, and often at Hans Dulfer’s jazz nights at the Paradiso. Other gigs followed including a TV performance in Rotterdam and a performance with pianist Burton Green at the American Centre in Paris. Terry Day, Charlie Hart and myself worked as a trio in Holland playing at the Vrije Academy in The Hague, the Exit Club and the Bunker in Rotterdam, the Paradiso, and other venues.”

Initially Davey collaborated closely with Terry, bass player Charlie Hart, pianist Mel Davies and others. With Charlie and Terry, he went to Holland and played in jazz clubs. Terry Day recently told me that they initially went to Holland for one gig. From there, they got asked to do two more and eventually played 18 gigs or so around Holland. This trio called themselves OMU. It was never easy and sometimes finances were difficult but events coincided sometimes in interesting ways. Davey remembers one time when he swapped his Super King 20 for a Selmer Mk 6 and 500 Guilders in Amsterdam in 1968 so he could get back to the UK. He tells it.

Next Page

Last modified: July 15, 2018