Peter King performing on stage (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

Peter King: a man of many talents

Remembering the great British saxophonist and prize-winning maker of model aircraft

Artillery Row

Peter King, Britain’s leading jazz saxophonist, died in late August at the age of 80. King started at the top – he was 19 years old when he played at the opening night of Ronnie Scott’s Club in 1959 – and he remained there for six decades. He played ballet and Bartok, festivals and free jazz, composed original work and collaborated with visiting Americans like Zoot Sims and Ray Charles. But mostly King played the “bread and butter” quartet and quintet gigs that keep jazz musicians afloat and keep the music alive in Britain. It is this, as much as his extraordinary talent and sustained devotion to his art, that made him universally loved among musicians and audiences alike.

No one ever became a jazz musician for the fame or the money. Jazz musicians do it for the love

No one ever became a jazz musician for the fame or the money. Jazz musicians do it for the love. They dedicate themselves to the music like monks; Thelonious, not Benedictine. They pursue high artistic aspirations in low places – cramped clubs with small stages, jazz pubs with no stages at all. It is possible that King was better known for his recreational pursuit as a prize-winning maker of model aircraft, and that his musical autobiography, Flying High, may have had fewer readers than his technical articles on aerodynamics. It is certain that he reached more ears with his cameo in the movie adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley than with his gigs and recordings.

Not that this matters, other than to confirm that jazz musicians are the mad scientists of music. King was self-taught, which is not unusual for jazz but never heard of in classical players. It was the bebop of Charlie Parker that distracted him from what could have been a thrilling career as a cartographer in the Directorate of Overseas Maps. It turned out that he was a native of the strange terrain of bebop: its vistas of extended harmony, its rivulets of substitute chords, its volcanic cross-rhythms, its familiar knolls of blues phrasing.

Of course, he worked at it fanatically. The young King’s small talk, it was said, was entirely composed of the analysis of Parker solos. You cannot practise an improvisatory music without practice. Not just mastering the technicalities of your instrument or the music – it’s harder to get a full sound out of the alto saxophone than the tenor, and bebop demands that you execute harmonic complexities at top speed – but also mastering the idiom. Charlie Parker rewrote the book, and all of us still play Parkerish phrases. When King started, whole careers were built on the regurgitation of Parker paragraphs. King was one of the handful of musicians who sounded most like themselves when they sounded most like Parker.

In 1994, when Christie’s auctioned the alto that Parker had played in 1953 at a legendary gig at Massey Hall in New York City, the auctioneers chose King to demonstrate it. A film shows King, as though authenticating a painting, summoning not just Parker’s notes but also his sound with uncanny verisimilitude, and then taking flight with his own inimitable voice and expertise.

“He was just an incredibly consummate post-bebop alto saxophonist,” the drummer Ralph Salmins tells me, his voice echoing from within the bowels of a concert hall in Germany. “Peter had beautiful swinging time that harked back to Charlie Parker, but also he was a more modern player. He had time, and he also had that modern sound. He was extremely into John Coltrane – who isn’t?”

Ralph recalls a clip of King warming up backstage at a charity concert in 1993, a spellbound Jeff Beck at his shoulder. King’s solo take on “Lush Life” echoes Coltrane’s live versions of the early Sixties. “He had that amazing Swing feel,” Ralph recalls, “but he had the raw guts and newness of Coltrane, not only rhythmically but harmonically. He was a giant. He could tear up any set of changes. No one else was doing that on the alto at the time. This was before Kenny Garrett. He was a pioneer.”

King worked with everyone in the Sixties. With the cream of the local players in the orchestras of John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, Stan Tracey and Maynard Ferguson, with touring Americans like Miles Davis’s drummer Philly Joe Jones and Charlie Parker’s trumpeter Red Rodney, and, privately, with Bud Powell, the pianist on Parker’s early recordings.

“Peter was always an astonishing talent to be on the same stage as,” the trumpeter Guy Barker says. “He ruled the stage as soon as he started playing. You couldn’t help but get inspired by his musicianship.” Guy is on a train, returning from a recording session in Manchester. “I played on and off with Peter for many years,” he says. “The first time, I think, was with Stan Tracey’s big band and his octet in the Eighties. And then Henry Lowther couldn’t make a tour of Ireland, so Peter called me, and I did a quintet tour with Peter.”

Stan Tracey was the house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s in the Sixties. If you had to pick the moment when British Jazz came of age, it would be 1965, with Tracey’s recasting of Dylan Thomas in the Under Milk Wood suite. King worked regularly with Tracey, and his experiments, like Tracey’s, showed how to play an American vernacular in a British accent.

Jazz musicians are the mad scientists of music

“There’s a certain sound to British jazz,” Barker says. “If you go way back to Stan’s Under Milkwood Suite and Tubby Hayes and Peter and all those British bebop players, they were inspired by the Americans but, because they’re British, they have a British accent. That always seems to happen with musicians when they have the freedom to improvise. You can’t help but be shaped by your environment. If somebody is born and bred in New Orleans, you can hear it in the way they speak, the way they sound. It’s the same: there’s a very distinctive British sound despite the fact that it’s obviously influenced by the American stars.”

It’s hard to pin this sensibility down. No American jazz musician managed Dudley Moore’s ironic transits between jazz, classical and comedy. “There is a quirkiness to it,” Guy says of the sound of the national character, “but also there’s a humbleness to it – because we’re our own worst enemy. With the British, when in doubt, apologise! We’re always saying sorry. But not when we play. It’s distinctive.”

King’s type of jazz suffered in the Seventies as music went electric and discos displaced live bands. Tracey retrained as a postman, King as a drug addict. He cleaned up in the Eighties, and began a new career recording with one of that decade’s most efficient devices for the employment of saxophonists, Charlie Watts’ big band, and with the free-jazz experimenter John Stevens. Exchanging one kind of high for another, King returned to his childhood interest in aerodynamics, and extended the metaphor of career revival by becoming British champion in the F1B free-flight category in 1989. From then on, he was ubiquitous, whether keeping the flame of bebop with fellow altoist Phil Woods or collaborating on the frontiers between jazz and other art forms.

“I played with his quartet quite a few times,” Ralph Salmins recalls, “but we also worked together in a few different settings, like Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and a live album with his Birthday Big Band. Peter plays amazingly on that, as he always does. We also did albums, tours and festivals with another great arthouse band, Colin Town’s Mask Orchestra. In 2007, we worked with Colin and the Birmingham Royal Ballet when David Bintley choreographed Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’. We did some Ellington ballets too.”

“The other thing,” Ralph says, “is that he was an absolutely gorgeous man, extremely kind and humble, extremely supportive of young musicians. He didn’t have a big ego. Everyone loved him. He was lovely to me. I never felt worthy of playing with him, but he always made me feel great about playing together.”

King’s Janus (1997) reworked themes from Bela Bartok, one of Charlie Parker’s favourites, with the Lyric String Quartet. On less familiar ground, Tarantello (1994) was a four-part meditation on Ayrton Senna, and Zyklon (2004) a two-act opera on the Janus-like life of Fritz Haber, the German Jewish scientist whose patriotic innovations in poison gas during the First World War were applied to Jews in the Second. His most striking late performance was, however, on film, in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999).

“I’d recorded an album called What Love Is with strings, and Anthony Minghella heard it,” Guy Barker recalls. “I got the call from Anthony and I ended up sitting in an apartment in Rome with him, listening to music from the era of the film. I had to lead the group that Jude Law’s character jams with in the club in Naples. We were supposed to be Italian. I wasn’t, but I had a Spanish saxophone player and a Portuguese piano player. Then Anthony said, ‘The other band that makes an appearance, they need to be the band from New York. Please can we have Peter King?’ You know, Anthony was very keen to have Peter. He knew Peter’s work and was a complete fan of his.”

Minghella cuts from the light and heat of the south to a windy night in Rimini. The police are on Ripley’s trail, and the dangerous and solitary obsession at the heart of the story is coming to light. The camera’s focus on King’s face, haggard and pale, intently private in its passion as he plays “Four” by Miles Davis.

“Peter’s sound and his whole face just fills the screen,” Barker says. “It’s a glorious moment. For me, whenever I knew that I was going to play with Peter, it just felt like ‘This is the real thing.’ He to me was the link with all the great heroes of the music. He was it.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover