Drummer, percussionist, composer
Tony Oxley is arguably the most significant British drummer of the latter half of the twentieth century. He created a style of improvised drumming, virtually from whole cloth, that has had a tremendous impact on three generations of jazz players. He developed a drum/percussion kit uniquely suited to his personal mode of playing, and in the early 1970s, became the first drummer to actively utilize electronic resources to modify the sound of his instrument. As co-founder of the Musicians Cooperative and Incus record label, he helped put the British improvised music scene on firmer ground. He has performed with a wide range of musicians, from traditional tenor players such as Ben Webster and Eddie Lockjaw Davis, to piano pioneers Paul Bley and Bill Evans, and musicians Cecil Taylor and Derek Bailey.
Oxley was born and raised in the relative backwaters of Sheffield, England. He had piano lessons as a child, quit, and took up drums as a teenager. Eventually he was drafted into the British army and became a percussionist in the military orchestra. While serving, Oxley did more than just develop his classical chops performing works by Beethoven, Mozart, and Dvorak. He was also able to travel to the United States where he heard jazz greats, such as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Philly Joe Jones in concert.
Those jazz experiences in America were decisive for Oxley. By the time he left the service, he had made up his mind not to play other people’s music any longer. Back home in Sheffield, he formed a jazz combo which he led for three years. In 1963, he had another decisive encounter: he met guitarist Derek Bailey who was living just around the corner. “A once in a century coincidence,” was how Oxley described the meeting to Bert Noglik in Jazz-Werkstatt International. With bassist Gavin Bryars, they formed a trio called Joseph Holbrooke named after a long-deceased British composer. The group started out playing jazz standards, but quickly evolved into other kinds of music, fueled by the interests of the members. Bryars was interested in avant-garde classical composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolf, and Olivier Messiaen; Oxley was interested in the more radical players in contemporary jazz—John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Cecil Taylor, among others.
“From 1963-66 we moved away from the diatonic system to the chromatic system, forging a profound interest in Anton Webern and John Cage,” Oxley described to Harris Eisenstadt in Coda about his work with Holbrooke. “It was a period of learning, of taming oneself, of discovering other ways of music-making.” They were particularly fascinated by Webern’s music. They had no particular use for Webern’s methods, but they tried to translate his sound into their music. Free improvisation—which Oxley would later term European Improvised Music—was the bridge the group built between these extremes. It was music virtually unknown in England—or elsewhere in Europe—at the time. For Oxley and Bailey, it evolved sui generis in the course of Joseph Holbrooke’s playing.
In 1967, Oxley moved to London. Before long he had established himself as the house drummer at one of the city’s most popular jazz clubs, Ronnie Scott’s. Oxley had already moved beyond traditional jazz in his own music. But he enjoyed performing with the players who had helped invent jazz, legends such as Ben Webster, Davis, Joe Hendeson, Stan Getz, and Evans. In John Wickes’ Innovations in British Jazz, John Fordham described Oxley’s “traditional” drum style: “He would embroider the basic time in clusters of jostling beats, but still remember in some metronomic circuit in the depths of his brain exactly where the beat was, and come back to it at intervals with an emphatic crash that seemed to say ’told you so.’ He would frequently unsettle soloists, or lose them altogether.” Evans, however, was taken with Oxley’s drumming and more than once tried to persuade him to join his trio.
In the mid 1960s, a group of hardcore improvisers including Oxley, Bailey, saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist/composer Barry Guy, pianist Howard Riley, trombonist Paul Rutherford, and drummer Paul Lytton, had come together and were performing together regularly in London. Their music was quickly moving away from anything resembling jazz, fostering hostility in the British music press and at record companies.
For the Record…
Born on June 15, 1938, in Sheffield, England.
Led first jazz group, 1960-63; began playing in Joseph Holbrooke trio with Derek Bailey and Gavin Bryars, 1963; moved to London, 1967; worked as “house drummer” at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, 1966-73; released first LP, The Baptised Traveller, 1969; began experimenting with electronic modification of percussion, late 1960s; received three-month artist-in-residence position at Sydney Conservatorium in Australia, 1970; helped form Musicians Cooperative, 1970; taught at Barry Summer school, 1970-80; formed Incus record label with Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, 1970; met painter-musician Alan Davie, early 1970s; began playing violin, 1971; formed Celebration Orchestra, 1978; began playing with Cecil Taylor, 1988.
However, Oxley’s work at Ronnie Scott’s, where he played regularly until the early 1970s, had given Oxley a solid reputation as jazz drummer—however outside the jazz standard he was interested in playing. In 1969, after he performed on John McLaughlin’s first LP, Extrapolation, he was offered a recording contract by CBS. The first recording, The Baptised Traveller, featured members of another group, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Parker, Bailey, Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, and Jeff Clyne on bass. The results sound at times like an elegy to the jazz they were all leaving behind. Oxley’s next record for CBS, Four Compositions For Sextet, added Paul Rutherford’s trombone.
By the early 1970s, Oxley was doing well for a performing musician. He had regular work at Ronnie Scott’s, which brought him popularity, and he was recording regularly. Despite Oxley’s success, however, improvised music was suffering in Britain. Venues were shutting down or booking only the most traditional jazz acts; the music was belittled by the general music press and record labels simply ignored it completely. In 1970, Oxley co-founded the Musicians Cooperative with Bailey, Parker and several other musicians. The group’s purpose was to help the musicians help themselves and it was almost immediately able to secure grant money for the group from the local arts council.
At Oxley’s suggestion, Incus Records, an independent artist-owned record label, was founded. “I proposed to Derek Bailey that maybe we should have a company of our own,” Oxley told Eisenstadt. “Whilst I was being recorded, there were important developments and musicians who were not. A friend of mine, Mike Walters, provided the money and didn’t want to be involved with running the company, so Derek suggested Evan Parker.” With Incus, musicians were finally in a position to document their music, and to have a measure of control over its release and distribution.
By the time he started recording for CBS, Oxley was beginning to realize that the traditional drum kit, made up primarily of snare, toms, and cymbals—even as he had expanded with unusual noise-making devices— was not adequate for reproducing the music he was hearing in his head. He started to experiment with various forms of amplification and electronic devices such as ring modulators to alter the sounds he made. Using the electronics on the drums themselves didn’t interest him as much as using them on the foreign objects he had incorporated into the kit: bowls, pieces of wire, screws, and other metal objects that were able to create a wide range of pure sounds.
“On my record February Papers, for example, there’s a piece of mine you can hear that came about from amplifying electronically drawing a bow across the blade of a knife,” Oxley told Noglik. “It is unbelievable what kind of sound possibilities you can find in a little piece of metal.” His first electronic work appeared on his first LP for RCA, Ichnos, which Oxley told Noglik he thought was his best of that period. Surprisingly, few drummers in improv, jazz, rock, or other music have picked up on Oxley’s experiments with electronic modification of percussion.
However, Oxley’s electronic drumming did come to the attention of Martin Wesley Smith, the head of the electronic music department at the Sydney Conservatorium in Australia. Smith arranged a three-month-long artist-in-residence position for the drummer.“I think what probably interested him was my approach,” Oxley told Eisenstadt. “As professional electronic composers require a large desk of treatment possibilities I had the idea to cut this down to a minimum in order to improvise. I also constantly changed my sound source. I could quite easily move my equipment to any situation.”
In the early 1970s, Oxley met Alan Davie, a painter who would have a profound impact on Oxley’s artistic life. Davie phoned Oxley to ask if he, Paul Rutherford, and Evan Parker were interested in performing at a gallery where Davie had an exhibit. When Oxley accepted, he discovered that Davie was profoundly interested in music, and often performed on an array of instruments. They began meeting regularly at Davie’s home where they performed together and recorded their music.“Besides Bailey, Davie is one of the people that I owe the most to for my musical development,” Oxley told Noglik.“As a musician, Alan Davie doesn’t start from either classical music or jazz. He looked for his own path very singlemindedly and found it.” In 1974, Davie gave Oxley a violin. Oxley quickly discovered the rhythmic possibilities in the instrument, and has since had an abiding interest in working with string ensembles of all kinds.
In 1978, Oxley formed the Celebration Orchestra, an under-documented big band that played on and off until well into the 1990s. His compositions for the group were as adventurous as anything else he has done. They have called for Scottish pipe and drum band, three prepared pianos, a pre-recorded tape of a steel factory, and electronics, along with the more or less regular orchestra line-up of brass, piano, strings, voice and, of course, Oxley’s drums.
The 1980s and 1990s saw Oxley performing with a number of important European and American impro-visers, including Peter Brotzmann, Phil Minton, Phil Wachsmann, Anthony Braxton, Paul Bley, and Alexander von Schlippenbach. A particularly fruitful collaboration began when Oxley first performed with Cecil Taylor. Oxley played with Taylor in a number of settings during the pianist’s epochal stay in Berlin during the summer of 1988: as a duo, with William Parker in the Feel Trio, and in the 17-piece Cecil Taylor European Orchestra. Taylor subsequently introduced Oxley to American trumpeter Bill Dixon, which set another productive collaboration in motion.
Since Oxley and Bailey began making their individual music in the early 1960s, people have asked,“Yes, but is it jazz?” Oxley prefers to call what he does“improvised music.” But by and large he finds the entire question to be academic and uninteresting. He is grateful to American jazz of the 1950s for leading him to improvisation, but he has moved far beyond the music he was playing in Sheffield and at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. He does see his musical role as very different from that played by jazz drummers.“I consider myself more a percussionist, in contrast to a jazz drummer who keeps time,” Oxley told Noglik.“In the new improvised music, a percussionist can interrupt the flow of his playing without affecting the nature of his relationship to the other players.”
The Baptised Traveller, CBS, 1969; reissued Sony-Columbia, 1999.
Four Compositions for Sextet, CBS, 1970; reissued on CD, Sony-Columbia, 1999.
Ichnos, RCA Victor, 1971.
The Tony Oxley Alan Davie duo, ADMW, 1975.
Tony Oxley, Incus, 1975.
February Papers, Incus, 1977.
Soho Suites, Volume 1, Incus, 1977.
Tony Oxley Celebration Orchestra: The Enchanted Messenger, Soul Note, 1994,
Deep, Fish Music, 1997.
With Cecil Taylor
Leaf Palm Hand, FMP, 1988.
Looking (Berlin version), FMP, 1989.
Nailed, FMP, 1990.
Melancholy, FMP, 1990.
Tony Oxley Quartet, Incus, 1992.
With Bill Dixon
Vade Mecum, Soul Note, 1993.
Vade Mecum II, Soul Note, 1993.
Papyrus, Volume I, Soul Note, 1998.
Berlin Abbozzi, FMP, 1999.
With Alex von Schlippenbach
Digger’s Harvest, FMP, 1998.
(Ronnie Scott & The Band) Live at Ronnie Scott’s, Columbia, 1968.
(John McLaughlin) Extrapolation, Marmalade, 1969; reissued on CD/Polydor, 1991.
(Tony Oxley Celebration Orchestra) Tomorrow is Here, Dossier, 1985.
(Tony Oxley and Phil Wachsmann) Glider & the Grinder, Bead, 1987.
(London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra) Ode, Incus, 1972; reissued on CD, Intakt 1996.
(Howard Riley Trio) Synopsis, Incus, 1973.
(Peter Brotzmann Clarinet Project) Berlin Djungle, FMP, 1984.
(The Feel Trio) Celebrated blazons, FMP, 1990.
Joseph Holbrook ’98, Incus, 1998.
Noglik, Bert, Jazz-Werkstatt International, 1981.
Wickes John, Innovations in British Jazz, Volume One 1960-1980, 1999.
Coda, July/August 1999.
European Improvisers Pages, http://www.shef.ac.uk/misc/rec/ps/efi/index.html (January 25, 2001).
—Gerald E. Brennan
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