Trumpeter Spike Mackintosh — glorious, elusive — has been on my mind for months. As soon as I read about him (thanks to Dave Gelly) and heard his few recordings, I wanted to know more about this shadowy figure.
My quest began here in July, and continued a month later here and finally here. (Readers fearful of hyperlinks will find that these posts have homemade videos of Spike’s masterpieces — WHY CAN’T YOU BEHAVE and HIGH TIME, so you can delight in his inspired music.)
In my efforts to learn more about Spike, I face the dilemma of the biographer whose subject and his circle are dead or reclusive. (I have written to Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Spike’s son, and to Wally Fawkes, but Wally is 91 and Sir Cameron has larger subjects on his mind.)
At the 2014 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, which just concluded, I was surrounded by British musicians, but I had little hope that any of them had encountered Spike. He had died in 1986, and his recordings had been done thirty years earlier. But a kind friend, Sir Robert Cox, found a UK musician who had played with Spike, twice, and would speak with me. I will call this musician — in honor of Ian Fleming, M, although that initial is not part of his name. What follows is what I wrote down over breakfast.
M said that what Spike’s “decline” was “so sad,” seen first-hand in the early Seventies.
M was part of a “nice Dixieland band,” with “tasteful players,” with a regular club gig. One evening, in mid-session, Spike came in, “always nicely turned out, in blazer and flannels, well-spoken.”
He took the place of the band’s trumpet player.
“Spike didn’t look drunk but he wasn’t playing well. In fact, his playing was a mess. But the man had been a superb Louis Armstrong trumpet player — even in his cups he was a wonderful stylist. You could hear little subtle things he would do.”
Spike finished the set and left. The band’s trumpeter said, “Thank God he’s gone.”
The second meeting took place at a club that featured pianists. This night it featured a pianist I will call P, someone M admired and knew. The club treated P well, and when M visited, P was in the dressing room eating a steak.
There was a knock on the door. Someone said, “Come in,” and Spike entered. P was aware of him but kept eating his steak, saying nothing.
Spike asked, “Any chance of a blow?” [Translation: “May I sit in with you?”] P remained silent.
After a pause, Spike said, “Ah. I see. Bye,” and left.
M understood, though nothing was said, that Spike was unwelcome, not only for that night.
At its best, the community of jazz musicians is a living embrace, brothers and sisters lovingly allied against an unsympathetic world. They ask only, “Can you make genuine music? We will protect you. We will take you in.” To be rejected by one’s peers, ostracized by that community must feel a fatal blow.
I do not doubt that Spike, intoxicated, could not create the luminous music he had once done.
But how sad to think of “Thank God he’s gone,” even if Spike was no longer there to hear it.
What must P’s cold silence, his reaction to Spike’s appeal to be admitted to the tribe once again, have felt like? Could anything be sadder than being cast out of jazz?
May we never find doors shut against us. I find it hard to close as I always do, but —
May your happiness increase.