Tag Archives: Ian Armit

“HIS HEART WAS IN JAZZ”: IAN ROBERT “SPIKE” MACKINTOSH

I have to thank the writer / musician Dave Gelly for increasing my happiness immeasurably. In Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW (Equinox), his delightful book on British jazz and its audiences between 1945-60, this sentence appears on page 93, in Gelly’s survey of the Fifties work of clarinetist Wally Fawkes: “Particularly revealing is the playing of Spike Mackintosh (1918-1986) who, perhaps more than any other trumpeter, catches the grave elegance of classic Armstrong.”

“Grave elegance” is a lovely phrase, and since I am a continuing student in what Ruby Braff called the University of Armstrong, it stuck in my mind. About ten days ago, I ordered a copy of the Lake Records CD compilation, FLOOK DIGS JAZZ (Lake LACD 143).

The original vinyl issue of FLOOK DIGS JAZZ on Decca

The original vinyl issue of FLOOK DIGS JAZZ on Decca

The first track, Cole Porter’s WHY CAN’T YOU BEHAVE, so affected me that I played it over and over again.  Listen and you will understand (even though my homemade video presentation is amateurish):

That’s Wally, clarinet; Eddie Harvey, trombone; Ian Armit, piano; Lennie Bush, string bass; Eddie Taylor, drums — recorded March 24, 1957. Wally, of course, always catches my ear because of the depth of his beautiful sound, his placement of notes, and the rest of the band is quite fine.

But hearing Spike Mackintosh was a wonderful revelation to me.  (He was another rebuke to Philip Larkin’s “Larkin’s Law” that states if a musician or band was any good, you would have heard of him / her / them by now.)  Spike, at first, might sound to the casual listener an expert Louis-copyist, but that isn’t the case.

Spike does so much more than put one Louis phrase next to the other to create a solo; he has his own beautiful, graceful sense of that idiom while making it his own.  Rather like Joe Thomas, he is delicate rather than overstated; he builds a solo from melodic embellishment to grand architecture, with the effect being sun bursting through clouds. Love, not caricature, drives his lyricism. No handkerchiefs.

I wanted to find out more about Spike, and was very pleased to see that writer Ralph M. Laing devoted half of his beautiful liner notes on the man himself. Since he knew Spike, these words are precious.

I first heard Spike play around 1956 in the regular Thursday night session at the ‘100’ Club in Oxford Street. He was an unlikely icon, always dressed in jacket, shirt and tie, relatively small in stature, with black semi-chastened hair, and RAF moustache and accent to match. On stage he drank what he fondly imagined we all believed to be tea from a cup and saucer (in those days the ‘100’ Club had no liquor license). And he played quite beautifully, in the later style of his idol, Louis. He was featured by Al Fairweather and Sandy Brown in 1956 on the seminal SANDY’S SIDEMEN (on LAKE LACD133); indeed his feature High Time is the most melodic of the eight Al Fairweather originals which made the album so remarkable. The melody was sold by Spike with such majesty and melodic simplicity that it remains for me one of British trad’s finer moments.

More derivative of Louis than Al, his nearest stylistic contemporary, Spike concentrated on tone and economical phrasing. While both had a gorgeous sound for which most other British brass players would kill their mothers, Al strove to create his own style. Spike on the other hand believed that there would never be another sound as perfect as mid-period Louis. All his life he sought to emulate this majesty. And, on the basis of these recordings alone, it is fairly evident that, at his peak, he has yet to be equalled in Europe. His solo on Talk of the Town is a masterpiece of subtle simplicity, while he roared above the band on When You’re Smiling with the same sort of regal authority which we think of as Louis’ sole province. Half a dozen of Britain’s finest trumpet players, including Spike, congregated to greet Louis on the Heathrow tarmac when he briefly flew into London in December 1956 to play for the Hungarian Relief Fund at the Royal Festival Hall. The player who caught Louis’ ear was Spike.

Wally and Spike had much in common. To begin with their musical education was similarly weighted towards the swing music of the 1930s. Today’s readers will find it difficult to realise that any British players who had reached any prominence by the mid-1950s were probably self-educated from a relatively small number of 78rpm records. Most of what little jazz was available in our shops came from Parlophone, HMV and Columbia, and we bought everything we could. Then we played it until the black grooves turned grey. Stylistically we didn’t really care. Although, of course, we could differentiate between, say, the type of music played by the Hot Five, the Goodman Quartet, Fats Waller, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, we were so grateful to get our hands on any new re-releases at all that ideology was a non-starter. Sectarian warfare was only to raise its head with the Born Again movement, which surrounded Ken Colyer on his return from the promised land of New Orleans. But for most of us, by the mid-1950s our fate was cast. Our tastes were catholic and fundamentalism was unlikely to recruit us as converts. Both Wally and Spike, to be sure, fell into this category.

As well as being good friends, Wally and Spike also shared another bond. In the heady days when these recordings were made it was perfectly sensible (and eminently feasible) for talented semi-professional jazz musicians to turn professional. Most of my pals, several with university degrees and all with their heads well screwed on, made the jump. Others, however, had occupations which it would have been foolhardy completely to jettison. For example, Sandy Brown was bent on building his practice in acoustic architecture. By 1957 Wally was one of Britain’s most respected cartoonists, and Spike ran a sizeable family timber business. And neither relished life on the road.

I was lucky enough to know Spike reasonably well towards the end of his life, as he religiously made the annual trip to the Edinburgh Festival. He, Stan Greig and I would usually end up indulging in Spike’s two favorite pastime — listening to jazz records and indulging in good conversation until the small hours. He was still dapper, and, although he always carried his trumpet with him, was inordinately reticent about playing. These 21 tracks (plus High Time on Sandy’s Sidemen) represent, to the best of my knowledge, his entire recorded work. It is a relatively small legacy in size, but a substantial one indeed in quality. British jazz may never see his like again, more’s the pity.

At this point, I must thank Paul Adams of LAKE Records for issuing both FLOOK DIGS JAZZ and SANDY’S SIDEMEN, and direct readers to the LAKE site, as well as being grateful to Ralph M. Laing for his memoir.

I could find very little information on Spike online. Here, for example, is the only photograph that emerged — from the LAKE reissue of SANDY’S SIDEMEN, with Spike the barely visible figure third from right, “dapper” indeed:

Sandys+Sidemen

I was astonished to find that Ian Robert “Spike” Mackintosh was father of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the famous West End theatre producer, responsible for LES MISERABLES and CATS. When Sir Cameron was interviewed in THE SCOTSMAN, September 20, 2012, he had a few words — a little more derisive than affectionate, perhaps — about his father, once the interviewer set the stage:

[Sir Cameron’s] connections to Scotland go back through generations. His grandfather came from the east coast, his great-grandfather from Raasay, and his great-grandmother from Skye. His father was Scottish: a brilliant jazz trumpeter who put aside his instrument to take over the family timber yard.

“His heart was in jazz. He played with Louis Armstrong, who gave him one of his trumpets. The great clarinet player Ian Christie said that ‘between drinks three and nine Spike Mackintosh was a genius’.” He roars with laughter. “After that, beware…”

His Maltese mother was the pragmatist to his father’s dreamer. “I inherited her drive and his dreaming,” Sir Cameron says. “We had very little money. A chicken on a Sunday was a treat. My mother was amazing at keeping the family together.”

Another mention of Spike came from the obituary for Melody Maker editor Jack Hutton, 28 August 2008, THE INDEPENDENT:

Hutton’s retirement from Spotlight in 1987 was celebrated with a party at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, where he played trumpet on stage in a jam session. In later years he enjoyed playing trumpet regularly with a trad jazz group and was a founder member of the Codgers Club with former Fleet Street pals Ian Christie (clarinet), Peter York (bass) and fellow trumpeter Spike Mackintosh, the father of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the theatre producer. The club met regularly in Covent Garden and Hutton played trumpet with their band, dubbed “The Codgers” by his wife, inspired by the Daily Mirror’s “Old Codgers” letters column.

I think that someone who created such beauty and was also so “reticent” deserves even more attention than I have been able to offer here.  I have asked people here and in the UK for information and memories of Spike. I have written to Wally Fawkes (now ninety and no longer playing); I have sent an email to the official Sir Cameron Mackintosh site, but so far no revelations. Spike should be better known and more fervently celebrated. Inspired by our greatest hero, he shone his own light for us.

May your happiness increase! 

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