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Stan Tracey

Jazz musician

Jazz musician

Born December 30, 1926: died December 6, 2013

If Stan Tracey had only ever recorded his 1965 album Under Milk Wood he still would have earned the services to jazz honour he received at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards this year.

Tracey, who has died aged 86, went on to create a formidable catalogue of recordings, from the solo piano eulogy, Goodbye Twinkletoes, to his daughter Sarah, who died in 2012, to small band and orchestral works.

But with Under Milk Wood, and especially its haunting tone poem Starless and Bible Black, featuring the magnificent breathy tenor of Glaswegian saxophonist Bobby Wellins, he showed that non-Americans could create world class jazz and thus became an inspiration to generations of musicians.

Under Milk Wood, which was inspired by Dylan Thomas' radio play, wasn't Tracey's first recording. A former accordionist with the forces entertainment group ENSA, where he performed alongside Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers and Bob Monkhouse, he had graduated to piano after becoming besotted with boogie- woogie and worked on the transatlantic liners.

Hearing Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, his two great heroes, helped him establish his own personal, dry and brilliantly witty piano style and after working with Vic Ash, Cab Calloway and Ted Heath and meeting his third wife and tenacious champion of fifty years, Jackie, he released Showcase in 1958.

Jackie, who died in 2009, was a jazz fan who worked in the pop music industry and she became a rock in Tracey's personal life and career. By the time Tracey began jotting down ideas for Under Milk Wood on the night bus home from his job as house pianist at Ronnie Scott's club, he had established a reputation as a top drawer player. At Ronnie's he accompanied Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Ben Webster and most famously Sonny Rollins, who asked if anyone in Britain realised just how good Tracey was and invited him to collaborate on the soundtrack to Alfie.

Not long afterwards, Tracey went through a tough spell. Work and recording opportunities dried up and he had developed a drug habit that Jackie helped him to break. She also dissuaded him from taking a job with the Post Office and secured some of the earliest public funding for jazz, encouraging Tracey back onto the stage and using her record company background to create Steam Records, which documented the many bands and compositions that Tracey created from the 1970s onwards.

Some of his works had smoother births than others. The Genesis suite, which he wrote for his orchestra in 1986, resulted from an apparent benefactor's commission that would be recorded then tour the UK, ran into trouble when the benefactor had second thoughts.

Tracey, however, having alerted his musicians, went ahead and completed the score - although it was, he said, like pulling teeth - and made another landmark recording.

Tracey regarded his bands as family - for more than thirty years they included his son, Clark, on drums - and over time he nurtured many young players, including perhaps most notably trumpeter Guy Barker and saxophonist Simon Allen.

His most recent album, The Flying Pig, released earlier this year when Tracey was reluctantly cancelling appearances through illness but showing him absolutely at the top of his game as a writer and player, featured Allen with another young discovery, trumpeter Mark Armstrong.

With Tracey's passing, jazz has lost one of its major figures and an essentially shy but mischievous character: in accepting his services to jazz award in May, he remarked that he'd have preferred a services to Sophia Loren award. Jackie's face, on hearing that, would have been a picture.

Tracey, who was appointed OBE in 1986 and CBE in 2007, is survived by his son Clark.

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