The Wire

In Writing

Sunny Murray 1936–2017: Eye Of The Storm

December 2017

Tony Bevan recalls his years playing – and playing around – with the late free jazz drummer

I suppose the most remarkable thing about this most remarkable of musicians is: it’s all true. Well, I’m pretty certain the story about him being served drinks by a ghost in the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow isn’t (even Sunny denied that) but otherwise, he was a cowboy (sort of), a dancer, a boxer, as the various legends would have it, and he was at the heart of some of the most important groups in the history of the music, and changed the way drums are played forever. He was also hilarious, brilliant, insightful, terrifying – magical in every respect, as a man and a musician. Not bad in one lifetime.

I first played with him at The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle in 2002, with the great John Edwards on bass – what would turn out to be a regular(ish) trio for the next 15 years. Invited by the promoter Paul Kelly, John and I turned up on a freezing cold night at the agreed time for the soundcheck to find no sign of Sunny, or indeed a drum-kit. He was sleeping back at his hotel. So John and I set up, and went out to eat. Returning, we found what had been a pissed off audience enthralled by Sunny setting up his kit while enlightening them on his views on the universe (I remember a particularly vivid passage on Viagra). In time I learned that the show started the moment he walked through the door – and it was always a great show. Anyway, with the briefest of introductions between the musicians (“you got anything to smoke?”) we played four sets in a room that, looking back now, seemed to be entirely inhabited by drums, cheers and steam.

After that the trio toured regularly up and down the country, road trips of unbelievable incident and hilarity. One gig in Newcastle (again) had enough for a box set – Geordie gangsters, a women’s darts tournament, and the sight of one of the giants of free music bewildering and exhilarating a room full of ex-miners. Reading the many online comments since Sunny died, I’ve been struck by how important those gigs were to a lot of people. Here in Glasgow people often talk about the one we did, in I think the old Stereo in Partick, and I’ve experienced similar reactions regarding Manchester, Birmingham and of course London residencies at The Vortex (old and new) and Cafe Oto. I suppose I’d forgotten the impact he had in person, as a huge, larger than life presence (“a bear in a hat” – Stewart Lee) and of course those clattering, thundering, swirling drums.

It certainly did in Antoine Prum’s case. When he was 16 his father took him to see Sunny play in Luxembourg. By 2003 he was a successful documentary film maker, and, as you would after such a baptism, he was making a film about Sunny. And so I became part of the rolling mayhem that resulted in the great film Sunny’s Time Now. The cast alone gives some idea of the esteem Sunny was held in: Cecil Taylor, Tony Oxley, Robert Wyatt, William Parker, Val Wilmer, Grachan Moncur, Bobby Few, Henry Grimes – but not of the fun involved. The release of the film gave the trio the opportunity to play all across Europe, where he was royalty.

Trying not to stray into the realms of cliche, Sunny Murray the man and the music seemed inseparable. As mentioned before, the show would start long before the actual music (I remember a concert at Cafe Oto where Sunny went out to talk – individually – to the people queueing up outside to hear him play). A conversation with him was like his drumming, a torrent of ideas, witticisms, asides, shocks, hilarity, beauty – all individual and inimitable. Playing with him was like being in a storm, a force of nature that could turn on a sixpence, edit, correct, suggest, reject, challenge, encourage and support. He listened hard – but then anybody who lived with his recordings with Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler would know that. As an aside, he never made a big thing about his past – if he mentioned it at all it would be usually a part of a side-splitting account of misdeeds.

Final memory: as we were waiting to go on in Lisbon for Jazz Em Agosto, on the last gig that we ever played, I heard Sunny say the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Not a joke, but an observation about sushi. The set-up, the pause, then a brilliant pay-off. Perfect timing. I loved him to bits.

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