|THE CLARKE-BOLAND BIG BAND
by Douglas Payne
The mighty alchemy of sound known as the Clarke-Boland Big Band was peopled by a stellar cast of international jazz notables in its all-too brief lifetime from 1961 to 1972 - none less than its two principals.
Indeed, the many worldly musicians that aligned themselves with the Clarke-Boland Big Band were in awe of either one or both of the principals and wanted to speckle the elegant universe that was the Clark Boland Big Band.
This dually-led collective was conceived, supervised, supported and sustained by the incredible Gigi Campi (b. 1928), a German entrepreneur with a deep, abiding love of jazz, who fostered a lifetime commitment to this group’s principals and the sound of surprise they made together.
The genesis of genius was the combination of Pittsburgh-born drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke (1914-1985), one of the key progenitors of America’s be-bop movement, and the brilliant Belgian Francy Boland (1929-2005), a composer, arranger and pianist of remarkable, Ellingtonian and equally un-Ellington talents.
After failing on several previous jazz ventures, Campi recognized that anchoring a first-rate rhythm section with an individual composer/arranger meant artistic triumph.
By the late 1950s, Clarke had left America and settled in Paris, where he lived for the rest of his life. Boland had recently returned to Europe from the US, where he’d been touring to support Chet Baker. Ellington bassist Jimmy Woode (1928-2005), who would become an integral part of the band’s powerful engine, had left America at the time for Sweden, eventually settling in Paris (he ultimately settled in New Jersey).
Campi recognized a perfect opportunity and aligned the three musicians, forming what must be considered one of jazz’s most perfect unions. An octet recording for Blue Note was arranged, THE GOLDEN EIGHT, and something bigger than a big band was born.
Campi recorded a few dozen Clarke-Boland albums during the group’s 11-year run for the Atlantic, Philips, Vogue, CBS and, most prominently, the Saba/MPS labels as well as a few other European labels.
Very few of these albums have been made available in the United States – and as a result, very few Americans know of this incredible musical unit. A few CD reissues have become available, thanks mostly to Universal Music and Italy’s Rearward label, but even these are very difficult to locate in American shops. That means the Clarke-Boland Big Band remains criminally under appreciated in the Western world.
In addition to backing significant talent on the level of Johnny Griffin, Nathan Davis, Stan Getz, Carmen McRae, (Clarke’s former MJQ partner) Milt Jackson and Mark Murphy, the Clarke-Boland collective has also featured notable contributions from such prime soloists as Sahib Shihab (especially), Benny Bailey, Ake Persson, Carl Drewo (aka Karl Drevo), Derek Humble, Dusko Gojkovic, Fats Sadi and Kenny Clare.
Significant weigh-ins were also heard from such heavyweights as Art Farmer, Ronnie Scott, Shake Keane, Tony Coe, Dave Pike, Herb Geller, Zoot Sims and Idrees Sulieman – to name but only a few. This band was not lacking in any sort of significance – just appropriate recognition.
The musical aims of Clarke and Boland began to divert in the early 1970s and the two opted to explore new directions apart from each other. Francy Boland moved to Sweden, opting to write more, and Kenny Clarke pursued session work from his home base in Paris. Boland reconvened a similar “orchestra” for three recordings in 1976, but even this aggregate didn’t last past these initial sessions.
Although the Clarke-Boland Big Band has not experienced the historical impact and wide-scale influence it richly deserves, Gigi Campi remains committed to the group’s various aggregates and continues to issue his many recordings on a variety of labels, despite a great wealth of music that remains – probably forever – unissued.
One hopes this admittedly incomplete* discography will serve as an introduction to the recorded output of the Clarke-Boland Big Band. Any corrections, insight, input and introspection is very much welcome and appreciated. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can help make this resource better or more complete. Jazz is universal. Now hear what they mean.
* Disclaimer: The bulk of Clarke-Boland recordings have never been readily accessible in the United States, although the Internet has begun to make this an easier endeavor for those with fat wallets. While early Clarke-Boland recordings were licensed to the American Blue Note and Atlantic labels, Gigi Campi, who states that he and the band were never paid for these releases, never worked with American companies again. As an American who came of age well after the band’s demise and discovered the magic moments of Klook (who shares a hometown with me) and M. Boland (whose work ranks among the very best jazz I’ve ever heard) only in the late 1990s, I have a lot of catching up to do. The reader’s understanding is greatly appreciated and I invite any sort of assistance that can help make this resource better and more complete.
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