The Forgotten Man Of British Jazz
by Robin Kidson
I think British television has never really come to terms with jazz. Even in today’s multi-channel paradise, you have to search hard for a piece of proper jazz. There are some honourable exceptions, of course – Jools Holland, for example, often features jazz in his Later… programmes, including contemporary British musicians such as Binker and Moses. BBC4 and Sky Arts also occasionally dip their toes into jazzy waters. Too often, though, the exceptions only serve to prove the rule.
If jazz is rare on the telly now, things were even worse in the 1960s which is when, as a teenager, I first got interested in the music. There were only three channels then: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV, none of which showed much enthusiasm for jazz. What little there was often turned up in the most unexpected places. There was, for example, a popular chat show on BBC1 in the late 1960s called Dee Time. It was presented by a DJ named Simon Dee and, in between the chat, usually featured a short musical interlude. And, just occasionally, the music would be jazz. Proper jazz. It was on one such interlude that I first came across a British jazz pianist called Roy Budd.
Dee Time wasn’t the only place I saw Roy Budd. For a time, he seemed to be the go-to musician whenever television made one of its rare and reluctant concessions to jazz. He made a speciality of appearing in the brief music segments of popular mainstream programmes including The Morecambe and Wise Show and The David Frost Show. To a jazz starved teenager like myself, the face of British jazz in the late 1960s wasn’t Tubby Hayes or Stan Tracey or Ronnie Scott; it was Roy Budd.
Roy Budd is all but forgotten now. He doesn’t feature in the jazz reference books nor in the nascent British jazz nostalgia industry. If he is remembered at all, it is for one big shining thing, of which more later.
Roy Budd’s sixties TV fame came early in his career. Born in South London in 1947, it was discovered in early childhood that he had perfect pitch. He taught himself to play the piano and became something of a child prodigy, appearing in public and on television from the age of 6. He developed an interest in jazz as a teenager and, after he left school at the age of 16, formed his first trio with Peter McGurk on bass and his cousin, Trevor Tomkins on drums. He quickly established a reputation and, in 1965, when he was only 18, released his first record, a single on the Pye label called Birth Of The Budd. It’s a jaunty piece of Ramsey Lewis inspired pop-jazz and features some of the cream of British jazz at the time: Ian Carr on trumpet, Dick Morrissey on tenor sax, Dave Green on bass and Tomkins on drums. Listen here.
Roy Budd also released a number of albums in the late 1960s including the eponymous Roy Budd which again featured Carr, Morrissey and Tomkins; and Pick Yourself Up! This is Roy Budd, with Dave Holland on bass. One of Budd’s compositions from that album, Girl From Southend-on-Sea is here.
Throughout his jazz career, Roy Budd’s favoured setting was the piano trio and, from the late 1960s onwards, his drummer was usually Chris Karan. He worked with a number of bassists including Peter McGurk, Dave Holland, Jeff Clyne, Tony Archer and Pete Morgan. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that it was when playing with Roy Budd in 1968 that Dave Holland first attracted the attention of Miles Davis. Miles liked what he heard and invited Holland to become his bass player. The rest, as they say, is jazz history.
In 1970, Roy Budd’s focus shifted away from jazz. In that year, he learned that American film director, Ralph Nelson, was looking for someone to compose the music for a film called Soldier Blue. The story goes that Budd put together a tape of his own music interspersed with interpretations of lesser known works by established film composers such as Jerry Goldsmith and Dimitri Tiomkin. Implying this was all his own work, Budd gave the tape to Nelson. He got the job. Soldier Blue was an extremely popular film at the time but also, because of its graphic violence, an extremely controversial one. But it set Roy Budd up as an original film composer of some distinction.
Over the next twenty years, Roy Budd wrote the music for a phenomenal number of commercially successful films from comedies such as The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971) and Steptoe and Son (1972) to blockbusters like The Wild Geese (1978) and Who Dares Wins (1982). His services were often called on by Hollywood for films such as The Stone Killer (1973), Diamonds (1975), and Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger (1977).
Budd’s film scores took their inspiration from a number of sources including classical music. But he didn’t forget his jazz roots. The musicians playing his jazz-inflected score for Fear Is The Key (1972), for example, included Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott. It is Scott who takes the tenor solo for the film’s famous car chase scene. You can get a flavour of the music here. And here also is Budd’s jazzy main theme for the Michael Caine film, The Marseille Contract (1974).
Roy Budd’s crowning achievement, however, the big shining glory of his career, was his score for Get Carter in 1971. By common consent, Get Carter is one of the greatest British films ever made and Budd’s score, particularly the compelling main theme, is a major part of its appeal. The film stars Michael Caine as Jack Carter, a London based gangster who travels up to his native Newcastle for his brother’s funeral. Whilst in the city, he discovers that his brother was murdered. Carter then takes a bloody revenge on the murderers before he himself is shot dead.The film is bleak and violent, and Caine’s character has a cruel amoral streak but, underneath that, he also has an ethical code which makes him a sort of hero, so his death, when it comes, feels genuinely tragic.
As well as being an outstanding piece of film music, Roy Budd’s theme also stands by itself as a marvellous piece of jazz-rock. The theme plays over the opening credits which show Carter on the train travelling from Kings Cross to Newcastle. Watch the credits and listen to the music here.
Many of the films on which Budd worked had big music budgets but this wasn’t the case with Get Carter. With a budget of only £450, Budd was forced to be innovative. The main theme only uses three musicians – Budd himself on harpsichord, acoustic piano and electric piano, Chris Karan on percussion and Jeff Clyne on bass. Both Karan and Clyne played regularly with Budd in his trio at the time and both had impressive jazz credentials. Clyne, for instance, was the bassist on that seminal work of British jazz, Stan Tracey’s Under Milkwood.
Like all good film music, Budd’s score adds another dimension to Get Carter, enhancing its various moods and fitting in perfectly with the images on the screen. The main theme, for example, is a classic piece of train music with its driving beat imitating the rhythm of the train taking Carter to the North. That beat is mainly provided by Clyne who sets up the mother of all bass riffs and never lets it go. Karan accompanies the riff playing the tabla with its very distinctive, slightly exotic sound. Budd comes in with a simple pattern played simultaneously on harpsichord and acoustic piano. It may be simple but it is another distinctive sound and adds an appropriate touch of menace. It is used to great effect throughout the film, sometimes ominous but at other time sounding almost like a question.
The actual sounds of the train punctuate the main theme – tunnel noises, the swish of wheels, rattles and so on – all adding to the effect. But it is when Budd switches to electric piano that the true jazz splendour of the theme comes through with some superb improvisations. And then as the train pulls into Newcastle, the music gradually slows down and all that can be heard is Karan’s tabla bringing things to a halt.
The theme does more than accentuate the motion of the train, though. Its driving beat suggests something inexorable, and Carter, by choosing to go to Newcastle, has set things in motion that cannot be stopped and that can only be ended in his death.
You can see and hear Roy Budd and his trio playing the Get Carter theme live here. It is from 1971 and is taken from another one of those mainstream TV shows, Whittaker’s World of Music. It is introduced by the host of the show, Roger Whittaker. It is worth remembering that Roy Budd was still only 24 years old.
In 1972 Roy Budd married Caterina Valente, an internationally famous Italian singer. They had a son, but divorced in 1979. He later married Sylvia Noel, A French TV journalist.
Parallel with his busy film music career in the 1970s and 1980, Roy Budd continued to perform with his trio. Here he is at a Royal Gala Night in 1983 playing Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Corcovado: Pete Morgan is on bass, Chris Karan on drums and Bob Hope, no less, on intros.
Budd also arranged for, and accompanied, a range of artists including his wife, Caterina Valente, Larry Adler, Tony Bennett, and Charles Aznavour. His main project in the early 1990s was writing a full orchestral score, totalling 93 minutes, for the 1925 silent film classic, Phantom of the Opera. This was finally completed in 1993 with a scheduled premiere to take place at the Barbican in London. However, just weeks before the premiere, Roy Budd suddenly died from a brain haemorrhage. He was only 46. The premiere was cancelled and the whole project forgotten for over 20 years until, thanks to the efforts of his widow, Sylvia, the score eventually received its first performance at the London Coliseum in 2017. It has subsequently received other performances including at the Barbican in 2019.
Here is a short BBC news clip of Sylvia Budd talking about Roy and that 2017 debut of the Phantom of the Opera score.
Despite his forays into other genres, Roy Budd was a jazzman at heart. An intuitive musician, he had a great technique, an outstanding flair for improvisation, and, in his day, impressive compositional skills. Perhaps if he hadn’t devoted much of his career to film music, he would be better remembered today as an important part of British jazz. In addition, although successful in their day, the films he worked on have not stood the test of time too well – although many are now showing up on the Talking Pictures television channel. The exception is Get Carter which has become something of a cult and keeps going from strength to strength. Its music has not dated either and that haunting theme crops up in all sorts of places from advertising to rock music sampling. It’s in the nature of film music, however, that its composers are often not given the credit they deserve and that is perhaps the case with Roy Budd and Get Carter.
To finish, here is a recent take on the Get Carter theme from a jazz perspective. It’s by Wendy Kirkland’s Trio featuring Dennis Rollins MBE at the Hull Jazz Festival in 2021 with Get Carter Reimagined. It’s a reminder of the brilliance of the piece and what was lost with Roy Budd’s early passing.