Dick Morrisey-top tenor plays a top G
Saxophonists Peter King, Don Weller and Dick Morrisey were all born in South London in 1940 and all began their musical careers as clarinetists in traditional Jazz bands. I once asked Don about his transition to the tenor saxophone.
“Dick Morrissey and I went to the West End to buy our first tenors on the same day. A month later I heard him on a gig and he could play it and I couldn’t. That was the difference.”
This coming from one of the great individual voices on the instrument gives some indication of just how natural a player Dick Morrissey was. It was as if he and the tenor saxophone were made for each other and were just waiting to meet that day in the Selmer shop, 114-116 Charing Cross Road. He did play flute and soprano saxophone at various times in his later life but it is on the tenor that he developed into and became recognised as a world class musician.
He not only changed his instrument that day but also his whole musical direction. Whilst still playing clarinet, he had joined the Buck Clayton inspired Gus Galbraith band where he came under the direct influence of Peter King. King had already moved on to the alto and by careful analysis of Charlie Parker recordings had become astonishingly adept at the new musical language. The clarinet has never been a natural be-bop instrument, with cross fingering complexities and difficulties with being heard in the lower register. Any serious attempt to move into the modern jazz world would require a change of instrument.
Just how quickly Dick grasped the mechanics of the saxophone and the stylistic subtleties of the music can be heard on his first album “It’s Morrisey Man!” recorded in 1961 when he was still 20 years old. His style is already perfectly formed and he delivers a confident, accomplished and swaggering debut. His huge sound is at times reminiscent of Sonny Rollins or Johnny Griffin with Stanley Turrentine overtones in the phrasing. His mastery of all the genres: hard-bop, calypso, blues and ballads, sounds like the inspired outpourings of a much more experienced man. This is beyond precocious and it’s no surprise that Tubby Hayes began to actively encourage him. By 1966, he was ranking second to Tubby in the Melody-maker tenor poll.
Between his recording debut and the mid 70’s Dick had a nine month residency in India, led his own quartet with Harry South recording three albums, had residencies at Ronnie Scotts and the Bulls Head, toured with Jimmy Witherspoon and Jack McDuff, played, intriguingly, for a short period with the Ted Heath band, was a member of the Animals big band and, in 1969, formed the jazz-rock band If with guitarist Terry Smith and fellow reeds man Dave Quincy. He relocated to Sweden and toured Europe, the U.S. and Canada with the band, a staggering seventeen times.
In 1975 at the instigation of Average White Band saxophonists Malcolm “Molly” Duncan and Roger Ball, both fans of Morrissey, Atlantic records offered Dick a showcase recording in New York. He asked guitarist Jim Mullen, then cooling his heals after leaving popular band Kokomo, to be involved. The two musicians instantly found they had a natural way of phrasing and playing unisons together that was almost uncanny. Dick was very interested in producing a Crusaders type album and this recording, released as “Up”, set out the band’s policy of playing contemporary feels without sacrificing any of the jazz content. There followed an exciting six week residency at Mickell’s in New York. The word soon got around and the list of celebrity sitters-in during their sojourn includes Steve Gadd, David Sanborn, George Benson and, every night for a week, the Brecker Brothers who amazed both the leaders with their abilities to instantly assimilate the unfamiliar material. In various incarnations the hugely popular Morrisey-Mullen band continued until 1988, including a long residency at the Half Moon in Putney where punters had to be shoe-horned into the packed room. Later on, the two leaders played in a more straight ahead setting in “Our Band” led by Martin Drew.
Any musician who played with Dick at any stage of his career will have happy memories of the occasion and similar experiences to share. He was always completely absorbed in the moment and in the music, both when playing or cheering on other’s efforts. He consistently made a genuine emotional connection with his audience, through subtle, tasteful and musical means rather than by any kind of grandstanding or playing to the gallery. Any photo taken of him playing the saxophone captures his total involvement. His enthusiasm was infectious- this was not a man to consider the option of coasting. The consistency and high standard of his every performance brings to mind and rivals that of another great tenorist, Zoot Sims.
Never one to carry sheathes of music around, he would always ask others, including horn players, what they fancied playing and would go along with their suggestions, changes and chosen keys. Even some great players will want to include their own well practised material and set routines when they are being presented as the visiting star. Dick was always more interested in bringing out the best in all the players on the stand. He presumed everyone was trying as hard as possible to play well and disapproved strongly of others who were critical of those not coming up to par on the stand.
Local rhythm sections in those days could be a challenge and Dick would tell the story of the night fate dealt him an undertaker with a long white beard on piano, a van driver on bass, the local butcher on drums and no P.A. They eventually by, torturous process, got a set list together and took to the stage. Jim Mullen has described Dick as “England’s greatest opening batsman” and following his first solo could be a daunting prospect for the most accomplished player. This night however, nobody fancied soloing at all, on anything, in either set. Afterwards the drummer observed, almost in triumph, to the exhausted saxophonist: “Not your night, tonight, was it?”
Where ever he was and who ever he was playing with, Dick had the same warm up routine. He would find a quiet couple of pubs or bars and have two or three of pints of Guiness on his own, arriving at the gig no earlier than ten minutes before the downbeat. If the band needed to be guided through parts or routines, that was someone else’s job. Socialising happened in the interval and often for extended periods afterwards, but not before. No food was taken before the gig. Even in New York, he found a bar, Fitzpatrick’s, serving his favourite brew on draft, which was a rarity in those days. However, the small dimpled glasses it was being served in proved most unsatisfactory until Dick noticed a cocktail shaker behind the bar. The lower, glass portion of the object was virtually pint sized and a price to fill it was negotiated. The bar owner found several of these shakers in a back room and soon a trend was established amongst the locals of drinking pints of the black liquid in this fashion. Anyone who has witnessed one of Dick’s opening solos at a performance will attest to how well this method worked for him. In Jim Mullen’s words, the rest of the musicians were “Drawn like iron filings to magnet” to his beat and his immaculate time. He had an ability to make those around him raise their game and to make every gig special.
However, Dick could have a slightly cavalier attitude to his schedule. He did have a diary but seldom looked at it. His devoted friend, fan and driver (he never drove) Sally Haser also had another diary she held for him so the odd confusion was, perhaps, inevitable.
One night the Morrissey Mullen band, by this time travelling with two vans to accommodate musicians, equipment and a sound man pulled up at the Concorde Club in Eastleigh. The club was in total darkness and there was no evidence of anyone being on the premises. Dick, who had taken the booking, woke up in the back of one of the vans, viewed the scene and commented “Ah, perhaps its next month then”.
Other diary clashes were amicably resolved but financial considerations didn’t seem to be part of any decisions made.
Dick’s tenor looked as if it had spent time at the bottom of an ocean. Many saxophonists have horns which have lost their lacquer and as a result get some green verdigris growing on their surfaces. Dick’s instrument took this to new levels. He wasn’t one of those players who meticulously cleans the instrument out after each performance and so his shade of green was more livid than most and elastic bands were often a feature, replacing broken rusted springs. One day during his New York residency, staying in a Brownstone walk-up in the sweltering humidity of the summer, several creatures were spotted moving about in the saxophone, seemingly enjoying the combination of Guiness residue and the warm damp.
Returning to the UK, he made his home in Deal, Kent but he kept a barge in Little Venice to accommodate him on London dates. Boat maintenance was not high on the list of priorities and he was awoken one day with the news that the boat had sunk along with its generator. Fortunately, he wasn’t on board and he managed to sell the re-floated vessel but, typically, didn’t realise the value of the generator until it was pointed out by pianist Johnny Birch rather too late.
As a retreat he had a modest place in Portugal, shared with his brother, where he enjoyed peace and solitude and a different approach to life, once describing how precious water was in the hot climate, and how any left from washing would go on the plants.
A couple of happy personal memories:
In the mid 80’s, Dick was booked to deputise for Tommy Whittle in a band we had: “Straight Eight”. He maintained he wasn’t a sight reader and asked for the parts and the recording beforehand. On the gig I noticed that he wasn’t even looking at the parts but had the whole thing down. I had one of those “You really must start and get it together moments” as I realised that he knew the music much better than I did. There were a couple of Mick Pine compositions to play with tough harmonic sequences which he negotiated with ease. He also taught me “Bluesology” by Milt Jackson that day, a head that I still play on gigs.
In 1991 we played a quintet gig at the Swanage Jazz Festival and I gained first hand knowledge of his amiable and generous way of putting a set together. The Sonny Rollins composition “Airegin” came up and he described how tough it had been for him, as a young man, to have to follow Tubby Hayes on that sequence. “He went through it like a knife through butter, as if he were just playing the blues”. About an hour later, he sailed through the chords just as he’d described and I began to understand how he’d felt all those years ago.
Dick remained modest about all his achievements, even denying it was him playing tenor on the Ridley-Scott movie “Blade-runner” despite musicians assuring him it was instantly recognisable as him. He eventually remembered and conceded that he had done a session for Vangelis, the composer of the soundtrack.
Great moments in his recording career include a cameo performance in “Dotherboys Hall” in Dankworth’s “What the Dickens!’ suite where he holds his own Tony Coe, Peter King, Bobby Wellins and Tubby Hayes. There is a lovely moment on the LP “Jimmy Witherspoon at the Bulls Head” where the singer (not always the easiest man to please) demands that Dick delivers a second solo on “I got a Girl” to his obvious delight.
Throughout the 90’s, Dick put up a brave fight against the cancer which eventually put him in a wheelchair and took his life at the age of 60. He continued with occasional performances at his local pub in Deal where, making light of his poor health, he would always play with his old fire often with his son Jasper on drums. His final performance was at the Astor Theatre in Deal with the re-formed Morrisey Mullen band. He sent postcards to musicians who had played at his many benefit concerts. One read, in describing his illness “I just can’t seem to shake off this devilish thing”.
Dick was stylistically incredibly flexible. All of his playing seemed to come from the same deep well, be it hard-bop, jazz-rock, funk or pop. His commitment to whatever music he was playing at the time was total and he had an ability to break down barriers and communicate directly to his audiences- he was universally loved. His superb sense of swing, huge sound and ability to make everyone feel good mark him out as one of the finest of players.
Michael Brecker summed it up perfectly:
“Dick had a direct line from the heart to the horn”.
Alan Barnes November 2020
Alan would like to thank Jim Mullen for his help in preparing this article.