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Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Tony Oxley (1938 - 2023)

Tony Oxley. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

By Martin Schray

Once the Jost Gebers, the man behind the seminal record label FMP, and Tony Oxley wanted to take Oxley’s drum equipment in a Volkswagen bus from West to East Berlin. At the GDR border a guard was checking them and was puzzled over what strange stuff was being transported. Gebers explained to him that Oxley was a drummer. When the border guard then found a violin, the matter was clear to him. Oxley had to be a musical clown. Now Tony Oxley, who was anything but a clown, and rather a phenomenal sound researcher, percussionist, violinist and electronic musician, has died after being sick for a long time.

Oxley was born in Sheffield and taught himself to play the drums. When he was drafted into the British army, he became a percussionist in the military orchestra. While serving, Oxley was able to travel to the United States where he heard jazz greats, such as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Philly Joe Jones live. To see these people live was a life-changing experience. Back home in Sheffield, he formed a jazz combo, which he led for three years. In 1963, he had another decisive encounter: He met guitarist Derek Bailey, who was living just around the corner. “A once in a century coincidence,“ as Oxley described the meeting to the German music journalist Bert Noglik . With bassist Gavin Bryars they formed a trio called Joseph Holbrooke (the band was named after a long-deceased British composer). The group started out playing jazz standards, but quickly evolved into other kinds of music, driven by the interests of the three. Bryars was interested in avant-garde classical composers, Oxley in the more radical players in contemporary jazz and Bailey in both. Improvised music was the common denominator that kept the trio going. It was music virtually unknown in England or elsewhere in Europe at the time. According to Oxley and Bailey the music developed virtually out of itself in the course of Joseph Holbrooke’s playing. In 1967 Oxley moved to London. Before long he had established himself as the house drummer at one of the city’s most popular jazz clubs: Ronnie Scott’s. Although Oxley had already moved beyond traditional jazz in his own music, he enjoyed performing with the players who had helped invent jazz - legends such as Ben Webster, Joe Hendeson, Stan Getz, and Bill Evans. Thus, he developed a distinctive rhythmic style. He was able to play time in form of polyrhythmic beats, without losing the original groove, just to pick it up later on. For many musicians he was a real challenge.

Oxley’s work at Ronnie Scott’s had given him a solid reputation as a jazz drummer although he had already connected to the freely improvised scene. In 1969, he performed on John McLaughlin’s first LP Extrapolation, and as a member of Miles Davis’s band the guitarist was already up and coming. His connection to him might have been the reason why Oxley was offered a recording contract by CBS and he was able to release The Baptised Traveller, which featured members of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Evan Parker on saxophone, Derek Bailey on guitar, Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, and Jeff Clyne on bass. The result was a vision of the future of jazz, hardly heard at that time. Oxley’s band even managed to make another record for CBS, Four Compositions For Sextet , Paul Rutherford on trombone augmented them. Commercially the albums were not successful, no wonder CBS sacked him.

Yet, Oxley was on the safe side as to money because of his engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, but in general improvised music in Great Britain didn’t do well. It was hardly possible for the musicians to find gigs, media and record labels simply ignored it. This was the reason why Oxley co-founded the Musicians Cooperative with Bailey, Parker and several other musicians in 1970. Another move was to start Incus Records, an independent artist-owned record label, with Evan Parker and Derek Bailey. Finally, the musicians were able to document their music, to release and distribute their albums without being dependent on the big majors.

But most of all, Oxley became the drummer who was so influential for future generations when he decided to expand his drum kit. He started to experiment with various forms of amplification and electronic devices such as ring modulators, for example. He especially liked to use them on the foreign objects he had incorporated into the kit: bowls, pieces of wire, screws, and other metal objects that were able to create a wide range of pure sounds. His already unique rhythmic style was linked to a new sound universe. From that moment on no one sounded like Tony Oxley.

As to music two more meetings were important in Toney Oxley’s life: The one with the painter Alan Davie, who gave him his first violin. Oxley was immediately interested in the rhythmic possibilities of the instrument (not the melodic ones, again typically Oxley) and so he decided working with string ensembles of all kinds. The other one was Oxley’s encounter with Cecil Taylor. He met him when the pianist had an FMP residence in Berlin during the summer of 1988. He played with him as a duo, with William Parker in the Feel Trio, and in the 17-piece Cecil Taylor European Orchestra. What is more, Taylor introduced him to Bill Dixon, with whom he also recorded several albums for the Italian Soul Note label. Oxley became Taylor’s favourite partner for the rest of the pianist’s life.

Tony Oxley oeuvre is so huge and various, it’s hard to give recommendations. His early recordings are certainly important landmarks for the development of European free jazz. The Baptised Traveller (CBS, 1969) and Ichnos (RCA Victor, 1971) with the same band, only that Barry Guy has replaced Jeff Clyne, are just spectacular. Tony Oxley (Incus, 1975) - also with the same collaborators (but Dave Holzworth is on bass and Howard Riley on piano) - must also be mentioned. Oxley’s trio with Riley and Barry Guy is definitely recommendable, for example Synopsis (Eminem, 1974). His work with Cecil Taylor is well-documented and almost all the releases are excellent. Above all, the first Feel Trio album, Looking (FMP 1990), with William Parker on bass is outstanding, possibly one of the best free music recordings ever made and one I hold especially dearly. As a duo the two developed a breathtaking energy, just listen to Leaf Palm Hand (FMP, 1989) and Ailanthus / Altissima: Bilateral Dimensions Of 2 Root Songs (Triple Point Records, 2009). Personal favorites of mine are his albums on Soul Note with Bill Dixon (trumpet), Barry Guy and William Parker on bass - Vade Mecum Iand II (1994 and 96).

“I consider myself more a percussionist, in contrast to a jazz drummer who keeps time“, Oxley told Bert Noglik in the aforementioned interview. “In the new improvised music, a percussionist can interrupt the flow of his playing without affecting the nature of his relationship to the other players.“ Should St. Peter have checked Tony Oxley at the gates of heaven and the drummer had his stuff with him, he will surely not have taken him for a clown, but for what he is: one of the greatest drummers of the last 60 years. The jazz band in heaven can look forward to him.

Annotation: parts of this obituary are based on a text by Gerald E. Brennan on Tony Oxley

Watch Mr. Oxley play:


Stef said...

Sad news and again a great obituary, Martin! Thanks for this excellent overview of a great artist's life. I concur with you about The Feel Trio and Vademecum I&II ... also on my top list of Oxley albums.

Yardbird said...

When John McLaughlin recorded Extrapolation he was still in the UK and had no connection with Miles as far as I can recall.
I imagine the CBS deal came about because the label was receptive to modern British Jazz at the time, Howard Riley,Frank Ricotti & Ray Russell been other beneficiaries

Colin Green said...

Very sad news indeed. So many of that generation seem to have passed this year.

@Yardbird, I think you’re right on both points. My understanding is that it was an enthusiast for the music at CBS UK who was responsible for persuading the label to record Oxley and others.

As for the RCA album, “Ichnos” (1971), and the Incus album “Tony Oxley” (1975), these were never released on CD. In the case of Incus, this was because at that time they either discarded or taped over their master tapes on the footing that no further LP pressings would be necessary, difficult as that is to believe. I think this also accounts for the fact that the first Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton trio recording, “Tracks” (1983) didn’t make it to CD.

Ernst Grgo Nebhuth said...

Oh no! He was such kind person on top of being a phenomenal musician.
First time I saw him was at FMP's 1999 edition of the Total Music Meeting. He was the drummer for Bill Dixon's quartet. Next concert I'd experienced with Tony was in a duo with Cecil Taylor in Berlin again. Oxley was constantly smiling during the concert. Afterwards Cecil Taylor kissed the Bösendorfer and both left the stage with Tony still smiling.

BTW - for Tony Oxley the music on McLaughlin's Extrapolation was rather "Pop" as he told a.o. his biographer Ulrich Kurth in the book 'The 4th Quarter of the Triad'.

[just a hint - it's Dave Holdsworth the trumpet player on Oxley's self-titled LP (Incus 8) not a bassist Dave Holzworth] > please feel free to discard this hint of mine!

Anonymous said...

farewell golden jazz age never to return again.
the probably most outstanding british percussionist is gone
(sorry phil seamen, john stevens, eddie prevost, steve noble, alan jackson etc.)
his unbelievable relaxed manner to execute the most complex and delicate sounds is unmatched.
a very friendly gentle man he was.
this is from the golden age of free creative music:


Stef said...

@Yardbird - You're right: Extrapolation was recorded on January 16, 1969 and Miles Davis' 'In A Silent Way" one month later on February 18, 1969. On McLaughlin's website it says: "In February 1969, guitarist John McLaughlin moved from Yorkshire, England, to New York City to play in a band called Lifetime (later better known as Tony Williams' Lifetime). Days into his stay, he met Miles Davis and found himself in CBS’s 30th Street Studio laying down tracks that would end up on Davis’s seminal album In a Silent Way".

Anonymous said...

What an sad....
I saw a truly interesting video (i think half an hour or maybe more) on YouTube about a year or two ago.
Rather High-res DVD quality of some sort of rehearsal of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra with Tony Oxley and Paul Lytton on drums in the early/mid 70s. It's been removed from YouTube and i can't find it anywhere. Anybody here knows anything about it?

Anonymous said...

ben young is hosting a zoom meeting every thursday.
today there will be something which most likely sounds like film footage
with the LJCO with tony oxley from the berlin jazz days 1972. probably that is
the now deleted material you found on ebay.

not sure if it works:

ben told me, all the zoom meetings he did so far finally to be seen in an online
archive in the nearer future.


Anonymous said...

if the zoom file doesn´t work, this is ben young´s contact:


John G said...

I studied drums under Tony Oxley for 2 years in Sheffield in the 60s before he left to move to London. He came with me and my parents and chose my Rogers drum kit for me. One day he arranged for me to play alongside Bunny Thompson (piano) and Gavin Bryars (bass) in his house on Abbeydale Road in Sheffield. After I got my kit he would come to my house each week to give me my lesson. My Dad used to take me to the Grapes pub in Sheffield to see his gigs there. On one occasion he toured alongside Ronnie Scott, Blossom Dearie, Ben Webster, Stan Tracy and others and personally introduced me to Ronnie Scott & Ben Webster (quite inspiring to a young teenager). Such sad news he’s left us. I have such great memories.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot
I've sent an email to Ben!
I really like to know who uploaded that film footage.
Thank you