Paul Rutherford Tribute



            In a year which saw the deaths of many great jazz musicians, one of the most poignant was that of trombonist Paul Rutherford. He had technical skill in abundance, pioneering the use of multiphonics and vocalised techniques on the instrument. Not only this, but he was extremely versatile: he could be heard in context as wide ranging as the Globe Unity and London Jazz Composer’s Orchestras, the Mike Westbrook Concert Band, rhythm and blues band The Detroit Spinners, and, for a short time, prog/jazz-rock band Soft Machine, as well as numerous other large and small groups. He was equally at home playing blues, jazz-rock, straight-ahead jazz, big band music, and free improvisation, although he increasingly came to concentrate on the latter as the main focus of his musical energies (“I still love playing music in an orchestra, but really my love is just to get on stage and flick the bugle, you know,” he told the American online magazine All About Jazz, in a wryly deadpan style).

            A founder member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1966, he was blessed with a seemingly endless inventiveness. “Of all the players,” Derek Bailey told his biographer Ben Waston, Rutherford “could produce genuine surprises. If anybody at that point qualified to be called a free player, it was Paul.” In contrast to some other improvisers, who tended to prepare some sort of sketch, some mental plan before they went performed, Rutherford claimed that “I want to go out not knowing what will happen, just getting onto the platform and playing. It will happen anyway.” Perhaps the purest example of the free-improvising ethos around.

I mentioned that his loss was a particularly poignant one, and this is why. Though he was a busy man in the 70s and 80s, work dried up towards the end of his life, though he appeared fairly regularly in gigs at the Red Rose in London (including the 2007 Freedom of the City festival, his last public appearance). In a way, what’s sadder than the fact that he’s died is the fact that, despite being one of the foremost free improvisers on the scene, of the same calibre as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and the like, he was unable to get regular work in the last few years of his life, leaving him depressed and struggling.

The All about Jazz interview I’ve quoted from before found him in a particular pessimistic frame of mind: “I just get so depressed about it—Christ, I know how good I am, but it doesn’t do me any good money-wise. I’m in the worst economic situation now that I’ve been in my life. There are things you take for granted—sometimes I go out for an Indian meal, and I know it sounds silly, but I can’t even think about that now. Inviting a lady out for a drink or a meal is totally out of the question—I can’t afford it. Simple as that. I’m on pension now—I’m 66 years old—and I’m having trouble with the pension. I’m seriously, seriously depressed and I’m just looking forward to getting to the States.”

Not exactly a happy way in which to remember him, but then again, there’s no point in sugaring the pill. Improvised music has never found much of an audience in Britain, and, beyond a small group of devoted fans, is never likely to find much financial support, so musicians whose beliefs lead them to commit themselves to such non-commercially viable work are not in for an easy ride.

Still, there are many good things to remember too. Following is a selection of reminiscences, by people who knew and worked with Paul Rutherford. As will be seen, he was valued not only for his musical contributions, but for his personality, his wit, kindness, charm, and dogged commitment. Over, then, to Paul’s friends and colleagues.

(Note: an article about the memorial concert give at the Red Rose in London can be found in the gig reviews section of the magazine.)


Trevor Watts

Improvising musician (mainly alto sax); one of the founder members of the SME


My association with Paul started when we both met at the RAF School of Music in Uxbridge in 1958. That’s how long I knew him. I agree that he was under rated, but then we all are under rated to be honest in this country. Promoters’ eyes are always looking elsewhere.

There’s a lack of an open attitude to music [where] the content…is not dictated to by pressure from elsewhere. That’s why I play a music that is hard to classify for most, but they all manage to put it in some bag or other according to their narrow view of music. Doesn’t matter what the music is, it’s got to have passion, involvement and creativity amongst other things. I don’t feel that free form musicians have more of this than others. Some do, some don’t. There’s other musicians of other persuasions that have all these assets, but people into that music wouldn’t like because of what they normally do. Like for instance Peter Knight of Steeleye Span. But when Pete & I improvised together it was always a good experience for us both, and there’s some evidence to bear in a new recording that’ll come out on Hi4Head, which is a live improv gig and nothing else. The music gels for the whole hour we play because we’re both flexible enough to let the music happen in the middle and not where it could be perhaps more comfortable for one or the other. So trust was there, which to me is another major factor.

Well I’m not sure what anecdotes to tell about Paul. A lot of them are half remembered. There was one time when we were still in the RAF Band, but this time based at RAF Cosford. That’s where they now have athletics in the hanger where we used to do band practice. I bet you can see it now: Paul Rutherford, John Stevens & I marching up & down in our nice uniforms. Anyway we were to do a job in Belfast and we had a mutual Southern Irish friend who came from Dublin. His name was Paddy of course. So after the gig we went by train to Dublin and stayed in our friend’s parents’ house on a working class housing estate and went to the local working mens club. You can imagine in those days the IRA was till pretty active and whilst we were having a drink Paul stood up and said “Here’s to the Queen”. Well you could hear a pin drop for a moment, until he turned the whole thing around and let people know that basically it was a wind up, so he didn’t mind the odd risk or two, just like his trombone playing. Also as you know, Paul was a dedicated Communist of the old school all his life, as was his Father, who I also knew. That wasn’t the only thing he took from his Father. He loved his drink just as much and his Dad was ALWAYS propping up the bar in his local in Blackheath, and we’d both go in and have a drink and natter together.

Other little story was that when we got out of the Air Force in 1963 Paul & I used to get together a lot and work and develop ideas in his parents’ house in Blackheath, some of which were to be part of the very first Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s recording “Challenge”. And I remember on one occasion I went over to his house at a pre-arranged time, and he stood at the door and said “Do you mind if we don’t do anything today Trevor as I don’t feel like seeing anyone today”, and that was measure of how depression could get hold of him. The fact that I went all the way over there couldn’t even be part of the equation, and I’d known Paul for 5 years by then, so I accepted it. I think he suffered from time to time through this depression, the drink didn’t help, and none of it helped his relationships with women. Getting lost in the music was always a bit of relief for him.

Also when we were in the Air Force in Cologne Paul would be the first person to go out and buy the latest John Coltrane recording fresh off the press, and we’d all sit around and check it out. By all, I mean John Stevens, Paul & myself in the main, not everybody was into that music.



Improvising musician: piano, electronics, and miscellaneous instruments.


Without wanting to make it sound boring, what was important was his devotion to playing, more than theatrics. Of course, with this type of music, you’re a composer as well as an improviser; organisation is a big part, and with Paul it was very much about how you organise music. Everything was devoted to that. There wasn’t any theatrical aspect to it: he was just interested in making music devoid of clichés. Of course, to some extent we all fall back on clichés, but Paul was brilliant at avoiding these, at avoiding those things that sounded clever but weren’t really, and that was really inspiring.

He was a sweet, gentle guy, very funny, and very set in his political views. The music and the politics were separate, though: he would have played the same music whatever his political views. It was interesting at his funeral to see that his political friends and colleagues were actually quite shocked at the avant-garde music.

His politics was quite old-fashioned: if we’d sat down and discussed what he thought of Stalin we would have probably had a massive argument…but we never did!



Improvising pianist.


Paul was a very sweet person to be with and a very committed socialist. As well as being a groundbreaking solo improviser on the trombone, he was an inspiring musician to play with and always to listen to. This country is very good at grinding artists down in to isolation and hopelessness, and Paul, amongst other friends, was a victim of this social and cultural irresponsibility. However, his music WILL live on and inspire others to be creative musicians.



Pianist, composer, arranger, and big-band leader. (Note – The following was originally printed in ‘The Smith’s Academy Informer’ (Issue, 80, 2007), a quarterly journal with information about all Westbrook projects, tours & recordings. More information online, at:


I first met Paul in the mid-60s at The Old Place and The Little Theatre Club in London. We worked together until the late 70s. As well as various small groups, he was a member of my Concert Band, where he formed a great trombone partnership with Malcolm Griffiths, and of my larger Orchestra. He was a major soloist on such albums as Release, Marching Song and Metropolis.
            When I formed a street band, The Brass Band, around ’73/’74, Paul was one of the first to join. The approach of that group was basically to play whatever any member wanted to play, when and where anyone asked us to play. This was liberating, musically and politically. The Brass Band gave space for all the talents of those involved. This suited Paul who, while already established as one of the major improvisers on the scene, had many other talents and interests.

He enjoyed playing New Orleans numbers, arranging Renaissance pieces for the band, declaiming William Blake’s poetry and singing Brecht songs, as well as writing nonsense lyrics and generally exploiting the comic possibilities in any situation. Paul, one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever worked with, was also one of the funniest. With Paul, the seriousness and the jokes were just sides of the same coin. The musician who could move you to tears with the beauty of his playing one minute was the clown who could reduce you to helpless laughter the next. A truly  Brechtian juxtaposition of High Art and Low Comedy. This duality, this interleaving of opposites was always present in his playing. He had the ability to play within the structure of the material, while yet taking it somewhere else altogether. A simple example – when he soloed on Creole Love Call with the Big Band, he was playing both inside and outside the Blues. And however far things went, Paul could always take them further out.

Those early years with the Brass Band seem like a Golden Age of travelling and playing all kinds of music, in all kinds of situations all over Europe. In that time we became very close friends, Phil Minton, Kate Westbrook, Dave Chambers, Paul, and I. Memories come crowding back of our many adventures, musical and geographical. One day maybe the full story will be told of what someone once described as our ‘Wandering Everyman Troupe’.
            Eventually things changed. Whether as a result of outside political and cultural forces, or inevitable developments in the music, the scene became polarised.  Where it had been possible for musicians from different backgrounds and with different approaches to march together under the same banner, now people started putting down boundaries.  The implication was that “While all musicians are free, some musicians are definitely freer than others”- to misquote George Orwell.  When Paul decided to leave it was partly a natural move to concentrate on his solo career.  But, as he explained at the time, it was also a response to pressure from those hard-liners who maintained that his credibility as an improvising musician was being compromised by his membership of the Brass Band. Given this dilemma, Paul made the only possible choice .And it was the right choice as his artistic achievement and international recognition testify. Sadly we seldom met again. As often seems the case with bands, when you’ve been very close but there’s nothing left to play, there’s little left to say.
            I’m grateful to have known Paul and worked with him through such an exciting and creative period. It was a time of hope, when all seemed possible. Latterly when idealism gave way to pragmatism we were all in trouble. Some of Paul’s contemporaries found ways of adjusting to the changing scene. The path that Paul had chosen didn’t include a contingency plan.

On tour I remember Paul not only as a wonderful trombonist and euphonium player but a warm and generous friend, full of wicked good humour, and an excellent drinking companion. As things got more difficult, however, in more recent times the jokes became bitter. And the drink nearly killed him in 2000. He pulled through, and when Kate and I saw him at his benefit gig at the 100 Club and talked a bit about old times, he was frail but just the same Paul as ever was. Soon he was back travelling and playing. But these are cruel times for the creative artist, and with ever diminishing opportunities a sense of hopelessness can easily take over. There was no turning back for Paul, nothing to fall back on. He risked everything to be free. And his life, cut off too short as it was, was yet a triumph of the creative spirit.

Paul Rutherford changed music and changed lives for ever. I know he changed and enriched mine. Rest in Peace.

I’ll leave the last word to Kate Westbrook, who briefly spoke about Paul when interviewed after The Village Band’s concert last year (see main feature: interview with Kate and Mike Westbrook). She recalled a time when the Brass Band played at a home for mentally disturbed children. One child became particularly attached to Paul, and would follow him wherever he went. Of course, she was heartbroken when he had to leave. An example of his great personal charm, and his ability to break through musical and emotional barriers, and reach across to the listener – a quality that appealed to a child as much as it did to the most extreme followers of avant-garde music.

After telling the anecdote, Kate Westbrook said: “Don’t make it sentimental. Paul wouldn’t want that.” I hope I’ve managed to do so.


With thanks to all the musicians who contributed their memories of Paul Rutherford.




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