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1986 – That Night in Belgrade

This is the latest chapter in my musical autobography. You can read the whole story following the link above on the left.

That night in Belgrade.
Back in 1986 I got the chance to take my quartet on tour in what was then called Yugoslavia, with support from the British Council, who in those days were still willing to promote British Jazz around the World.
A year before I had written the preliminary letters to the State organizations and sent tapes from our BBC Radio sessions, and they had responded saying that they were willing to put us on at some of their festivals if we could get some funding from the British Government.
It turned out that in the same week in October of that year, there were the major jazz festivals in Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Serbia.
I had taken the quartet to Hungary in 1985 and I kept the same line-up for this tour, with Ed Speight on guitar, Olly Blanchflower on double bass, and Malcolm Ball on drums. Stylistically I was moving away from the more open moments, as seen in Other Storeys, and was writing shorter tunes with more jazz rock- Canterbury influence, and making ever more use of the soprano saxophone.
We rehearsed in Greenwich. This was when the riverside area was still pretty down-market; in fact, in places, it was positively squalid, but the rehearsal room, which overlooked the Thames, was well equipped and convenient. These pictures were taken outside.

Back in 1986 Yugoslavia had no motorways, and the best way to get from one city to the next, in time to play on consecutive days, was to travel by plane. There were, it seemed, daily flights between the cities, and these internal flights were always early in the morning. In order to check in the instruments, we needed to be at the airport usually a couple of hours before take-off so this was the tour of the early morning calls: very early morning calls. On arriving we needed to check in at the hotel and usually there was little time, if any, to rest, before going to the venue for the sound check. I don’t know how my colleagues managed but by the end of the tour I was suffering from a serious lack of sleep.
This was life on the road, and of course, as a musician I was used to it. But I was less used to it as band leader. We didn’t have a road manager thinking about every detail. After landing in the new town, we would of course be met by someone from the local organization. The nice thing about being a sideman on tour is that you only have to think about playing, eating and sleeping. Here I had to be conscious, responsible, and even chatty, most of the time.
Here is the tour schedule and you can see that after a fairly easy start it gets a bit intense towards the end.
Monday 20 October Flight London to Zagreb.
Tuesday 21 October Concert in Zagreb
Wednesday 22 October – Free day
Thursday 23 October Bus to Ljubljana – Concert in Ljubljana
Friday 24 October Plane to Skopje- Concert in Skopje
Saturday 25 October Plane to Belgrade. Concert in Belgrade.
Sunday 26 October. Flights- Belgrade-Zagreb. Zagreb – London.
The night after our gig in Zagreb we were out of the theatre by about ten p.m. and looking for a restaurant. Everything was closed apart from some really seedy looking places where they wanted dollars and the meals came complete with hostesses.
We wandered around the Croatian capital looking for something to eat, and eventually got to the main railway station where there was a greasy burger bar. That was our dinner. On the wall behind the man flipping the burgers was a photo of Marshall Tito. Ed remarked, in a voice that I felt was a little too loud “I’ll have a Tito-burger”. I was horrified that the chef might take offence. but it seemed he wasn’t listening.
It was on this occasion that Ed Speight offered me a piece of wisdom that I have kept with me all my life. “First rule of the road – Eat while you can.” An excellent rule, but possibly more applicable to a jobbing back-line musician than to a front man. Also, getting older, one’s stomach starts to need more time to digest. In recent years (writing in 2023) I have occasionally forgone a big meal pre-concert and played on an empty stomach, only to grab a sandwich afterwards.
The Wednesday night, after our only free day, our appointed driver took us to a restaurant out of town, possibly run by relations of his . We had a fantastic meal, consisting mostly of grilled meats, and we paid very, very little.
There was a problem waiting to kick in. My Selmer Mark Six soprano saxophone, at some point during the tour – about halfway, started to have problems. It seemed to have taken a knock and I really don’t know how or where. The funny thing was the problem was gradually getting worse! – As if the instrument was slowly bending! – As if the tension in the rods was too much for the body and was pulling it round. I used it in Zagreb and Ljubljana but for Skopje and Belgrade it was out of the question.
I remember being driven around Belgrade on the Saturday afternoon by one of our local organizers, desperately searching for an instrument repair man. But that afternoon there were no instrument repairers available in the Serbian capital.
Like I said earlier, the repertoire I had been developing had been very dependent on the Soprano sax. So now I found myself short of material. I think maybe one of the pieces could be adapted to the alto sax but the rest couldn’t. There was, of course, the option of filling the set out with some jazz standards, but at that time I wasn’t much of a standards player. I taught standards in my evening classes of course, but rarely performed them on my own gigs, and had never played standards with this band. Also, my personal repertoire didn’t really mix well with standards.
So, I was tired, slightly disorientated by having to adapt the set, and the instrument I had been relying on most was now unavailable.
Belgrade was a weird gig.
I got the impression we had been stuffed into an already full festival program. Someone had thought, “This band is here, and the Brits are paying for them, so let’s put them somewhere.” They used us as an opening act to what was essentially a jam session. And I seem to recall the organizers of the event were, not exactly hostile, but a little cold, in that we seemed to be holding up their fun.
Miles Davis was playing Belgrade that night and before our performance we were kindly driven to the big hall where he was performing. (I think we saw Miles before we played our gig, but it may have been afterwards.) This was the band with Robben Ford on guitar and Bob Berg on sax. I can remember really enjoying a couple of beautiful solos by Berg, who for some reason was wearing a long leather coat on stage. Ford was a little too rock for my tastes. And Miles? I can remember him playing some chords on a keyboard he had for his personal use on stage, and I can remember them having an almost endless delay that got in the way of the music and…I don’t remember much else because I fell asleep. The hall was full, all the seats were taken, so we were sitting on the floor at the front between the seats and the band- right on front of the band, and I just nodded off. So, I can’t really say if I appreciated the great man or not. The lack of sleep accumulated during the week finally took its toll. We were escorted out before Miles finished his set, as it was time for us to go to work. (I think that’s how it went.)
So, the only time in my life I got to see Miles Davis live, and had a place right up front, really close to the band, I fell asleep. I’m not proud of it, but that’s what happened.
Overall, I think we generally played well during the tour, and I remember having a good feeling about our gigs in Zagreb and Skopje, but also feeling relieved when we finished our set in Belgrade.