Mike Westbrook's Marching Song: jazz looks into the landscape of war
Mike Westbrook’s Marching Song (1969) was the composer-bandleader’s third album for the Deram record label. Recorded with his Concert Band, an ensemble that included many of the finest young musicians on the British jazz scene, Marching Song was originally planned as a double album. The powers-that-were at Decca, however, nixed that idea and it came out as two single LPs. Despite such corporate philistinism, the record stands as a testament to the music of the time but also the capacity of jazz in skilled hands to address complex questions of war and peace within its grooves.
When Marching Song was released at the height of the Vietnam War and, in the USA, it was promoted as “an anti-Vietnam big band symphony”. But it wasn’t inspired or composed with Vietnam in mind at all, though Westbrook was himself opposed to the war in South-East Asia.
“It wasn’t conceived as a statement on Vietnam, but war in general, inspired by a dream, as I recall. My references were European. A US LP version was issued at the time of the original release in the 60s. They’d done their own cover, which I think related it more to Vietnam. I remember a Coke bottle buried in the sand. Needless to say I wasn’t consulted, and never had a copy.”
The dream, Westbrook refers to, was a nightmare about becoming embroiled a terrifying battle but the composer also drew on his own experience of National Service in Germany after World War Two. He had grown up during the war years and the landscape of fifties Britain still bore the scars left by Hitler’s bombers. Clearly, World War Two was one important source of inspiration. At the same time, there are reasons for considering Marching Song in relation to a set of images of war that was and is a legacy of 1914-18.
The record is not the first ‘programme’ work by a British jazz composer but it remains one of the most successful and articulate examples. Its subject is most definitely that of war. Whilst it can be read in terms of a narrative, it can also be seen as a series of pictures of a changing landscape. Westbrook had been a lecturer in fine art and had held ambitions in that direction. For a number of reasons, a commitment to an even more unpredictable career in jazz proved more attractive but the visual sense of a painter informs Marching Song throughout its 90 minute length.
Many of the images we associate with World War One involve landscape. In fact, arguably the most astonishing and disturbing paintings of the war came from Paul Nash, whose We Are Making a New World (1918) and The Menin Road (1918–19) do much to convey the horror by revealing the obliteration of all life – human, animal and plant.A similar concern with the natural environment, despoiled and ravaged, is evident in Marching Song.
Two photographs from 1914-18 appear on the back covers of the two volumes of Marching Song. The first of these is of mangled and broken war wagons foregrounding the explosions of shells and bombs. The second is of patriotic German crowds in front of the Brandenburg Gate. As to the track titles themselves, several refer directly to landscape as the theatre of war – ‘Landscape I’, ‘Landscape II’, ‘Other World’ and saxophonist John Surman’s ‘Tarnished’. This is further underscored by Westbrook’s own written commentary,
“Landscape: here the conflict will take place. But human events are no more than momentary interruptions in the earth’s cycle.”
“When the soldier moves into the landscape, he is a being from another world. To him the landscape is a strange and disturbing place, full of sights and sounds he cannot understand, of unseen forces and unknown dangers....The landscape is an arena....”
And in relation to ‘Tarnished’,
“And death is not the heroic gesture, but a protracted, ignoble struggle to hold onto life. The hands clutch, bodies twitch and go limp. How can anything grow again, here?”
The syntax is crucial with its emphasis on the word ‘here’, which once more positions us in that landscape. The notes continue,
“How can men forget? Tidy it up with a slab of stone, a flower wreath, a row of ribbons on a cripple’s chest.”
Everything about Marching Song seems right somehow. Volume I features just six tracks, including the eerily beautiful ‘Landscape I’ with its long piano introduction by Westbrook, the alien and unearthly ‘Other World’ with its extreme, spluttering trombone solo from Paul Rutherford and the title track itself, of which more shortly. By contrast, Volume II has eleven tracks.
The sheer brevity of some of these pieces adds to the feeling of events acquiring an impetus of their own and, at times, one senses the fatalism of the protagonists individually and collectively. In contrast, the longer segments mimic the periods of quiet boredom between actions, whilst the shorter ones recall their dramatic opposite where hostilities resume. In one, time is suspended and some perverse normality returns with thoughts of home, the latter exemplified by ‘Home’ and the beautiful, Ellingtonian ballad, ‘Rosie’. In the other, time is compacted and a single moment is filled with a thousand fleeting, horrifying incidents.
For much of Marching Song, Westbrook uses two bassists and two drummers. This does more than create a feeling of martial momentum. It imitates the sounds of battle and the physical shock of gun, mortar and canon. Volume I closes with the title track, the maelstrom of war in which individuals surrender themselves to the machine. Westbrook’s achievement, aided it must be added by multi-instrumentalist John Surman and producer Peter Eden, is a very conscious one without being in any sense mechanistic. Diverse sources of inspiration combine but are expressed within what is almost a play-like construction, which anticipates the music theatre productions the composer would pioneer with wife Kate Westbrook. As he has noted of the work and its subsequent performances,
“It may sound ridiculous to say this but it felt more like being immersed in the conflict. There’s nothing retrospective about mass improvisation. The Army, the bombed-out ruins of German cities, the landscapes of war fed my imagination, along with Brecht and Schweik and childhood memories of wartime. Isn’t that what Art does - allow one to experience things for real?”
If two tracks stand out on this record, they are surely ‘Marching Song’ itself and ‘Conflict’. The former closes the first volume, whilst the latter finds centre stage on the second. ‘Marching Song’ evokes the maelstrom of war in which individuals surrender themselves to the machine. As Westbrook notes, “Individually, they count for nothing.” And, “Some struggle free, only to lose themselves in the crowd as the reality of war becomes apparent.” Here, the tenor saxophones of George Khan and Alan Skidmore represent the individual’s desire to escape but, like these voices of dissent, both are ultimately swamped by the orchestra’s overwhelming force.
Once again, there is throughout Marching Song a sense that the battle and the war represents not just a crime against human life but against nature. These armies are an alien presence in the environment and are about to inflict a violence upon it against which it cannot defend in the short term. In one way, it is the sense that this is an alien incursion that conveys a message of hope. As Westbrook notes, these events are just ‘momentary interruptions in the earth’s cycle.’ As already suggested, landscape offers a key to understanding this complex work.
In fact, the title track finds a visual echo in another painting from World War One, this time Column On The March by C.W.R. Nevinson. In its dark blues and greys, the painting portrays an infantry column, packed tightly together and completely occupying the landscape. Its technique owes something to Futurism and it offers a horrifying rather than uplifting spectacle of the degradation of the individual subject. As in Marching Song, the citizen has become simply part of a great fighting machine.
The critic and poet Chris Searle has described ‘Conflict’ as a ‘monstrous artillery passage’ of ‘nearly eleven minutes of agonising ensemble sound, unremitting sonic violence and pain that is unique in the canon of jazz.” It features a bravura performance by tuba player George Smith that, paradoxically, gives the piece an unusual human essence with its strange, pitiful and mammalian cries. It proffers a question and one the military machine can never answer, ‘Why?’
There is beautyand calmness on Marching Song too. Such moments lend the work an even greater gravity and dramatic contrast. It is left to John Surman’s ‘Tarnished’ to bring home the wounded and bury the dead. There is a beauty in the sadness found here in Westbrook’s all-too-brief piano interlude before a raucous and bitterly ironic ‘Memorial’ brings an abrupt end to the album.
Westbrook would go on to write even greater compositions. In fact, Westbrook with partner Kate would reference the First World War directly in the ‘Picardie’ section of the even more masterly, London Bridge is Broken Down. But Marching Song proved the composer’s talent and was his first completely satisfying work. It makes its point without being didactic or doctrinaire. Angry but compassionate, it never abdicates its sense of responsibility to its subject or its audience. It asks us to look into that landscape of war and see it for what it was, what we have made of it but also what it could be.
A longer version of this article will shortly appear in the Winter Issue of Popular Music History.
Note: Mike Westbrook, Kate Westbrook, John Surman and Chris Searle are all signatories to the No Glory Open Letter.