Michael Garrick obituary

Pianist and composer at the forefront of British modern jazz since the 1960s

Often capricious, frequently didactic, yet invariably passionate about his music, the jazz pianist and composer Mike Garrick, who has died aged 78 following a heart operation, was at the forefront of British modern jazz from the 1960s to the present. Creatively restless, Garrick allied himself to jazz innovators such as the Jamaican altoist Joe Harriott and to poets with a penchant for jazz, while also building a considerable repertoire of extended orchestral pieces and acting as a tireless proselytiser for jazz in schools. All this, while leading his own small groups and a much-lauded big band.

"It's like a tonic to be in front of a [big] band," he said in 2005. "One feels so grateful for the thing actually happening, knowing that musicians have come because they want to be there." Although The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings described Garrick as "a national treasure", wider recognition eluded him until 2010 when, somewhat belatedly in the view of many, he was appointed MBE.

Garrick's impressive compositional range extended to major choral works and liturgical pieces as well as more conventional big-band scores; his A Zodiac of Angels, a 70-minute work, performed in 1988, combined jazz soloists, a symphony orchestra and chorus, and choreography. It is somehow typical of the man that he was working on a new composition and planning for upcoming concerts while in hospital awaiting surgery.

Garrick was born in Enfield, north London, and became enthused about jazz after hearing boogie-woogie on wartime radio broadcasts. He was largely self-taught, opting after national service to read English literature at University College London, and graduating in 1959. Having already started his first groups while at UCL, he retained an abiding love for England's literature and countryside, often infusing his onstage discourses and his compositions with literary references.

His note for Green and Pleasant Land, a jazz string quartet piece commissioned by the Little Missenden festival in 2002, stated: "My love of England is embodied in Shakespeare, Delius, Keats, Britten and the breathtaking landscapes that still form the greater part of 'this sceptr'd isle'." This perhaps explains why the jazz musician and writer Ken Rattenbury described him as "the JMW Turner of jazz composition". The jazz writer Steve Voce said: "It's not pretentious to describe him as the British Duke Ellington."

Committed to modern jazz, Garrick took a shine to the radical stance evinced by Harriott and also to poetry, helping in 1961 to kickstart Poetry and Jazz in Concert as its music director, improvising at the piano with Harriott and the trumpeter Shake Keane, as Jeremy Robson, Laurie Lee, Adrian  Mitchell, Vernon Scannell, Spike Milligan or John Smith declaimed their poems. He was also a key member of the much-heralded Don Rendell-Ian Carr Quintet, working steadily with this band from 1965 to 1969, their many recordings (lately reissued) notable for Garrick's own quirkily inventive piano and his many compositions, among them Black Marigolds (1966) and Dusk Fire (1965, this title later adopted for his 2010 autobiography).

Always the free-thinker, Garrick formed a sextet in 1966 and used Norma Winstone's voice as a frontline instrument, in harmony with the trumpeter Henry Lowther and saxophonist Art Themen. The vocally adventurous Winstone became an enduring associate, continuing to appear and record with Garrick. This was also the period when he began to compose on a grander scale, starting with his Jazz Praises, a series of religious pieces for his sextet and a large choir, first performed and recorded in St Paul's Cathedral in 1968, with Garrick playing the organ.

Culturally voracious, Garrick, who read widely, became interested in Indian classical music, employing Indian scales and techniques in a number of his compositions. He also channelled his passion for jazz into education, taking his Travelling Jazz Faculty and sextet into schools up and down Britain, running residential summer courses for aspiring players under the auspices of the Guildhall School and his own Jazz Academy, and teaching at the Royal Academy and Trinity College. In 1970, he attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston as a mature student, gaining an open fellowship.

Garrick's polymathic nature and desire to communicate his enthusiasm sometimes led to difficulties; excessively prolix in his bandstand announcements, he could often exasperate, this sometimes obscuring his true worth as a performer. Inspired in part by Ellington and Bill Evans, Garrick never took the easy path; at his best, as shown on releases on his Jazz Academy label, he was a brilliantly intuitive small-group pianist, always sounding like nobody but himself.

More recently, Garrick had continued to compose and to perform regularly in clubs and churches with his big band and small groups. Excited to have met up with the young singer Nette Robinson, he revelled in her pitch-perfect intonation as she interpreted his demanding compositions. Their Lyric Trio (completed by the virtuoso saxophonist Tony Woods) and Garrick's new quartet tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet had seemed set fair to run and run.

Garrick is survived by his sisters Margie and Gwen; his daughter, Jane, from his marriage to Helen; his daughter, Miranda, and son, Rafael (a jazz flamenco guitarist), from his marriage to Ursula; his sons Christian (a jazz violinist), Gabriel (a jazz trumpeter) and Mathias (originally a trombonist and now an audiovisual specialist) from his relationship with his former partner Susie; and nine grandchildren.

Michael Garrick, jazz pianist, organist, bandleader and composer, born 30 May 1933; died 11 November 2011


Peter Vacher

The GuardianTramp

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