Conrad Cork
May 24, 2021

I was very sorry to learn of the death at the end of April of Conrad Cork, who was a close friend and colleague for many years though we had become estranged for some time, something that I deeply regret. He was a terrific jazz saxophonist and immensely knowledgeable about all areas of jazz and its history and is perhaps chiefly remembered in that field for his highly original and pioneering work as a jazz teacher.

I was introduced to Conrad in 1981 by Oliver Bennett, who was Head of Arts Administration in the Performing Arts department at the, then, Leicester Polytechnic, where I was Head of Music (and later Professor). Oliver and I were also opening batsmen in the staff cricket team. He was having tenor sax lessons with Conrad and mentioned that I was looking for a sax player for a project. Conrad and I met and got on well, and we found that we had many things in common, especially in the ways that we had each removed ourselves from jazz and improvised music, for different reasons, in the past.

The project was for a concert by staff and students in the music department. It included a number of pieces by Harold Budd. I had been involved in recordings of Harold’s music for Brian Eno’s Obscure Records, an album called The Pavilion of Dreams. One of the pieces we recorded featured the American jazz alto sax Marion Brown in Harold’s Bismillahi ‘Rrahman ‘Rrahim and, although he was very nervous about playing in public again, Conrad agreed to perform it in the concert and it was a big success.

From then on, we spent more and more time together, often in the music studio of his house in Thurmaston, listening to mostly to jazz of all kinds and we became close friends. We would meander through a whole range of jazz from different times and of different genres – I remember, for example, hearing Carla Bley’s Musique Mécanique for the first time there. Eventually we overcame our respective hang ups about jazz and began to play together as a duo – alto sax and bass. The first time we played publicly was in the corridor outside the entrance to the small theatre at the Scraptoft campus where the department was located. One of the theatre students, Mandy White, directed a production of Letters Home, a play that consisted of readings of poems by Sylvia Plath. Conrad and I played jazz repertoire from that period, mid-fifties to early sixties, chiefly music by Gerry Mulligan, as his piano-less quartet suited this pared down ensemble.

After that we started to play together more and more, eventually with the addition of drummer John Runcie who was a lecturer at Leicester University and who was a very subtle and musical player and, importantly, very alert to the often understated nuances for such an austere line up. Conrad gave the trio the name Nardis, a tune by Miles Davis that we had in our repertoire, and one that Bill Evans had recorded on the famous last date with the trio that included Scott LaFaro. We also played songs by Charlie Haden, and especially material from some of his various duo recordings (with Hampton Hawes, Paul Motian, Ornette Coleman, Carla Bley, Alice Coltrane…) and material from the People Liberation Music Orchestra. One of our regular venues was in the basement of Blackthorn Books, run by Alan Ross, himself a serious jazz scholar. In one memorable gig there, probably in 1990, we played in the club in the presence of Carolyn Cassady, widow of Neal Cassady and friend of Kerouac and Ginsberg, who did a signing in the bookshop for her book about her life with beat writers. For this we reverted to our 50s repertoire: Gerry Mulligan’s Walking Shoes, Bernie’s Tune etc… After gigs we would usually eat Indian food at our favourite restaurant Curry Fever, run by the brothers Sunil and Anil Anand and one of the best among the many fine Indian restaurants in Leicester. The Anand brothers also handled the catering for Conrad and Alison’s wedding. …and I was an occasional member of the Curry Fever cricket team in an indoor 8-a-side league…

When we first met he worked in the computer services department of the polytechnic, but I managed to extricate him and create work for him as jazz teacher in  the music department. He was a phenomenally good teacher and someone who developed resources and material specifically for the individual student. More and more he immersed himself in the work of the department and took part in other staff/student concerts. Perhaps the most notable of these was what became the Leicester Bley Band. I had known Carla Bley for a while and, incredibly, she gave me a full set of scores and parts from her band of the late 1970s/early 1980s for us to play. The band had three members of staff – me, Conrad and Dave Smith – and the rest were students. In addition to instrumental music, the material included a lot of songs which were sung by a young dance student “Pebs” who, in spite of having no experience or training, gave stunning renditions of songs like The Lord is listenin’ to yer, Hallelujah, I’m a Mineralist, Siam and many others. We performed many times on campus, but the highlight was when we played at the Camden Jazz Festival as the first half of Carla’s own concert, with Carla, Steve Swallow and  members of her own sextet in the audience, and they played in the second half. Carla was complete amazed at the performances and came on stage and embraced Pebs warmly. The Audio Journal of this website includes his beautifully simple solo in The Lord is listenin… and also his wild, free Eric Dolphy-like solo on Wervin’. We also played at the Bracknell Jazz Festival where both Bill Frisell and Evan Parker were startled by my singing in Musique Mécanique 2….

Conrad and I also played as a duo in Derek Bailey’s Company Week at the ICA, London in, I think, 1984. Perhaps our most extraordinary gig was when we played with Lee Konitz in Leicester in 1987 – the whole trio of Nardis was the backing group. I had toured with Lee in 1966, with Tony Oxley and Derek Bailey, and we spent time together in 1982 when I was in New York working on my opera Medea. Lee had been invited by Derek Bailey to play as part of his Company Week in 1987 and, as Lee had a free night, Derek contacted me to see if I could fix something in Leicester. I told him I had a trio, and Lee would naturally have expected a standard rhythm section, and he was a little surprised to learn that it consisted of saxophone, bass and drums… But Lee agreed and came up to Leicester, where he did a masterclass for my students and then we played at a small venue in the middle of town called The Cooler. For Conrad this was probably one of the most thrilling and rewarding of his musical life. He and Lee got on  really well and we saw him off at Leicester station the next morning.

The members of Nardis also formed part of the band that I put together to accompany the legendary Ellington singer Adelaide Hall in the studio theatre at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre in 1988. I’d met Adelaide through David Gothard, who was one of the artistic directors at the theatre and who fixed the concert. I made some arrangements of her songs and used existing parts for others, and brought in the pianist Mick Pyne to make a rhythm section with me and John. The band included music students too, some of them Conrad’s jazz students, and the whole event was a joy throughout.

Another project came about when I was commissioned for a large scale environmental piece for the opening of the Tate Gallery Liverpool in 1988 I resolved that all the musicians for this work would be from Liverpool, rather than import people from London, and as Conrad did have a Liverpool connection, I got him to play saxophone in the piece – Invention of Tradition – that was played live in the Albert Dock on three consecutive evenings, with Prince Charles being at the opening performance.

Part of his legacy rests in the very clever teaching tool that he developed for jazz education called Harmony with Lego Bricks. This showed the student how to develop an awareness of the harmonic structures of jazz tunes and standards and the confidence to apply them as they appear in various guises. For this he also needed a “play along” recording of a rhythm section so that students could use it for practice. John Runcie and I were the bass and drums for this and, I believe, the late Frank Campbell was the pianist for what was a very strict playing of the basic cadence formations and harmonic patterns that are found in jazz. It was probably the most disciplined and restrained playing I ever did in my life…

R.I.P Conrad

Note: there is a separate entry in the Audio Journal section of my web site

Conrad Cork

Gavin Bryars