1944 – 2012
Sydney musicians and audiences were saddened to hear of the passing of Ken James on 25 April. Ken played the tenor and soprano saxophone and flute and was known to many as a member of Ten Part Invention and The Last Straw.
We asked colleagues and friends Sandy Evans and John Pochée to tell us about Ken and what he meant to them. Jane March provided the photo.
(from the eulogy John wrote for Ken’s funeral)
We began playing in the Judy Bailey Quartet in 1974 and recorded two albums. The second album Colours was re-released two years ago. Then we started a quintet ‘The Last Straw’ with Ken playing beside Bernie McGann. This was a band that had a cult following and performed over 25 years until the Wangaratta Jazz Festival in 1999. We made one album in 1998 which was released in 2000 and won an ARIA Award for ‘Best Australian Jazz Recording’. Students at the Conservatorium have recently discovered this album and have been asking me about it and wanting to play some of the tunes.
Ken, during these years and since has been involved in many other projects, leading his own Quintet, which I also played in and playing in rock and backing bands. He was a wonderful composer, arranger and bandleader in his own right as well as being a great teacher.
In 1986, I formed the ten piece ensemble Ten Part Invention. This has also just clocked up 25 years and Cobb & Co delivered Ken’s gold watch to him shortly after he moved to Hamilton. As he did with The Last Straw Ken always stepped in and led the band whenever I suffered health problems. Ten Part Invention won several Awards and both TPI and The Last Straw travelled all over the world to all the great jazz festivals, with The Straw even winning 1st prize at the Leningrad Jazz Festival.
When I took the band to the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2005, I told Ken he might not get much solo room in the short one hour spot we had but the next day we appeared in a variety of small groups and Ken cut loose. I still remember the great jazz writer John Litweiler, who wrote the book on Ornette Coleman, running over and asking if Ken had an album he could have. He said to me ‘…that Ken James can sure play!!!
I feel deeply privileged to have had 25 years of great experiences playing beside Ken in the saxophone section of Ten part Invention. I always loved hearing his beautiful sound. He was one of the first players I played with who really understood the beauty of the depth of tone that could come out of the saxophone. He could tap into that expressive, vocal power in the way that someone like Wayne Shorter could. Combine that with a great sense of melody and groove and you have the wonderfully unique, inventive and joyous player that was Ken.
I can’t remember Ken ever saying a bad word about anybody. He had a brilliant sense of humour with which he could convey all kinds of irony. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed quite as much as when Ken would join forces with his dear friend John Pochée in one of their impromptu stand-up comedy routines in a hotel room after a gig. I am so sorry to lose this good friend and treasured musician. My thoughts especially go to his partner Cheryl.