If Art Themen was a painter the Tate would have an exhibition and all the art cognoscenti would be queuing round the block at £20 a visit.  If Art Themen was a film director the NFT would have a monograph and a season of his work at the South Bank.  But Art is none of these, he is just a great jazz musician whose work has illuminated the last sixty years at the same time as he specialised in orthopaedic medicine, eventually becoming a consultant.  He really is someone to celebrate.

Art is a phenomenon. His career has spanned sixty years and the people he has played with are key figures in UK jazz.  It all started in Manchester. Art saw Sidney Bechet with André Réwéliotty, Louis Armstrong, Stan Kenton, and Danny Moss with Johnny Dankworth at Sale Locarno.  It was when he saw the effect that one smile from the handsome Danny Moss had on one young lady that Art abandoned his clarinet and determined to play the tenor.

One perceptive head teacher altered Art’s Life. ‘I was in a council school, my father died and we lived over a fish and chip shop in Salford. The headteacher of the school saw something in me and got me into MGS (Manchester Grammar School).  MGS had not just a head master but a high master but they hated jazz.’  However, by the time Art left he was playing the school functions.  ‘Out of school there was a guy, Barry Dixon, my first inspiration, he played like Bix Beiderbecke and he got me into jazz, and into a band called The Saints, that moved between New Orleans and Dixieland.’

Studying Medicine in Cambridge in the sixties, Art realised he was in the middle of a hotbed of jazz innovation and also realised that jazz could be modern.  ‘There was Colin Purbrook, Dick Heckstall Smith, Dave Gelly and, most influentially, Lionel Grigson who eventually started the jazz course at the Guildhall s School of Music.  I scraped through the studying but I was no academic.’

Art eventually moved to a London hospital to continue his studies and his jazz playing in clubs. Heckstall Smith introduced Art to Alexis Korner who had a blues band, a wild passionate, raucous group influenced by Charlie Mingus.  Jazz anarchy!  It was a cult band. Phil Seamen, the doyen of drummers was in the band, it was towards the end of his life.  ‘We played at the Flamingo and some nights you would have Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts crowding around the bandstand trying to get a sit-in! Where did I go wrong?’

‘Later, I worked with Long John Baldry and drummer Eddie Taylor who was a particular friend of mine.  The second singer was Rod Stewart.  Also, at that time I was on the fringe of the session world.  One of the sessions was playing with Bing Crosby. They wanted to put him in a separate part of the studio because he was a big star but he didn’t want that. He wanted to be close to the musicians: he really was one of the boys.  I understand he wasn’t a particularly nice guy with those who were close to him, but on that occasion he was great.  I even played on a hit record: Joe Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help From my Friends’. I was in the backing band for that.  I got £15! ‘

There was the period when Art was with Graham Collier. Graham was a bass player but mainly a composer.  ‘He was sometimes difficult to get along with but he was a great administrator, even managed to get the Arts Council to finance a big band so Collier could take it over to India.’ Collier thought a great deal of Art’s playing and would leave generous solo space in his compositions.   ‘There’s only one thing wrong with a soprano saxophone played on its own and that’s two soprano saxophones played on their own. Graham wrote something like that; it’s still in its cellophane packing and when I die it will still be in its cellophane packing.’

Art played with Stan Tracey for over 20-years. ‘I got the job courtesy of Jimmy Hastings. I was working with Jimmy in a pick up big band and he encouraged me to solo and recommended me to Stan. Everything is serendipity! I was privileged to work with Stan, although you never really got to know him. He kept himself to himself.  Underneath, you knew that what he did was full of integrity; he was the true real deal.  We never knew what we were going to do.  I remember one particular gig at the Fairfield Hall in Croydon: Stan winged it all the way through, he just had that ability. I was privileged.  I was really fortunate working with the quartet, the sextet, the octet, the big band, working side by side with Tony Coe, Guy Barker, Peter King, Don Weller, very fortunate.   I started with Stan just after the problems he had after working at Ronnie’s. He started casting around and set up an avant-garde band called Tentacles, ten people, musical anarchy, lasted about ten gigs! Stan finally folded it because during one set, at the last gig, he banged out ‘God Save the Queen’ throughout and nobody recognised it!’

​The relationship with Stan Tracey continues. Clark Tracey, after his father’s death, made Art the Patron of Herts Jazz. ’The work I do as Herts Jazz Patron is that I get to play with the young guys, the young guns. It’s a privilege and they tear me to shreds. There is a guy called Sean Payne, just 18, and he has a marvellous technical facility on alto.  Sean is absolutely out of sight, brilliant.’  Sean won the BBC Young Jazz Musician award.   ‘In 2018 the winner was tenor player Zhosa Cole.  I’ve got a couple of gigs soon with Zhosa.’

‘My other work is with the New Directions Quintet, we play occasionally, not enough.  We got together for my 80th at The Spice of Life in Soho.  It’s an old bebop quintet.  There’s only one thing wrong with it and that’s the bandleader, me! The rest are brilliant:  Gareth Williams, Steve  Fishwick, Winston Clifford,  Arnie Somogyi. With them, I just feel like an old fart.’

‘I suppose my playing has changed. There’s the old buffer bit, you play slow, you play fewer notes and hopefully there is a lot more meaning in those notes.  Something happens, could be maturity. Last night I heard Jerry Bergonzi playing ‘It Might as Well Be Spring’, he’s in his sixties, getting better. Wonderful.’

‘If you’re no longer cutting the mustard, you have to make sure that somebody tells you, pulls you off the stage like they did in the old Edwardian music halls with the shepherd’s crook.  I’ve got a dozen people ready to tell me the moment I’m not doing it any more. Terribly important.’

But Art is still doing it. ‘We’ve just brought out a CD ‘Thane and the Villeins’. It’s listenable with jokey presentation but serious music, more finger popping than what we would normally do but it’s all part. I just love the variation’.

As you talk to Art, he says often that he has been privileged. His audiences have been even more privileged.