Since the days of Red Norvo and Lionel Hampton through to bebop with Milt Jackson, the vibraphone has always struggled to be regarded as more than just a novelty instrument.

Despite this reputation there have been no shortage of musicians willing to pick up the mallets and transform the instrument and the way in which it is played and finding a place for it in each of the stylistic shifts in the music since the swing era.

In the UK, Roger Beaujolais had the dubious honour of being the first musician to earn a living from solely playing the vibraphone. In order to do so, Beaujolais has found himself playing in a wide variety of styles and genres, and this process and means of survival has shaped his musical vision.

As a jazz vibraphone player Roger Beaujolais has, if not prolifically, released a string of albums under his leadership demonstrating what a fine musician he is. He only records when he feels he has something to say, and this philosophy ensures that when he does go into the studio the resulting music is something to savour.

This is certainly the case with his latest album, Bags of Vibes that focusses on music written by and associated with the great vibes maestro, Milt Jackson, and Roger was only too happy to talk to Jazz Views about the recording and some exciting new opportunities coming up in the not too distant future.

A long time in the can, you finally have a new album Bags of Vibes that has just been released.Can you tell us about the recording?

I can record an album in a day so occasionally book a studio for 2 days & record 2 albums in one go. ‘Bags Of Vibes’ was recorded at the same sessions in 2017 as ‘Sunset’ & was originally due to be released in autumn 2020. Covid had other ideas.

There is a nice balance to the album with the material chosen either written by Milt Jackson or closely associated with the vibraphone maestro. What attracted to these compositions in particular?

Over the years I’ve done a few gigs as a tribute to Milt Jackson so I’ve worked out which of his tunes I enjoy playing most. Most of his compositions are blues but I found a few that are underplayed & beautiful like ‘Heartstrings’ & ‘Come To Me’.

The album gets off to a cracking start with the swinging ‘Blues for Bags’ written by R. Beaujolais. You have modestly elected only to feature one of your own compositions, and I for one would happily have requested some more. Can you tell us about your inspiration for the piece?

It felt natural to write a blues for Milt Jackson as he is such a bluesy, soulful player. This tune came to me quickly & fitted with the theme!

As well as a great choice of tunes, it must be said that the assembled band for the recording is quite exceptional. How did you come to pick this particular rhythm section, and had you played together as quartet previously?

The line up has more or less been my regular band since 1999. Simon Thorpe got involved in 2003. They’re great musicians & I’m pleased to have them in my quartet!

Everything on the album sounds so effortless, and a real group sound also seems to have evolved too. Robin Aspland, I thought plays some incredible solos, and is a somewhat underappreciated musician on the UK scene. Do you have some gigs in the pipeline for the quartet, or maybe plans to keep the group together as a long-term project?

Indeed, as it’s my regular band we’re often working. But it’s hard for venues that aren’t close to London to be able to afford us so more & more often I play around the country with local musicians. It’s particularly tricky to get the full band together at the moment as Robin Aspland no longer has a car so he can’t get to some of my gigs. Fortunately, when he’s not free I’ve been booking Gareth Williams & Mike Gorman & both are amazing. I’m lucky to have such great musicians playing with me.

If the playing of the quartet was not enough to keep everyone satisfied, you brought in the wonderful Jim Mullen to play on three of the tracks bringing a further dimension to the music. What inspired you to invite Jim along to the session?

I’ve been a big fan of Jim’s for many years, so it felt like a good opportunity to get him onboard. Two of the tracks he plays on are from the ‘Bags & Wes’ album & I thought it would be nice to give a nod to that album.

In the notes on the album, you make the observation that Milt Jackson “was chronologically the second great jazz vibraphone player (after Lionel Hampton)”. With Hampton being the first, and I’m guessing that Bobby Hutcherson comes third after Jackson, can we expect a prequel and sequel to Bags of Vibes featuring the music of these other two masters?

It’s a nice idea as I’ve recorded a few compositions by Lionel Hampton & Bobby Hutcherson over the years although I may run out of time. In an ideal world I’d record two albums a year & would include a lot of my own compositions. The reality is that it’s not financially viable.

You have been a professional musician earning a living from playing the vibraphone for forty years, and the first vibes player to do so in the UK. What is it about the instrument that drew you to it, and had you played any other instruments prior to the vibraphone?

When I was 15 some school friends persuaded me to play drums in their rock band and for a few years I was drum kit owner. Meaning I hardly did any gigs. When I was 16, I started to have piano lessons at school specifically so I could play blues and boogie woogie. I got Grade 1 piano & then left school so that was the end of my musical education. When I first heard vibes I realised they were a combination of drums & piano so I felt like I had a head start in some ways.

As a musician who would you say have been a particular influence on you and your musical development?

Well, there are too many to mention. I grew up in the sixties which was the era when virtuoso guitarists became a serious part of the music business & being a teenager, I went with the flow & immersed myself in that world & it was only later that I began to hear jazz – mainly through hearing jazz/rock, jazz/funk & fusion & working backwards. So, my early heroes were mostly rock guitarists, my favourite was Jerry Garcia, mainly because he was so eclectic. Later on, I began to appreciate jazz & everyone I’ve heard has been an influence – from Charlie Christian to Michael Brecker, from Count Basie to Herbie Hancock. Not to mention Miles, Coltrane, Bird, Bill Evans, Grant Green, Dexter Gordon, Clifford Brown, Ben Webster, etc.

While many associate the instrument as being relatively quiet often heard in a jazz context, you have also played the instrument in many different settings including being a member of the band Fairground Attraction. How did these opportunities arise, and how did you manage to find a place in the music for the vibraphone?

Vibes are still seen as a bit of a novelty instrument in some ways & there’s very little work for vibists. What I mean is that, as very few bands have a vibraphone player, there are no other players I could dep for. If I played virtually any instrument a large part of my income would have been depping in bands for other musicians who had got more lucrative work or whatever. That particular door is closed to vibes players & I realised that very early on in my career. In order to make sure I could survive I moved in as many circles as possible & with my background of liking rock music as a teenager I never shied away from working in that field. I’ve always thought vibes have been underused so have been keen to put vibes in as many contexts as possible. I wouldn’t have been able to make a living if I hadn’t. I got the Fairground Attraction gig through Mark Nevin (the band’s writer) seeing me on TV with The Chevalier Brothers – in 1986 I think. In that world a large part of why people get work (apart from ability of course) is having contacts. One door opening can lead to others. Of course, if I hadn’t been able to deliver I would never have been asked back. I am also quite sociable & that’s helped.

As a vibes player you have often said that the need to be diverse and open to many different types of music is essential. Has this diversity been a blessing or a hindrance in building a career and finding your own voice on the instrument?

As I said above, I wouldn’t have been able to make a living if I had gone around closing doors on people & musical situations. On the one hand it’s been great but on the other hand, in terms of where I am in the jazz hierarchy, it’s been a hindrance. Mainly because a lot of serious jazz critics are a bit snobbish about musicians who they think of as ‘session musicians’ as opposed to those 100% immersed in jazz. I could have immersed myself 100% in jazz, but I would then have had to find a job. I’m self-taught so teaching has never been an option. Just about all teachers have been taught & know the process & have qualifications. I know my own personal process but that wouldn’t necessarily work for others. I don’t have any qualifications. But, also, I never decided to be a musician so I could teach. I know it’s essential for a lot of upcoming musicians as there are a lot less gigs than there were & living is so expensive these days. But for me, all I’ve ever wanted to do is play music. The bottom line is that in a jazz sense, I know I will never be taken as seriously as some. I accept it as the price I’ve had to pay in order to be a professional vibes player.

And what plans for the future? I know that you are preparing to tour again with Fairground Attraction, and also tour where you will be talking about the history of the vibes and playing music by some of its greatest exponents?

This year is a strange one because Fairground Attraction have reformed after 35 years. I didn’t see that coming! I’m enjoying my ‘100 Years of Vibraphone’ gigs & will continue doing those for as long as people will book me for them. I’m also recording another trio album with the pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole (& Simon Thorpe on bass) & that’s fun to do. I’m going to keep working as much as possible & it looks like this year will be my busiest for some time. It’s all good!

For more information about Roger Beaujolais visit Roger’s website

Click here to read our review of Bags of Vibes by the Roger Beaujolais Quartet