Tracey, who died earlier today of cancer, aged 86, was born in south London on 30 December 1926, and became a musician at 16 playing accordion first of all. He would later play vibes but it’s as a pianist and composer that he will be remembered with his career in jazz beginning in earnest from the mid-1950s onwards, particularly in Ronnie Scott’s group and as a pianist for a few years with Ted Heath’s orchestra.
For a long period in the 1960s he was house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, firstly in the Old Place on Gerrard Street, and from 1965 for a few more years of his lengthy association with the club, in the bigger premises on Frith Street. Tracey accompanied many jazz stars visiting from the US and was involved in combining jazz with poetry in the scene around the beat poet Michael Horovitz and in 1965 made the album that would make his name, Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, inspired by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ famous work. In the 1970s Tracey’s star waned but he found new inspiration working with free improvisers, particularly musicians such as fellow pianist Keith Tippett, and saxophonist John Surman; and Tracey with the help of his wife Jackie would found his own record label Steam to release among other of his recordings from the past, Under Milk Wood. He led his own octet and a sextet, the Hexad, and in the 90s recorded for Blue Note and he continued to record prolifically. His latest work The Flying Pig was released in the autumn and was performed at the recent London Jazz Festival at which Tracey himself had planned to appear but which illness would prevent.
Following a BBC television documentary Tracey began to be referred to (drawing from the title of the programme), as the godfather of British jazz, a title that stuck, and he was recognised for his services to music by the Queen with an OBE and later a CBE, and received an Ivor Novello award from the music industry last year. Monk and Ellington-inspired his music went to the heart and soul of jazz, grounded in the bebop tradition, and made him a significant presence on the jazz scene in Britain for decades. Stephen Graham