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Big People

Big People was essentially a principle. It grew out of a Dreaming North, a poetry/jazz collaboration (Rick Taylor, trombone; Paul Flush, piano; Keith Armstrong and me, words). Keith had joined it in 1988, initially to act/sing/play saxophone in a piece of music theatre, O'er the Hills, about the C18th Northumbrian piper Jamie Allen, which also featured Kathryn Tickell on pipes (and memorably as Jamie's brother Rob). Keith was involved in writing material for the next project, Birdsongs. Rick Taylor and I had a night drinking in Leuven after a Dreaming North/Birdsongs gig, rehearsals for which had become a bit tense, the line-up's small singer sharing possibly too many of the difficulties she was having with the venue's acoustics. Rick and I both being fat, we resolved never to work with small people again and, out of the ashes of Dreaming North, we created the duo, Big Boys Don't Rhyme.

In 1994/5 we wrote Big People from Outer Space, a stand-up opera that brought together a drunken memory of the plot of the SciFi B movie Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman and an Inuit folk tale of a big woman called Sermerssuaq. We pulled together a band for it and, not wishing to limit ourselves exclusively to fat musicians, we redefined things, saying that we didn't discriminate on the basis of someone's physical size, but only the size of the soul. Essentially, we decided we'd only work with people who were great at what they did and who didn't give you a hard time. For the opera, Rick (keyboards & trombone) and I (Narrator/Harry/Professor Quinn) were joined by Keith (bass, saxophones, keyboards), Neil Harland (bass) , Gerry Hunt (guitars, flute, saxophone), Bruce Arthur (percussion), Katherine Zeserson (vocals, Jane/Sermerssuaq) and Steve Jinski (vocals, Narrator/Sheriff). It only ran for an hour, so we magicked up a first half in about half a day out of the available resources. Everybody in the line-up wanted to keep things going, but it was really difficult getting gigs for the opera, so we hit on the idea of the group as a house band.

Live Theatre offered to host a series of Sunday lunchtime gigs (seasons of one a month). For each one, we invited people for one off collaborations - folk musicians, jazz musicians, etc.. We used to rehearse at Bruce's, building a house band repertoire and developing each collaboration. The guests would also do spots. There was no food on at Live at the time, so to keep the audience there, I started making food to give out to the audience. There were some great gigs and the different composers/arrangers in the line-up all had the opportunity to both try things out and bring in individuals with whome they wanted to work. Graeme Stafford joined the houseband on keyboards at the beginning of these gigs, Richard Scott fairly soon after.

While we were rehearsing a Big People gig with Sandra and Nancy Kerr one day at Bruce's, we started talking about the idea of getting a stack load of musicians together, from different backgrounds, to rehearse for a week and do a whole festival. That was the beginning of BigFest, which ran for four years at Live Theatre - each time there were around 21 musicians, who would
work on small, mid and large scale projects. People would write or arrange things specially, sometimes quite major big band suites. Keith was particularly excited by the line-up opportunities of BigFest, but the Sunday lunchtime gigs stopped in the year following the first of the bigger events, because we couldn't get funding for both. Keith's Seven Ritual Songs (with David Bradford) and Songs from the Drowned Book (with Sean O'Brien, Katrina Porteous and Bill Herbert) were both first presented at Big Fest. The dance, Farewell to Puberty, was premiered, I think at a Sunday Lunchtime event, paired with the beautiful puberty number from Seven Ritual Songs. This Song had already been written, but it had become part of the Big People repertoire. Demeter Waiting from the song cycle was also developed in the Sunday Lunchtime gigs, before the full piece was written. In a similar way, several songs from Downriver (with Sean O'Brien) were initially developed and performed at BigFest before the fuller version was presented at the Playhouse. Seven Ritual Songs was toured as a Big People project, I think because, contrary to all available evidence, Keith foolishly believed this would help get audiences.

Masses of things came out of the creative mix of Big People/BigFest. There are still things happening that can be traced to the various meetings, experiments and adventures. We would have planning sessions, often around Keith's kitchen table, deciding who we'd invite. It wasn't ever exclusively centred round individual pieces, but where there was a specific need for a particular player in a piece we knew we were going to do, we would try to make that work. We were always impressed at how many amazing musicians volunteered for BigFest. Keith took huge pleasure in being able to plan/write/arrange his frequently complex pieces around the particular musicianship of the line-ups. His works were almost always extraordinarily ambitious for the time frame of the rehearsal periods, even with the quality of players, but no one was ever arsey about working way over the odds. On the other hand, Keith really loved one of the great BigFest innovations, the Saturday night festival dance, where the line-up would develop pieces for everything from ceilidh to reggae, waltzing to samba, hip hop and New Orleans. His enjoyment of them came partly because they were such a celebratory relaxation after the roast of his own pieces. But it was also because he loved to part of the joy that a dance gig can generate.

At its heart, what BigFest really did was to bring together musicians who weren't necessarily familiar with each other's territories. It was always a ridiculous amount of work, but it created the space within which people could fall in love with the possibilities in each other's music. Keith always had eclectic tastes and really took pleasure in this aspect. But everybody did: being 'Big' was about having open ears. Some of the most beautiful moments were in the rehearsals. The key collaborative drive was probably between traditional music and jazz/world, but rock, rap, reggae, soul and new music were there in the mix. It brought musicians from Tyneside together with ones largely from the communities in Scotland and London. I knew a lot of the folk musicians through Folkworks and tended to bring them, Keith and Rick both worked in Grand Union (as did Gerry and, later Richard) and brought in those musicians, Rick knew the Scottish
jazzers who gathered around the Tom Bancroft Big Band and a lot of the jazz/session musicians in London. The gigs were never slick, but they were always extraordinary. It was very creative, but even though people did everything for a flat rate £500 or £600, it always ended up personally costing me around £500 everytime I organised it and when Bruce fell ill, it felt funny continuing it. The last Big People gig was We Are Not At Home to Mr Cock-Up, the memorial gig for Bruce at Live Theatre. It was probably the tightest performance we ever achieved.

I've credited composer/arrangers who I remember specifically crucial to fairly major pieces, although most people brought or wrote material and everybody was involved in smaller scale arrangements. There were others - and I'm sorry if I've forgotten anybody - but the musicians variously involved included:

Brian Abrahams (drums)

Alistair Anderson (composer/arranger, English concertina, Northumbrian

Bruce Arthur (percussion)

Phil Bancroft (composer/arranger, saxophone, flute, whistle)

Tom Bancroft (composer/arranger, drums)

Sophie Bancroft (vocals)

Chris Biscoe (saxophone, clarinet)

Graham Brown (trumpet)

Wendy Brown (percussion)

Josefina Cupido (vocals, percussion)

Luke Daniels (composer/arranger, accordion)

Claude Deppa (trumpet, flugelhorn)

Brian Finnegan (arranger, flutes, whistles)

Deirdre Gribbin (composer, flute)

Isaac Guillory (guitar)

Neil Harland (bass)

Corrina Hewat (composer/arranger, vocals, harp)

Keith Hill (percussion)

Nigel Hitchcock (saxophone)

Gerry Hunt (composer/arranger, guitar, bass, saxophone, flute, clarinet,

Nikki Iles (composer/arranger, piano)

Paul Jayasinha (arranger, trumpet, flugelhorn)

Chris Jelly (percussion)

Steve Jinski (vocals, guitar)

Sandra Kerr (vocals, guitar, English concertina)

Nancy Kerr (arranger, vocals, violin, viola)

Ian Lowthian (composer, piano accordion)

Kevin MacKenzie (composer, guitar)

Charlie McKerron (violin)

Catriona MacDonald (violin)

Mary Macmaster (arranger, vocals, harp)

Ian Maidman (vocals, guitar, bass)

Janette Mason (composer, piano)

Keith Morris (composer/arranger, bass, keyboards, saxophone, bass clarinet,

Brendan Murphy (percussion)

Danielle Perkins (vocals, guitar)

Gina Rae (vocals)

John Rae (drums)

Sylvia Rae (vocals)

Brenda Rattray (vocals)

Laura Schofield (vocals)

Richard Scott (vocals, saxophone, flute)

Patsy Seddon (vocals, harp)

Manjeet Singh (percussion)

Mpho Skeef (vocals)

Paul Spong (trumpet)

Graeme Stafford (keyboards)

Colin Steele (trumpet, flugelhorn)

Chris Stout (composer, violin, electro-acoustic sound)

Stan Sulzmann (composer, saxophone, flute)

Rick Taylor (composer/arranger, trombone, keyboards, vocals)

John Telfer (saxophone, flute, home made shawm)

Jonathan Thorpe (drums)

Simon Thoumire (composer/arranger, English concertina)

Kathryn Tickell (composer, Northumbrian pipes, violin)

Karen Tweed (piano accordion)

Ilan Volkov (conductor)

Annie Whitehead (composer/arranger, trombone)

John Wilson (guitar)

Chris Wood (arranger, violin, vocals)

Katherine Zeserson (composer, vocals, percussion)

Graeme Rigby, June 2005

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