JACK SELS 'MINOR WORKS'
A collection of rare, previously unreleased studio and live recordings paying homage to the life and jazz of the enigmatic saxophonist
2 CD, vinyl and digital release includes 12 previously unreleased studio tracks and 8 unreleased live tracks from highly influential post-war Belgian jazz saxophonist
Groove-heavy record label SDBAN are pleased to announce the release of a collection of recordings from famed Antwerp saxophonist, Jack Sels.
One of the legends of Belgian Jazz and a highly influential figure on the post-war Belgian jazz scene, Sels died in 1970 at the mere age of 48, and he remains the country’s most mythical jazz musician, almost fifty years after his death. Throughout his career, he would play with jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Lou Bennett and Lucky Thompson, but he remained virtually unknown outside Belgium due to his reluctance to leave Antwerp.
As a young adolescent, he inherited the family fortune which he spent in no time on everything in life that’s good: girls, champagne and jazz records. By now an avid jazz fan, Jack accumulated a notorious collection of original 78 rpm jazz records which ran up into the thousands. A family legend goes that one day he bought all the tickets of Antwerp’s famous cinema Rex, and handed them all out to passers-by on the street. “He was a millionaire, but he gave everything away,” explains Jack’s son-in-law and close friend Willy Van Wiele. “He hung out with people of a lower social class and adapted to them, instead of to the rich.” Jack’s good life however, ended with a bang when a World War II bombing destroyed the family house, including his precious record collection and everything else he had.
The arrival of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band at Antwerp in 1948 made a lasting impression on Sels as well as the legendary Birth of the Cool sessions by Miles Davis’s nonet, which were crucial for his further development, and he decided to start his own big bands including the All Stars Bop Orchestra, including a young Toots Thielemans, and the Jack Sels Chamber Music Orchestra.
In 1951, he travelled to Germany to perform for the American troops, and after his return to Antwerp he played in basement pubs, dance halls and jazz clubs and would later compose the soundtrack for the film ‘Meeuwen Sterven in de Haven’ (Seagulls Die in the Harbour) by Roland Verhavert.
In 1959, he supported Nat King Cole and had the opportunity to perform with his idol Lester Young in Brussels. Later, a career working on radio programmes for the NIR, then later BRT, was short lived due to the musical restraints held upon him.
By 1966, Sels’s working opportunities in jazz had become so slim that he was forced to start working at the Antwerp harbour, where he helped to unload boats. During this period, he rarely performed in public anymore. Besides the irregular local gig, he occasionally appeared in schools and cultural centres, illustrating lectures about jazz history by jazz critic Juul Anthonissen. Instead he devoted his time to writing music, which he did on a small harmonium.
It was while making music, sitting at his harmonium, that Sels suffered a fatal cardiac arrest on 21 March 1970. Once one of Belgium’s foremost modern jazz musicians, he died in poverty, largely forgotten and after a turbulent life.
1. Spanish Lady
3. Nick's Kick *
4. Dorian 0437 *
5. La Campimania *
6. African Dance
7. Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise *
8. Blues For A Blonde
9. Blue Triptichon *
10. Rain On The Grand'Place
11. Night In Tunisia *
12. Minor Works
13. Tchak-Tchak *
14. Invitation *
15. Minor 5
16. The Preacher *
17. Dong *
18. Gemini *
19. It Might As Well Be Spring *
Previously unreleased *
1. Night In Tunisia (Live)
2. Taking A Chance On Love (Live)
3. Zonky (Live)
4. Blue Monk (Live)
5. Swingin' The Blues (Live)
6. Walkin' (Live)
7. Unknown Title (Live)
8. Broadway (Live)
All tracks previously unreleased
Rare and unreleased jazz recordings
Jean-Jacques ‘Jack’ Sels was born in Antwerp in 1922 and was the only child in a wealthy family. His father Joseph, whom Jack referred to as ‘The Boss’, held a high position at the maritime company John P. Best. The family inhabited a large house, where Jack was brought up strictly and traditionally, obliged to speak English to his father, Dutch to his mother Marie Louise, and French to his governess. Jack was predestined to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a businessman himself, until the early death of both his parents changed everything.
Jack was at first placed under guardianship, but after a while prematurely declared an adult. As a young adolescent, he inherited the family fortune which he spent in no time on everything in life that’s good: girls, champagne and jazz records. By now an avid jazz fan, Jack accumulated a notorious collection of original 78 rpm jazz records which ran up into the thousands. A family legend goes that one day he bought all the tickets of Antwerp’s famous cinema Rex, and handed them all out to passersby on the street. “He was a millionaire, but he gave everything away,” explains Jack’s son-in-law and close friend Willy Van Wiele. “He hung out with people of a lower social class and adapted to them, instead of to the rich.” Jack’s good life however, ended with a bang when a World War II bombing destroyed the family house, including his precious record collection and everything else he had.
JACK THE HIPSTER
With not much more to lose, Jack decided to pursue a career as a jazz musician. By then he had started to play the saxophone, encouraged by his friend, the baritone and clarinet player Roger Asselberghs. In 1945, the year of the liberation, he joined the band of Mickey Bunner, one of the many orchestras that benefited from the post-war boom of the entertainment industry. The band played for the American G.I.’s in Antwerp at places called Cascade, The G.I. Club, and The 13th Port, and in the summer they played various gigs on the Belgian coast. Besides Asselberghs, Sels and Bunner (trombone), the band consisted of many future jazz talents like Jean Fanis (piano) and Rudy Frankel (drums). Tenor saxophonist Etienne Verschueren once looked back upon the Bunner band, recalling “Bunner was a talented showman, and the way he orchestrated was incredible. The music was in the Stan Kenton style, typically American. There was a trumpet, a trombone, six saxophones, even a bass saxophonist. Roger Asselberghs was on clarinet, Jack Sels on tenor saxophone, and I had to occupy myself with exactly those two guys, who couldn’t read a single note of music. I had to teach them the partitions. The bass player’s wife cooked dinner for the whole orchestra. We were what you would call hippies nowadays. People looked down on us: ‘Ugh, jazz musicians!’.” 1
After the early death of his wife Eugenie in 1946, Jack temporarily quit music and spent some time at sea. He found new inspiration in England, where he heard and met some of Britain’s foremost beboppers, including Ted Heath. Returned home, he immersed himself in the blooming Belgian bebop scene, befriending and playing with musicians like Bobby Jaspar, René Thomas, Jacques Pelzer, Sadi, and Francy Boland. Most of them played in the internationally renowned Bob Shots orchestra, one of the first bebop bands in Europe, and Jack occasionally sat in with this pioneering formation. In 1949, they recorded an untitled Jack Sels composition that, by suggestion of Bobby Jaspar, would later be named Jack the Hipster.
At that time, Jack’s saxophone playing was mainly influenced by Wardell Gray, and he wore a pork pie hat just like his idol Lester Young. “Jack was 100% a jazz musician,” recalls bass and saxophone player Cel Overberghe. “He carried a certain vibe. He could have been an American and acted like one, with his special hat. He also spoke French and English perfectly, which contributed to his image. He had his ways to distance himself, to surround himself with a bit of mystery and to act like a star.”
On February 18, 1948, Jack witnessed one of the most memorable jazz concerts ever performed in Belgium. The big band of Dizzy Gillespie toured Europe for the first time and with its unique Afro-Cuban bebop sound impressed many local jazz musicians, including Jack Sels. The concert marked the beginning of the most ambitious project in Belgian jazz history. “By the end of 1948, early 1949, everybody was called together to join Jack’s notorious big band,” Nic Fissette once explained. He was one of the trumpet players in Jack’s Bebop All Stars Orchestra, together with about everybody in Belgium who could play a bit of bop. “Jack made us wear overalls and big bow ties, the regular man’s work clothing. He said: ‘we are pioneers, man, we got to dress like working men. It was remarkable: every rehearsal everybody punctually came from the four corners of the country, even though there was not the least money to be made. Jay Cameron and Nat Peck even came with Bobby Jaspar and Jean Warland from Paris where they were working back then.” 2
The All Stars Bop Orchestra premiered for the public on May 20, 1949 at Galerie Artes in Antwerp. The leading magazine l’Actualité Musicale was lyrical about this “historical event in the history of Belgian jazz”, calling it “wonderful, fantastic, strong, powerful, great and beautiful”. About the band’s leader, critic Roland Durselen wrote that Jack Sels was “admirable, not only because of his qualities as a soloist, but also because of his intelligence, his latent poetry, his mystical feeling, his idealism and his belief in the value of his musicians.” 3
Later, Jack pasted some press clippings of the concert in a big notebook he kept for the rest of his life. Next to the clippings, he wrote: “The first real break for 21 souls who love bop”.
Unfortunately, too ambitious to be true, the group disbanded a few months later after having played not more than a handful of concerts. Another equally ambitious project that Jack launched in February 1951 suffered the same fate: inspired by the Miles Davis Nonet and its landmark Birth of the Cool sessions, Jack Sels and his Chamber Music expanded Jack’s jazz combo with classical musicians, a combination which illustrated Jack’s musical mastery but which was commercially unviable. Nonetheless Jack had made his name as one of Belgium’s most forward thinking jazz musicians, and when Dizzy Gillespie returned to Belgium in 1952, Jack’s band was chosen to accompany the trumpet legend for his two concerts.
JAMMING IN GERMANY
In the early 1950s, Jack spent quite some time working in Germany, where the American army hired orchestras to play at the many bases it had set up after the War. After a small tour there at the end of 1951, during which he married his second wife Emilie Beeckmans, Jack assembled a new orchestra in September 1952 and departed for Germany again. At first consisting of Sels (ts), Jay Cameron (as), Roger Asselberghs (bs), Ack Van Rooyen (tp), Christian Kellens (tb), Jean Fanis (p), Benoît Quersin (b) and Rudy Frankel (d), the band’s time in Germany was turbulent and marked by difficult working and living circumstances and by as many musical lows as highs. After a short while already, pianist Jean Fanis had to return to Belgium to undergo serious eye surgery. Fanis later told in an interview: “I went back later on, but Jack didn’t have any gigs for the coming two months. He wanted us to wait for better times, but I couldn’t and returned to Antwerp. Jack was really mad at me. The following three years, he refused to speak to me.” 4
The band’s first stop was Frankfurt, at that time Germany’s jazz capital. After they had played at café Hippodrome, the German magazine Das internationale Podium called them “the best modern jazz band in the Montan-Union (a predecessor of the European Union, ed.)” and specifically praised the bandleader’s arrangements. “After that, the American army engaged us in Darmstadt to play in a black club,” Roger Asselberghs told the newspaper Le Matin upon his return to Belgium in April of 1953. “There, with five Jack, Benoît, Christian, Rudy and me – we could play with full joy, we could swing without making any commercial compromises. The atmosphere was extraordinary; we sometimes felt like we were playing in a club in Harlem. At night, after Darmstadt, we would return to Frankfurt where we often went to jam in an existentialist cave; we often encountered Hans Koller, the revered tenor saxophonist, and Jutta Hipp, an extraordinary pianist.” 5
But for every bit of success, there was a story of disappointment too. “At one time we played in the remainders of a hotel in Frankfurt which had suffered badly from the bombings,” Roger Asselberghs recalled later. “We played there for food and accommodation and a remuneration of one German Mark per day. The hotel owner was broke and tried to avoid us. Jack often spent half nights waiting on the stairs towards his room to get our money.” 6
Also, it turned out that not everybody was waiting for the band’s modern jazz sounds, and more often than not they performed for a crowd that was more used to gypsy or tango music, leading to heavy discussions between Jack and many club owners and impresarios. Jack was serious when it came to jazz, as shown by bass player Roger Vanhaverbeke’s first encounter with Jack Sels.
Vanhaverbeke was called to Germany to replace Benoît Quersin, who left the band to work in Paris. “By that time, people already spoke about the great Jack Sels, and I wanted nothing more than to play with him,” said Vanhaverbeke, “but compared to Benoît Quersin, I was nowhere as a bass player. So Jack didn’t say a single word to me. It was really painful, as I admired him deeply. This lasted for nine whole months, until one night in Heidelberg, when we were playing the Sullivan Barracks.
Jack always sat at the front of the stage, so he was playing with his back to us and I’ll never forgot that image. At one point, he turned around and said to me: ‘C’est ça men, c’est comme ça qu’on tire la basse.’ (‘That’s it men, that’s how you play the bass’). It gave me the shivers. It was Jack’s first compliment in nine months’ time.” 7
In the course of 1954, Jack got tired of Germany and returned to Antwerp. In 1955, he wrote and recorded the soundtrack to Seagulls Die in the Harbor (Meeuwen Sterven in de Haven), the first modern long play film in Belgian cinema. Jack’s dramatic score, ranging from pure bebop to progressive cinematic jazz, is proof of his brilliance as a musician and composer.
In 1958, two of Jack’s recordings, Rain on the Grand’Place and Lady of Spain, appeared on a 10” called Jazz in Little Belgium, which was an overview of the Belgian jazz scene, issued for the occasion of the World Fair in Brussels. A year later Jack recorded an EP with none other than American tenor star Lucky Thompson in Germany called Bongo Jazz, of which the composition Ginger was named after Jack’s loyal dog who often accompanied him to jam sessions, howling out loud along with his boss’s solos.
Since his return from Germany, Jack had started working regularly for the Belgian radio and TV broadcaster NIR as well, and in 1959 he even made a TV appearance with his idol Lester Young. But in spite of all these achievements, Jack struggled to make a living playing jazz. As a consequence, he occasionally recorded a few rock & roll sides under various pseudonyms to gain a little extra money. By the second half of the 1950s most of Belgium’s best jazz musicians had left little Belgium to successfully continue their careers abroad. Jack’s old friends Toots Thielemans, Bobby Jaspar and René Thomas had even crossed the Atlantic, where they were playing with American jazz greats like George Shearing, J.J. Johnson and Sonny Rollins respectively. So Jack too, started to dream of America.
“Toots Thielemans tried to convince Jack to join him on the other side of the ocean,” remembers Willy Van Wiele. “They chattered about it for days and days. Jack’s wife said ‘over my dead body’. Jack replied ‘I can’t achieve anything in this country, it’s much too small.’ And he was right. Belgium, in those days, as a jazz musician… If there were twenty people at a concert, twelve of them didn’t understand a thing of it.”
It has long been a myth that Jack never left Belgium because he was too attached to his hometown Antwerp. Yet he wrote letters to jazz impresarios George Wein and Leonard Feather, asking if they could help him to get to the USA. “Jack deeply wanted to go to America,” emphasizes Willy Van Wiele, “he said it dozens of times. Actually his wife could have gone with him, but she didn’t want to leave her family. And Toots kept insisting, until it suddenly stopped. Maybe they had an argument, I don’t know, but he stopped visiting.”
“It’s difficult to say why Jack didn’t go to America. He was attached to his home, but maybe he was also a bit afraid of really having to make it over there, to really break through”, thinks Cel Overberghe, “but on the other hand, he did know all those American musicians and when they performed in Belgium, he didn’t hesitate to join them on stage or to show them some of his arrangements.”
And so Jack never left Belgium but stayed at home in Antwerp, where he was the pivotal figure of the local jazz scene that started blossoming in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was often found jamming in one of the many jazz bars like Zaziko, De Stal or Gard Sivik around the Stadswaag square, where a new generation of young musicians came to hear him play. “Jack was God to us back then”, recalls Cel Overberghe.
“He was our musical father. He gave us advice. And once in a while, if we were good enough, we could even play together with him. And when we had had a gig, he would drive us home with his old Chrysler. Then he would stop in front of our door and started telling stories for an hour, an hour and a half. He really intrigued us with his stories. There was always some kind of morale. For us it was our school. He never thought us: ‘this chord is played this or that way’, no. It was about the atmosphere. He indoctrinated us with the jazz vibe, so that we felt like real jazz musicians.”
BLUES FOR A BLONDE
In 1961, Jack recorded what would be his first and only studio album. It featured two American musicians: Lou Bennett, who was living in Europe back then, on organ, and Oliver Jackson, who stayed around after a tour with Buck Clayton, on drums. The quartet was completed by the then eighteen-year-old guitar talent Philip Catherine. “I played in trio with Lou Bennett and Oliver Jackson for three days at a club in Brussels called the Blue Note. And Jack Sels came to hear us there and asked if we wanted to make an album with him,” recalls Catherine, who remembers Jack as a very kind man. “Nobody knew me back then, and yet he hired me. For the first record under his own name, mind you.”
The quartet worked for two or three days at the Decca studios in Brussels, recording nine original compositions of which four were written by Jack. The combination of Lou Bennett’s organ and Jack’s saxophone resulted in a session in the soul jazz style which was made popular by Shirley Scott and Stanley Turrentine or Jimmy Smith. “I was listening to John Coltrane back then, so it was a bit old school, but it was really good. Jack wrote well and had an incredible feeling,” tells Philip Catherine. Three of the tracks were released on the somewhat ironically titled EP Jack Sel(l)s Jazz, but the entire session remained unissued until five years later, when it was marketed as a typical 1960s easy listening album by ‘The Sexy Sax of Sels and Swinging Friends’ and titled Sax Appeal, a play of words that matched the scantily clothed blonde model pictured on the sleeve. “I had recorded my first album and I didn’t dare to show it to anyone because of that picture,” recalls Catherine.
But Catherine was eventually not credited on the sleeve of the LP anyway, and neither were Oliver Jackson or the very famous Lou Bennett. So his debut album didn’t bring the long awaited breakthrough for Jack, who had already given up his career in jazz by the time it was finally released.
When Elias Gistelinck became head producer of the jazz section of the Belgian Radio and TV (BRT) in 1963, Jack’s radio work increased. He recorded as a soloist and vocalist with The Clouds, which was the rhythm section of the BRT jazz orchestra led by guitarist Freddy Sunder, and especially with his own project Saxorama. The latter was another remarkable longtime dream of Jack: a band that consisted of nothing more than a reed section and a rhythm section. The orchestra featured saxophone players Emile Chantrain, Frans l’Eglise, Benny Couroyer, Pros Creado, Guy Dossche and Jack himself, while Jean Fanis or Jean Evans (p), Pit Barbarin or Roger Vanhaverbeke (b), Philip Catherine (g) and Al Jones (d) made up the rhythm section. The group generally played standards as well as original compositions by Francy Boland, who was then running the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band in Germany, and by Jack. Saxorama appeared on the radio regularly and made well over fifty recordings, some of which are released here for the first time.
They show how Jack, who never received formal musical training, had evolved into a versatile composer and arranger. As a saxophone player, Jack’s biggest influence by then was Sonny Rollins, whom he admired deeply. “The older Jack became, the more he returned to the sound of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Don Byas. And Sonny Rollins was somewhat similar, in the way he improvised,” explains Cel Overberghe. “Jack was a bit of a romanticist when it came to jazz. When my generation started to play avant-garde, he didn’t like it at all. He made remarks about it and said, in English, ‘Free jazz? Jazz has always been free’,” Overberghe adds, smiling.
Jack’s radio days came to an end abruptly and for somewhat unclear reasons. “With Saxorama, I had the impression there were two worlds. Him and the others,” recalls Philip Catherine.
“The others were more conventional, a bit square, and he was the crazy guy. Well, not crazy, because he was really serious about his music,” says Catherine. “Jack could be a difficult man,” adds Cel Overberghe. “He easily felt misunderstood by other musicians or by the people of the jazz section of the BRT.” Jack’s granddaughter Sandra Van Wiele thinks her grandfather never really liked to work for the radio, as “it was too strict, he wanted more freedom to play his own thing.” Yet, the sudden loss of his radio work was a major disappointment for Jack.
In a 1964 letter to the program director of the BRT, he wrote: “at the eve of my twenty years as a jazz musician and pioneer I’m unemployed in my own country, where I chose to stay when in spring I didn’t accept foreign offers because I made my living here, as well as for family matters such as my grandfatherhood. Am I the victim of fate or given the boot, I’m thunderstruck and watch my condition with deep sadness and even some bitterness. (…) I have served the BRT with jazz music since my return from Germany in 1954-1955 with full devotion and besides Saxorama I was never asked as the leader of a jazz orchestra or asked to form a pure jazz ensemble. I was very happy with what I had, yet now I’m in a terrifying state that seems to announce my downfall as a human and the bitter end of a failed career.”
SEAGULLS DIE IN THE HARBOR
By 1966, Jack’s working opportunities in jazz had indeed become so slim that he was forced to start working at the Antwerp harbor, where he helped to unload boats as a marqueur. “It was so sad when he went to work in the harbor. That man had other capacities. I never understood how they got him so far to start working there,” says Willy Van Wiele.
“I remember he once told my grandmother: ‘I don’t like it when I get money for my music. Because it makes it feel like work. And I love to do it, I want to do it for pleasure, I don’t want money for that,” adds Sandra Van Wiele. And even while working the docks, Jack remained a true jazz musician. Lode De Ceuster, a protest singer who worked at the harbor together with Jack, once recalled: “One day, Jack Sels was at the en clos, a space where the more expensive goods were stored. A shipment of saxophones had arrived and one of the crates was broken. And Sels was standing there, playing the saxophone, surrounded by all the dockers. Beautiful.” 8
During this period Jack rarely performed in public anymore. Besides the irregular local gig, he occasionally appeared in schools and cultural centers, illustrating lectures about jazz history by jazz critic Juul Anthonissen. Instead he devoted his time to writing music, which he did on a small harmonium. Ever ambitious, he even made attempts at composing complex symphonies in the Third Stream style.
“I used to see him at night, the last inhabitant of the block still out on the streets, walking his dog at two or three o’ clock at night,” recalls Willy Van Wiele, “and later you looked up to his window and the lights would still be on, and then he was still writing music on his little organ.” His wife Emilie once said: “Jack was thinking about music all day long, nothing but music, music, music. If he had an idea at night, he woke up to write it down or to try it out on his harmonium or saxophone. Of course we had problems with the neighbors.” 9
It was while making music, sitting at his harmonium, that Jack suffered a fatal cardiac arrest on 21 March 1970. Once one of Belgium’s foremost modern jazz musicians, who had played with Lester Young, Lucky Thompson and Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Sels died in poverty, largely forgotten and after a turbulent life. Says Willy Van Wiele: “Jack once told me ‘Willy, to go through everything I’ve been through, to live the life I lived, you would have to live for a hundred years’.” Jack was only forty-eight when he passed away on that first day of spring in 1970.
Almost fifty years after his death, Jack Sels remains Belgium’s most intriguing jazz musician. Partly due to his limited discography, he is overlooked by a wider audience. Yet, his contribution to the development of the modern jazz scene in Belgium cannot be overestimated, and neither can his influence on his fellow musicians, to whom he was the embodiment of jazz. As vibraphone player Fats Sadi once said: “I loved Jack. He had never studied music and didn’t have the least bit of technique. But if Jack played, the gates of heaven opened. Jack was more jazz than jazz itself.” 10
Compilation and liner notes by Lander Lenaerts
Produced for reissue by Stefaan Vandenberghe
Special thanks to Sandra, Dennis and Willy Van Wiele, Gert Govaerts, Cel Overberghe, Philip Catherine, Marc van den Hoof, Anne-Marie Schenk-Asselberghs, Jan De Wilde at the library of the Royal Conservatory Antwerp, Peter and Marijke Anthonissen, Heidi Moyson at Resonant and Clifford Allen. Reconstructing Jack Sels’s life story and discography would have been impossible without the devoted people who have tried to keep Jack’s memory alive in the past. In this aspect we would particularly like to acknowledge the work of Edmond Devoghelaere.
1 Swingtime n°42, August 1979
2 Swingtime n°46, March 1980
3 l’Actualité Musicale n°65, 1949
4 Swingtime n°51, January 1981
5 Le Matin, 4 April 1953
6 José Plume – Belgische Jazzveteranen vertellen (Dannison Music, 2004)
7 José Plume – Belgische Jazzveteranen vertellen (Dannison Music, 2004)
8 Het Laatste Nieuws, 1990
9 Jazzmozaïek n°1, 2000
10 José Plume – Belgische Jazzveteranen vertellen (Dannison Music, 2004)