Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 10 June 1940, Brentford, Middlesex; d 13 September 1994) Drummer, composer; also played cornet and mini-trumpet. He studied in the RAF School of Music; began in skiffle and trad bands, gigged with Tubby Hayes, Joe Harriott, Ronnie Scott; played in a group with John McLaughlin and Ian Carr; from '65 led a septet including Kenny Wheeler and also his Spontaneous Music Ensemble, at the centre of free music in UK. Summer 1967, later on an Emanem CD, documents duos that year with reedman Evan Parker (his first commercial recordings) and trios adding Peter Kowald on bass, exploring in ways that the AACM were doing at the same time in Chicago; Karyobin '68 on Chronoscope included Wheeler, Parker, Derek Bailey and Dave Holland in collective improvisation. Stevens also drew back from complete abstraction, experimenting with various groups, rhythms etc: Splinters '71 was co-led with drummer Phil Seamen, albums by groups Freebop '82 and Folkus '84 were on Affinity.

Work with Trevor Watts on tenor included two excellent volumes of Spontaneous Music Ensemble With Bobby Bradford '71 on Nessa, including Bradford on trumpet, Bob Norden on trombone, Ron Herman on bass and Julie Tippetts on voice and guitar, produced by Alan Bates. Watts and Stevens played as a duo in 1972-3, often at London's Little Theatre; Face To Face '73 was later released on an Emanem CD, then Bare Essentials released 2008 on Emanem collected two CDs worth of material recorded by Watts on cassette.

Further albums were Application Interaction and No Fear on Spotlite; Longest Night '76 (two volumes) on Ogun included Parker. Touching On '77 on Konnex was a jazz-rock octet. A dozen SME albums late '60s-70s went out of print on tiny labels (and the '80s was a bad decade for so-called minority musics) but he was still at it in the '90s: Bird In Widnes on Konnex was a duo with Dick Heckstall-Smith and This That on Atonal added Jack Bruce, both in '93; but better examples of his work were the live quartet set New Cool '92 on the Jazz Label, with Byron Wallen on brass, Ed Jones on reeds, and Gary Crosby on bass; trio One Time '92 on Incus with Bailey and Kent Carter on bass and duos Playing '92 on Incus with Derek Bailey and Corner To Corner '93 on Ogun with Parker.

Hot And Cold Heroes (1980-91) on Emanem was a tribute to the longest-lived free improv Spontaneous lineup, one track from '80 and four from '91, with Nigel Coombes on violin and Roger Smith on guitar, adding Neil Metcalfe on flute and John Rangecroft on clarinet on one of the later tracks; Gary Smith/John Stevens '93 on Ecstatic Peace was a duet of guitar and drums; A New Distance '94 on Acta had Roger Smith and John Butcher on reeds. Stevens was music director of Outreach Community Music Project from '83; toured '88 with quintet Fast Colour, including Dudu Pukwana, Harry Beckett, trombonist Annie Whitehead (b 16 July '55, Oldham, Lancashire; played in Ivy Benson band at 16), Nick Stephens on bass. He also had the larger Spontaneous Music Orchestra, the John Stevens Dance Orchestra, a jazz-rock group called Away, a partnership with bassist Johnny Dyani called Detail Plus and workshop activities around London. His death at 54 of a heart attack was a shock; his drive to make music will be missed. His son Ritchie, also a drummer, was half of pop duo Red Well '87 with vocalist Lorenzo Hall.