Brian Lemon – obituary
Brian Lemon was a British jazz pianist for whom a special record label was established to bring his music to a wider public
The British jazz pianist Brian Lemon
5:46PM GMT 05 Nov 2014Comments4 Comments
Brian Lemon, who has died aged 77, was one of Britain’s finest-ever jazz pianists. He had a particular flair for sensitive accompaniment and this, combined with his famously undemonstrative nature, kept him out of the limelight; but his name was known to dedicated jazz lovers throughout Europe and he drew extravagant praise from the star soloists he accompanied.
Brian Lemon was born at Nottingham on February 11 1937 into a musical family, his father being a semi-professional violinist. He began learning the piano as a child and continued to study it through his teenage years. On leaving school he began playing professionally at Nottingham Palais de Danse and other local venues. Aged 19, he moved to London to join the Dixieland band led by the trumpeter Freddie Randall.
This was precisely the time when the jazz audience in Britain was growing rapidly, and the demand for musicians growing with it. The success of Lemon’s career over the following decade or so can be deduced from the quality of the musicians with whom he regularly worked: Sandy Brown, George Chisholm, Danny Moss, Alex Welsh — the cream of what came to be known as “mainstream” jazz. From 1961 to 1963 he led his own trio at Peter Cook’s fashionable Soho club, the Establishment.
In the 1960s the restrictions, amounting virtually to a ban, on the appearance of American musicians in Britain crumbled. As a result, a regular flow of famous jazz names circulated around the nation’s jazz venues.
This was when Lemon’s remarkable talent as an accompanist, together with his encyclopedic knowledge of the classic American song repertoire, came to the fore. Among the many he accompanied in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were Benny Goodman, Ben Webster, Milt Jackson and Harry “Sweets” Edison.
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He later formed a close association with an American musician of a later generation, the tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton .
The critic Benny Green maintained that Lemon’s character was reflected in his love of cricket — “always the sign of a true artist and a gentleman”. Green used to tell an anecdote that summed this up: some time in the early 1970s, the songwriter Johnny Mercer was to appear on the BBC Two programme Late Night Line-Up. The producer, assuming that all songwriters were also pianists, led him to the piano, only to be informed that Mr Mercer did not play the piano. Lemon, who happened to live near the studio, was urgently sent for. “He arrived,” Green recalled, “sat quietly at the piano and awaited instructions. Mercer suggested I’m Old Fashioned in E-flat and off they went. The recording went beautifully, with Brian playing as though he’d spent his whole life working with Mercer. He then said good night and went home.”
In all this time, Lemon had recorded only one album under his own name, and that had more or less sunk without trace. However, in 1994 a jazz-loving retired businessman, John Bune, happened to catch a television broadcast by Scott Hamilton, with Lemon as the pianist. He was struck by his playing and, after hearing him in person, resolved to record him for a CD.
Thus was born Zephyr Records, a label devoted mainly (and at first entirely) to presenting Brian Lemon to the world. The first disc, But Beautiful, was released in January 1995, and by the end of that year there were seven, all in their distinctive lemon yellow packages. The fourth, A Beautiful Friendship, was named Best New CD in that year’s British Jazz Awards.
Altogether, Lemon recorded on 27 Zephyr albums in the space of a decade, although not billed as leader on all of them. “For most of the sessions,” recalled Bune, “there wasn’t a sheet of manuscript paper in sight, and very little in the way of pre-arrangement or even rehearsal. The whole thing revolved around Brian’s piano, and I’m convinced there’s no other musician in the country who could have achieved these results.”
During the same period Lemon toured with package shows, such as Lady Sings the Blues and The Best of British Jazz ; played in a jazz quintet led by the Rolling Stones drummer, Charlie Watts, and the Pizza Express All-Stars; and took part in many radio broadcasts and general recording sessions.
In 2005 osteoarthritis in his hands forced Lemon to give up playing the piano and he retired from music.
Brian Lemon married, in 1965, Debby Holley. They later separated but never divorced, and she survives him with their son. He is also survived by his partner, Susan Burgess.
Brian Lemon, born February 11 1937, died October 11 2014