Starless and Bible Black

A few weeks ago in my bit about the great jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, I mentioned another great musician, Stan Tracey. He was Ronnie Scott’s house pianist for many years, as well as being a composer and leader of his own band. It’s only the fact that he stayed all his life in England that prevented him from gaining wider recognition. No less a musician than Sonny Rollins asked (of British Jazz fans)

Does anyone here realise how good he is?

Well, I think they do but he remains relatively unknown outside these shores.

Amongst the collection of old LPs that I am gradually making into CDs using the USB turntable I got for Christmas is one of the greatest British jazz albums, Under Milk Wood, which was written by Stan Tracey and recorded by his band in 1965.

Living in Wales, I’m somewhat ashamed that I didn’t do this one before because it is of course inspired by the “play for voices” with the same name by Dylan Thomas. The music is brilliant throughout, vividly evoking the atmosphere of various episodes in the play, but my favourite track is about the very first lines. Stan Tracey’s piano and Bobby Wellins‘ saxophone hauntingly evoke the atmosphere of the opening of Under Milk Wood which, if you’ll forgive me for quoting a rather lengthy extract, shows Dylan Thomas extraordinarily imaginative use of language, superb control of rhythm even in a prose setting. His poems are wonderful to listen to as well as to read, especially when read by the poet himself with his sonorous yet lilting voice; if you want a short example try this example, steeped in a sense of nocturnal melancholy

In My Craft or Sullen Art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Anyway, the play Under Milk Wood‘s famous opening goes along these lines:

It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courter’s-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’
weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wet-nosed yard; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.

You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.

Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep.

And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before-dawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.

Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Ocky Milkman’s lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread’s bakery flying like black flour. It is tonight in Donkey Street, trotting silent, with seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.

Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

Here are Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins with Stan Tracey’s meditation on that piece, Starless and Bible Black, played in a way that’s as moving and ethereal as the sound of time passing….

5 Responses to “Starless and Bible Black”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I meant to go to Ronnie Scott’s in the days when he still ran it, but the one night I managed it, it wasn’t worth going in (something about the timing of the live band, as I recall – also I really only like Trad).

    BBC regularly transmit the famous Richard Burton rendering of “Under Milk Wood” and I recorded it on audiocassette (I trust it’s now out on CD) and plan to transfer it to CD using my Behringer UCA202 digistiser, which works well with the output of my cassette deck and I hope will also digitise the output of my record deck in order to deal with my remaining vinyl. I still wonder how many people think to read backwards the name of the fictional Welsh village in which Under Milk Wood is set (Llareggub). I didn’t know you could get Dylan Thomas on YouTube – thanks.


  2. telescoper Says:


    I was a member at Ronnie Scott’s for many years when I lived in London. It was very cheap to get in midweek and I regularly stayed for the second set, which often meant leaving about 3am. I saw a lot of great musicians play there, but it was never really a place to go for trad. You’d be better off at the Pizza Express in Dean Street for that sort of Jazz; Ronnie was always a modernist.

    There is a recording of Under Milk Wood with Dylan Thomas himself doing the narration but it’s not on Youtube. His voice isn’t particularly welsh-sounding but I can’t read his poetry without imagining what it would sound like if he read it out loud. Of all the poets I can think of, his is the verse that most suits being read out loud.


  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Poetry is better listened to than read. To push an analogy a bit, not many of us read music scores for pleasure but plenty of us go to classical concerts. Audiobooks found their role with poetry, and a multi-cassette collection of great poetry is one of the things I plan to digitise. Paul Scofield reading TS Eliot is a highlight.

    Is that Pizza Express still a trad hotspot?


  4. telescoper Says:


    I’m not sure I agree with what you say. Certainly some poetry is better read out loud, perhaps even most. But I think when it has a particularly high density of meaning and complexity of structure it is hard to see what is going on unless you read it over and over again, a bit like a crossword clue. I don’t think listening to it is as good as reading it yourself in such cases. Having said that, I do have recordings of John Gielgud reading the entire set of Shakespeare’s sonnets which I listen to over and over again like music. I guess it’s a question of the extent to which the sound is central to the way the poem works. Some prose is better spoken too, such the opening of Under Milk Wood , or A Child’s Christmas in Wales but not many novels are improved by reading out loud.

    The Jazz venues in central london tend to be quite mainstream rather than traddy. The Pizza Express and Pizza on the Park both pretty middle-of-the-road with guest artists and singers for quite a general audience.
    Ronnie Scott’s, The Jazz Cafe (Camden) and The Vortex (Dalston) were the places for jazz aficianados although I haven’t been to any of them for ten years or so.

    The Bull’s Head in Barnes is also a great venue with an eclectic mix, including some traditional bands from time to time but you have to check who’s on and it’s a bit out in the sticks in SW London.

    Pubs rather than clubs are your best bet for traditional Jazz in London and elsewhere. There’s a good one near where I used to live, in Shoreditch, which appropriately for your new location is called The Wenlock Arms . There used to be a band that played there regularly that featured Humph’s former bandmember Wally Fawkes on clarinet.

    There’s a really nice Jazz club in Cardiff with a blend of music from trad to fusion and something most nights of the week, and there are also a few pubs with regular jazz nights. I think you’d like the Liberty Street band which I have heard a couple of times already.


  5. […] in 1964 playing Chelsea Bridge with the marvellous Stan Tracey on piano who featured in a previous post of […]

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