How well do we really know our local jazz history? It’s a question I’ve asked myself again and again when I spent nine months trying to identify the musicians depicted on a found photo. This is the story of the Lightning Jazz Trio, the most talented Belgian jazz band you’ve never heard.
Collecting music from the past can sometimes be just as frustrating as it can be rewarding. On some days it looks as if your collection is a time machine that can catapult you back in time and allows you to experience an era of music as if you’ve witnessed it yourself. Your collection feels complete and seemingly offers the answers to all the questions about music history you ever had. On other days, your collection punches you in the face with the stone cold fact that never in your life your quest to capture history will be fulfilled. Because time is merciless and the history of music is littered with intriguing musicians whose stories will forever remain untold.
One such obscure name that kept haunting me during my research of Belgian jazz history is a group called The Lightning Jazz Quartet. I came across the name for the first time some years ago, after I had bought the archives of a deceased Belgian jazz journalist who had also worked as a stage manager for festivals. I learned that the Lightning Jazz Quartet had performed at the Jazz Jamboree festival in the seaside town of Middelkerke in July of 1966, alongside a too-good-to-be-true kind of line-up of jazz greats such as Abbey Lincoln, Ted Curson and Paul Bley. I also discovered that two weeks later, they participated in the amateur competition of the Ostend Jazz Festival, just ten kilometres further up the coast line, where they ended in the fourth place. Other than that, I could not find the slightest bit of information on the band nor its musicians and I tried to make peace with the assumption that they had just been a group of forgettable amateurs.
But my interest in the band got instigated again when I found a black and white photo of two jazz musicians in a pile of photos of Flemish variety singers at a local music fair. The photo depicted a young saxophone player, his eyes lovingly shut while playing his instrument. Next to him was an equally young bass player with thick square glasses, both of them dressed in suits and ties, completely breathing the atmosphere of the 1960s. The background didn’t reveal much more than the vague contours of a stage, presumably from an open air concert. The verso contained the stamp of a photographer from Ostend, and underneath in elegant handwriting: Lightning Jazz Trio. Other than that there were no names, no location, no date, nothing. To say that seeing the faces of the musicians intrigued me is an understatement. Who were these young cats, immortalized in chiaroscuro on this mysterious photo, who played jazz in my home country half a century ago?
After a nine-month search – nobody of all the older collectors and musicians I contacted had ever heard of the Lightning Jazz Trio or Quartet – I was finally able to sit down with Eddy Masschalck (°1946), in a previous life a young saxophone player from Ostend, to document the Lightning Jazz story.
“My father was a jazz fan,” Eddy tells. “Back then, in Ostend, there were quite some good concerts that you could go to. Louis Armstrong played at the Casino-Kursaal, and I remember that my father was very enthusiast about him. We also went to see Count Basie and Duke Ellington. I was especially drawn towards the big bands, the power they produced was fantastic. One day, my father came home with a trumpet and asked if I wanted to learn how to play it. But the trumpet didn’t really attract me. I wanted to play the saxophone. And so he let me go to the conservatory of Ostend”.
In 1961, when he is fifteen years old, Eddy joins Los Marineros, a variety orchestra that predominantly performs at dance nights and student proms. When the leader of the orchestra quits, the band decides to continue under the name The Lightnings. Eddy shows me a newspaper clipping from one of their first concerts: “The Lightning youth orchestra played enjoyable music for everybody, and the later it got, the better it sounded. At five AM, the members of the orchestra were to be found on the dance floor themselves.” Another article headlines ‘TEENAGER MASS FOR THE LIGHTNINGS’.
Among the members of the band, Eddy meets two kindred spirits: bassist Ronny Dewulf and drummer Jean-Pierre Pitteljon. “The three of us were jazz lovers and we got together, outside of the orchestra, and we just started to jam,” Eddy recalls, smiling. “With the Lightning Jazz Trio, we played at the youth clubs in Ostend. There weren’t any real jazz clubs back then, but sometimes we could play the warm-up for more famous jazz musicians like (vibraphonist) Fats Sadi or (pianist) Jack Van Poll”.
SOUNDS OF THE DEEPER SELF
By that time, Eddy Masschalck has outgrown the big bands and he is under the spell of saxophonist John Coltrane, whose music radically changed everything that jazz had meant before. “From the beginning already I had an aversion towards musical conventions, like a theme for example. We did play a theme to start a song, but once it was over we played whatever we wanted. My idea was: ‘Free. Go for it’. I never liked all those rules in music. I went to the music academy, but I didn’t like it at all. They tried to teach us so many things that I found completely unnecessary.”
Later, when Eddy was a student in Leuven, he wrote on his typewriter three pages of what could easily pass for a free jazz manifesto: ‘Free jazz is the explicit display of the momentary deeper feelings of the individual being. True free jazz men try to express the deepest of themselves.”A bit further he wrote “The explication of the deeper feelings of mankind, the deepest I, cannot happen within the frame of the classic conventions. The freedom in free jazz is (…) a logical consequence of the need to fully explore and express the deeper self.” Half a century later, Eddy is still convinced of his words. “I’ve always thought that jazz should be free. In my mind, I already used the expression ‘free jazz’, while I had never heard of free jazz as a genre. And it was only later that I found out that it actually existed in America.”
The free sound of the Lightning Jazz Trio seems to appeal in Belgium. In the summer of 1965, Eddy, Ronny and Jean-Pierre hitchhike from Ostend to the Belgian Ardennes, where they participate in the Bobby Jaspar Trophy for amateur orchestras during the reputed festival of Comblain-la-Tour. The result is a (mere) fourth place, but the boys are able to perform in front of an audience of thousands of international jazz lovers. In that crowd there is one man in particular who pays extra attention to the band’s performance: concert organiser Vic Van Geel, himself from Ostend as well, is surprised to hear of a good jazz band from his home town. He is instantly appointed as the manager of the Lightning Jazz Trio, and under his wings the orchestra gets more gigs, such as the warm-up concert for the German trombone star Albert Mangelsdorff in Ostend.
DISCOVER THE STAR
But the most remarkable occurrence in the short existence of the Lightning Jazz Trio takes place on November 3, 1965. “I was thinking, ‘we got quite a good band, let’s try to get on TV’,” Eddy explains, “so we enrolled for Ontdek De Ster”. Ontdek De Ster (Discover The Star) was, from the mid 1950s until the mid 1970s, the most important talent show on the Flemish TV. Many Flemish stars like Hugo Raspoet, Rita Deneve, Ann Soetaert and Johan Verminnen rose to fame after participating in the contest. “There was a preselection in Bruges, and we made it into the finals. The competition took place at the Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp, and it was broadcasted live on national TV,” Eddy recalls.
From a big folder chockful of documentation about his jazz career, Eddy pulls out a cd. He also arranges four small black & white photos on the table between us. Since the broadcast of Ontdek De Ster was live, in an era when VCR recorders were yet to be invented, Eddy called on a friend who, armed with a tape recorder and a photo camera, captured the band’s TV performance. Thanks to him I have the opportunity to experience this peculiar moment – really, free jazz in Ontdek De Ster? – in Belgian jazz history, fifty years after the facts.
“From Ostend, the Lightning Jazz Trio,” I hear a presenter announce with a formal voice. “They play a composition by the leader Eddy Masschalck: Vicky.” The song, which Eddy wrote in honour of his manager Vic Van Geel’s daughter, opens with a mesmerizing intro built up with long saxophone notes and subtle bass punches. Eddy listens along with me in full focus until after about one minute and a half he gets a sparkle in his eyes when the tempo shifts up a few gears and the music becomes much rougher, as Eddy seemingly blows his entire soul through his saxophone. “Here we go!” Eddy shouts, visibly entertained. “It’s incredible that we got on TV with that type of music. We were the only band that played jazz, and more specifically that kind of jazz”, Eddy recalls. I wonder what the reactions were when this music entered the Flemish households, fifty years ago. Eddy shines with pride. “We became second, with only one point less than the winner,” Eddy recalls. “The mouth piece of my saxophone squeaked a few times, and I think that was the reason. If it wasn’t for the squeaking, maybe we had won”.
While their participation in the contest doesn’t mean the big breakthrough that the Lightning Jazz Trio is hoping for, it does raise public awareness around the band. “I was in my second year at the university of Leuven back then, and when I went to the clubs, strangers often came up to me because they had seen me on TV,” Eddy recalls. Even more so, the band gets attention from the press. A local newspaper describes how the Lightning Jazz Trio is loudly applauded upon their return to the youth clubs in Ostend, and in January of 1966, the culturally influential newspaper De Standaard devotes no less than six columns to ‘the biggest revelation since Jack Van Poll’, and seems to really believe in the talent of the band’s leader Eddy Masschalck: ‘He is romantic, not sentimental, sometimes very pure. (…) Of course it’s music that is sometimes a bit immature or naïve still, looking in love at the silence, but suddenly the musical story reaches a denouement and displays speed and rhythm.’
YOUNG AND OBSESSED WITH JAZZ
Not much later, the trio becomes a quartet, when trumpet player Eddy Laga joins in. With him, the band lands a gig in the Brussels jazz temple the Blue Note (where around the same time such luminaries as Booker Ervin, Kenny Drew and Dexter Gordon performed as well), and returns to the stage of Comblain-la-Tour, where they are booked in the regular programme this time. Their performance at Comblain seems to be leading to an international breakthrough: the reputed French Jazz Magazine calls their concert ‘excellent’ and they’re invited for a concert near Reims, in France’s champagne region in November of 1966. With Eddy Laga replaced by Eddie Busnello (*), one of the best alto saxophone players Belgium has ever known, the band’s first international gig looks promising. But not much glory was to be found in France. “The stage was a huge grape press with a few wooden planks. The four of us stood on top, playing our instruments,” Eddy recalls, be it with much joy.
The concert in France was one of the last that the Lightning Jazz Quartet ever played. “I was living in a student room and couldn’t rehearse during the week because I would make too much noise,” says Eddy, “and when the others had to enrol for the army, the band fell apart. That’s when it was over.” Eddy eventually sold his saxophone and worked as an engineer for his entire career. Ronny Dewulf continued to play jazz up until the early 1970s, before becoming a professional bass player at the Royal Flemish Opera in Antwerp. Jean-Pierre Pitteljon and Eddy Laga have never stopped playing music as a hobby, and they can still be found performing together occasionally. All of them have fond memories of their Lightning Jazz days. “We were young and obsessed with jazz,” Jean-Pierre Pitteljon summarises it well, when I speak him over the phone.
As I look at the photos that Eddy’s friend made of the trio’s TV performance, I enjoy their youthful unconcernedness, yet at the same time I lament the potential that never got the chance to fully mature. The stars were favourable for the youngsters of the Lightning Jazz group, once the most promising band on the scene, but they were gone just as fast as they had arrived. Like a lightning bolt through Belgium’s jazz history.
This article previously appeared in Dutch in the September 2019 issue of Belgian magazine Jazz & Mo’. All photos courtesy of Eddy Masschalck, unless noted.
(*) To say that I was surprised when I heard that Eddie Busnello had briefly joined the Lightning Jazz Quartet is a huge understatement. Busnello, a Belgian altoist of Italian descent, is somewhat of a musician’s musician: praised for his extraordinary talent by some, but forgotten by most. He was born in Seraing and learned his trade on the jazz scene of Liège. At the end of the 1950s he was part of the Kurt Edelhagen band in Cologne, with which he made various recordings. By the mid 1960s, he had however somewhat disappeared from the jazz scene. In the liner notes of his album Swinging Macedonia, recorded in the summer of 1966, Dusko Goykovich describes how he eventually tracked down Busnello in Ostend. Eddy Masschalck is not 100% sure, but assumes that it was Vic Van Geel who was aware of Busnello’s relocating to the coastal town and made the connection with the Lightning Jazz Quartet for their gig in France. Busnello eventually moved to Italy and was part of the progressive rock band Area.