Ben Castle

John Robert Brown

Ben Castle

I met Ben Castle in a coffee bar next door to the BBC Radio studios in Leeds. Ben was on his way to record an interview; he took time to meet me for a chat. Over a cup of green tea Ben began by telling me about how he started playing the clarinet and saxophone.

"When I was seven, and starting a new school, the pupils could have instrumental lessons. My dad [Roy Castle, OBE, 1932 - 1994 English dancer, singer, comedian, actor, television presenter and musician] played a lot of instruments. One that he'd never got round to learning was the clarinet. He'd bought one years and years before, for £25, with every good intention of learning it, but he never got round to it. So he sent me off to school with it. My brother plays trombone, and one of my sisters plays the trumpet, so my dad thought we'd have a front line! I was sent to school with a clarinet under my arm. I didn't have a clue what it was. I'd never knowingly seen one before.

"It was just a thing that you did at school. Already I loved music. There was music around the house. But I'd not put two and two together about how music was made. To begin with I was quite excited that I had an instrument in my hand, and it made a sound. But I soon became very bored when I had to practise pieces of music with which I had no connection. Those beginner books, such as A Tune a Day are brilliant, but they are limited. There'd be the odd Christmas carol that I'd recognise. But I actually pleaded with my dad to let me give up, because I wasn't enjoying it. Practice was one extra thing to do on top of school homework. My dad said: 'If you really don't want to do this, I'll let you give up - but you'll thank me in later life if you continue.'
"And so I continued. I'd started on the clarinet when I was seven, then the saxophone when I was nine."

Roy and Ben Castle

Ben learned the piano as a child. "I was never particularly good at it." he says. "I still use the piano for arranging and writing, and I love it for exploring harmony. I have played the piano on gigs with bands, but I'm always very embarrassed if there's a piano player in the audience, or in another band, playing on the same bill. And when I'm doing harmony, I visualize it on the piano. I always used to see piano keys, to make sure it would all work."

JRB: And how far did you take the clarinet and the flute?

"I really worked hard at the clarinet, and got Grade VIII when I was thirteen. It's funny with grades, because I don't think I was a Grade VIII player, but I really worked on these pieces and managed to get a distinction. In recent years clarinet has crept back in, and I get quite a few gigs just because I play the clarinet."

JRB: And the flute?

"I tell people that I play the clarinet and the saxophone, and I own a flute! I'm okay on the flute when I can choose my own notes! When other people choose them for me it's hit and miss. It's the easy bits I can't do on the flute - such as holding long notes.

"My first saxophone was an alto. I've always been quite little; I don't think I'd have been able to hold a tenor. When dad wrote out the Pink Panther theme tune for me, I connected with what music was. I connected the dots. 'Okay, so I play those notes, and it sounds like the tune I heard on the cartoon, that I loved.' I connected something I was able to do with something I loved on the TV. Then I became obsessed. I realised the point of learning scales. That's how I got started. And then I got completely obsessed, and they couldn't stop me practising! And as a result, my school work suffered, because I was only ever interested in playing music.

"Between the ages of thirteen and seventeen I went to boarding school. They had rehearsal rooms there, where I could go to practise. The reason I went to the school was because it was quite strong for music. It was obvious to me, and to my family, that this was what my passion was. So even during school time I used to try and do five hours practice a day. That was when I was fifteen.

"When I was thirteen my dad took me to Ronnie Scott's to see the Buddy Rich big band. He was quite good friends with Buddy. Sadly, I didn't get to meet Buddy. It was 1986, about a year before Buddy died. But seeing Steve Marcus up there, playing those long, stretched-out solos so amazingly, I thought: "That's what I'm going to do. I have to do that."
"I used to play drums as well. I was more of a rock drummer. My brother was listening to rock music, so I was also listening to that, and my dad was a huge fan of the swing singers, like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. He also had a great collection of Clifford Brown records. That was a huge thing for me, as well.

"I tried to take down some of the solos of Steve Marcus, but I'd never write down the rhythms. I'd only write out the notes, and remember the rhythms in my head! Then I became completely obsessed with Clifford Brown's lyricism. It was fantastic to have those records lying around the house. Dad was very keen on music; he was very excited when I started listening to the Clifford Brown records, and Oscar Peterson. He was very happy for me to be obsessed with Deep Purple. But he was even happier when I began to be obsessed with the music that he was passionate about.

"Quite often I'd go to jazz clubs, such as Ronnie Scott's, and the Pizza Express in Dean Street. Sometimes we knew who we were going to see, sometimes we didn't. We went to see the Pizza Express modern jazz all-stars, and dad could not get over Gerard Presencer. In fact he asked Gerard how he came to be so good so young. Gerard said that he'd listened to a lot of Clifford Brown. So it all really tied in. And of course, watching Alan Barnes and Dave O'Higgins. Watching those guys had my jaw on the floor. Of course, the whole band was great, but at that age you tend to focus on the instrument you play. I was studying their fingers; I was one of those guys with binoculars. I met Dave O'Higgins, after seeing him. I had a chat with him, and he gave me a very helpful lesson.

"My dad often guested with the BBC Big Band, so I'd sometimes go and watch them record. I'd sit behind the saxes, and watch the music, and study how they phrased. And I had an amazing lesson with Ian Dixon. He's one of my heroes. It saddens me that I don't get to hear him as much as I used to. I haven't seen him in London for a long time. He gave me an incredible lesson, where he stuck me in a corridor and made me play low B for an hour! And anytime I wandered off, and started doing my own thing, he'd poke his head around the door and say: "Stop messing about - low B!" >But if you focus on the low notes in the difficult areas of the saxophone, it's amazing how the rest of the instrument really sings once you can really play the difficult bits. Stanley Turrentine's dad used to make him play one note for an hour; Dewey Redman (saxophonist father of saxophonist Joshua Redman) used to play eight hours on one note."

JRB: Do you really believe that?

"I did used to do an hour of long note practice at the beginning. When I left school and I did eight or nine hours, I would start with an hour of long notes. But it wasn't just one note. And by the end of the day I was always doolally from blowing down that lump of metal for eight or nine hours. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that, though it stood me in good stead. At the time my priority was to be the best saxophone player in the world. I left school when I was seventeen, because I was already getting work. I knew what I wanted to do, so I carried on practising.

"I was after that ferocious technique. I was a big fan of Michael Brecker. At that time, among my contemporaries everyone wanted to be Michael Brecker. When I was growing up, Brecker was the player that all the saxophone players talked about. Then I heard Wayne Shorter play two notes on a Joni Mitchell track. I thought: "That's what I want to do." He'd play two notes and rip your heart out! I noticed that so many tenor players were trying to sound like Michael Brecker. I realised I didn't want to be one more of those, so I worked on finding my own voice. But when you can play fast, and the rhythm section's really going, it's difficult to discipline yourself not to, when you also know that the audience will be lapping it up. It's quite difficult to play a solo that you feel is a bit more mature but then get a more lacklustre reception at the end. It depends upon who you are playing with, but very often, when you do a fireworks solo, then you get this amazing reception. It's quite strange to finish a solo and merely get a little ripple of applause. You have to find the middle ground."

Ben's current musical projects includes a project with a Huddersfield-based Indian musician and composer, Shri, whose music Ben is arranging for a brass band, sitar and bass. "It's fascinating for me to do this project," says Ben. "Indian music doesn't have harmony, so writing for a brass band is interesting. He wants me to bring my Western influence to it. We're working with the Hammond's Saltaire Brass Band. They are absolutely fantastic, and really enjoying it."


  • Selmer Radio Improved tenor saxophone, 1935 model, with original lacquer, Morgan Fry metal mouthpiece;
  • Selmer soprano saxophone, series three;
  • Selmer alto saxophone, Mark VI;
  • Selmer baritone saxophone Mark VI, low Bb model;
  • Selmer bass clarinet;
  • Buffet Bb clarinet, RC model, Portnoy mouthpiece;

John Robert Brown

Article first published in CASS Magazine, December 2015. Used by kind permission of the editor. Reproduction forbidden.

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