Ike Isaacs 100th Anniversary

by Mark Isaacs

Ike Isaacs jamming with the great Wes Montgomery

Ike Isaacs jamming with the great Wes Montgomery

My forebears on both sides of the family are part of a colourful diaspora of Baghdadi Jews who lived in Burma from the 19th century. Again dispersed by the 1942 Japanese invasion of that country many trekked to India, with musicians among them gaining lodgings along the way by serenading British tea plantation owners. Some ended up in England, where my parents later met and I was born. Amongst the musicians was Ike Isaacs, my father’s elder brother, who became in due course a legend in the world of jazz guitar.

Ike Isaacs, born in Rangoon on December 1, 1919, figured as the most prominent British jazz guitarist in the 1950s and 1960s, subsequently touring and recording with the legendary jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. As well as numerous London recording sessions, playing in the BBC Show Band, plus many notable album releases of his own, from the late 1950s Ike led the resident group for the BBC’s weekly live radio show Guitar Club, which played a key role in popularising the guitar. Indeed, in his autobiography, guitarist Andy Summers from the band The Police reminisces that listening to Guitar Club on the BBC and hearing Ike Isaacs amongst other seminal British guitar talent was “the great inspiration of the week”.

Ike was accorded genuine respect by the most famous jazz guitarists in the world, with whom he nurtured warm friendships and who in turn admired his legendary harmonic facility as well as appreciating his warm and collegial hospitality. There are photos of Ike jamming in his music room with the great Wes Montgomery, and he also counted the likes of Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, George Benson and Jim Hall as buddies. Even Duke Ellington came to Ike’s home for lunch on one of the great man’s British tours.

Ike told me that in the 1960s a young (and then unknown) John McLaughlin used to visit him to talk about music and life. Like Ike, John was filling his time with commercial recording sessions but was frustrated with how this activity was taking him away from his own vision. Ike typically encouraged him to follow his heart, and, on a subsequent recording session he and Ike were booked for, McLaughlin simply chose not to show up, a sure-fire way to deliberately end one career and go on to make jazz fusion guitar history.

Never a great seeker of the limelight, Ike is remembered as much for the way he shared his musical discoveries with others as he was for his own performances and recordings.  I have met countless guitarists, whether noted professionals or amateurs, who told me how Ike’s joy in communicating his love and knowledge of the guitar at an informal get together had indelibly shaped their journey. At the very apex of the spectrum, guitarist Martin Taylor, one of the most distinguished jazz guitarists on the international scene today, cites Ike as his main mentor.

Ike’s most notable musical gift was his wistful lyricism, which was bolstered by his ability to find ways to play chords – and contrapuntal inner parts – on the guitar that should not be possible, and were in fact the result of a supreme and self-confessed effort to turn the instrument into a piano. It was most evident in his solo guitar work, and as a young musician I was frustrated that Ike had not documented this aspect of his playing in a recording. And so in 1991, when Ike lived in Sydney in semi-retirement, I was thrilled to produce his CD Intimate Interpretations, which documented his life’s work paraphrasing gems from the Great American Songbook in extraordinary solo guitar reworkings. Ike’s beautiful composition Starlight from that CD concludes this disk, and his whole recording is being reissued on all digital platforms this year through my own label.

Ike died in January 1996 in Sydney, and it seems the perfect way to honour the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday by not only reissuing his greatest musical achievement, but especially to have this CD of tribute tracks from guitarists and others from all around the world who were touched by him (including a track from my own late father, guitarist and songwriter Saul Isaacs, who enjoyed Ike as his lifetime elder-brother guitar mentor).

As does his wife, Moira, still with us, I feel that Ike joins me in spirit to thank from the bottom of our hearts composer Roger Frankham (another whom Ike inspired) for so generously producing this CD, as well as all the guitarists and other artists who shared their tribute tracks with such real warmth and deep respect for his memory.

MARK ISAACS, September 2019

Notes written for the CD booklet of WE LIKE IKE 100th Birthday Tribute to Jazz Guitar Legend Ike Isaacs (Triangle7/MGM TR001) released on CD and on digital & streaming platforms October 25, 2019