Born in High Wycombe in 1936, Mike Westbrook grew up in Torquay and was educated at Kelly College, Tavistock. He formed his first band while studying painting in Plymouth in 1958, moving to London in the early 1960s. He has led and composed for a succession of groups, notably his 1960s Sextet and Concert Band, his Brass Band, formed in the mid 70s, the jazz rock group Solid Gold Cadillac and the Mike Westbrook Orchestra. He has toured extensively throughout Europe, and as far afield as Australia and the Far East, Canada and New York. He has directed performances of his work with big bands in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, France, Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland and Australia. He has broadcast on radio and TV in many countries, and made over 50 albums.
Mike also gives solo piano concerts. His album PARIS was recorded live in Paris by Jon Hiseman in July 2016. This was followed by STARCROSS BRIDGE in December 2017. He wrote the music for Kate Westbrook’s new album GRANITE and is a member of Kate’s Granite Band. His retrospective album CATANIA was recorded at the three-day Mike Westbrook Music Festival in Catania, Sicily in 1992. His current big band project with The Uncommon Orchestra, PURE GOLD presents selection of his work from the mid-70s to the present day.
Mike Westbrook was awarded an OBE in 1988 and, in 2004 an Honorary Doctorate of Music by the University of Plymouth. He received an Honorary Fellowship of Plymouth College of Art in 2018.
Mike celebrated his 85th birthday in 2021. Here are some tributes he received from colleagues and friends (arranged by London Jazz News)
"Mike Westbrook is one of Britain 's most creative, experimental and daring jazz composers."
"Britain's most innovative Big Band leader."
"With this immensely powerful work (London Bridge is Broken Down) Westbrook reinstates his claim to international pre-eminence among the heirs of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus."
"By the end, Catania (the Mike Westbrook Festival) had massively affirmed Westbrook's stature as a giant of contemporary music."
"As his career amply demonstrates, - he has produced a body of work embracing everything from opera through settings of Kate Westbrook's song cycles, to jazz suites and cabaret, - he is luckily for all lovers of innovative and original music, thoroughly committed to maintaining his reputation as the UK's foremost jazz composer."
"Westbrook is among the most serious composers in any field at present. Few contemporary classical composers have covered so much ground, or worked in as many forms as Westbrook, a self taught musician. Measure For Measure shows how far from what is conventionally regarded as jazz the Westbrooks can go. A collage of verse from the Shakespeare play, whose music comments wittily on Viennese School aesthetics, Measure For Measure is seriously 'serious'. It remains, however, like all Mike Westbrook's work, rooted in jazz."
"The Mike Westbrook Orchestra (Bar Utopia) is a phenomenal band, and Westbrook himself a master of of jazz orchestration. He can suggest a carnival, a ballroom, or a greasy back street with a few cunningly placed notes. The full effect is awe inspiring."
"Mike Westbrook puts an Exhilarating contemporary spin on the big band tradition. The surging excitement of an ensemble in in full cry is seldom far away, even on Measue To Measure, Kate Westbrook's Shakespearean adaptation that uses words in ways undreamt of during the hey day of Big Band vocalists."
"Mike Westbrook's settings of William Blake, perhaps the greatest work in all British Jazz."
The Independent on Sunday.
"Whether he is writing for a trio or a 20 piece orchestra, Westbrook's style is unmistakable. He combines instruments in unique ways, twists conventional jazz forms into surprising new shapes and seasons it all with delicate touches of humour and irony."
"In Westbrook, big band music has an historically aware champion who can keep the genre moving forward with wit and style."
"Everything about Westbrook is is on a massive scale: the number and variety of groups he has formed, the innumerable projects, his prolific output as a composer, the broad scope and long duration of his various works. Over the years he has developed a great mastery of orchestration and can handle everything from solo instrument to chamber group and very large ensemble. One of his greatest achievements is to have given jazz wider terms of cultural reference (relating it to poetry, theatre, the visual arts and the European classical music tradition) without in any way diminishing its own identity or vitality."
The Rough Guide To Jazz.
Mike Westbrook first made his mark as a composer with his 1960s recordings for Deram,- Celebration, Release and Marching Song, followed by Metropolis for RCA.
Subsequent compositions for Jazz Orchestra include Citadel/Room 315 featuring John Surman, The Cortege, On Duke's Birthday dedicated to the memory of Duke Ellington, Big Band Rossini which was featured in the 1992 BBC Proms and Chanson Irresponsable, (Enja Records) commissioned by BBC Radio 3, which brings together jazz and classical musicians.
Works for classical ensembles include a saxophone concerto Bean Rows and Blues Shots which was commissioned by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta for John Harle, a score for the silent movie Moulin Rouge commissioned by the Matrix Ensemble, and Classical Blues in 2002 for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Mike's television music credits include the award-winning BBC drama Caught on a Train by Stephen Poliakoff and directed by Peter Duffell starring Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Kitchen.
His involvement in experimental theatre began in the late 60s with the multi-media work Earthrise, and collaborations with The Welfare State Theatre Company and The Cosmic Circus. His work for the stage includes Adrian Mitchell's Tyger a celebration of William Blake, staged by the National Theatre in 1971, and Mitchell’s White Suit Blues about Mark Twain. His opera Quichotte commissioned by L’Ensemble Justiniana, toured in France in the 1980s. Coming Through Slaughter, based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje about the New Orleans cornettist Buddy Bolden, was premiered in London in a concert version in 1994.
In collaboration with his wife, singer/librettist Kate Westbrook, he has generated a whole series of jazz/cabarets and music-theatre pieces, notably The Ass, based on the poem by D.H Lawrence, Pierides commissioned by Extemporary Dance Theatre and Good Friday 1663, a TV opera commissioned by Channel Four with libretto by Helen Simpson. Their 2003 composition Art Wolf commissioned by the Aargauer Kunsthaus, Switzerland, is dedicated to the 18th century Alpine painter Caspar Wolf.
Mike wrote the music for Kate Westbrook's album The Nijinska Chamber (voiceprint) pairing Kate's voice with accordionist Karen Street. Other compositions include two works for voice and acoustic brass, performed by The Village Band,- Waxeywork Show and English Soup or the Battle of the Classic Trifle which was premiered in 2008.
Their 2009 album Fine 'n Yellow was released on the Gonzo label. The Serpent Hit written for voice, percussion and saxophone quartet, was premiered in London in 2011 at Wilton’s Music Hall.
The Westbrooks have also created large-scale concert works incorporating settings of European poetry, as in The Cortege a work for voices and jazz orchestra, and London Bridge Is Broken Down for voice, jazz group and chamber orchestra. Jago, their first full-scale opera, was commissioned by Wedmore Opera in 2000. Their jazz oratorio Turner in Uri, based on the painter Turner's travels in the Swiss Alps, was premiered in Altdorf and Zurich in 2003. Their opera Cape Gloss - Mathilda's Story for classical soprano and piano, had its first performance at the University of Plymouth in 2007.
Mike Westbrook's albums for ENJA Records include The Cortege, Bar Utopia a big-band cabaret with lyrics by Helen Simpson, The Orchestra of Smith's Academy, compositions recorded ‘live’ by the Mike Westbrook Orchestra and the Steve Martland Band, a tribute to the Beatles Off Abbey Road, and Glad Day settings of the poetry of William Blake. His releases on the Jazzprint label include Platterback with Westbrook & Company, L'ascenseur/The Lift with The Westbrook Trio, Waxeywork Show with The Village Band and a reissue on CD and DVD of the Westbrooks’ 1980s jazz cabaret Mama Chicago. Reissues on BGO include Citadel/Room 315 and London Bridge is Broken Down, and, on the Swiss label Hatology, On Duke’s Birthday and Westbrook Rossini.
Mike Westbrook returned to big band work with the formation of The Uncommon Orchestra, a 22-piece ensemble based in the South West of England, combining jazz, rock, pop and classical musicians. The orchestra released its first album (on ASC Records) A Bigger Show, a ‘jazz/rock oratorio’ with lyrics written and performed by Kate Westbrook with fellow vocalists Martine Waltier and Billy Bottle. Mike also works regularly in The Westbrook Trio with Kate and saxophonist Chris Biscoe. Forthcoming performances include a revival of The Westbrook Blake, featuring the voices of Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton in a Choral Version of his settings of the poetry of William Blake. Currently the 7-piece Westbrook&Company is presenting a new jazz cabaret Paintbox Jane, inspired by the painter Raoul Dufy.