Listening to Beaujolais, you’d think that like one of his heroes, Milt Jackson, he was born to play the vibes.
“Both of my parents came from an era where there was no TV and not much radio and as a consequence, they had both learned piano as children. But I was brought up in a musical vacuum, in a house where there were no musical instruments, at least not until a piano arrived when I was 14. Music was never discussed and they had no interest in the music that I liked and couldn’t conceive that a career in ‘popular’ music was possible.
“When I was 15, some school friends got a rock band together and needed a drummer so they suggested that I get a drum kit and join them, so I did. I’d never played a drum kit before and bought it with money that I got from working in a factory in the summer holidays. I had a few privately tutored drum lessons from an old dance band drummer, then six months later I started having piano lessons at school, mainly so I could play blues and boogie-woogie as that was what I was interested in at the time. My piano teacher at school was a war veteran and only had one arm. Some people have suggested only having a few possible notes to play was a big influence on me!”
Beaujolais bought his first set of vibes when he was 24. “I’d never played a set before, but I loved the sound of the vibes and the atmospheres that it seemed to be able to create. I liked the fact that it was unique and unusual and that it’s so visual. The seller was a friend of someone I worked with and they lived over the road from where I was living at the time in Earls Court. It was a Premier 701 that wasn’t in great condition and cost me £200. I tried to find a vibraphone teacher but there were only three jazz vibraphone players in the UK that I was aware of at the time: Bill LeSage, Lennie Best and Frank Ricotti, and none of them would teach me. I considered going to Berklee college in Boston but I didn’t have any money and eventually realised that I needed to work it out for myself and as a result I am completely self taught. I also asked a lot of questions and practised a lot!”
Eventually Beaujolais found himself a slightly cleaner Premier 701 set. “I seem to remember it costing me £300,” he says. “By that time I’d started gigging and didn’t want to have to take my vibes apart after every gig in order to practise. Around the same time I also bought a Deagan Electrovibe, as I was having trouble hearing myself playing with drummers. These days I think the drummers I play with are good enough to be able to play with intensity at low volumes.” Like many musicians Beaujolais was always looking to upgrade his instrument as and when he could afford it. “About four years later I bought a set of Bergerault vibes and sold my original Premier set. I think they cost £450. Then within a year or two of that I had bought a Deagan Aurora vibraphone and sold my Premier set. They cost me the princely sum of £1,500.”
So how did Beaujolais come by this beautiful set of Musser vibes? “I joined a pop band called Fairground Attraction and toured with them for nine months. I refused to let them take my Deagan Aurora vibraphone on the road, as it was very old and not in great condition and I had the feeling that if roadies were going to be carting it about, it would soon be unplayable. So they bought a brand new Musser M55 ProVibe for me to play. As they had just had a number one single and album, companies were falling over themselves to offer them equipment to endorse, so they bought it at cost price. When the band split up they owed me money, so they gave me the vibraphone. Ever since then the M55 has been the vibraphone that I use for gigs, although I occasionally still do some gigs where to play acoustically would mean I would be inaudible, so on those gigs I play my Deagan Electrovibe.”
When it comes to mallets, Beaujolais is very matter of fact. “I use Chalkin mallets, as they are the most convenient to buy in this country. All mallets are graded in terms of hardness. Too hard and the sound is really harsh; too soft means I’m unlikely to be able to hear myself. So I take a selection of weights of mallets with me to gigs and see which ones will sound best in the room and with the musicians I’m playing with. My preference is the medium soft mallet. I like the sound, but more often than not I wouldn’t be heard (or be able to hear myself) if I were to use them.” Most of Beaujolais’ gigs are acoustic, so there are no pickups attached to the Musser. “I’m at the mercy of the PA, if there is one. With my electrovibes I have to take an amp and for that I use a Gallien Krueger keyboard amp. When I need more power I use a Carver amplifier and Hughes & Kettner speakers. For all ‘electric’ gigs I also go through a Roland M120 mixer and use an Alesis reverb unit.”
Although Beaujolais clearly loves his M55 Musser, I get the feeling that he’s keeping his options open. “It would be great if I could find a vibraphone that I could just get out of my pocket and play,” he says, tongue in cheek. “It would stop me from hearing for the millionth time, ‘I bet you wished you played flute’.”
– David Gallant