Jerry Underwood



From MUSICIAN Magazine
December 2002


Saxophonist Jerry Underwood, one of the most distinctive voices on the British jazz scene of the1990s, died on 3 August in Chambery, France, aged 45. Jerry had one of the most powerful and recognisable sounds in the business and was renowned for his burning modal solos. He also had the touch of a master on slow numbers, using his unique, shining tone to great effect, both on tenor and soprano.

Born in Leicester, Jerry learnt clarinet at school, obtaining a choral scholarship to St John's, Cambridge and attending Malborough public school. He then did a fine art degree in Bristol, but became more interested in jazz, meeting and studying with Paul Dunmall, then saxophonist with Spirit Level. During his time in Bristol in the early 1980s he played with Andy Sheppard in drummer Tony Orrell's two-tenor band Klaunstance and in many other groups including the anarchic big band Bullitt and its offshoot Out Loud.

In 1986 Jerry moved to London, three years later replacing Dunmall in Spirit Level, with whom he remainded for seven years, recording three albums and touring extensively in Britain and Europe. His playing at this time was described by JAZZ UK as "producing a breadth of tone and emotion rarely seen outside the bands of Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders". He also gigged with pianists Mervyn Africa and Geoff Williams, and began to appear regularly in high profile concerts with Andy Sheppard's Big Co-Motion and the Carla Bley Orchestra.

Jerry was always open to a diversity of styles and developed fruitful connections in the folk-rock scene, working extensively with John Martyn, and later joining Jacqui McShee's Pentangle. He also collaborated with electronic music pioneer Ed Williams.

Following his decision to move to France in 1995, work in the UK became harder to sustain, although he toured Britain in 1998-9 in a quartet with pianist Dave Gordon. He continued to practise his saxophone daily, however, and began to indulge another passion as well, mountain climbing most weekends in the high alps near his new home.

Diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, he fought it bravely with meditation, exercise and diet, on top of the radio- and chemo-therapy. In spite of an initial improvement, in January this year a new tumour appeared which soon caused paralysis and slurred speech. The last two weeks of Jerry's life were spent in a coma, and he died in the arms of his devoted wife Nathalie,with whom he had lived since moving to France. His gentle but passionate spirit will be greatly missed.

Tim Richards


Photos by Jacky Lepage, Le Travers Jazz Club, Brussels, December 1994
For another photo of Jerry, see the