Mike Travis, who has died aged 78, was a drummer and actor who was a creative force from London’s late 1960s and early 1970s jazz scene to Scotland’s thriving alternative theatre circuit and beyond.
From residencies at Ronnie Scott’s London jazz club, becoming a founder member of prog band Gilgamesh and playing with more best musicians, Travis worked extensively with theatre companies such as Wildcat and Communicado.
With the former, Travis appeared in shows such as The Beggar’s Opera (1986), 7:84 Scotland founder John McGrath’s epic, Border Warfare (1989), and The Celtic Story (1998). With the latter, he was a founder member of the Cauld Blast Orchestra, formed by clarinettist Karen Wimhurst to play her music for Jock Tamson’s Bairns, Liz Lochhead’s Robert Burns and Hugh MacDiarmid inspired play performed at Tramway as part of the 1990 Glasgow Year of Culture.
Travis also appeared in The Ship (1990) and The Big Picnic (1994), Bill Bryden’s two monumental stage productions at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Govan. The first was an elegy to Glasgow’s shipbuilding history, the second an equally elegiac First World War saga.
Travis developed an interest in blues and traditional Scottish music from an early age, and worked in the record department of Cairns Bookshop on Forrest Road, in the thick of Edinburgh’s underground music scenes of which he would become a part. Travis initially took up guitar, joining a trad band whose ranks included school pal Robin Williamson, who would later form folk psych pastoralists The Incredible String Band.
Travis soon realised that while there was a glut of guitarists, there were fewer drummers. Switching instruments, after leaving school in 1961, he started gigging around Edinburgh’s jazz and beat club circuit. He then went to London with The Buzz, a band formed from The Boston Dexters, featuring Tam White on vocals. Going into the studio with sonic DIY maverick Joe Meek, the band recorded You’re Holding Me Down, a furious piece of pre-punk freakbeat penned by guitarist Johnny Turnbull, and released as a single in 1966. Regarded as one of Meek’s most unhinged productions, You’re Holding Me Down has appeared on numerous psych/garage compilations.
Travis established himself on the London jazz circuit after joining pianist Reg Powell’s Trio at the Pickwick Club, a fashionable haunt frequented by film and music business royalty. The trio backed singer Jon Hendricks, which led to the likes of Roland Kirk, Annie Ross and Percy Heath sitting in.
Travis went on to establish himself at Ronnie Scott’s Old Place, then the playground of a new wave of jazz players, including the likes of Mike Westbrook, John Surman, Keith Tippett and Chris McGregor. Travis joined the London Jazz Four, with pianist Mike McNaught, bassist Brian Moore, and flute and sax player Jim Philip. The band recorded two albums, including The Elizabethan Songbook (1969).
In 1972, Travis joined Gilgamesh, after being recommended to keyboardist Alan Gowen by percussionist Jamie Muir, with whom Travis had played with in Edinburgh, and who was departing Gowen’s band to join King Crimson. Gilgamesh lasted three years and one studio album. During a double quartet gig with Hatfield and the North, Travis was spotted by bassist Hugh Hopper, who recommended him to Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta for his band, East Wind.
Travis also joined Hopper’s band, appearing on Monster Band (1974, released 1979) and Hopper Tunity Box (1976). Travis was co-credited alongside Hopper on North and South (2014), a recording of a 1995 Aberdeen show that made up volume three of a ten CD box set of unreleased work by Hopper.
Travis moved back to Scotland in 1978, and briefly joined Cado Belle, featuring singer Maggie Reilly, for a tour of Ireland. Travis worked tirelessly on the central belt jazz circuit, becoming one of the go-to drummers for the Platform Jazz organisation, who brought international jazz stars to Scotland. Travis duly played with American sax and flute player James Moody, trumpeter Art Farmer, guitarist Charlie Byrd and many others.
With Wildcat composer David McNiven, Travis played drums and percussion on assorted BBC Scotland Comedy Unit shows, including A Kick Up the Eighties (1981), City Lights (1984-91), Naked Video (1986) and Rab C. Nesbitt (1988-2011).
On the traditional music scene, he played with Clan Alba, Caledon and Ceolbeg, and on albums by clarsach player Savourna Stevenson, composer Edward McGuire and former Ossian harpist Billy Jackson. Travis also played with Michael Marra and Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra. In 1996, Mike Travis’ EH15 released its sole album, The View From Where.
In 2006, Travis and his wife Wendy moved to France, where they lived until 2015, when they returned to Scotland. They briefly lived in Edinburgh before settling in Duns in the Scottish Borders for the remainder of Travis’ rich and colourful life.
Travis is survived by Wendy, their daughter Rebecca, their son Dan, and his brothers, Chris and Des.