One of the greatest bass guitarists of all time could just as easily have been a great classical musician and composer, were it not for the antiquated attitudes and snobbery of the late 1950s.
The son of a staunch trade unionist, bought up in post-war, working-class Glasgow, perhaps Jack Bruce was never destined to be a classical virtuoso. Despite winning a scholarship to study cello, piano and musical composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, he never really fitted in. He felt more comfortable alongside the free-flowing jazz musicians performing in Glasgow’s underground nightclubs. Classical music’s loss would undoubtedly prove to be rock ’n’ roll’s gain, for after playing with several jazz and blues outfits, Jack Bruce – alongside drummer Ginger Baker and guitarist Eric Clapton – formed the first ever supergroup, The Cream (soon after shortened to simply ‘Cream’).
In the brilliantly candid series of black-and-white images taken by photojournalist Don Paulson during the 'Disraeli Gears' recording sessions, Jack’s O&W Chronographe Suisse is ever-present.
People are always surprised to learn that, despite Cream’s prolific output and global fame, the band only existed for a little more than two years. Creative tensions between the three founders were present from the start and, aware that the project was unlikely to be sustainable, they resolved to achieve as much as possible as quickly as possible. They wasted not a single minute. From their first rehearsal in the summer of 1966 to their final gig on 4th November 1968, they recorded four albums, selling 15 million copies worldwide (including the world’s first platinum-selling double album). They managed to squeeze in more than 400 official concerts, many of which included more that one Cream set, so studio time was limited. Disraeli Gears, widely regarded as Cream’s best album, took just five days to record at Atlantic Studios in New York, several of the tracks being first or second takes.
Cream left an indelible mark on music and on pop culture. However the thousands of photos and hours film footage of Jack Bruce, captured between 1966 and 1971, one small and consistent detail has likely gone unnoticed by all but the most observant fans: Jack’s wristwatch, an Ollech & Wajs Precision’s reverse panda Chronographe Suisse. Its understated, utilitarian design was quite dissonant with Jack’s flamboyant, bohemian wardrobe. Some might even say not very rock ’n’ roll, but they’d be mistaken. Ollech & Wajs chronographs were precision instruments used by professionals for whom split-second timing was critical – divers, racing drivers, technicians, pilots, engineers, scientists, doctors, scientists and sportsmen – and anyone leading the way in their profession. Precision timing is a prerequisite of a professional musician, and Jack Bruce was definitely a pioneer of his particular field, rock ’n’ roll. He may not have been the most technically perfect bass player ever, but he was unquestionably the most musically talented and inventive. He did things with a bass guitar that not only had nobody thought possible, but that nobody had ever even thought of trying. Bass had traditionally been a background rhythm instrument, but in Jack’s hands it became a lead instrument.
The OW Precision Chronographe Suisse powered by the reliable Valjoux 92, marketed as a Skin-Diver and Pilot’s watch.
We can only hypothesise on how Jack might have used his chronograph for everyday tasks. It’s possible that he timed sections of musical arrangements when recording or writing new songs. He may have used it during performances to keep the set running to time. He would probably have relied on it to stay on time during Cream’s gruelling tour schedules. Unlike the particular model photographed, which has the 60-minute bezel, Jack’s Chronographe Suisse was fitted with the 12-hour bezel, which would have enabled him to track two different time zones – useful to know what time it was back home when touring or when hopping between timezones within the US. On the Disraeli Gears album sleeve is a photograph taken by renowned British photographer, Robert Whitaker, of Jack on a windswept Ben Nevis, checking his watch theatrically as if to protest the amount of time the shoot is taking.
The one thing of which we can be almost certain is that each bass chord you hear on every recording of Cream’s iconic hits – ‘I Feel Free’, ‘White Room’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ – was played by Jack whilst wearing his trusted O&W. If the song titles don’t sound immediately familiar, the songs themselves will. They have long been go-to tracks for film or TV directors wanting to evoke the sounds of the sixties, and they feature in countless movies.
Jack Bruce was more than Cream’s bass player. He was the songwriter, lead vocalist, keyboardist, pianist, harmonicist, cellist and occasional acoustic guitarist. In a rock power trio the bassist often fulfils the role of the rhythm guitarist too. It has been said many times that the key to Jack’s musical genius was his superhuman sense of timing. An innate precision that was so utterly perfect that, even though he rarely played a song exactly same way twice, every note was always in exactly the right place – to within a tenth of a second. In fact, if the movement makers of Switzerland’s famous Valjoux were to engineer a human with the same precise timekeeping as one of their mechanical watches, they’d make Jack Bruce. It follows, therefore, that someone with such intrinsic accuracy would expect the same exacting standards of their wristwatch.
We don’t know exactly when or where Jack acquired the watch, but one theory is that it came from a US airforce base in northern Italy sometime in the early 60s. He had joined a band that had a residency at the base in Aviano, and O&W chronographs were very popular with American military personal, especially airmen. It’s possible he saw the watch on the wrists of the servicemen he had befriended and decided to purchase one for himself from the PX store on the base. He was earning very good money from the gig and, with little else to spend it on, a fine Swiss chronograph at a discounted rate would have been too good an opportunity to miss.
Founded a decade before Cream, O&W watches were known as much for their rugged durability as much as for their reliability. Albert Wajs and Jospeh Ollech delivered every watch with the promise that it would ‘stand its man’. This claim would really be put to the test on the wrist of Jack Bruce. He lived the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle to the full, and his watch endured every moment of it with him – every performance, night after night.
Cream were unimaginably loud. When the thunderous base line of ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ boomed out from the wall of 100W Marshall stacks, the resonance was enough to shake metal fillings loose. Imagine the acoustic shock it put through the Valjoux 92 movement in Jack’s O&W just a few feet away. But survive it did – at least until 1971, which is the last time it appears in a photograph of Jack. What became of the watch is unknown. Perhaps the punishment of the previous decade finally took its toll. Or maybe post-Cream the watch represented a moment in Jack’s life and his musical journey that had come to end, and he simply decided to take it off and put it in a drawer.
Jack Bruce was a visionary who combined the worlds of jazz, blues, rock and pop, to discover the full potential of the bass guitar. It is said that bassists fall into two categories – those who came before Jack Bruce and those who came after. Not only did Cream’s music directly influence an entire generation of musicians, it set a new course for rock music. Ollech & Wajs are honoured and proud that one of the most imaginative musicians ever to pick up a bass guitar also chose to pick up one of our watches.