I was born in 1921.
By the nineteen-thirties, when I was old enough to recognise the
music, real jazz was hard to find. The sources of entertainment were radio,
cinema, and the gramophone. The air waves in the United Kingdom were laden with
the bland and fluting tones of BBC complacency, and a form of musical syrup,
the debasement of a vigorous, inspirational idiom into sugary water by dance
bands whose members played what was written on the sheet by hack arrangers like
clerks adding figures in a bank. Henry Hall in a dress suit made token gestures
in front of two ranks of sleek-haired journeymen, announcing the next number in
clipped tones to a captive audience. Billy Cotton pumped out cheery, bumpy
tunes, occasionally shouting "Wakey, wakey!" in case his customers had dropped
off. Jack Payne, Jack Hylton, Ambrose and the rest delivered variations on pop
themes of the day at various levels of sophistication. A few bands pretended to
be 'hot' - which meant that Harry Roy jigged about and shouted now and then.
Nobody played genuine jazz. The nearest thing to it was heard, on those
occasions when groups like that of Nat Gonella intruded fleetingly among the
uniforms; and he had to clown to get noticed.
As for the cinema, in the few films which contained jazz
content, the music was usually at once vulgarised and sanitised by making black
performers into comics, so that jazz was seen as a form of jerky posturing. By
this time those genuine jazz men, like Louis Armstrong, who survived, had
become commercial entertainers, section pooters in big bands, operated in back
rooms and obscure clubs, or had gone home to become shop-keepers, field
workers, truck drivers, caretakers or odd job men. The financial crash of 1929
had ruined the market for real jazz, and for celebration of any kind.
As soon as big bands of the so-called 'swing era' came in, with
their drilled section-playing of strict arrangements, and their boring
obsession with repeated riffs, something essential to its spirit was lost from
jazz. The big band music was slicker, shallower and less fiery than small group
jazz. The power to articulate deep emotion was being squeezed out. Even the
best of the big bands - Basie, Lunceford - were of no use to me. I wanted,
five, six, seven or eight dedicated jazz men enjoying themselves by blowing
together to produce magic.
I don't know when or how it was that I first encountered
authentic music on record, since there was no one to point it out to me. I have
come to feel, though, that anyone committed to any form of art or music if left
to himself or herself will develop the capacity to distinguish the true from
the false. It's a case of 'knowing in yourself whether the water is warm or
I spent much time listening to records in a tiny kiosk at the
back of Bush's gramophone shop on the Hinckley Road. I made mistakes, going for
approximations because the real thing wasn't there, but gradually learned what
to steer clear of and what to risk. The real jazz men in the big bands got
together to make records out of hours, and now and again some early stuff was
reissued. This must have been due either to the executives not knowing the
difference between jazz and big band 'swing music', or to a few knowledgeable
under-cover men pushing good food through the bars when no one was looking.
These were the records I was looking for, and sometimes found.
Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis seemed to imply that they
gravitated towards jazz as a kind of protest against their elders and the
society they had produced. If so it didn't do them much good, because they
became pillars of the reactionary establishment, and supported Margaret
Thatcher, to whom jazz would have been a shocking intrusion into the ordered
life of respectable grocers.
The sense of oppression that I felt from the atmosphere of
pomposity, complacency, hypocrisy, chicanery, and blindness which produced
Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, The Times, Stalinist stooges and the rise
of Happy Harry Hitler, together with the Banks which loomed over the terraced,
streets of little brick houses behind the record shop hadn't anything to do
with my love of jazz. Yes, I was distressed and frightened and angry about all
this, but my passion for jazz wasn't a protest against it. Jazz was for its
players. I was privileged to listen in.
This was music my parents didn't enjoy. They didn't forbid it,
but since they didn't like it I could only play records when they weren't
That was embarrassing but it wasn't their fault.
Josef Skvorecky, a Czech writer who should know what he's
talking about because he survived both Nazi and Stalinist tyranny, has got it
right when he says that all authentic art ends as protest under tyranny because
the tyrant bans it, but "the essence of this music (jazz), this 'way of making
music', is not simply protest. Its essence is something far more elemental: an
élan vitale, a forceful vitality, an explosive creative energy as
breathtaking as that of any true art, that may be felt even in the saddest of
blues. Its effect is cathartic."
I was groping for the principles on which the music operated. I
couldn't have stated them. But I had a dim sense that a group of talented
musicians working through individual improvisation to create something new and
fresh that became each time a harmonic whole was a kind of miracle, and one
fundamental to the nature of human beings. Every player has to be aware of the
other players without taking time off to listen so that his own playing won't
insult or distract from theirs, and won't sabotage the collective cornucopia.
The rules were unspoken. Arrangements were 'head arrangements' worked out on a
This is what Omer Simeon, Jelly Roll Morton's favourite clarinet
player, said about working with him; "I'll tell you how he was in rehearsing a
band. He was exact with us. Very jolly, very full of life all the time, but
serious. He used to spend, maybe three hours rehearsing four sides and in that
time he'd give us the effects he wanted, like the background behind a solo - he
would run that over on the piano with one finger and the guys would get
together and harmonise it. . . "
"The solos - they were ad. lib. We played according to how we
felt. Of course, Jelly had his ideas and sometimes we'd listen to him and
sometimes, together with our own, we'd make something better. . ."
And here is Johnny St.Cyr, guitarist with Morton, Armstrong, and
"But a working man has the power to play hot - whiskey or no
whiskey. You see, the average working man is very musical. Playing for him is
just relaxing. He gets as much kick out of playing as the other folks get out
of dancing. The more enthusiastic his audience is, why, the more spirit the
working man's got to play. And with your natural feelings that way, you never
make the same thing twice. Every time you play a tune, new ideas come to mind,
and you slip that on in."
Jim Robinson, the trombone player, said this; "If everyone is in
a frisky spirit, the spirit gets to me and I can make my trombone sing. I
always want people around me. It gives me a warm heart, and gets into my
That the unity of the individual with the group in the creative
expression of emotion creates community with the audience is emphasised by
Ralph Ellison when writing of blues singer Jimmy Rushing: "It was when Jimmy's
voice began to soar with the spirit of the blues that the dancers - and the
musicians - achieved that feeling of communion which was the true meaning of
the public jazz dance. The blues, the singer, the band and the dancers formed
the vital whole of jazz as an institutional form, and even today neither part
is quite complete without the rest. The thinness of much of the so-called
modern jazz is especially reflective of this loss of wholeness, and it is quite
possible that Rushing retains his vitality simply because he has kept close to
the small Negro public dance."
Jazz isn't big music, it's small music, but that doesn't make
make it trivial. The efforts of Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington
and James P. Johnson to compose 'seriously' were their own business, but the
results weren't jazz. No doubt they wanted to be respectable, and accepted into
musical society, to stand back from the raffish denizens of brothels,
speak-easies and rent parties.
Johnson said once, "All this jazz business. I always wanted to
be a musician - not a jazz musician. Any son-of-a-bitch can play that" which is
extraordinarily obtuse of him. Any son-of-a-bitch who has talent enough and has
worked hard enough to read music and master an instrument can play what has
been written down for him on paper but to improvise, to compose as he plays, to
produce living music in conjunction with his fellows - no, that needs insight,
imagination, inspiration, the capacity to transform feeling into organised yet
spontaneous sound, and so share in the creation of magic.
Perhaps this sense of organised, co-operative freedom, this
vocational energy of purpose, producing a marvellous whole, helped me to
identify with the anarchism, of Kropotkin when I discovered it. (I remember
underlining the word 'anarchism' in a school history book before I knew
precisely what it meant. I have an idea that the school history book didn't
know precisely what it meant, either.) Why shouldn't we all live as the music
showed us? We each have a given talent if we are encouraged to find and use it,
if we used it co-operatively, what could we not achieve? Why does society
conspire against this happening?
Is it to ensure that power stays in the fewest possible hands?
Jazz men could be alcoholics, dopers, desperadoes or
delinquents, and were certainly competitive, but when they played together and
the magic worked, each man was simultaneously liberated and in control pooling
individual energies and drawing on communal spirit to celebrate the rhythm of
life itself. Real jazz only lasted forty odd years and it can't be resurrected.
The records are all we have.
At school I infected some comrades with this passion for jazz,
and it must have caused our music teacher, a sensitive soul called Laughlin, to
burn with the slow fires of resentment, because one day he strode into class
wearing an expression of flushed determination as if about to swim the Rubicon.
He waved a sheet of music above his head. It had on the cover a picture of a
girl in a flowered dress and a title in fancy lettering like an advertisement
"I'll show you what jazz is. Just listen to this!" he said. He
sat down at the piano and began to play with exaggerated syncopation some Tin
Pan Alley tune of the day, as if by doing so he was demolishing an evil empire.
"There!" he said when he had finished, and explained with relish the musical
emptiness of the piece.
I listened in bewilderment and dismay. I knew he had got the
wrong end of a broken stick but wasn't equipped, to expound the subtleties of
improvised polyphony, or the basic difference between real jazz and synthetic
pop. I couldn't articulate my feelings at all. This inability made me sad,
angry, and deeply ashamed. The episode turned me away from the classical music
which it had been his intention to promote.
If he was prepared to dismiss what he didn't understand, then so
I came round to classical music, of course, because all
authentic music speaks to the mind and the heart as soon as you are prepared to
listen. But if I had offered to play him a record by Jelly Roll Morton he would
not have stayed to hear it.
At the end of one term, when we were packing our trunks to go
home, my records were spread out on the floor of the great draughty shed where
this process always took place. Some large-footed youth, blundering innocently
towards his own gathered belongings, trod all over the records, reducing them
to shards of shellac. They were irreplaceable, and since Humpty Dumpty could
not be restored to the wall, I waved the youth away as if it didn't matter.
What else could I do?
I was left with about a dozen records. I've still got them.
Oddly enough I was in my seventies before I started collecting
again. I don't know why. I still kept the faith. I just didn't see the right
stuff anywhere. Some time during the nineteen-sixties I picked up a record of
the early jug bands. That was all. I started again by accident. I went to a
Book Fair in Dumfries and one stall was selling jazz books. I bought a book and
then noticed that the stall-holder had a few records for sale, including three
by Sidney Bechet. I bought those. A month later my son pointed out a record
store where you could buy Cajun music which interested me at the time. I went
in and found a treasure house of jazz. I haven't stopped collecting since.
Sometimes I'm possessed by a profound sadness; all these
bringers of life are dead now. If they were alive the jazz of today wouldn't
inspire them: it's too cold, too egoistic.
Yet play the records and the world lights up. The sounds are not
just history, the magic still works.
Since that piece was written over twenty years ago I've got to
know more about the bands still playing the real stuff all over Britain and
Europe and found the quality and variety remarkable. Many of the bands, while
staying in the true tradition have jumped beyond the strict orthodoxy of
line-up and repertoire and introduced piano, alto or tenor sax or both and play
whatever tunes take their fancy.
As Jelly Roll Morton said, 'Jazz isn't what you play, it's how
you play it.'
Most of the musicians, it's true, are over sixty, but when I
play the CD of a band which blazes away at the real stuff on a Barcelona street
with a line-up of British clarinettist in her twenties, a Spanish trumpeter in
his fifties, and two Russians on piano and banjo who must be late thirties I
know that the music will still be alive and flourishing long after I've left
Winamop and the odd, dangerous and wonderful world we inhabit in the place