My Life in Jazz
Jazz has been a significant feature and factor in my life since my mid-teens. I am deeply immersed in its music, culture, social history, politics, urban myths and influences. As I approach my 70th birthday I realize how much jazz has invigorated my life. I see this as an opportunity to share some of that enthusiasm with you.
My early attraction to jazz was something of a mystery- and was certainly unusual for a teenager growing up in London in the 1960s. While most of my friends and generation were grooving to Hendrix, the Stones, Cream, psychedelia I was initially grabbed by raw American blues, Very swiftly transitioning on to jazz. Even more oddly the late ’60s were a historical low point for jazz- struggling to survive the tsunami of rock – or to adapt to it. Many jazz musicians found survival a real struggle at that time. I was drawn in when most people were heading in different directions
However from my very first experience of jazz via recordings, but especially live performances, I was immediately drawn in. Its immediacy, the outsider status of jazz and its players and aficionados, the approachability of jazz musicians, the paradox of its complexity and universality-with jazz being played right across the world. The often impenetrable jazz codes. And I was attracted and remain attracted to jazz’s outsider status.
Despite, maybe because of its minority status and acquired taste jazz continues to have a huge impact on contemporary music and culture of every type and genre.
I want to share the generosity and sense of solidarity found in most – not all – jazz musicians. The experience of art being created in front of your eyes and ears in real-time. The paradox of tin pan alley tunes continuing to form the bedrock of jazz improvisation. And of course, improvisation lying at the centre of the jazz canon, its distinguishing feature.
The experience of listening to jazz and being familiar as an informed outsider in jazz life has shaped my worldview, beliefs, friendships, language, & humour. I know that jazz is a minority taste. That is part of its attraction although it’s self-proclaimed beleaguered, ultra minority status can be wearing too.
Jazz is a unique art form- the main contribution to American music in the 20th century played in obscure clubs by under-paid and disregarded musicians, some of whom rank as virtuosi in any era or context. The pervasive impacts of racism and professional disregard sadly form linking threads in the story of jazz, particularly in the land of its birth
And jazz has had a huge and impact on the wider culture- music of course, but also movies, literature, political activism and language, and these impacts continue to this day. It is no accident that jazz was banned in Nazi Germany and deeply discouraged in the USSR and eastern bloc- making it the inevitable music of choice of generations of dissidents.
My good friend Carl Gardner initiated regular sessions with a group of friends with a common interest in jazz to listen to a selection of jazz-themed tunes introduced by each participant. The sessions have been going for four years now and show no signs of running out of steam. Musical selections with brief background stories providing context, anecdotes and pen pictures of the players, their formation, struggles and achievements. Friends have consistently encouraged me to put my knowledge of and passion for jazz on to a wider stage.
Hence “My life in Jazz”.
What I am proposing
I am initially proposing a series of short bite-sized episodes focusing on particular aspects of jazz. Individual performers, significant tunes, styles, themes, images, social, cultural and political dimensions. In the case of particularly influential performers or genres, this could well turn into a series of episodes.
Or a single performance could be the focus of an episode.
I’m keen to focus on the jazz life in its entirety- not just the music, the tragic dimension to so many jazz lives particularly in the formative decades of modern jazz- narcotics, incarceration, exploitation. Equally the capacity of so many jazz musicians to-in the words of Cannonball Adderley to “rise above adversity” with so much compelling music. To turn disrespect and disadvantage into a badge of courage.
I’ll also want to present a lighter side focusing on the distinctive humour and language of jazz
And its impacts on our wider culture.
I will want to extend beyond the American mother ship of jazz with a particular focus on its development in Europe and the UK, where jazz musicians have often laboured under a double disadvantage- being jazz musicians and not being American.
I’m a lifelong jazz enthusiast, immersed in the music, jazz lives and literature.
In recent years, much to my surprise, I’ve become a player, playing sax in gigs in London with a modern jazz quartet and quintet, so I now bring the perspective of a (non-professional) participant as well as a listener. What it feels like to play tunes from the modern jazz canon and engage with audiences who come to hear us.
I am not an expert, professional writer/critic/musicologist.
I hope to offer distinctive and accessible takes on the music that I love. Busting some of the urban myths around jazz.
- I am not proposing to dive into digressions on jazz harmony, or musical theory. There are dozens of such websites and academic institutions out there fulfilling that purpose.
- This is not a money-making proposition. I want it to be a free-to-air product, including a vehicle for plugging gigs, albums. A platform for views many questions and some answers.
I’m aiming at both informed and very general audiences. I’d like it to appeal both to jazz cognoscenti and people who are new or vaguely intrigued by jazz and the many who are hostile to it or are ignorant of it.
I do understand that jazz is a minority interest and remains a mystery to many people. I promise not to patronise. I do hope to inform and entertain.