Monthly Archives: January 2014

How I Discovered Jazz…

I have just started a course on jazz appreciation. The main reason is to understand what doing an online course is like nowadays – I used to design (ish) online courses as part of my professional work, but I haven’t done so for seven years or so, and David suggested it would be a good way to understand how MOOCs – “massive, open online courses” – actually work.

They are several friends taking the course, and we communicate through a Facebook group.

Fred wrote a blog post about his experience getting into jazz, and I thought it would be a good idea to do the same: reading Fred’s post reminded me of exploring the music, thirty five years ago.

I grew up in a household that listened to jazz. I didn’t have any choice. My father was a jazz fan. He woo-ed my mother with Charlie Parker. I didn’t really like jazz as a teenager: once I really got into music, following my brother in my early teens, I was into pomp-prog rock. The first rock gig I went to was Emerson, Lake and Palmer, as was the second. I was into loud music, fast drums, exploding stages. And guitars.

I wasn’t into jazz.

But I couldn’t avoid it.

But the first gig I went to wasn’t ELP. It was Duke Ellington, at the Hammersmith Odeon. A search on teh interweb tells me it was October 1971, a year before the ELP gig. I have a strong memory of the Ellington band playing, Paul Gonzales standing in a spotlight playing tenor. My father took my brother and me into the pub in the interval and introduced us to the band; so perhaps I met Gonzales or Harry Carney, or Johnny Coles, or… (Of course, the way I remember it, I met Coleman Hawkins. Except that he wasn’t there: he had died two years before this gig…)

That is the first gig I know I went to. There were probably earlier gigs I was dragged to by my parents. We saw the Brotherhood of Breath a couple of years later at an open air gig at the V&A. I hated it. It might have been August and warm, but when the sun went down it was cold. A noxious teenager, I didn’t want to be there.

My father and mother holidayed at the Nice jazz festival, and took me twice. (They went several times before and after; my father recorded many of the sets on a portable reel-to-reel recorder; my brother has digitised some of them.) I went in 1976 and 1977. I saw Mingus; he lambasted the audience for being white, looking at my father. (My father had worked on the publicity for Mingus’ autobiography, “Beneath the Underdog”, though whether he could see my father in the crowd or not is open to conjecture.) I hated Mingus.

This is deeply ironic. Much as I love – really love! – the Brotherhood of Breath, I adore the music Mingus made, and I feel privileged to have been able to see him.

At Nice I also saw the Basie big band, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Milligan, Zoot Simms Clark Terry, Harry Edison, Illinois Jacquet, Dave Brubeck, Earl Hines… And those are just the guys I can remember.

Nice 77 2-24 Nice 77 3-15

But, frankly, at the age of seventeen, a week of jazz a year was enough. I wasn’t a fan.

And then I went to university.

I took all my records. I had many rock records. By then, punk had come and gone. I had lots of post punk, lots of prog. I took the few classical records my parents had – Stravinsky, Holst. No jazz. I didn’t like jazz.

But that first term at university, whilst I might not have liked jazz, I certainly missed it. So for Christmas, I asked my father for dune jazz LPs.

He gave me four. I still have them, and listen regularly to the music on three of them (not the L.Ps themselves – I have CDs of all of them); two if them are amongst my favourite jazz albums, and the third is not far off (the last I don’t really rate, and never play).

These records were…

Mingus – Ah Um.
Miles Davis – Workin’ & Steamin’ (a double)
Dizzy Gillespie & Charlie Parker – Live at Massey Hall. (With Mingus, Max Roach and Bud Powell. An amazing band. Just the thought of it makes me want to shout!)
Benny Goodman – Live at Carnegie Hall. (This is the one I never listen to. It just isn’t my scene.)

These are all classic records. They’re famous. Rightly so.

The Miles record – a two-fer, two LPs bundled together – is classic jazz. Indeed, it is the classic quintet – Miles, Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones. If people think of jazz, this is probably the music they think of. It is great music.

Mingus Ah Um is just immense. I went from disliking Mingus to being a fan. The first three tracks go from jumping to years to jumping. I had hated Mingus, but now I was a convert. This is a glorious record. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is my all-time favourite tune. I want it played at my funeral.

The Parker-Gillespie record is an interesting one. It is very exciting – still. But aside from being full of bebop standards – “Night in Tunisia”, “Salt Peanuts” and so on – what I come back to are actually the trio tracks with Powell, Mingus and Roach. Beneath the horns’ hyperbole, the rhythm section were amazing.

After this, I set off exploring on my own. The first jazz record I bought was another Miles Davis LP, because I thought I knew where I was with Miles. Oh yes. I bought the “Birth of the Cool”. All my cool evaporated. There I was, thinking I knew jazz because I had a few records, and knowing… But this was totally different. I quickly learnt that there was a lot to learn. (Still, it is a pretty cool record to be the first jazz LP I bought!) I realised what a chameleon Miles was – starting in bebop, developing cool (apparently easier on his style of playing. Allegedly) – and I later got into modal (“Kind of Blue” – the album that people who have only one jazz album have) and then jazz-rock. Miles was my springboard into jazz – from there I could work backwards and forwards. Everyone seemed to have played with Miles, so I discovered a lot.

The next jazz record I bought was a late Duke Ellington – “Paris Jazz Party”. Not a great record – I now have many many Ellington recordings, and adore Ellington. But I also discovered that jazz can be a great soundtrack to seduction (what? What?!!). I was hooked.

Mwamba/Champion/Darrifourcq/Ceccaldi and Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. GIOfest, Glasgow. November 2013.

One of the things I think I have missed most moving away from London is the availability of improvised music – music from the wackier end of jazz. Improvised music is a strange beast. I live the excitement and energy I’d watching live improvised music, knowing that anything could happen. But I find it very hard to listen to at home: maybe it takes too much concentration. And there is something contradictory about recorded improvised music. It has to be live, for me. This means that I have no recordings of some of my favourite musicians!

So when I noticed on Twitter that vibes player Corey Mwamba was coming to Glasgow, I made the effort to get across for the show. He was playing in a quartet as part of a four day festival of improvised music organised by Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, supporting GIO who were playing a piece commissioned by Radio 3. How did I not know about this before?!

Mwamba was playing with Andy Champion on bass, Sylvain Darrifourcq on drums and Valentin Ceccaldi on cello, a cross-Channel quartet who had been playing a few dates in the UK. They played for forty five minutes, straight through. Mwamba was the visual centre, energetically dancing around his vibes; at times it seemed like the vibes were playing him. He played recorder at one point, too. The band were lively, energetic and played exciting music that twisted and turned. At times all four played percussion, Champion and Ceccaldi banging the bodies of their instruments; indeed, Champion and Ceccaldi routinely sought novel ways to play, Ceccaldi playing his cello’s spike at one point. They finished their with a long work out to a groove-waltz, giving a lie to the idea that improvised music is just for the head – we could even have danced to that!

DSCN7092 DSCN7083

DSCN7102 DSCN7101

DSCN7071 DSCN7060

I found the GIO commission, “Parallel Moments Unbroken”, more challenging. I had seen the “composer”, Raymond MacDonald, discuss his methods earlier in the year, and it was interesting to see him put them into practice. With more than thirty performers, they need to be disciplined and organised: each musician had a pre-prepared sketch – both musical and pictorial – to play with, though they decided exactly when and what to play. MacDonald directed the orchestra at times, moderating the pitch and volume through hand gestures (though not the precise notes).

DSCN7117 DSCN7111

DSCN7109 DSCN7121

There were moments of emotion and excitement, but the sheer number of musicians meant that some got lost in the mix. Marilyn Crispell was one of several visiting artists, and I would have loved to have heard more of her (she had played solo and small group gigs earlier in the week, so this was partly down to my choice!); similarly some of the local musicians, like trumpeter Robert Henderson and MacDonald himself on sax, played some beautiful phrases, and I wanted more of their playing. Other musicians seemed to my ears to create cacophany – I wondered whether using an electronic keyboard to produce noise fitted into the structure of the piece; it certainly didn’t add anything for me.

DSCN7124 DSCN7110

But the overall effect of the piece was fascinating, worth the challenge, and one I will be seeking out again!

The Waterboys. Glasgow Barrowland, December 2013.

A pre-Christmas gig by the Waterboys. In Glasgow. At Barrowland. Clearly unmissable. And so it was.

On tour to celebrate twenty five years since the release of “Fisherman’s Blues”, and to promote the release of the very-complete box set of the sessions, “Fisherman’s Box”, Mike Scott and the band played two hours’ of songs mostly from Fisherman’s Blues with a handful from its predecessor “Thus is the Sea”, with and others thrown in for good measure.

In part it was an exercise in nostalgia, for me at least. I can remember where I was when I first heard Fisherman’s Blues – in a cottage in Ullapool late one night, drinking whisky with a friend. There use something about the Waterboys’ tunes that entwines with very distinct memories. Many of the tunes the band played conjure up specific memories of places or people; it is as if they are deeply rooted in my psyche.


The first record of theirs I listened to – obsessively – was “Pagan Place”, as I drove around the highlands of Scotland: and for me that is what that record is all about. (They didn’t play anything from it at Barrowland.) The folk-infused (and enthused) tunes on Fisherman’s Blues and the rockier This is the Sea produce deep reminiscences of times and people.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone. The ecstatic crowd greeted every song with a cheer and it quickly developed into a communal singalong. I didn’t know I knew the words to so many Waterboys’ songs. The Waterboys music has always had a spiritual dimension, and at a time when most people don’t get to sing communally, the crowd felt like a congregation.

DSCN7275 DSCN7247

All these songs mean something. Each one is associated with people or places, and it all comes flooding back as we sing. Simultaneously individual and communal.

Our singing didn’t get in the way of Scott and the band. The sound was good and every word of Scott’s could be heard. Steve Wickham’s fiddle was a defining part of the album and the gig, and Antony Thistlethwaite doubled on saxophone and mandolin, adding a lot of depth.


A fine gig, then. Perhaps with that crowd, the band could do no wrong; but it didn’t matter: we there to celebrate twenty five years, our twenty five years, and we loved it.