Billy Jenkins: poking a stick

The man who lived iconoclasm long before it became a jazz PR cliché gives his thoughts on creativity and the academy ahead of a September presentation in Greenwich

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Billy Jenkins. Photo by Steve Morrison

‘Working all my life as a musician and bandleader most of which (together with all 20th-century popular musical styles) has been influenced by the myriad elements that comprise the Church of Jazz, I was always mindful of the music’s great legacy – a legacy that Jazz Journal has wonderfully championed over the decades.

This has led to criticism over time from some of the magazine’s respected writers – comments like “a joker”, “not serious”, “irreverent”, words that do not offend me: there have been far worse comments from jazz players and critics around the globe!

Fortunately, they have been countered by many more respected writers who understand my music.

Some take years to understand. The late Graham Collier was a fellow bandleader who “got it” and, as the creator of the jazz degree course at the Royal Academy of Music he invited me, in 1995, to give a lecture to the students.

That day, I stressed the import of spontaneity and how improvisation must always evolve – citing the John Coltrane Quartet and ABBA.

 “Who knows”, I said, “if jazz becomes too formulaic and prescribed, one day Coltrane may well be the sound of well-worn populist cliché and ABBA the sound of left field exploration…” 

[As an aside, citing the need to being paid for one’s life time devotion to one’s art, I also recall saying that “the death of Miles Davis was a good thing for jazz. It freed up a good percentage of jazz festival revenue worldwide to help pay for many more musicians”. Which drew a gasp of heretical disbelief. And a huge smile from Graham.]

One student present thought my whole lecture was complete nonsense until, a decade later, when I started getting slightly unsettling drunken, late-night answerphone messages from that same former student who had, finally, understood the messages I was putting out.

To me, the essence of jazz has always been that spark of creativity. Ensembles gathering together to create the joy of collective audio ecstasy – be it serious, moving, impressionistic or humorous. A good session is like group sex without the risk of infection or guilt.

And, for me, that involves not just the players, but the environment and the circumstances.

‘…academy-trained jazz musicians excite me as little as their classical counterparts’

Let us not deny the facts. Jazz became academised once the musicians of the 50s and 60s were pushed aside in the market place by the rise of rock and roll and pop music. Where else could the unemployed player find an income, other that teaching their “art”?

But over time, aligned with educational accountability, this has led to a marginalisation of spontaneous creativity, to the point now that academy-trained jazz musicians excite me as little as their classical counterparts.

Actually, that’s not completely true, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, then collaborating with, several brilliant former students. But then, I’ve been there to poke the stick in the wheel to ensure spontaneity. For jazz to remain an essential life force, we need creators – not just curators.

Now, having, perhaps rashly, once stated that “the true improviser should only perform once”, I seem to have fallen silent. 

But, thinking about it, can you name any jazz “great” who has continued to create inspirational new work into their third age….?

Billy Jenkins – The Silent Musician, films and thoughts on creativity today, takes place at Greenwich Theatre Studio, Sunday, September 29, from 4pm. Details are on the theatre website. Box office: 020 8858 7755.