JJ 01/71: Hard Times

Fifty years ago, in his It Don't Mean A Thing column, Steve Voce took issue with Richard Williams' best-of-jazz selection - and omissions - including among the latter Kind Of Blue. First published in Jazz Journal January 1971

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The Tubby Hayes big band on the BBC's Jazz 625 programme

At one period The Times, that liberal pillar of British society, became unstuffy enough to allow fairly regular, erudite albeit brief reports of jazz events in its columns. But, to the dismay of myself and retired colonels and admirals the world over, it appears to be going trendy and where once was jazz there lurks underground pop. However, I’m pleased to see that Richard Williams has begun to contribute. In his summary of the best records of 1970 he contri­buted 25½ lines on pop and 17½ lines on jazz. Mate of mine though he is, I shall now pro­ceed to give him a good doing up.

‘For jazz, it has been the worst year I can remember, although ‘The Day Will Come’ by the Howard Riley Trio contains some of the most adventurous piano-bass-drums interplay I’ve heard’. Richard goes on to cite also Eddie Gales’s ‘Black Rhythm Happening,’ in my opinion the lesser of Gale’s two albums.

However, I have no quarrel with Richard’s two choices (although I don’t agree with them) and I appreciate the limitations of space no doubt imposed on him. But what about Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’, the Bessie Smith double set, the Mike Gibbs Orchestra, all the Polydor reissues, the Story Of The Blues sets and so on and so on? Surely, far from being a bad year for jazz issues, 1970 was a pretty exceptionally good one for high quality releases, whether you go for Billy Banks on Realm or Charlie Mingus on Liberty.

But let us return to Richard’s normal habitat, The Melody Maker, of which he is the assistant editor. Indeed at times these days it seems that he writes most of the paper’s near-50 pages. Richard contributed a particularly controversial article recently titled ‘Miniature Golden Age’. This period he suggests occurred in jazz between 1959 and 1962. Certainly it was a time of great change in jazz and a lot of new thinking began at this stage. Richard’s article was prompted by a suggestion from Bob Houston that to-day’s current period of jazz is ‘starting to look like a golden age’.

The normally astute Mr. Houston is a bit behind the times. Artistically we have been for the last few years in the midst of one of the most creative periods in jazz since the middle ’40s. Not only in America, but in Europe too. Prompted by Gil Evans and perhaps to a lesser degree men like Rod Levitt and George Russell, orchestral jazz has progressed and developed at a fantastic pace and, unlike totally improvised jazz, it has achieved a coherence, relevance and capacity for survival over the years which is remarkable.

I’m thinking in particular in terms of Britain, where the whole impetus seems to stem from the formation of the Tubby Hayes Big Band. This brilliant band paved the way for Mike Gibbs, Graham Collier and so on and, coupled with Mike Westbrook, these men have developed original styles that have produced over the last three or four years some of the finest jazz in the world. Happily a lot of it, although not nearly enough, is captured on record – the New Jazz Orchestra, for instance, still only have that one Verve issue to their credit. But it’s not beginning to look like a golden age. It’s been one for some time.

Kind Of Blue: Miles set down with that album a whole spectrum of new possibilities, and the fact that jazz musicians chose to ignore many of his signposts in favour of a reckless lurch into formless music set jazz back so far it is only during the last four or five years that the losses thus made are being recouped

To return to Richard’s article. Having delineated his golden era as 1959-62 he says ‘A curious fact is that this was a lean period for Miles Davis, one during which he was seemingly outdistanced and outshone. I can’t help thinking that he was, and despite the love I have for his playing, this may indicate that Miles is not the leader he’s made out to be’.

I find that quite the most remarkable statement I’ve read since I last dropped a major clanger. Would Richard care to look up the recording date of that minor trivia, Miles Davis’s ‘Kind Of Blue’ album? This was a record that ripped open an enormous new field for modern musicians to explore. It remains a powerful and moving record which has not dated one iota and indeed it is still, I’m sure, a strong influence on modern jazz. Miles set down with that album a whole spectrum of new possibilities, and the fact that jazz musicians chose to ignore many of his signposts in favour of a reckless lurch into formless music set jazz back so far it is only during the last four or five years that the losses thus made are being recouped.

Added to which Mr. Davis also recorded ‘Something Else’ for Blue Note at this time, and that, mainstream though it might have been, was certainly a major contribution to the art of jazz.