Hidden Man – My Many Musical Lives

Insights into the jazz, dance and pop scene from saxophonist and arranger John Altman, nephew to Woolf and Sid Phillips


Hidden? Well, not anymore, if he ever was. He has been well known in music and entertainment circles for many years for his composing, arranging and performing skills. A man of diverse talents, John Altman was persuaded to write his book after appearing on a BBC radio broadcast where he was to summarise his life and career. Fed questions by an interviewer he continued and later received tweets asking: “Who is this name dropper?” He admits he made a rod for his own back but didn’t let that stop him when he was commissioned to write this book.

Making Larry Adler look like a raw beginner, Altman name drops cheerfully through 278 pages of anecdotes and “stories” about all the people he has come into contact or worked with over the years. Who are they? Well, it would be much easier to list people in music or showbiz he hasn’t met or been involved with.

He begins with a brief introduction to his parents and casually “drops,” the names of his uncles, the brothers Woolf and Sid Phillips, famed arrangers from the 1940s onwards. Many of the anecdotes are amusing, some informative, most are entertaining in one way or another.

Early on he collaborated with the bass player John Hart at his Hampstead mansion where he met top jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones. After Altman played on alto sax solo in a jam session Philly told him: “You play like Joe Henderson.” Altman claims to have played one note, repeated it, added another and told a story. That was, he says, his eureka moment and after that he formulated his approach to playing: tell a story and communicate with listeners. Then he tells us that drummer Earl Palmer heard him play and said: ”You can play with us any time you like. No need to queue up.”

Mainly though, Altman is known and admired for his composing and arranging abilities. He transcribed Quincy Jones’ score for the film The Italian Job. He claims one of his fondest memories is playing for Michael Caine at a celebration at the Royal Albert Hall. He also wrote arrangements for the LSO and Quincy Jones for this event. Another highlight was writing music (that never appeared) for James Cameron’s blockbuster movie Titanic. Altman’s official title for that project was “historical musical advisor”. One of the jobs he didn’t see coming there was singing the tune of Closer My God To Thee on the telephone to Cameron who had never heard of it. Really?

Many names dropped, many, many anecdotes. A brief random selection could include Amy Winehouse, Orson Welles, George Harrison, Tim Rice, Oliver Reed and Gerry Mulligan. He says Amy Winehouse always called him “Sir”. He even includes a whole chapter on the awards he has won over the years but has the grace to include another one of near misses. He is straight forward in his description of suffering from alopecia and claims that once he shaved his head hair never grew again and he feels better and looks younger for it. Entertaining, and fascinating in parts. You couldn’t make it up.

Hidden Man – My Many Musical Lives by John Altman. Equinox Publishing, 290pp, 79 photos, pb (£27.95) & hb (£45). ISBN hb 9781800501546. ISBN pb 9781800501553

Derek Ansell