Always the same. Casual visitor to the the big city, burrowing through his Time Out or Melody Maker, surprised and delighted at the sheer number of places he can go to find jazz being played. Lots of names, lots of styles. All so conveniently listed.
‘I thought you said’, incredulous, ‘that things were tough here.’
Quick fade and segue to packing-up time, after casual visitor has moved on and the only sound left in the wake of his evening’s entertainment is the boom of a publican’s voice urging the laggards to gulp their flat lagers and bugger off home. Enter bandleader, looking worried.
‘Er, about this piano … I mean, no two notes are …”
‘Whassamatter with it? Bloody thing set me back all of 25 quid. An’ I just had it tuned last week.’
‘Well, mighta been a little longer ago …’
‘And – well, I hate to bring it up, but the mike’s not …’
‘Look, mate, you don’t like it here, you don’t have to work here, I can get a lot of blokes who’ll play for me and not gimme all this lip. Now what’s all this guff about microphones …?’
‘Nothing. Forget it.’ Exit Prometheus undone, tenor saxophone case in one hand, his £3 (perhaps even £4 or £5) in the other in verdant testimony to the rewards of having spent the better portion of his life practising, listening, discovering and practising some more in the unwavering belief that all it took was to be very, very good …
Such vignettes of contemporary life in Britain by no means tell the whole story. There are scores of others, reflecting even more bitter forms of educational experience for the aspiring jazz artist. They have one thing well in common: laid end to end, they illustrate only too clearly that while jazz may have come of age aesthetically, shaking free of the sociology which tied it to the entertainment world in its springtime years, it remains the cultural establishment’s poor relation in point of artistic recognition – or even of the sheer mechanics of earning a living.
Ian Carr and Graham Collier, both respected instrumentalists, both educated and articulate men, are among the first to try to spell out in print what this means for the individual musician. Their efforts coincide with the emergence of the Musicians’ Action Group, a growing alliance of musicians of a wide variety of ages and stylistic persuasions united by the conviction that it is time to uproot and change – bodily, categorically – the tradition of second-class citizenry which has always been the lot of jazz music and most of its practitioners.
Their methods differ. Carr has chosen a handful of musicians, all closely identified with contemporary jazz, and provided a fast-moving, fluid framework within which each is allowed to speak for himself. The results yield insight: Jon Hiseman, acknowledging the twin necessities of artistic fulfilment and economic sustenance, yet determined never to go ‘back to playing in dreadful pubs to forty people and doing a day job as well, which is what it would have meant …’ Everyman talking with a collective voice …
For all the value of what Hiseman, Westbrook, John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Chris McGregor and Mike Gibbs have to say, it is Carr himself who best illuminates his own book. His chapter on the origin and development of Nucleus, and on his own perceptions and experiences of the musician’s life, make required reading for anyone who has ever even entertained a thought of playing jazz, whatever the stylistic persuasion. Commenting on the willingness of young musicians – and many not so young – to play for next to no recompense, he recognizes that – even if they do not naturally subscribe to this sort of attitude, the traditional image of the jazz musician – the romantic idea of the improvising genius bursting to ‘say something’ – pressurises them to it. Therefore there is a long tradition of jazz musicians whose talents,however remarkable, can be bought cheaply – it is even a point of honour among many of them to be naive and incompetent in business affairs, as if this proved the worth of their creative inspiration.
It is possible to take issue with some points discussed by the musicians who speak out through this book. Among the most common is the meaning of the demarcation line between contemporary forms and ‘conventional’ jazz implicit in the arguments of Trevor Watts and others. It can hardly be argued that intense, symbiotic interaction is a phenomenon restricted only to today’s jazz. Though perhaps imperfectly understood in times past, it is one of the intangibles which has always distinguished great jazz – and not only through the superficialities of simple paraphrase.
In a sense, Graham Collier’s ‘Inside Jazz’ is two books, one considerably more successful than the other. Its first 85 pages are devoted, ill-advisedly, to attempting what would have taken a volume of far greater scope and proportions to do: to introduce the lay reader, student, novice, to jazz and its distinctive ambience. Even if it could have been done in 85 pages, Collier does not appear to have been the person to do it. His jazz perspectives, especially in a historical frame of reference, appear narrow; even viewed as a working hypothesis, his system of stylistic categorization is inadmissable. To sum up prewar jazz styles in terms of Acker Bilk, The Dutch Swing College and Louis Armstrong hardly enhances the credibility of what follows. More specifically, if Thelonious Monk ‘believes that the original melody is an important part of the subsequent improvisation and utilises the rhythmic and harmonic elements of that melody very strongly in his solos’, so, too, have Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett and hosts of other inventive and highly skilled improvisers who have little to do with When the Saints Go Marching In, Acker Bilk, or any of Collier’s other similarly static points of reference.
Such things, added to far too many simple errors of fact and even misspelling (Brookmayer? Wild Bill Davidson)… Biederbecke?), leave one wishing Collier had devoted his entire effort to the section of the book which begins with page 88, where ‘Inside Jazz’ really does crawl inside its subject. Like Carr, he touches on key issues: the day-to-day economics of running a band, the nature of the jazz musician’s commitment to his craft and the stresses it places on his attempts to establish a stable domestic life; jazz in education; drugs and alcohol; performer-audience relationships; the dearth of women instrumentalists; even the critical community.
For all that, however, Collier’s book leaves the overall impression of a syllabus for a course as yet untaught. He raises issues, yet seldom discusses them in depth. Some of his conclusions, when he does reach them, are bound to be heavily disputed by fellow musicians.
That being said, I still think it essential that both these books are read, digested and discussed by anyone even peripherally connected with the world of music and the arts in particular. Carr has written the better of the two, yes – but the challenges are too great, the issues too important, to allow any attempt at illumination to be neglected. Jazz, in a word, is in trouble; both these books are highly praiseworthy attempts to explain why.
Music Outside: Contemporary Jazz in Britain (by Ian Carr. Latimer New Dimensions. £3.00)
Inside Jazz (by Graham Collier. Quartet Books. Case-bound £2.50, Midway £1.50)