It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

There’s nothing as splendidly free-form as a jazzman’s reminiscences

Two programmes about jazz have delighted your reviewer. The first was an appreciation of the great alto saxophonist Bud Shank (Jazz Library, 20 June, 4pm, Radio 3), who died in April. Through extracts from an interview given in 1995, Shank recalled his residency at the Lighthouse club on Hermosa Beach, California, in the 1950s, where he would sometimes play for 12 hours at a stretch to fans covered in sand.

“I met Shorty and Coop in 1949, and Stan didn’t have a band at the time . . . and whatever . . . and the guys in the rhythm section were even younger, yeah, and Coop and Park were my closest friends, I guess . . .”

This rambling and fondness for first names is, of course, precisely the kind of thing you want from a jazz musician, aka (i) a person more than commonly incompetent at marriage, who is also (ii) adept at flourishing the extra variousness of an art form that loves taking admiring looks back at all the different ground it has covered.

But Shank wasn’t your average glad-hander. An incredibly precise man – photos of him as a teenager show someone who looks like an award-winning seller of cleaning products – he spoke solemnly of “structure” and “frameworks” and learning other wind instruments and writing compositions, in the manner of a young person going methodically over his algebra on the way to school.

This fascination with study continued throughout Shank’s life. Also a celebrated flautist, he gave up that instrument at the age of 66 in 1992, convinced he had done “everything he could” with it – to have continued would have made him a philistine engaged in a self-flagellatory act as pointless as cutting one’s face with briars.

He also declared, with unbowed assertiveness, that Stan Getz was the first and only person to have mastered the saxophone totally. “Many people will say, what about Charlie Parker, what about John Coltrane? But they were masters of what they put into the saxophone. Stan was master of the instrument.”

Then they played Getz’s version of “Honey Child”, during which Getz comes over as strikingly co-operative with the song’s other featured saxophonists, ensuring that it sounds perfecto all round (unlike, say, the mighty Coltrane, who is as utterly dominating a presence on his records as Cardinal Wolsey was at Hampton Court).

Later, in Archive Hour (20 June, 8pm, Radio 4), Courtney Pine asked the trombonist and band leader Chris Barber about his influences with the least taxing of questions. “How did you hear jazz records? We’re talking the 1940s, yeah?” Barber – very elderly now – opened his mouth and out it all tumbled, chaotic and wholly impressionistic. It reminded me, not unpleasantly, of the day my grandfather, after a lifetime of silence on the subject, suddenly couldn’t stop talking about how he had found himself liberating Belsen.

“I didn’t like Victor Silvester. Doris Day: boring. Wasn’t interested. Duke Ellington. Not a great record, a pastiche called Oasis. But they said, ‘This is jazz’ and I thought, ‘This is interesting.’ Then somebody coined the word ‘trad’, which . . . I wish they had shut up, so to say, er, ah, er, ’cos immediately you’ve got this thing ‘real trad’ and I think to myself that’s not real trad. I invented it, and if I invented it, it must be real. We, oh, hang on a minute . . .”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape