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25 November 2020

How I finally learned to love jazz music

Growing up in the Sixties, a child of the pop age, jazz barely grazed me. Now, I see it’s a gift to us all.   

By Michael Henderson

Growing up in the Sixties, a child of the pop age, jazz barely grazed me. There was Acker Bilk, who had a number one hit in the US with “Stranger on the Shore”. Kenny Ball’s “Midnight in Moscow” was a two-way family favourite on the Light Programme, and in the background Chris Barber and Humph Lyttelton parped away, for the pleasure of people in cardigans who seemed terribly old.

In the late Sixties there was something called jazz rock, a skirmish of contrasting styles that pitched Nucleus and Soft Machine in England against Miles Davis and friends in the US. There was also, I recall painfully from the autumn of 1971, a fleeting liaison of jazzers and prog rockers called Centipede, whose “Septober Energy” was not nearly fleeting enough. In an adolescence of flawed choices, that was the worst record I ever bought, by the length of the Great North Road.

Those groups went on to claim riches beyond the dreams of the old guard. Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter assembled Weather Report in 1971, a year which brought the first stirrings of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by John McLaughlin from Whitley Bay. Chick Corea put together Return To Forever, and Herbie Hancock hit the jackpot with Head Hunters. I caught Weather Report and the Mahavishnu “second XI” in Manchester, though I wouldn’t want to revisit their recordings, which display the kind of empty virtuosity that impresses unschooled ears. Steely Dan, whose caustic songs were flavoured by distinguished sidemen like Phil Woods, the stalwart altoist, supplied the soundtrack to those years, though their records sound too clever, and much too cold, from this distance. Gradually, I moved towards the classic American songbook, from Berlin to Sondheim by way of Kern, Rodgers, Porter and Gershwin. Johnny Mercer, Larry Hart, Johnny Burke and Dorothy Fields dazzled too, with words.

Jazz was a now and then thing. I heard the Modern Jazz Quartet in Manchester – a strangely unmemorable evening. At the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers – with a teenage trumpeter called Wynton Marsalis – were far more appealing. In London, there were occasional jaunts to Ronnie Scott’s, and Manhattan meant a variety of clubs, best of all the Blue Note, where I leaned against the bar to hear Dave Brubeck. There were records, as well. Quite a lot of Stan Getz, and the Ellington band with Johnny Hodges on alto. You didn’t need an expert’s ear to recognise that Rabbit’s keening lyricism was unique.

How did I finally penetrate the temple? Through Ellington, the alpha and omega of jazz: pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader. Through Bill Evans, whose piano linked the Parisian salons with 52nd Street. Not least through Geoffrey Smith’s scholarly programmes on Radio 3, which amounted to a weekly tutorial.

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[see also: Ronnie Scott understood that for some people music is the only outlet – so he opened a club]

Last year, as I roamed across England to write a book rooted in the rhythms of the cricket season, proved to be a liberation. Along with the usual CDs of Sibelius symphonies and Beethoven quartets, I filled the car with jazz, and wallowed in the wonder of a new-found enthusiasm. Not everything worked. Only the auctioneer is equally interested in all schools of art, and I should not feel deprived were I never to hear another bar of John Coltrane, a fine player of ballads who disappeared up his own mouthpiece the further he departed from the discipline of melody. The young Coltrane, who bolstered the mid-Fifties Davis quintet, is fine. Hark at Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight”, and smile. Late Coltrane, with those so-called “sheets of sound”, is plain ugly. Anybody who tells you otherwise is a fibber.

If Louis Armstrong and Ellington are the great pioneers, the second rank is brought up by Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Lester Young: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit of the tenor saxophone. “Prez” Young anointed Getz as his successor, and was not disappointed. For a different tone, hickory to Getz’s cedar, try Dexter Gordon. There are few self-portraits more tender than his reading of “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry”.

In that car, as I drifted from shire to shire, the musician who brought the first-teamers together was the drummer I had heard in Sheffield when there was still a steel industry. The recordings that carried me home were Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station”, and “Somethin’ Else” by Julian Adderley, with Art Blakey alternately propelling and supporting those masters of tenor and alto horn. Throw in “Moanin’” with his own band, those renowned Messengers, featuring Lee Morgan on trumpet, Benny Golson on tenor and the composer, Bobby Timmons, on piano, and you have a full house.

There is always a caveat: jazz might never match the sublimities of truly great classical music. (Beethoven could swing, too. In his final sonata, the Op 111, he declares himself to be the first jazz composer.) But there are compensations. Listen to Evans play “But Beautiful”, recorded live at the Village Vanguard in January 1974. He supplies an outline of Jimmy Van Heusen’s great tune, unpacks it and then puts it back, restored, before offering it to the listener with bow attached. It’s a gift to us all, to be unwrapped any time we like. 

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump