Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Discovering/Recovering British Jazz

Isn't it a shame that we British are so crap at doing justice to our own achievements? Well, except for sporting achievements, and even there, we're more concerned with not winning the world cup than with winning the Ryder Cup for the third time in a row. Not that I'm a golf fan - or a fan of any kind of sport. Nevertheless, a twinge of delight went through me when I heard that we'd beaten the Yanks into a very ignominious second place.

Another place where America thinks it's the best and British people are inclined to agree with them is in the jazz world. Of course, Americans (African Americans mainly) invented it, so they ought to be best at it. There's a lot of great music came out of American jazz - from its origins in New Orleans to such greats as Coltrane, Miles Davis, Mingus, Coleman, Monk.

But then it came to Britain, and in that way jazz has of both transforming and being transformed into something new and strange wherever it goes, it took root here. Not that many people in this country are aware of it; but there are some great British jazz musicians who can equal the achievements of any American, except possibly for a handful of the very greatest.

Take saxophonist Joe Harriot, for instance, who refused to go to America because he thought he didn't need to. He came to Britain, where his invention of free form jazz was at least as radical - in its similarity to and in its difference from - as that of Ornette Coleman. There's much to be said about him, about how he's been allowed to fade into invisibility since his early death.

Or Tubby Hayes, who could blow everyone else away, and whose Mexican Green is one of the great British jazz albums. Or the still-playing phenomenon of Stan Tracey - whose Under Milkwood suite is one of the seminal moments in British jazz. It's a very British album - in its lyricism, its feel for the intimate landscape of sound. American jazz is often very urban, spiky and assertive; British jazz insinuates its way into your soul. It doesn't shout often; but it speaks with great depth of feeling.

I've just been listening to an extraordinary album from the early 70's, Troppo by pianist, composer and band leader, Michael Garrick. It's a frighteningly good album, full of extraordinary playing from such people as Don Rendall and Art Themen on tenors, Henry Lowther on trumpet and Dave Green on bass. Then there is Norma Winstone on vocals - whose voice soars and swoops through every track. One track stands out: Fellow Feeling, where Coleridge Goode, Joe Harriot's regular sideman, takes over on bass. There's a section of the tune where Winstone and Goode's swooping wordless humming and Goode's bowed bass are soloing and duetting off each other in such unity that you feel like you've been taken into a new world, where everyone walks around with one less skin on them.

I've only just begun to explore this music that we've been so good at hiding from ourselves for so long. Britain, whether it knows it or not, has been and still is a great jazz nation. Maybe if there's a Ryder cup for jazz, we might just give the Yanks a run for their money.

Monday, September 18, 2006


Exciting news on the publication front.

It seems I'm about to join the Salt stable. One of the leading new publishers of an incredible variety of poetry and criticism, from the feircely avant-garde to the interestingly mainstream, it feels like a real privilege to be part of their organisation. See what I mean at their website: www.saltpublishing.com - one of the best poetry sites on the web methinks.

The book will be called Travelator and will include lots of new stuff, and maybe the odd old poem that I can still read without cringing.

I still keep slapping myself to see if I'm dreaming.

Monday, September 11, 2006


I've been thinking about Englishness, and what it means to me. Not yet come to any conclusions, of course; but I do have a few interim thoughts.

1) there's more than one "England," and they're often opposed to one another.

There's the England of the rural South-East, all chalk downs and nostalgia for the past, and the England of the future, all coffee-bars and glass-fronted offices.

There's the urban experience of the industrial North and the suburban experience.

There's the tough-as-nails landscape of the north and the seemingly softer South.

There's the England of the immigrant - from the Jews who've arrived here since they were allowed back in the country (18th Century?) to the England that the Polish plumber (yes I know that's a cliche) meets on his arrival in Stoke-on-Trent.

There's the England of the radical left - the Diggers, the Quakers, etc and the England of the Anglican Establishment.

There's the England of the empirical down to earth Movement poets and the England of the neo-Romantic imagination (from Dylan Thomas to Peter Redgrove and beyond.)

2.) Everybody's nostalgic for something. Nostalgia is where a lot of poetry comes from, but it can be dangerous if over-valorised.