Who Do I Listen To?

“Nature then, is just nature. I admit I am very impressed with it. The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can do for is to put some order in ourselves.”

Willem de Kooning


The cloud comes down, but too fast and too heavy, more like a blanket, or like jelly just before it sets. It always happens like this. I’m in a room with someone, and I’m teaching them. And they say something, and the room fills slowly up with an imaginary, cloying, sticky liquid. This person is aged between 18 and 21. They say :

“Who should I be listening to?”

I have been trying to think of what to say in reply to this for as many years as I’ve been teaching. It’s the key to everything. When a person says this, and eagerly awaits an answer, they are unwittingly telling you that they think they will never be a jazz musician, pure and simple. They have made this choice. Obviously I can’t tell them that. They want answers. Their parents have just forked out twenty seven grand in used notes in exchange for little nuggets of information such as the one I am about to impart. The great spirit of rebellion that spawned this music, the anger and joy coexisting in Bud Powell’s recordings, the machismo and feminine battling it out in the mind of Miles Davis, the sheer don’t-give-a-fuck fire running through Sonny Rollins’s titanic improvisations, Geri Allen’s fragile spider-like lines underpinned with the swagger of a New Orleans marching band, has it all ended up here in this room? I am starting to feel a bit claustrophobic.

Look, I’m no writer. The opening paragraph of this blog has, compared to my others, a lot of short sentences. This is because I’ve just finished James Ellroy’s brilliantly nasty, disparaging and fictionalised account of the years leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, “American Tabloid”. The anger and disgust of the unseen narrator jumps off the page at every turn. And it has lots of short sentences in it. My ear started to like the sound of them. And how they look. And that reminded me of the anger in Bud Powell’s music, anger that in his case was transformed into a kind of ecstatic energy. I imagine a lot of jazz musicians had this experience; there was plenty to be angry about, and in some kind of chicken and egg coincidence the way music was made was undergoing an explosive revolution.

With this in mind, I get on the tube; Jesus everyone looks fucking angry. Bill Evans comes on my headphones, even he sounds angry today, a taunted bull rampaging through a room full of rose petals. Ellroy, Powell, Evans, their energy is being let out in order that they can get up in the morning, write a new book, make a new record, they are making things ok.

Then something else happens; I go and see some very close friends of mine for a couple of days. The anger, the idea of anger, drifts away. The energy of friendship, of common ground both musical and personal, the way time passes and we are still here years later, the same and different. Bill Evans sounds different today, like he’s reading me a bedtime story. Monk’s angles are child-like, sincere, playful, but not quite as belligerent.

At a band reunion, a band in which I played an instrument I no longer even have, there are faces from even further back, the same but different. I remember sitting in the third clarinets playing Vaughan Williams’s “Folk Song Suite”, medleys of Broadway shows, newly commissioned overtures, “The Rockford Files”. From my vantage point, along with five other clarinets playing the same line, I could feel the air move, we were all somehow engulfed in it, embraced by the sound, so different to sitting at a piano, where one somehow hovers above it. (Watching Bill Evans play is, to me, watching someone trying to actually “climb inside” the chords, ear cocked to the keyboard with bird-like attentiveness, anxious to catch anything that passes.)

I remember the impossibility of looking demure whilst playing the bassoon, the irresistible urge to show off that frequently befell the lead trumpet or the percussionists, the way the conductor would lean inexplicably back in his seat for the “jazzy” numbers and then tense up like a cat eying its prey for the Gordon Jacob suite. I remember how, when we played “What I Did For Love” in the Marvin Hamlisch medley, I would feel waves of emotion that were almost physical and in the room, coupled with a teenage, slightly manufactured distaste for such sentimentality (anyone who’s ever listened to Keith Jarrett will know what I’m talking about). In particular, I learnt how to play with other people, and from that how to be with other people. I discovered that I wasn’t the only freak in Bromley in the 1980s. This is all valuable information that I still think about; well, maybe not the bassoon bit.

Look, I’m no psychologist. But when someone who wants to be a jazz musician asks me what to listen to, I imagine them asking me how to choose their friends. They are almost asking me how and what to feel. And it’s not entirely their fault. They are the customers now, and like all customers they are always right. Time is money, they don’t have a limitless apprenticeship to figure this out at their leisure, there’s no time for accidents, wrong turnings, red herrings. And the amount of energy needed to resist the increasingly conformist, consensual nature of modern culture is enormous. Jazz musicians are not, on the whole, still being beaten up by the police and given electric shock therapy in hospitals. But we are in a bit of a state over this whole role of music in contemporary life thing. Maybe this could, in some way, be our source of anger, our disgust, the unseen enemy that we kick against whilst all the time only putting “some order in ourselves”?

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