A JAZZ JOURNEY - 1925-1994
by KEN RATTENBURY
|PART XI: (1981)|
"... ANY WHICH WAY: A WATERSHED YEAR . . . "
At the outset of this twelvemonth in my modest chronicle, a time when, as aforementioned, I was quite unable to blow my beloved trumpet - even for my own amazement - due to severe dental problems; consequently, I had much too much time on my hands. Not a hilarious situation for a guy who's been conditioned , after close on forty years, to expect an average 18-hour day. So I started contributing to all manner of jazz publications, reviews, technical articles, transcriptions, even, on rare occasions, sundry stanzas of doubtful doggerel - in fact, anything as long as it touched on jazz music and jazz musicians. And, during a run of such endeavours, one editor invited me to set down my plans for my immediate future.
What future, I grizzled and growled, with quite uncharacteristic bile . . But after that mercifully miniscule lapse into revealing the downside of my usually placid nature, a shameful capitulation to the constraints of doom and gloom. I thought, "pick yourself up, fella!" Because, praise be, the rest of the personal faculties (save the one that seemed the most important of the lot - blowing the horn) were unquestionably in running order.
So, the following Credo. I quote verbatim from the very essay I came up with then: "I'd like to continue researching, writing, composing, ideally under some sort of expert guidance, to gain some documented validation of my foregoing life's work, perhaps some academic credential which could greatly strengthen any future commitment to assist in the perpetuation of our lively art form".
Then more: "Jazz, thoughtfully organised, worked on and totally respected, undoubtedly throws out a challenge and great opportunity for lively minds; and it seems to me that controlled, disciplined, extempore playing, explorative endeavour, is surely the life essence of all truly creative thinking, in whatever musical idiom. But undoubtedly jazz, with its fluidity, unpredictability and promise of surprise, offers fallow ground for this kind of philosophy. Natural musicianship is the start and the spur. This quality, I reckon, is the root notion of how to go about it; and doesn't necessarily involve rigid schooling to develop raw, vital talent into valid works of aural art".
And so I burbled on in this vein at considerable length, perpetrating a purple patch of virulent verbage I haven't the heart or patience to repeat now.
Then, as is often the case in life, came the chance encounter which changed my direction and ambition and basic thinking, out of all recognition. Gave me clues as to the possible whereabouts of that nebulous "gong" I coveted. I had a phone call from Geraint Ellis (Gerry to his jazz friends!), then music master at a local school (and a quite outstanding cornettist in the Bix/Hackett mould). He was researching for his Master of Arts Degree at York University - his subject, no less - "TRUMPET STYLES IN JAZZ"; in substance, a collection of transcribed head-to-head interviews with relevant analyses of his own, he had miraculously organised with some of the greatest of the trumpet clan, including Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Ruby Braff, Kenny Baker - an illustrious company indeed!
It appears that he had heard of my modest involvement and massive interest in the same area of activity and wanted my views for a sort of connecting commentary between the pronouncements of the famous. I was flattered, greatly interested and in due course, my own two-penn'orth was incorporated into his unique thesis. And, knowing me to be at a certain hiatus in my jazz career, he suggested to me, right out of the blue, that I should aim for a similar qualification! I was totally intrigued with the idea and not a little apprehensive, but still wrote to the Music Departments of a round half-dozen Universities, suggesting that there might be some mileage in tackling a Master's Degree via a thesis: Subject, JAZZ!
The standard response, almost word-for-word, was "We don't seem to have any specialist staff informed on such a subject - sorry, can't help." (Maybe things are better now, in fact I Know they are, with guys like Bobby Lamb and Michael Garrick beavering away.) Then someone suggested - why not try the University of Keele - the Head of the Music Department at that time, Peter Dickinson, a highly qualified and brilliant contemporary composer, expert musicologist, being a formidable performer of piano ragtime - in the Joshua Rifkin style. Rag and jazz are, of course, inseparable idioms; and so - to whittle the tale down to essentials - after a somewhat gruelling two-hour inquisition conducted by Peter Dickinson and a colleague, I was accepted into the University as a mature student (Very - at 61, the oldest hopeful on the campus as it turned out!)
Well then, in the autumn of 1981, I kicked off as a self-funding rookie playing the game of academe. I was greatly awed by Professor Dickinson's erudition; his knowledge of the nuts and bolts of music seemed to me to be of Olympian stature. Yes, it was - and is! But I got stuck in, casting around for a suitable subject for my researches and arguments. I had long ago concluded that truly great jazz people don't exactly surface in generous swathes; there are myriad practitioners of the idiom, parading infinite standards of quality, but very few originators - genuine one-off creators. In the event, my final choice was not that hard to make.
I'd thought of Louis Armstrong (that genius of a folk-artist, an all-pervading, indestructible influence on all - and still felt today); Charlie Parker (inspirational developer of harmonic, melodic and technical possibilities; the first major break from Dixieland); Art Tatum (a whirlwind of helter-skelter invention, a master of the keyboard); Benny Goodman (that urbane improviser, perfectionist and flawless performer) - but, in the end, settled for Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, who, to my heart and ear, had always possessed all of the qualities inherent in the work of the other candidates. But with the added dimension of being equipped to mix and meld all those component influences - spirituals, folk, blues, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley - producing a music which was representative of all and patently much greater than the considerable sum of its parts.
This 20th Century genius - and I feel he is the greatest jazzman of all - succeeded in creating music which swung, carried memorable melodies, respected and incorporated genuine rural blues as no other has since his day, used his orchestral palette in bold, also subtle colourings, knew how to choose, then extract the utmost from his crew of talented, uniquely-equipped sidemen. In short, how to produce jazz of superlative quality - soulful, quirky, stimulating in turn, warm and relaxing as a scented summer breeze. For me, Duke, then - and no other . . . . . . . . . .
Of course, one may meet with daunting disinterest in this sort of rigorously analytical slant, the surface delights of the music offering sufficient reward to its millions of devotees - and, why not, indeed? It's entertainment, a splendid branch at that. You don't have to understand the principles which govern, say, the operation and deployment of the wheel - you simply mount your bike and get moving - and, again, what's wrong with that?
My own experience has been that occasionally, after a bout of hobby-horsing, going on a bit, as they say, that folk may eye you somewhat quizzically, as though you are, say, a couple of wasps short of a picnic - but no matter; it seems a fact of life that good food, good wine, good company and, of course, good music, depend for their common quality on know-how, discipline, industry, tenacity and creativity, across the board. And the desire to follow these basic edicts by intuition leavened by the observance of good taste. Particularly in the case of jazz music and, of course, too, other manifestations of the craft; a natural, adventuresome ability to bend, but not entirely shatter the rules in the interest of creativity and progress; and totally rejecting the impulse to step over into anarchy and outrageousness for their own sakes. Ellington succeeded in all this superbly. Yes, the man for me . . . . . . . . .