Saturday 6 February 2016
The best jazz critic in the world (except sometimes)
Ronnie, Nina, B.B. and Me: My Jazz Interviews
The following is the script of a talk Mike Butler gave to Manchester Jazz Society on 22 January, if not the talk itself. Audience participation is noted in square brackets, and the bits in italics indicate passages omitted for space reasons.
Photo: Mike Black
A note of autobiography to set the scene: In 1989 I’d been out of Art College for three years. I was part of an artists’ studio group, MASA (Manchester Artists Studio Association) and edited a little magazine for the Friends of Castlefield Gallery. This was consistent with the general pattern of my life, which is to say, ineffectual but overall quite enjoyable. Anyway, I was living in a student household which had such a nice atmosphere that it stayed even after everyone had graduated (this was 44 Norman Road, Rusholme). A co-resident, Karen Morley, happened to be editing the Women section of Manchester’s what’s-on magazine, City Life, and one day she said to me, “The person doing the jazz page doesn’t even like jazz. You’d be far better at it.” The person doing the jazz page was in fact, Agraman, the Human Anagram. He was also doing the folk page. Really, his thing was stand-up comedy. Agraman (real name John Marshall) became a very successful comedy promoter.
Some three weeks later I visited the office and was handed the jazz folder and directed to the nearest available Amstrad and that was it, I was hired.
I wonder about that three week gap. Granted, I was always easy-going about the professional, paid world of work, and the word ‘employability’ had yet to be coined in 1989, but three weeks seems to be relaxed even by my standards. The following is just speculation, but it might be significant that I made my debut in City Life #122, which covered the dates April 19-May 4, 1989 (City Life was fortnightly). That date, April 19th, 1989, is quite significant in Manchester jazz history. Does anyone know what happened on April 19th, 1989?
[Chris Lee gets it. “Didn’t Miles Davis play at the Apollo about then?”]
Precisely… Miles Davis played his second night at the Apollo Theatre, Manchester, on Wednesday April 19th, 1989.
[Chris Lee berates Manchester Evening News for not letting him review the concert. Tim Stenhouse was there,, but says that Miles was in better form in Nice a few years later.]
So I made my public appearance in town on the same day as Miles Davis. For practical purposes, I just missed him, because magazines have to be planned a bit in advance. So the question is, did I delay my debut until Miles Davis was safely out of the way? If there was any possibility at all of interviewing Miles, however slight, I know I would have been there ready to duck the challenge. The prospect was just too scary. What would a know-nothing like me say to a legend like him? This is the spirit with which I’ve approached most of my interviews.
Let’s stop for some music. A bit of Miles Davis, I think, to commemorate a missed opportunity. This is what Miles sounded like in 1989.
Miles Davis, ‘Amandla’ (fade after 1:42) …
I managed to defer my first professional interview until the following year, March, 1990, in fact. Although most of my interviews took place over the phone, this one happened to be a one to one encounter. In 1990 the Ronnie Scott Quartet played at the Bury Met (Greater Manchester). An earlier date on the same tour took in the Kirklevington Country Club, near my home town of Middlesbrough. Aware that I was in Middlesbrough at the time, my editor despatched me to Kirklevington to get the interview.
So it happened that at tea-time on the evening of the gig, I was ushered into the dining-room of the Kirklevington Country Club, which was completely empty except for a solitary table of diners. Ronnie Scott was not amongst them. There were the guys in the Quartet. I tentatively approached them. “Are you with Ronnie Scott?” I said, explaining that I’d come for an interview. A burly fellow stood up, raised himself to his full height, and said, “If you knew anything about jazz, you would know who I am.” This wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
I’ve mentioned that I was pretending to be an artist, a painter, and this new sideline, jazz criticism, was compounding the fraud. I lived in perpetual fear of being exposed as someone with no expertise in his area of expertise. And Martin Drew had seen through me at a glance. All the same, I couldn’t help but think that these were very haughty words for a man with a mouth full of sherry trifle.
Martin Drew (as I know now) was a mainstay of the Ronnie Scott Quartet, and served as Oscar Peterson’s drummer for some thirty years, and went on to lead Celebrating the Jazz Couriers, a tribute to his old boss, with Mornington Lockett and Nigel Hitchcock in the twin-tenor roles of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes.
It was decided to do the interview in the dressing-room during the interval. The other fellows around the table, by the way, were pianist John Critchinson and bassist Ron Matthewson.
This comes from the published article, City Life #146, March 28 - April 12 1990.
I asked about Club Eleven, a tatty basement called Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms in
Windmill Street, which opened in 1948. John Dankworth and Tony Crombie
were amongst its members. “It was all new to us. We were enthusiastic and very
young.” In 1950, Club Eleven, now charging admission on the door, moved to
Carnaby Street. How did it end? “Very inauspiciously. We were raided by the
police. We got nicked and the thing fell apart after that. It was drink, drugs…
The name of Zoot Sims came up. “Well we weren’t bosom pals exactly but we
enjoyed seeing each other.” Scott and Sims were together when the American
astronauts first landed on the moon. Sims said, “Jesus! They’re walking on the
moon and I’m still playing ‘Indiana’.”… “Zoot. I loved Zoot,” Scott told us. “He
was the first American player who gave a concert at Ronnie’s. He was a jazz
musician’s jazz musician.”
I wanted to play something which displays Martin Drew to advantage. The next track is from a CD called Ronnie Remembered. The saxophonist is Pat Crumly and that’s Martin on drums. The tune is by Crumly and it’s called ‘Excuse Me Do I Know You?’
Ronnie Remembered, ‘Excuse Me Do I Know You?’ (4:57)
He has in common with the USA drumming greats (like Jo Jones or Kenny Clarke) that ability to play urgently without making a lot of noise. He was an extraordinary drummer… [Enquiries about the piano player] That’s John Critchinson on piano, Pat Crumly on tenor saxophone, Leon Clayton on double bass, and Martin Drew on drums.
At one point I sat down and wrote the names of all my interviews I could remember. They might number 300 musicians or thereabouts (not all jazz). [Eva says that, in the heat of the moment, I claimed I interviewed 300 musicians a year! This is an exaggeration. A sum total of 300 might be more accurate.] So you see, I eventually got over my shyness. It happened that City Life editor Chris Sharratt was headhunted by Metro and he took me with him. It was at a time when the coverage of arts and music events in the regions was part of Metro’s remit, and because there were several regional editions, I was kept quite busy. (Now everything is handed down from London and regional arts coverage and listings have been scrapped, so Metro has lost any purpose it had, apart from providing instant litter in trains and buses.) Anyway, I became quite a seasoned interviewer and sometimes spoke to itwo or three musicians a day. On one morning – 21st November, 2002, to be precise – I interviewed both Martin Drew and Benn Clatworthy back-to-back.
Benn Clatworthy is a saxophonist wild man and grandson of Gertrude Lawrence. From London, and based in Los Angeles, Benn is a frequent visitor to the UK. It was a nice conjunction, because Martin and Benn were regular playing partners. Sadly, that’s the past tense. Martin Drew died in July, 2010.
[I mention how Tommy Melville regaled the audience of The Rhythm Station, “Yes, Picasso was knocking off his grandma,” as Benn smouldered. “It’s a good job I’m taking an anger management course, Tommy,” he said. Chris Lee says that Benn can’t have been that upset, because he invited Tommy to play saxophone at his wedding. I omit to mention that I was invited to the wedding too, but didn’t go because I had another event in London to attend on the same day. It was February 15, 2003, and the day of the great anti-Iraq War march.]
It might be interesting to crosscut between the interviews.
What music were you listening to when you were growing up, Benn?
“I was listening to soul music, like most kids, and then the Beatles… It’s funny man, I don’t recall childhood a lot.”
Did the Gertrude Lawrence connection have an impact?
“No. It’s never affected me directly at all. Because she was dead three years before I was born. She was a very extravagant woman, Gertrude Lawrence, and my mother got screwed out of her inheritance by her agent or lawyers or something. It’s kind of strange because it’s so close but it’s so distant.”
It wasn’t like show tunes were being played about the house constantly?
“We were dancing, yeah, doing routines. No nothing like that at all. Here’s a little bit I don’t want in the thing but you know my parents were separated and I got really mad and I was crazy and I got out of control and I got sent off to this place, Finchton Manor. And that’s where I heard the first thing that really struck me when I was around 13 and it was a guy called Harold McNair. He was playing flute on the track that got me really excited about that music. But I don’t want it mentioned that I was in trouble, y’know. I don’t like sounding like I was a hard-done-by child because my life wasn’t hard at all. Y’know what I mean?”
Sure, rely on my discretion, Benn.
“But I heard Harold McNair when I was around 13. Cut all that other stuff. I’m just telling you because it’s the story, man.”
I think he died young.
“Yeah. Do you think it will help me? Am I still in time? I better not leave it much longer, eh? I won’t be young if I leave it much longer.”
Martin: “I have many, many memories, great memories of playing with Oscar, playing with Ray Brown, playing with Joe Pass. Sometimes I pinch myself that I’m working with such incredible jazz legends. I’m fortunate in saying that I’ve had many wonderful nights with Oscar and hopefully they’ll continue. Oscar is amazing because as you know he just has the facility of his right hand because of the stroke that he had and he’s 77 years old, but he still gets up there and does it. He still gets up there and goes for broke. You have to admire someone who does that. You have to have that kind of dedication. Musicians will understand what I’m saying. You don’t just get up there and make it up as you go along… there’s a lot of work and study that you can spend years [on], and most musicians do.
Benn: I don’t have a choice. This is what I do. I supposed I’m obsessed with it really. I’m always checking to see what’s happening. It’s not right. It’s a complete ****ing neurosis, you know? I was playing sax on the train back from Manchester in the toilet the other day. I’m in the toilet with the saxophone. I was. It’s absolutely mad. I don’t want to upset people. Oh Jesus! And they’ve got all this weird shit coming out of the toilet. It’s ****ing mad, man. I can’t go anywhere without the sax. I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not but I just can’t help it.
4 West featuring Benn Clatworthy, Linda’s Lament (4:37)
This is 4 West, Benn Clatworthy’s LA group, paying homage to his first influence, Harold McNair. With Benn Clatworthy on flute, Pablo Calogero on clarinet, Chris Colangelo on bass and Jim Paxson on drums. It was recorded in 2002.
And here are Drew and Clatworthy on the differences between USA and British jazz.
Martin: “Jazz essentially is an American art-form anyway. It came from the black American negroes and developed from there. It’s probably the only thing that America has that is truly original. It’s an indigenous product, you know?
“The excellent players over here, in a lot of cases, are mostly the equal of our American cousins. People like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and latterly Michael Brecker, are unsurpassable. But as far as the regular standard is concerned, people like Mornington Lockett, Steve Melling, Andy Cleyndert, Nigel Hitchcock, they give nothing away to the Americans.” [This, you’ll note, is the line-up of Celebrating the Jazz Couriers] “I have had the fortune, as I said, of playing with a lot of fantastic American musicians. I’ve also played with a lot of rubbish as well. While they have the best, they have a hell of a lot more of the worst. What tends to be the thing, when they come over here because they have an American accent everybody automatically assumes that they’re great players. And I’m here to tell you that a lot of them are, of course, but a lot of them are not.”
Benn: “I think people come out to listen more here than they do in the States. You actually get better audiences here. I think most American audiences would say that too.”
“Are the musicians better in the States? Is there a qualitative difference between the musicians?”
“I can’t say that, Mike. I mean between you and me…”
“Off the record.”
Off the record, I prefer American musicians. I prefer their attitude. I prefer their groove. I mean Martin Drew can play a medium tempo groove on the drums like an American, but you can’t find half a dozen people in England who know what that is. Although there are some great musicians here, man. I’m just a ****ing saxophone player. There’s great musicians here, man. Can we cut all of this out, because it’s just not fair.”
Ronnie Scott forewarned me about Nina Simone.
“She worked at the club once or twice before we fired her. She’d always been difficult. That last time, I was away in Australia. It was in January. She’d been in the club about a week or so when I got a call from Pete King, my partner, who said, ‘she’s driving me mad. I’m going to have a nervous breakdown’. So I talked to him about it and it appears that what she was doing – she’s got a very big following, a cult following, and the place was packed every night – was she’d turn up twenty minutes after she was supposed to go on, and she’d walk through the crowded club with a fur coat and a Tesco’s shopping bag, and she’d put her bag down, play for quarter of an hour and pick up her shopping bag and walk out. That was it. We were getting quite a lot of complaints and when I came back it was my job to answer them all. But what can you do? So I just said to Pete the best thing you can do is get rid of her. Unfortunately.” Ronnie added, ‘She’s not playing with a full deck.”
Martin Drew chipped in with, “All the lights are on but there’s no-one at home.”
And then everyone in the dressing-room was running with the metaphor.
“A few sandwiches short of a picnic.”
“One sausage short of a full English breakfast.”
I have to say, this was not my experience of Nina. Not on the first occasion I interviewed her anyway. Let me play one of her songs and then I’ll tell a story about it.
Nina Simone, ‘A Single Woman’ (3:33)
In December 1977 I went to see Nina Simone play at the Drury Lane Theatre (I was living in London at the time) . She appeared quite vulnerable and fragile. And she sang the song which you’ve just heard, which I didn’t know. It moved me deeply. Flash-forward to April, 1991. Nina Simone herself is on the line from Amsterdam, talking to City Life’s jazz person to publicise her forthcoming appearance at the opening night of the Nia Centre in Hulme. I mentioned the song. It was something about a woman looking back over the love in her life, and then questioning her memory and wondering if the love ever existed. Does she remember the song? And Nina sang it to me. Naturally, my editor (Mike Hill, back then) headlined the piece My Baby Just Sings For Me.
Not many of my interviews from this era have been preserved. It was to do with the economics of the cassettes, which we used in that primitive stage of technology. But I hung on to the Nina Simone tape. That moment is preserved on tape. If you’ll bear with the terrible sound quality…
Excerpt from tape: [singing] “…’I can’t remember when, the house was full of love. But then again it might have been imagination’s plan to help along a single woman.’ It’s called ‘A Woman Alone’ [sic] and I learned that from Frank Sinatra.”
[Chris Lee says that a friend remembers the Nia concert as the gig of a lifetime. And it was so good because Nina was energised to be playing before a predominantly black audience. I know, I said, I was there. Indeed, she was ecstatic. She constantly mentioned about “playing to my people”. The story goes that a gang of black kids stood guard over Nina’s Mercedes car parked outside. This is almost a certainly an urban legend. Who tours in a Mercedes? If anyone did, we agree, it would be Nina. (Actually I couldn’t remember the car brand so I made up the Mercedes bit. It honours the spirit of the story. Any posh car will do.)]
Nina acted more to type in our second interview together. It didn’t start well. She was clearly very tired and grumpy. “I’ll give you ten minutes,” she barked. As clear as I can recall, it was her 1999 UK tour and Nina was booked to play Bridgewater Hall. The promoter had booked her into a health farm in Amsterdam (she was living in Amsterdam) in order to get her into shape for the tour. She was hating every moment. City Life had been offered an interview, but at the very last minute. I’d already filed my piece, which explains why there aren’t any direct quotes. City Life #375 contains an overview of her career instead. But, rather than miss the opportunity, I decided to go ahead with the interview and talk instead about Nina Simone And Piano, one of my favourite albums, and then hawk the piece to Mojo, the music magazine, for consideration as a Buried Treasure, a regular column devoted to forgotten classic albums.
The plan was actually very successful, although Nina was so grumpy and uncommunicative that all I could salvage was a single quote. I said, “Would you rather be remembered for ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ or…” Nina finished the sentence: “…I’d rather be remembered for Nina Simone And Piano!”
And that was all it took. I penned my Mojo piece and it was gratefully received. And there was a happy sequel, because someone from Sony read Mojo and assigned me to write the sleeve-notes for the 1999 CD reissues of Simone’s RCA back-catalogue. It was all thanks to a heavy-handed prompt to a grumpy prima donna. It’s a fatuous remark anyway. For one, ’My Baby Just Cares For Me’ is a song, and Nina Simone and Piano is an album, so it’s not comparing like with like. And ’My Baby Just Cares For Me’ is a fantastic performance and one of the all-time wow factor records. Note I say performance, rather than song, because the song is a poor thing in the original by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. No, it’s what Nina does with it, and her vivid mix of delight and glee and incredulity. The song captures the euphoria of falling in love like nothing else. The piano solo is irrepressible to the point of jokiness. And that distinctive bouncing, descending riff is nowhere in Tommy Dorsey. Nina borrowed it from Count Basie. Let me refer you to the piano introduction of ‘Everyday I Have the Blues’, track one, side two of Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings…
Count Basie, ’Every Day I Have the Blues’
Actually, as the late Joe Sample told me in an interview in October 2008 for Metro, “Count Basie probably learnt that riff in the twenties when he got stranded in Oklahoma and found his way to Kansas City, where he joined the Bennie Moten Band. But I’m sure the riff was created in the late nineteenth century when black pianists discovered the blues.”
It was her debut studio session, in 1958, and Nina was never so happy again. Nina Simone and Piano is something else. Let’s face it, romantic euphoria is always going to appeal more than remorse and self-laceration. But I don’t think I’ve heard anything quite as affecting as ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)’. The piano playing reminds that Nina was one of the best.
Nina Simone, ’I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes) (4.37)
Everyone will tell you that that song was written by Hoagy Carmichael. It’s not quite so straight-forward. Hoagy Carmichael wrote the tune, right enough, but the words come from a poem that was handed to him on a scrap of paper, at Indiana University sometime in the late twenties – my source are the excellent liner-notes by John Edward Hasse for the Hoagy Carmichael box set The Classic Hoagy Carmichael: “The poem was signed only J.B. The song was copyrighted with the credit line, “Words inspired by a poem written by J.B. (?)” Finally, the author was located in Philadelphia – Mrs Jane Brown Thompson. Dick Powell introduced the song on national radio, but Mrs Thompson died the night before.”
I’ve heard the song a few times by different people from Duritti Column to Margaret Whiting (it’s her version in the Hoagy box set), but I haven’t heard anything quite so profound and poignant as Nina’s version. As with any song she essays, Nina’s is the definitive version. [Lorraine Barnet begs to differ: she likes the Nina version but holds out for Frank Sinatra.]
And I love the use of parenthesis. ‘(Except Sometimes)’ is the ultimate qualifying statement and should be borne in mind every time anybody, including myself, makes a blanket statement.
Oh, like ‘Nina Simone was a reasonable woman (except sometimes)’.
[“Well I don’t want to over-run. Shall we save B.B. King for a later occasion?” I say to ready agreement. The following is a draft of how it would have continued.]
‘B.B. King is the most modest of bluesmen (except sometimes)’.
I only included B.B. King because I liked having an internal rhyme in my talk title, and also because I’m an inveterate name-dropper.
I interviewed B.B. King, rather late in the day – in June 2009, for Metro – and it was very hard to get beyond the “aw shucks” humility he adopted as a public facade. His charm was damn near impregnable. For example, “A bandleader once told me that if he see one person patting their feet or nodding their head, that’s the person he would play to all night.” And, “We in the country in Mississippi love to do one thing. We love to shake hands with people. I hope I’m able to shake your hand.” Just occasionally the mask would slip to give a glimpse of the ego which drove B.B. from sharecropper to Boss of the Blues. One obstacle to prevent me shaking his hand, for example, was that he was only playing arenas on that trip. I hinted that the natural habitat for the blues was surely a club. “Well I always thought that I was good enough to do like some of the other people of the generation today. I thought I was good enough to play in the big arenas like they do.” In other words, if U2 can do it, so can B.B. King.
On the other hand, is there another artist who could hold audiences of 25,000 upwards whilst playing in a wheelchair? Let’s remember him in his youthful prime with ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’, the second ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’ of the night (though a different song).
B.B. King, ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’
I was in the habit of painstakingly transcribing all my interviews, which was strictly unnecessary, when only 300 or so words would appear in print. Sometimes, not wishing to waste my effort, I would send transcriptions to my friend, Pete Bocking. Pete Bocking was a jazz guitarist possessed of a sharp wit and ready imagination. He was soon sending back imaginary interviews which accurately parodied my interviewing technique,
Here, courtesy of Pete Bocking, is my interview with J.S. Bach.
MB: Well Joe, you are the foremost Baroque composer of all time.
JS: Well Mike, I wouldn’t quite put it in those terms. I mean Buxtehude is more my idea of baroque. I don’t like to be pigeon-holed. I like to think that my music has freer, more modern elements.
MB: Yes, you have certainly done more to establish the dominant seventh with a flattened ninth chord than any previous composer.
JS: Are you a musician?
MB: No Joe, but I’ve got all your albums.
Pete pinpoints the most common question I get asked by interviewees, “Are you a musician?” or “Do you play an instrument yourself?” Never, never own up to playing an instrument to a musician. Besides, my pedestrian piano playing is of no interest to anyone. And, in the interview situation, anything which distracts from the subject must be avoided. It’s the iron rule of journalism, and no ‘except sometimes’.
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