Lord Sebastian Coe, Honorary Vice President of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, did a radio interview (*) with Jazz FM presenter Ruth Fisher about his passion and love for jazz and how it has influenced some of his greatest sporting achievements.
Ruth Fisher: How did you get into jazz?
Lord Coe: Well it was always on in the house. It was the soundtrack to my youth. At the weekends as a family, we always listened to Humphrey Lyttelton’s Jazz Hour and Steve Race’s Jazz Record Requests on Radio 3. I was hooked and started collecting records at about the age of 12.
RF: Bassist Coleridge Goode was best man at your parents’ wedding, how did that come about?
LC: I don’t know the answer to that and sadly both my parents are no longer around for me to ask. My father was the one who introduced me to jazz so I’m guessing he must have met Coleridge at a jazz club, maybe the 100 Club or somewhere like that.
RF: Can you remember the first live jazz gig you saw?
LC: I absolutely can and it feels like yesterday! Late 60s, early 70s – Sunday lunchtime at New Merlin’s Cave on Marjory Street with George Melly & The Feetwarmers! That’s where I began to absorb jazz and by the age of 14/15, I would sneak out of home on Saturday nights and go to the 100 Club on Oxford Street!
RF: Did you ever learn to play an instrument?
LC: I started piano lessons as a kid but by the age of 11/12 I was starting to get serious about athletics. By the age of 14/15, I was training once a day, sometimes twice a day. At 16, I was training 3 times a day so sadly having time for much else was difficult. I wished I had stuck at it though as I’ve always loved jazz piano, especially Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner.
RF: Your chosen path was athletics but jazz seems to have played an important role in your sporting career.
LC: Yes, because jazz is such a part of my life. I can’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t listening to it, even when travelling or training. I remember walking from the warm-up track in Moscow to the final of the 1500 metres with Sidney Bechet’s Just A Closer Walk With Thee playing on my walkman.
The night before I flew to the LA Olympic Games, I spent the evening with one of my coaches and his wife, also jazz fans, in the Iron Skillet just outside Chicago listening to the trumpeter Reverend Miller who had a similar sound to Wild Bill Davison.
I also remember just a few hours before we were due to present our bid to have London host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, lying on my hotel bed listening to the mellifluous piano of Jimmy Rowles. I felt so calm and relaxed I was virtually asleep. I am amazed to this day that I woke up in time for our presentation! Jazz has always kept me calm and actually when you have those days where the world doesn’t look that great, jazz is the one thing that can lift you out of that.
RF: How did you become involved with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra?
LC: I was invited by Nigel Tully to an evening – he had probably researched my maiden speech in the House of Lords about the iniquitous division of public funding towards jazz vis-à-vis opera! And the rest is history! I am very much enjoying my role as Honorary Vice President. We’ve just had a very successful online fundraiser and we’ve even managed to get some space in Brit Week in the USA for the band.
RF: How do you see the future for the Arts after this pandemic?
LC: I am President of the World Athletics, I’ve been involved in sport for over 50 years, and yet I can’t think of a more challenging time either as a competitor or as administrator. I hope that when we try to balance the books that the cultural fabric of the nation (and I throw sport into that mix) is considered worth holding onto because I believe these are the anchor points in local communities, in families, in neighbourhoods and they are the things that are going to help people out of these challenging times. But priorities are priorities. We all have to live in the real world but I would counsel caution about closing down in lockdown too many of these activities that, properly socially distanced and properly put together, give, particularly young people, a purpose.
RF: You once moved house to accommodate your extensive record collection! What is your preferred way to listen to music?
LC: My kids have tried to get me into the digital era but my love is vinyl. I love reading and for me they are an inseparable part of your house. You return to records, like your favourite chapter in a novel, they are really part of my life.
RF: Which musician would you like to have met?
LC: Duke Ellington. The body of work from his Sacred Concerts, the Cotton Club, his modern works – compositionally, he was a genius. And of course, his choice of musicians and his amazing partnership with Billy Strayhorn. Yet despite this, during the period of American history that he spanned, he was not able to stay in many of the hotels he was performing in. He would have been an extraordinarily interesting and complex character to talk to and I like complexity!
Ruth Fisher is the presenter of Full Circle on Saturday nights at 1am and The Performance Series on Mondays at 9pm on JazzFM.
(*) This is an edited-down version of the full interview which will be broadcast on www.jazzfm.com on 29 December 2020 at 6pm. With thanks to Nigel Tully MBE.