Obituary: Conrad Cork (1940-2021)

Conrad Cork, writes Andy Hamilton, was an alto-saxophonist, bassist, and Director of Jazz Studies in the Performing Arts Department at De Montfort University, Leicester. He was born in Birmingham, England, in 1940 – during an air-raid, he said, and it was certainly at a time when there were air-raids – and died in Leicester in April 2021.

Conrad Cork. All photos courtesy of Ali Cork

Conrad began playing jazz in Liverpool, appearing at clubs like The Cavern in pre-Beatles days. From his beginnings as a trombonist in New Orleans style bands, his interests widened, and he took up bass and piano. At Nottingham University he read English, but his passion was jazz. He found his niche writing software, which paid the bills. 

In 1981, he moved to Leicester, and became Director of Jazz Studies at De Montfort University, Leicester, and ran the Basic Musicianship course. His book Harmony with LEGO Bricks came out of that experience. The book was a guide to jazz improvisation which shows how standard songs are constructed from common components, and so explains how they can be learned in all keys without effort.

Lee Konitz, Gavin Bryars, Conrad Cork, John Runcie

After moving to Leicester, he bought a saxophone, and formed Nardis, with Gavin Bryars on bass and John Runcie on drums. They supported Lee Konitz in a memorable gig, about which Conrad commented with characteristic modesty, “Playing with Lee was the ultimate challenge, and though I knew I was not really up to it, I decided not to have anything pre-planned, nor to have any sheet music with me.”

His book LEGO Bricks presented Cork’s alternative to the mechanical approach – rejected by Konitz – of deriving the improvised line from the harmony rather than the melody of the song. In response to the question “Would you really improvise any differently if it was ‘Ornithology’ rather than ‘How High The Moon?’, or ‘Donna Lee’ rather than ‘Indiana’?”, which are on the same chords, Cork would say “If you’re any good you play them differently”. Harmony should be in second place to melody. Learning the common harmonic building-bricks of songs makes the harmony so familiar that one can improvise intuitively.

Edinburgh pianist John Elliott, influenced by Cork’s book and ideas, wrote his own book, Insights in Jazz (2009), and took over running the discussion group about the LEGO bricks method (link to his website below).

Conrad was a true educator with a proselytising zeal for jazz and improvisation. He was a great and benign influence on all who came into contact with him, and his pride in his book is totally justified. It offers some of the deepest insights into jazz aesthetics, and has had a wide influence on the jazz community.

LINKS: Conrad Cork RIP

John Elliott’s website

Categories: Obituary

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