Features/Interviews (PP)

Alyn Shipton Interview: New Jazz Titles from Equinox Books

The first few months of 2022 will see quite a few new additions to the Equinox Books Jazz List, in the series Popular Music History. Series Editor is broadcaster, author and bassist Alyn Shipton. Alyn talked about some of the new books, explained more of the background to the series and then talked about his own story in jazz book publishing. Interview by Sebastian Scotney:

LondonJazz News: I understand that the next three publications will be a book of memoirs by John Altman, the autobiography of Tomasz Stanko and a history of the development of jazz in Kansas City. What’s the story of each?

Alyn Shipton:

  • John Altman: Hidden Man; My Many Musical Lives

Anyone who has spent time in London’s various jazz clubs over the years will have come across the distinctive figure of John Altman, as he is an indefatigable fan of the music. I met and got talking to John after sharing a table with him at Soho’s Pizza Express during a gig by Karin Krog, and we kept in touch. He was immensely helpful when I was researching my biography of Harry Nilsson, as he’d known Harry in his London period and actually attended the recording sessions for “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night” which were done here with a British orchestra. He was also an excellent contributor to various BBC series that I produced or presented. So when I heard John was planning his memoirs, I got in touch. It’s a fascinating, wide-ranging book, covering his early career as a saxophonist that took him into various bands en route to Van Morrison’s touring group, plus his entry into film music that led to numerous soundtrack triumphs including the vintage music for Titanic and the famous James Bond scene where Pierce Brosnan drives a tank through St Petersburg. His further adventures as bandleader, composer and instrumentalist, plus friendships across the business (including a poignant memory of Amy Winehouse) made this a book one that I very much wanted to publish, and it’s been a pleasure to edit the manuscript and work on the detail with John. Link

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  • Tomasz Stańko’s autobiography, Desperado. As told to Rafał Księżyk. Transl. Halina Maria Boniszewska

Last year we published a biography of Krzysztof Komeda, translated from Polish by Halina Maria Boniszewska. She alerted me to the fact that Tomasz Stanko – one of Komeda’s closest associates – had published an autobiography Renegade, in Poland, before his untimely death in 2018. I knew Tomasz, not only having broadcast with him on a number of occasions, but also my Buck Clayton Legacy Band played for the jazz festival he curated in Biełska-Biala in 2017, so I was pretty sure that this book, in the form of an extended interview, would be a fascinating addition to our list. And so it turned out, with Halina doing her usual excellent job of capturing the nuances of the conversation so convincingly that you never think you’re reading a translation. This book will sit proudly alongside our recently published translation of Eberhard Weber’s autobiography. Link

  • Con Chapman: Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good

I came across Con Chapman’s work with his excellent 2019 OUP biography of Johnny Hodges, Rabbit’s Blues. So when he approached me with the idea of a new history of Kansas City jazz, I was very keen to work with him. Back in 1988 at Macmillan I published Nathan Pearson’s Goin’ To Kansas City, and since then the slightly more modern history of music in K.C. by Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix has appeared, but I reckoned Con’s forensic approach might uncover a lot of new information, and so it has proved. It’s an ideal title for our Popular Music History series. Link

LJN: And in the popular music studies list, there is a new book about Liverpool?

AS: New Perspectives on the Beatles, A Carnival of Light, edited by James McGrath and Peter Mills is a more academic book in a parallel Equinox series to the one which we’ve talked about so far – Popular Music Studies. I co-edit the “studies” list with Chris Partridge at Lancaster University and these books tend to have a more scholarly, academic approach than the “history” series. This new book is a collection of essays on various aspects of Beatles studies, and it’s very timely with Peter Jackson’s new television series, looking at the end of the group, just about to be aired.

Alyn Shipton at a conference with several Equinox books. Photo from Val Hall

LJN: These are additions to a substantial Equinox catalogue of jazz and popular music books. Was it through you that they first started to build the catalogue? When did that happen?

AS: I have been the editor for music at Equinox since the company was founded, in 2003, by Janet Joyce, who had been a colleague of mine at Blackwell Publishers in Oxford. She was marketing director there when I was in charge of the reference and computing lists, and we worked together at that time in the ‘80s on a series of guides to collecting records in various styles of music from Blues to Country and from Jazz to Contemporary Classical Music. When she moved to Cassell as Editorial Director, we started to collaborate on more music titles there and when that firm merged with Continuum I became that company’s de facto music editor, publishing books ranging from Gwen Ansell’s account of South African jazz Soweto Blues to Oscar Peterson’s autobiography A Jazz Odyssey. When Janet left Continuum to found Equinox, I went with her, and so the music list there is 18 years old this year.

LJN: Although some of the writers are university-based academics, I understand that the (unwavering) brief is always to make the books accessible to the general or non-specialist reader?

AS: There are — as I mentioned in connection with the forthcoming Beatles book – several academically orientated titles on the Popular Music Studies list. But you’re right, Popular Music History is aimed at general readers on both sides of the Atlantic. (We have good US marketing and distribution, and Janet herself has spent the last two years in the USA building up the list there.) And I think we reach individuals as customers as effectively as we reach academic institutions.

LJN: And – developing that theme – I understand that Equinox also has not just books but also academic journals for jazz and popular music. Do these two areas help each other / are they complementary ?

AS: There are five Equinox journals in the popular music area. There’s synergy to some extent with all of them, and so, for example, the Journal of Film Music has a community of readers that connect with the book on Komeda, and the Journal of World Popular Music has obvious links to our comprehensive guide to Reggae by Michael Garnice, and our forthcoming book on Fela Kuti. The two closest links are to Popular Music History, which has both a content and titular association with my book series (I’ve also guest-edited an edition in the past), and most significantly, the Jazz Research Journal. This covers territory that relates directly to many of our titles and so, for example, in a recent issue we find Ivàn Iglesias exploring ideas of the narrative of time in jazz histories, an analytic study of Roy Eldridge’s playing and a long interview with Australian jazz expert Bruce Johnson. In past years, ideas first suggested in journal articles have developed into full chapters or sometimes complete titles on our book list.

LJN: And it looks like there is a quite close synergy with the academics in the jazz department of Birmingham City University ...

AS: Well, we do have a book coming shortly on Jazz on BBC Radio by Professor Tim Wall, who is based there, and he and Sarah Raine edited our recent book on The Northern Soul Scene. Sarah’s now moved from Birmingham via Edinburgh Napier to the Limerick Academy of World Music and Dance, but she edits two of our other book series Music Industry Studies and Icons of Pop Music. Nic Pillai, who until recently has been at Birmingham (before taking an Associate Professorship at UCD in Ireland), edits Jazz Research Journal, and that very journal was co-founded by his Birmingham colleague Tony Whyton (although back in the day when Tony was at Leeds.) The department at BCU is a very forward-looking one, and other colleagues from there, such as Nicholas Gebhardt, have taken an active role in editing or contributing to the Equinox journals. Equally, conferences hosted there, such as the 2019 Documenting Jazz, have been excellent meeting places for publishers and authors!

LJN: A growing theme in the catalogue seems to be Europe. There was the (vast) Martinelli history of European jazz. Do I detect a drive to do more about Europe  – and that it has picked up pace since Martinelli?

AS: Yes, there was certainly a lot of activity around Francesco Martinelli’s book, and because it has around 40 contributors, this introduced us to many key figures in European jazz writing and research. The Europe Jazz Network made it possible for me to attend conferences along with Francesco, and at many of these we held workshops about what was written on European jazz, and where there were gaps. I was very grateful for the input of all the attendees, but particularly that fine scholar Ekkehard Jost, who helped us plan much of the free jazz coverage at these meetings, but who sadly died before the book appeared. The contact for the Komeda book came directly out of the work on that book. You’ll have seen Eberhard Weber’s book on the list (with a nice quite from you, Seb!), and as you know we have the Stanko autobiography coming too. But even before that I’ve been keen to make sure we represent British jazz and it’s great to have been able to publish (among other titles) Duncan Heining’s book on Graham Collier, and Clark Tracey’s award-winning book on his father.

LJN: I gather that both the Simon Spillett biography of Tubby Hayes and the book by Kevin Le Gendre “Soul Unsung” have sold well. What do you attribute those specific successes to?

There’s not much Simon doesn’t know about Tubby, and not only is it an excellent book, which has now gone through two editions, but Tubby was one of the few UK musicians who had real name recognition in the USA (helped by Simon winning a certificate for excellent research from the Association of Recorded Sound Collections in the States). Books that sell strongly in the US are great to have on the list. I think it earned all the reviews saying what a fine biography it was, and Simon has, of course, done much else to make sure that Tubby’s work and legacy remain in the public eye.

Kevin is a very well-known broadcaster and writer and I think the topic of his book – looking at instrumental soul music rather than the obvious vocalist names – caught readers’ imagination. I have very high hopes for his new book on Jimi Hendrix, focusing on his songwriting as well as performance.

LJN: Do books like this sell straight away, do you tend to (have to?!) take long-term view on specific books breaking even…and are there perhaps “sleepers” where the sales pick up years after publication?

AS: Having been in the business of publishing books about jazz since 1986, I think I can truthfully say that almost all jazz books are “sleepers”. Obviously the occasional one comes along that sells well, such as the Miles Davis autobiography (co-written with Quincy Troupe and published in the UK by Macmillan), simply because the subject is such a major figure. But unlike most fiction, (and actually quite a lot of non-fiction), jazz books don’t have a short shelf-life. So, for example, Rob Palmer’s book on Paul Chambers, which came out in 2012, and won an award then, as well as being voted a book of the year by the New York City Jazz Record, just keeps on selling a steady quantity. As readers discover the wealth of recordings Chambers is on, from Miles to all kinds of figures such as Herbie Hancock, Gil Evans, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, there’s a curiosity to find out more, and when you Google the name, the book comes up. And that’s helped by being the only book on the subject. Tom Perchard’s book on Lee Morgan is another excellent example of that, and must be the only book I have commissioned after (wearing my Royal Academy of Music hat) examining a PhD thesis — his was a masterly piece of work on Lee! Our author Peter Jones has also scored well on having the one major title on a subject, first with his book on Mark Murphy and then with his more recent one on Jon Hendricks. Peter’s work is the source on both musicians.

LJN: You must have worked with some of the writers for quite some time– Brian Priestley (he wrote a book about Charlie Parker) and Dave Gelly…?

AS: Both Brian and Dave wrote for the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, for which I was the publisher, and then became the Consultant Editor. I’d known Brian for ages before that – having met him around the time his Mingus biography came out – and I was delighted to be able to work with him for Equinox on his Parker book, which greatly expanded a short, out-of-print, book on Bird that he’d written some time earlier. He was a regular broadcaster (on BBC Radio London, as it then was) and so I also knew him from that world, and that’s how I knew Dave Gelly as the two of us used to do book review segments together on various Radio 2 and 3 programmes. I wrote a chapter on Ornette Coleman for a book that Dave edited, and then he reversed the tables and offered me his life of Lester Young. I’d published Lewis Porter’s earlier book on Prez at Macmillan, so I knew there was a market for more about this great saxophonist, and Dave wanted to explore (more closely than any other writer) the links between Young’s life and art. His second book for us (and it’s always great when an commissioning editor can build up a real relationship with an author over a sequence of books) is a history of British jazz from the 40s to the 60s (An Unholy Row). This one came about when we were touring a show called Larkin’s Jazz with my quintet, in which Dave was playing tenor saxophone. After our concert at Sage Gateshead, we were having a drink at the hotel afterwards, when Dave said that listening to our actor colleague reading from Larkin’s articles on jazz had prompted him to think about researching a new history of the period covered by those writings. And somehow we ended up working out the plan for the book. (A by-product of that same series of concerts is that our trumpeter Ian Smith, who put together the show and is a well-known literary scholar and former Oxford English don, is writing a book for Equinox on Larkin and jazz.)

LJN: And thinking about some of the subjects of the books – you must have known them well too!

AS: I don’t know about“well” but I certainly knew Stan Tracey and Graham Collier, who are both covered on the list as I mentioned, and I also met Keith Jarrett a number of times, who is the subject of Wolfgang Sandner’s excellent biography (translated from German by Keith’s brother Chris). And obviously I know Chris Barber very well, as we were friends for some 40 years before I ghosted his autobiography for Equinox.

LJN: You were with Macmillan and involved in the Grove Dictionaries before joining Equinox, what made you move?

AS: I’d been at Macmillan for almost twelve years by the time the Grove Dictionary of American Music came out. I’d set up their music department, to publish across trade, academic and educational books, and the Grove Dictionaries of Jazz, Opera and Women Composers were well under way. But I also knew that if I stayed put, I’d be forever typecast as a music publisher. When Blackwell in Oxford offered me the chance to publish across a range of subjects using my lexicographical experience to do reference works on everything from philosophy to linguistics and classics to human geography, I thought it would be an interesting challenge. So I went to Oxford. There I met Janet Joyce, as I mentioned, and she was always a very robust colleague — asking searching questions about new proposals, and then, if she was convinced by them, really putting herself into marketing the books as well as possible. (I think I stretched even her tolerance with an atlas of British bell-ringing!)

When I left Macmillan, I took with me the fledgling list of jazz biographies which I had started there, and founded my own Bayou Press imprint to keep the series alive. When Janet arrived at Cassell she not only took over the distribution and sales of that list (which I had done from home) but in the fullness of time she actively encouraged me to start commissioning the next books in the series for her. And after I left Blackwell in order to focus more on broadcasting and writing, that’s exactly what I did. It’s kept me actively involved in the industry as a publisher and editor and I’m really proud of what Janet has achieved at Equinox.

LJN: What was the last book you wrote for Equinox yourself and what reactions have there been to it?

AS: The most recent book for Equinox was when I ghosted the memoirs of 60s pop singer Billy J Kramer, but that’s not quite in the orbit of London Jazz News! So the last book I did for the imprint on a jazz subject was the aforementioned Chris Barber memoir. It was a fascinating time working with someone who, before his tragic descent into dementia, had a photographic memory. I was particularly pleased with his accounts of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and the sections on the Barber band’s tours in the USA from 1959, where he and Ottilie Patterson clearly made a huge impression. Not many UK artists appeared at the Hollywood Bowl on the same programme as the Louis Armstrong All Stars, or played Monterey alongside Lambert Hendricks & Ross! I think most reviewers probably concurred with Chris Parker on this site that the early chapters were full of insight and that the book somewhat tailed off as we approached the present. But one of the challenges about ghost writing is that you can only go so far in coaxing a book out of the subject. This is the book Chris Barber wanted to write and he did. Maybe it’s a shame that some critics, like that of the Spectator, sensing that he could have produced something more sensational, criticized him for being “too nice”!

LINKS: Equinox Books Popular Music History Homepage

The ASRC 2021 Awards, where two Equinox books received prizes

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