Feature/Interview (PP)

Alyn Shipton (new book ‘On Jazz’)

Alyn Shipton’s new book On Jazz draws on a weighty archive of interviews he has accumulated in a long career mixing roles as publisher, author, editor, broadcaster and, not least, musician. He explains how he put together a more personal take on the music than he offers in his many biographies or his own compendious one volume A New History of Jazz, and the way his love of New Orleans shaped a life in and around jazz. Interview by Jon Turney:

Alyn Shipton at the launch party for On Jazz (photo © Cambridge University Press)

LondonJazz News: You’ve had a career where diverse jazz and jazz-related roles seem to have dovetailed together very nicely. What made you decide to give us something a bit more autobiographical?

Alyn Shipton: I’ve been driven by some kind of “urge to discover” in virtually all my previous books. On Jazz had a different genesis. I’d been talking to Professor George McKay at the University of East Anglia about what to do with the hundreds of interviews I’d amassed. He suggested maybe finding a postgraduate in a university music department to take them on as a project. Then, quite coincidentally, Kate Brett at Cambridge University Press got in touch to ask if I’d ever thought of doing a book that collected some of my interview material. So I thought, there’s a pandemic on, I’m not playing any gigs: I might as well be that “graduate student” myself, and distil some of my favourite interviews into a book. But Kate also suggested that – like most biographers – I’d previously kept myself largely out of the picture (with the exception of my life of Ian Carr, which is partly about a personal friendship) and I should tell something of my own story interwoven with those of the musicians I had met and talked to. 

LJN: That conjures up an image of the Shipton audio archive. How far back does it go, and what’s the volume of material now? Are you juggling old formats, or have you managed to create digital order? 

AS: The audio archive goes back to the mid 1980s, and the Harry Dial interview in On Jazz was practically the first that I recorded with a view to keeping it. I only got round to digitising that cassette in 2020. I now have interviews on cassette, minidisc, DAT, and in digital form as Mp3 or WAV files. With approximately 300 interviews from the BBC World Service, and at least double that from Radio 2, 3 and 4 work, as well as conversations for books and articles, I’ve probably got about 1,000. The time it’d take to digitise all of them is time I’d rather spend doing other things, so I convert as and when I need to! Fortunately back in the 80s and 90s, I tended to transcribe interviews, and I have these pretty neatly organised.

LJN: You can engage with interviewees as a journalist, a historian, or a fellow musician. Do you use that deliberately at all, or just see where the conversation leads?

AS: I learnt most about how to start an interview presenting live concerts for Radio 3. We liked to pre-record an interview to be broadcast during the interval, generally done at sound-check, or sometimes at a hotel before the artist set off for the hall. You know that you need about 20 minutes of material, and you don’t have time to mess around. So the key was always research – about a recent album, a fellow artist on the bill, a recent print interview in which there’s a hook for a further conversation.

I remember the first time I went to interview Keith Jarrett. He sat down and said, “I suppose you’re going to ask all the usual questions?” I said that before we got started I was interested to know what it was like to play the baroque organ in Ottobeuren for the recording of Hymns / Spheres in 1976. His eyes lit up and we were away, with Keith telling me how he “was immediately lost in its world of sound” and going on to discuss how the recording captured the sound of the mechanics of the instrument.

So yes, I can draw on my knowledge of history or of playing the music, but then it is a matter of listening intently to the answer and moving the conversation on. I never hold a list of questions or topics in my hand, I have to have the material I want to cover in my head. That allows eye contact and the possibility of a genuine conversation.

On Jazz book cover

LJN: Going through the archive, did you rediscover things you’d forgotten, that took on new significance because of changing context or things you learnt since the original interview(s)?

AS: A real surprise was the interview with drummer Pete La Roca. It was done for a Radio 3 series on the history of Blue Note records. I’d gone to meet Pete Sims (his real name) to talk about his wonderful album, Basra with Joe Henderson, which producer Brian Morton and I wanted to include in the series. But since I had time, I asked Pete about his life and work and not only did I discover he’d been taken to hear Baby Dodds when he was very young, but he told me all about working with Sonny Rollins in his trio. When I was listening to my much more recent interview with the third member of the trio, Henry Grimes, he mentioned Pete and I thought, “I wonder if that old interview would be any use?” And there it is in the book, giving quite a bit of insight into that period of Rollins’ work.

LJN: Some of the interview audio appears in selected chapters of the audio book. You’ve developed a fruitful oral history technique of using musical prompts to unlock players’ memories. Did you consider including music in the audio book as well, or is that a complication too far?

AS: The rights issues of using the interviews in the audio book were considerable and it would have been complex to include music as well. So instead Cambridge have worked with me to create a Spotify playlist that includes much of the music discussed in each chapter.

I am not a great fan of streaming, owing to the miserly rewards for musicians – but this is at least a way to point listeners to a broad range of work. Wearing my publishing hat, Equinox recently released a book in the list I edit for them on the history of Rounder Records (Vinyl Ventures by the label’s co-founder Bill Nowlin) and Concord (who now own the label) agreed that we could embed Spotify links to their catalogue in the e-book version in the USA. So a reader can listen to the music at the same time as reading the text. I have a feeling this will become common practice in music books.

LJN: On your own musical touchstones, you have notably broad musical sympathies, but one gathers your heart was lost in New Orleans. How was it, working to develop a real understanding of that music as a youngster when the rest of us were listening to, say, Joni Mitchell, or the Mahavishnu Orchestra?

AS: Well I wasn’t “not” listening to Joni or Mahavishnu, and when I was doing my book on Harry Nilsson, and, later, ghosting Billy J. Kramer’s memoirs, I realised that a vast amount of 60s and 70s pop music was in my head. I think my emotional connection to New Orleans – even before I got there – arose because I got caught up in the romance of the place. I’d read Shapiro and Hentoff’s Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, with the opening paragraph where Danny Barker describes playing in the street as a kid and hearing the sound of a brass band: “It was like a phenomenon, like the Aurora Borealis, maybe…the city was full of the sound of music.”

So I wanted to get inside this music, and to understand something of how the magic was created that had so seduced me. Yet – as I explain in On Jazz – as a player I wasn’t restricted to this kind of jazz, or indeed to jazz itself. Our local West Surrey youth orchestra played works by contemporary composers such as Malcolm Arnold, Richard Rodney Bennett and Thea Musgrave, before John Dankworth was commissioned to write a piece for us, and he and I remained friends for the rest of his life. Ian Carr, Mike Garrick and Don Rendell were hugely influential on my school band, and we watched closely both the progress of Nucleus, and also Mike’s Poetry and Jazz Events. (It was great to go to the 60th anniversary concert of the first of these in Oxford recently, and hear Art Themen, Dave Green and Norma Winstone, as well as poet Jeremy Robson there, who’d all been performing in some of the original events we attended!).

LJN: How does the deep love of New Orleans styles inform your hearing of later movements in jazz?

AS: One of the key things about New Orleans jazz is that everyone plays for the band rather than for themselves. I think it’s this element that’s informed some of how I listen to later jazz. It was certainly true of the 1960s Buck Clayton groups, where Sir Charles Thompson, Gene Ramey and Oliver Jackson were brilliant at adapting, in the way they supported Buddy Tate, Dickie Wells, or Buck himself. And my sense of rhythm section playing, for example, lay behind my exploration in On Jazz of the early 1950s Ellington band. Was it really musically in the doldrums? Were Sam Woodyard and Jimmy Woode so incapable of swinging themselves that they needed Jo Jones to “egg them on” at Newport in 1956? This chapter shows it’s important not to accept received opinion without going back to examine the evidence.

LJN: As far as performance goes, you emphasise that there’s life in “old” variants of jazz – ragtime, New Orleans polyphony, arrangements by Buck Clayton or Ellington. How does one keep revivalism (if that’s what it is) from turning stale? 

AS: Anybody re-examining older styles of music must do it for real. Just before the pandemic I was in New York listening to the big band at the Manhattan School of Music, directed by Jon Faddis, playing charts from the Gillespie big band. They played these with total conviction, yet in their solos, students aged 18-21 were playing quite contemporary choruses. Equally, in January 2020 at the Royal Academy of Music, the RAM big band included some of Kenny Wheeler’s most challenging repertoire, but they played that with conviction and a degree of solo swagger that showed they had completely absorbed it and were taking it forward.

Of course there are players who I think are tackling old repertoire superficially. I have a particular blind spot when it comes to Tuba Skinny, who always sound to me as if they are taking a very shallow approach. Go and listen to players like Evan Christopher or Leroy Jones and hear how this music can be played with complete from-the-heart conviction. 

LJN: Your book is a reminder that it’s really not long since a musician could know or even play with most of the important jazz players from the past. Now jazz is finally too old for that, and players can only know the full history through recordings and documentary. How does that affect them in relating to the tradition?

AS: I have come to believe in “serial transmission”, learning from folk who have learned from earlier generations. In classical terms I remember a conversation with Sir Charles Mackerras when I was interviewing him about his Brahms Symphony recordings with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and I said we were both a handshake away from Brahms. He looked quizzically at me and said that I was for too young for that to be possible. He had indeed been a handshake away as he’d shaken hands with a student of Joachim who had been introduced to Brahms. I told him I’d worked for Sir Robert Mayer – the founder of Youth and Music – when I briefly edited his magazine for young music students. Mayer had sat next to Brahms at a concert in 1890 (aged 11) and I’d worked for him the year before his hundredth birthday! But it meant I’d discussed Brahms with someone who had studied his music at the conservatoire in Mannheim during the composer’s lifetime and he recalled a number of details that I was able to remember and use in my interview with Mackerras.

It’s been that way with jazz, with players a handshake away from earlier generations. I was lucky enough to learn from some great New Orleans bassists, and from Jimmy Woode, and I have passed some of what I learned on to students at the Royal Academy of Music, where I teach, but there are plenty of bass players around now who have gathered similar experience, and can also pass that knowledge on to a new generation. Ron Carter is a great example of someone making sure he does just that, through his books and a strong online presence. And more generally, maybe the book’s final interview with Theo Croker sums up a way of listening to all of jazz – being aware of the music’s long tradition, but equally being inquisitive about every new development as it happens.

LJN: 1,000 interviews is impressive. Val Wilmer’s classic Jazz People ends with a one-line “interview” with Miles Davis: “I said, LATER!”  Do you have one that got away? 

AS: I’ve only missed interviews by two players, but there have been consolations. Hank Jones did not deign to talk to me at Brecon one year. But Joe Henderson took pity on me, and gave me a wonderful interview knowing I’d been stood up. Hank did exactly the same to me in New York a year later, but that time I was rescued by Toots Thielemans. The other one was John Handy (the one who worked with Mingus). I was in California for the World Service and he’d arranged a time and venue for the meeting, but he didn’t show up. No contact, no apology. But in over three decades of interviewing, that’s not a bad average! As I said in the book, almost everyone else has been generous with their time and their answers, and have often gone way beyond the call of promotional duty to have real conversations. It’s a privilege beyond price.

LINK: On Jazz at Cambridge University Press (Publication date is 5 May 2022)

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