Alyn Shipton – On Jazz: A Personal Journey
(Cambridge University Press, out in hardback 5 May. Book review by John Bungey)
Alyn Shipton has lived the jazz life. No, not that one, the one that involves 3am gigs in bare-bulb speakeasies, cognac for breakfast, pawning your horn and OD-ing aged 34. BBC Radio 3 wouldn’t take kindly to any of that. No, to be clear, Shipton has enjoyed a long life immersed in the music he loves as double bassist, critic, lecturer, broadcaster and publisher or co-editor of 24 jazz autobiographies. And in 264 pages Shipton, the urbane voice of Jazz Record Requests, delivers a memoir that, thanks to his many encounters with the music’s prime movers, also acts as a jazz history.
Shipton heard jazz before he could walk: his father came back from the Second World War with a stack of 78 records he’d picked up in Hong Kong so the sounds of Fats Waller and Earl Hines filled the house in Surrey. By his late teens Shipton was playing the double bass seriously and at 21 a trip to the New Orleans jazz festival proved seminal. In 1976 many of the pioneers of the music were still alive and playing and Shipton heard Eubie Blake, then 89, and Little Brother Montgomery as well as Charles Mingus and Elvin Jones in their pomp.
Back in England a magazine hired Shipton as a jazz reviewer. He’d already heard Oscar Peterson, Count Basie and more while reading English at Oxford. He also ran the jazz club and takes credit for persuading George Melly to return to touring as a boozy student favourite.
Shipton’s career since has been a juggling act – not just as a publisher and writer observing from the wings. He’s taken to the stage with the London Ragtime Orchestra, the big band Vile Bodies and co-led the Buck Clayton Legacy Band. That’s him on record with Ken Colyer, Herb Hall, Sammy Rimington …
He seems to have met almost everyone and usually has a story. A kindly John McLaughlin calms Shipton with tea and biscuits after the broadcaster’s hire car has a narrow escape en route to the guitarist’s French home. Tech-minded Ornette Coleman is so eager to know about Shipton’s new-fangled BBC minidisc recorder in 1997 that interview time runs perilously short. Shipton talks about the “unfailing generosity” of the jazz community and only rarely does he have a bad word. There’s a temporary falling out with Ken Colyer when Shipton, as head of Macmillan’s music publishing, rejects the bandleader’s autobiography – particularly awkward as Shipton was in the trumpeter’s band at the time. Colyer is astonished that Shipton wields the power of veto. “I thought he was the fucking tea boy.”
But Shipton will stand no nonsense. He publishes Oscar Peterson’s autobiography only after requesting a complete rewrite from the piano icon. The over-wrought first draft had featured lines such as Oscar complaining that his father “regularly chastised me by beating me about the posterior”.
The author witnesses a 14-year-old Wynton Marsalis playing with his dad; he hears the pianist Paul Bley tell an audience: “Sheet music is the enemy of the creative improviser.” In a New Orleans bar he starts chatting to a pony-tailed man with a beret who’s an expert on the Crescent City music scene. Only later does he realise this was the great Dr John (he doesn’t look like the twilight creature on the cover of Gris-Gris). Keen to improve his own bass playing, Shipton asks the veteran New Orleans player Chester Zardis if he has any tips for hardening the fingers. “Piss on them,” responds Zardis. It’s not advice the younger man has followed.
Amid all the quotes from greats, often culled from Shipton’s BBC interviews, there are one or two omissions. There is much talk of Miles Davis but Shipton does not mention meeting him. I think he has talked to another fascinatingly contrary figure, Keith Jarrett, a few times but the pianist does not make the index.
This though is an involving journey from early jazz and the swing era up to about 2000, with Shipton as your well-briefed tour guide. The book also does what such memoirs should – inspire you to revisit the music within. There’s a good chapter on Seventies fusion and I hadn’t listened to the late trumpeter Ian Carr and his band Nucleus for decades, believing that the Americans generally did this stuff much better. Shipton prompted me to dig out Elastic Rock and Belladonna. They sound great. How wrong I was.
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