“I’m passionate about trying to engage new people in the music, and that is what ‘Our Music in Paris’ is about: sharing a particular story of jazz focusing on Paris.” UK saxophonist Dan Forshaw talks about his upcoming gig at London’s Pizza Express on 3 August, the saxophone’s links with Paris and being mentored by Branford Marsalis. Feature by Alison Bentley.
London Jazz News: What is it about Paris?
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Dan Forshaw: Paris is at the centre of jazz- it was the first place to class jazz as an art form, rather than just music. They really embraced it and still do. Miles Davis was there in the post-war period, and we’ll be playing classic stuff like So What and All Blues. One of Miles’ final concerts was in Paris, and we’re going to play Human Nature from that mid 80s period. He was given the Légion d’honneur by Chirac. Paul Higgs is playing trumpet with me on the gig, and, like myself, he’s very keen to tell the stories behind the music.
The saxophone, the instrument which most people would associate with jazz, owes its history to Paris. Adolphe Sax persuaded the French military to bring the saxophone into French military bands. They had a battle of the bands on the Champ de Mars behind the Eiffel Tower, between Adolphe Sax’ band with saxophones, and the ones without- the saxophones won. His benefactor King Louis introduced saxophones to French military bands. It’s thanks to those bands travelling around the world that we have the sax in jazz, and that started in Paris.
LJN: What other music will you be playing?
DF: We’ll also be playing the music of Sidney Bechet, who came over after the First World War, and is buried in Paris. The music of the hot jazz clubs, with things like Sweet Georgia Brown, Summertime. Guitarist Louis Thorne is joining us- he does a lot of Django Reinhardt stuff.
LJN: He’s a manouche guitarist?
DF: Yes, we’ll be highlighting Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, who kept that jazz scene going in occupied Paris in the 40s. Jazz was seen as very much a degenerate music, so we talk about that and how jazz was this beacon of freedom as well.
LJN: Coltrane has strong links with Paris, and he’s been a huge influence on you.
DF: Yes, I spent a huge part of my life studying Coltrane. He got his first soprano saxophone in London but it was played during a European Tour with Miles Davis. We do a bit on Dexter Gordon and borrowed his album title: Our Man in Paris- we play some of the music from that. And Scrapple from the Apple by Charlie Parker. Also, Lester Young recorded his final album in Paris. The film Round Midnight was loosely based on him and Bud Powell and their lives in Paris. So we pay tribute to Lester Young- a phenomenal influence on every saxophonist who came after him.
LJN: You yourself have played in different styles...
DF: I’ve always been mindful that you’ve got to give people a reason for coming out that evening. I think if we’re having fun on stage that translates into people thinking they can have fun in the audience as well.
LJN: You have a serious side too- you quote Martin Luther King: “The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties.” Does that give people something to relate to as well?
DF: Yes, Martin Luther King wrote that text for the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. Jazz is a wonderful art form, it’s just sometimes had a bad press. I’m passionate about trying to engage new people in the music, which is what “Our Music in Paris” is about- sharing a particular story of jazz focusing on Paris.
LJN: You come from a musical family and you taught yourself piano.
DF: Very badly! My dad was a church organist and a semi-professional bass player. I was very fortunate at primary school, where you were in a minority if you didn’t play an instrument. Later I had a brilliant sax teacher called Ray Wilkes in Blackpool. There was so much work in Blackpool for musicians in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but that started to decline in the 80s, so a lot of musicians in the generation after Ray had to leave Blackpool. I was really fortunate to get a musical education with Ray and his contemporaries playing in big bands from the age of 16. I’m in Cambridge now, and we are very fortunate that in the southeast we have those kinds of opportunities, but sadly in some areas of the country kids don’t get those same opportunities.
LJN: There’s a great story about Branford Marsalis taking you under his wing.
DF: I owe Branford almost everything in terms of my musical career. I met him in Manchester and just quizzed him. He said, “Here’s my e-mail address, keep in touch.” And he was true to his word, and really helped me and got me over to the states in 2005. He’s a really great guy, a superb mentor, and it’s something I try to emulate with my own students.
LJN: You also studied with Eric Alexander and Ravi Coltrane?
DF: Ravi was more when I was doing my research into John Coltrane. Eric was more of a straight saxophone teacher, working on technique and things like that- very good. I also had the good fortune to have a couple of lessons with Dave Liebman when I was over in the States.
LJN: Would you say that tenor is your main instrument?
DF: Yes, and soprano. I spend about 90% of my time playing tenor and I desperately want to play more soprano! For a lot of saxophone players, the soprano becomes the next octave of the tenor, whereas I try and treat them as separate instruments. That is something that Bradford taught me to do. The soprano can bite you on the backside when you least expect it! The intonation is so hard to get right. I play alto as well, but it tends to be more for classical music.
LJN: Who else will be joining you on this Pizza Express gig?
DF: As well as Paul Higgs on trumpet and Louis Thorne on guitar, it’ll be Derek Scurll on drums and Alex Keen on bass. Paris really is a city where as a musician you can feel at home and valued, so I hope people will come out to hear us in London!
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LINKS: Bookings for 3 August