Duncan Heining’s book, And Did Those Feet – Six British Jazz Composers, has just been published by Jazz in Britain. The book examines in detail the lives and works of six major figures in British music – Michael Garrick, Mike Gibbs, Mike Westbrook, Barry Guy, John Mayer and Keith Tippett – all of whom began their careers in the 1960s and none of whom have yet been the subject of full biographies. Interview by Sebastian Scotney:
LondonJazz News: You have written extensively about British jazz since the mid-90s but what prompted you to write this particular book?
Duncan Heining: Several different people suggested quite separately that I might write individual biographies on three of these artists. Each of these composers certainly warrant their own biography but given my age, energy levels and the state of our small corner of the publishing industry, it just wouldn’t be a realistic proposition. Then the idea of a compendium of substantial, biographical portraits occurred to me. I approached John Thurlow of Jazz in Britain and he liked the idea. I have to say that working with John and Pete Woodman, who designed the cover and did the proofreading, has been far and away the best experience I have had with a publisher.
LJN: How did you come up with the final selection?
DH: We came up with a number of criteria and chose artists who had not been subject to significant biographical attention but who had had long careers with substantial bodies of work to their names. After that, other factors resulting from my own personal interests came into play. I wanted to examine the nature of jazz composition – the very idea of composing for improvisation that is the singularity of jazz – and I wanted to pick artists on whom I had something to say. Finally, the book had to be about values – aesthetic and ethical values – and how these informed the work of these composers.
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LJN: Why are the six all men?
DH: Barbara Thompson was the only female artist and composer who met the criteria. Jazz in Britain have, of course, published Barbara’s autobiography, Journey to a Destination Unknown. We had wanted to include a shorter chapter on Barbara by a close friend and musical associate but for several reasons it just didn’t come together.
LJN: Some people may be surprised at the inclusion of John Mayer, who wrote for jazz musicians but wasn’t himself a jazz musician.
DH: Yeah, I was being a bit provocative there. I had also wanted to include John Stevens because I wanted to really push the question of ‘what is jazz composition?’ I dropped the idea of looking at Stevens because it would have altered the balance of the book but John Mayer composed for jazz musicians. That’s what jazz composers do and I really don’t think John’s significance in terms of jazz and its relationship with other musics has been adequately appreciated by jazz or music fans more generally. John Mayer had to be in And Did Those Feet…
LJN: All of these people work in both small and large group settings. Is that two-way pull on them and how they allocate their time something that interests you ?
DH: Not really, what interests me is how writing for small groups informs writing for large groups and vice versa. One needs to be able to hear the sonata in the symphony. I do go into some detail in the book on this point, not least because I think we have a tendency to ignore works that don’t always conform to the way we want to see these composers. I wanted to examine how the small group works fit within the overall oeuvre of these artists.
LJN: Has it been difficult to square the telling of the life story with imposing your own judgment as a critic of what is of real value in their output?
DH: To be honest, no. It’s my job as a biographer. More importantly, these are people of real integrity. I know that John, Michael and Keith are no longer with us but I did know them and wrote about them just as I have with Mike Gibbs, Mike Westbrook and Barry Guy. None of these people took or take offence at an honest opinion clearly expressed and – this is crucial – backed up by evidence. Graham Collier was the same.
LJN: In your introduction and conclusion, you talk about how these artists emerged out of the cultural changes taking place in the sixties but you don’t have as much to say about how they might have been affected by later social and cultural forces.
DH: My aim was to locate their work in the context of a different set of aesthetic and ethical values that became evident in that period. These were revolutionary times, when it became possible for artists to think different things and more importantly think differently. What happened in jazz from the mid-seventies onwards was best described by Evan Parker, “We rehearse at home to work in Europe.” That was where the conditions for radical art remained more favourable. British jazz musicians were forced back onto their own resources from the late 70s onwards. There is certainly a great need for a book that examines how a radical, critical culture came to be replaced by a conservative, conformist culture but that would be a very different book that looked at all areas of cultural activity. Were I ten years younger…
LJN: Were the subjects and their families essentially helpful to you?
DH: Oh, incredibly so. Going back to your previous question, I am not a musician though I have studied music theory. I am a social scientist by academic background. It is important to me that what I write reflects the lives and work of those I write about and is technically and factually accurate. So, Mike and Kate Westbrook read their chapter, Barry Guy and Maya Homburger read Barry’s chapter and Mike Gibbs read his chapter. Hans Koller also read the chapter on Mike Gibbs. With those no longer with us, Gabriel and Christian Garrick and Art Themen and Norma Winstone read Michael’s chapter. Similarly, Julie read the chapter on Keith along with a friend and musical associate of theirs and Jonathan Mayer read his dad’s chapter. That said, when it comes to critical judgement and analysis, that’s mine.
LJN: Who is responsible for the album which accompanies the book? Were you involved?
DH: Not directly. That was down to John and Pete and their access to the vast archive of recordings they have acquired. They know what they’re doing and I had complete trust in their selection and they more than justified that trust. I think fans are going to be blown away by the CDs and, hopefully, by the book as well.
LJN: What’s next for you book-wise?
DH: I had hoped to write a biography of a certain rather famous minimalist composer. I knew I could get a publisher and sales would have warranted the time and effort required given my age. Sadly, the guy said ‘yes’ and then changed his mind. So, that won’t happen. I’m currently studying with the Open University for an MA in Music, my aim being to explore certain questions I have about the nature of jazz as a music by examining how it connects with other vernacular musics – Cuban, Brazilian, South African, Indian and European and American folk musics – but remains quintessentially jazz. The chapter on John Mayer in And Did Those Feet… represents a first step in that direction. I think that will probably be my last book. Then, it’s feet up and headphones on, as I work my way though some of the biographies of composers like Messiaen, Schoenberg and Stockhausen that are sitting on the shelves in my study awaiting attention.