Eddie Prévost is a percussionist, founder member of AMM, longstanding improvisation group in Britain, improvising educationalist and author.
Email correspondence 1 Nov 2002, followed up by a telephone interview 15 Nov 2002. Part of the AHRC-funded research for the book Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (Duke UP, 2005).
What was it about jazz/improvised music that attracted/attracts you to it? Actually, do you feel your music comes out of jazz anyway?
Certainly my involvement with music came through being able to make music outside of education and prescribed forms. I actually played skiffle and trad. Jazz, skiffle first and then trad, drumming, as a youth in South East London and then the East End in the late 1950s. Ken Colyer more than, say, Acker Bilk, though I really identified with Alex Welsh, I thought he was a better trumpeter than Colyer. The weird purist thing I didn’t really understand—there are a lot of rednecks in jazz! It’s technique partly, manifestly so. But I had as a teenager been drawn towards modern jazz—through a school friend’s parents. They were middle class and played lots of jazz music. It seemed to have more bite, impact and mystery than other forms of music for me.
On the radio at the time the BBC played music that was twenty years out of date, and this may have led to the skiffle boom, where young people just decided to play something new themselves. The excitement, the energy, and unfamiliarity of jazz and other related forms was part of the appeal.
Many musicians and enthusiasts talk of jazz as a music of ‘freedom’. Do you agree?
It is true up to a point. Maybe this is the initial attraction. But it has its own rules. Its own ‘operating qualities’ just like any other. The more interesting question perhaps is what kind of ‘freedom’ it might reflect and represent. Is it a freedom to speak and a freedom to work with others?
When AMM started out it was the sixties after all. Audiences couldn’t believe we were being serious—they would be angry or dismissive or offended. If you had to deal with that playing context, and also, you know, with your own doubts about the music you were involved in, because making the music was very much a kind of process of exploration, then you had to be strong, convinced, mentally. AMM’s use in performances of both silence and darkness did give us an austere aesthetic which was part of the experimentation of the times even if it appears so different. Hoppy was one of our biggest fans—he’d be rolled up in a blanket on the floor, rolling a few joints in the dark. The silences just happened, and they could be incredibly intense. I had never even heard of John Cage at this time, we weren’t exploring his ideas, we didn’t even know them! And to be honest, the darkness was rather more pragmatic than may have appeared. We liked it because it just took away from the soloist thing—it supplied intensity and anonymity, broke down any egos within the group.
To what extent, if at all, has your music engaged with politics, in its widest sense? (eg benefits, involvement in campaigns, experience of self-organisation in jazz, influence on music, contribution to education)
I have always avoided ‘agit prop’. However, I have over the years been engaged in workshops, writing and lecturing on the subject. My general views are well rehearsed (!)—that the music most strongly reveals itself through heurism and dialogue, If you’ve seen my book No Sound is Innocent then you’ll recognise the general line. In brief I think that it can be a music for self definition and group definition. It can also (sadly) allow itself to be used for other purposes. Mostly market forces.
I was never an anarchist, and I suppose as I’m getting older any optimism about a social revolution, or even its desirability, has, well, waned. But in general political terms, I continue to believe in values outside of individualism, and the only lever I have ever had to engage or develop this has been music. It has always been about collective playing, engaging with an audience, and building something! The way you do things is important—if the civil society can’t be seen in the very music you make then the music is bogus. All of this is important with AMM of course, yes, because of the early period when Cornelius Cardew was involved, and his heavy espousing of Marxism. Cardew’s idea of projecting to the workers, from his extraordinarily privileged social position—it felt very uncomfortable at the time, and with hindsight seems so wrong.
The kind of music I play was then [in the formative period of the 1960s] frankly despised by those in control, the culture establishment. The Arts Council and the BBC alike have both since made minor patronising attempts to support our ‘free’ improvised music, but I have rarely found their commitment convincing. Our music is outside the mainstream, but over the years we have developed and audience, a community, a group of people all around the world now, who believe in it. The attraction, even the politics, of AMM and similar music can’t just be put down to its outsiderdom. Links with jazz quickly dissolved too: I remember we did a jazz workshop once, Eddie Harvey was brave enough to invite us to some college to work with the music students. It was a fairly hostile environment: they were saying to us ‘Well, why don’t you tone it down a bit?’ We laughed about that on the way home, it’s stuck with us. I think I was thinking, ‘Well, why aren’t you all a bit more adventurous?’
You could see a sort of link between us and the punk scene of the 1970s, I suppose, though its radicalism was quickly found out. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth said ‘AMM did everything that punk music promised but didn’t deliver’. Well, after I heard that quote I listened to some of their records, but to be honest the attitude, the interest in improvisation, wasn’t really translated into the music.
How far do or did you identify jazz as an American culture? Positive or negative?
There is no doubt in my mind that the current phase of improvised music in the world arose from the impetus of American jazz. In respect to the history of the American peoples in their various struggles for cultural identity and social justice the music clearly has played a part. However, Wynton Marsalis probably reflects the burgeoning ‘middle class black aspiration’ rather than any thought of distributive justice for all. In that sense American jazz has moved from being positive towards a negative situation.
One cannot underestimate the attraction of the Americanness had for British youth after the Second World War. A friend of mine used to receive food parcels from relatives in the United States—and the idea of getting a stick of even real American chewing gum was exciting! [Laughs]
But the idea of the USA as a problem came after, and through things like the Vietnam War and the counterculture movement’s protests against it. In terms of jazz, people were so patronising about British jazz, even the idea of it—you weren’t supposed to play such a thing. For instance, Tubby Hayes was one of my real heroes, a fantastic, an amazing British saxophonist at the time. But Tubby basically wanted to be an American jazz musician. What we were trying to do quite quickly with AMM could be a response to the difficulty of the American roots of the music: we were young men in London in the 1960s, not Harlem or Chicago, and we became more courageous with our music-making. I’ve often said that the music of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler gave us permission to disobey.
In what ways, if at all, has British (and/or European) jazz developed indigenous voices or forms?
There has always been a view that the German, Dutch and British improvisers were the strongest voices in improvised music from the 1960s onwards. Each grouping definitely had a particular voicing—although of course there were overlaps where there were collaborations. It seems wholly correct that variations should develop to mirror the local conditions and individual creative responses to situations.
Do you feel your colour or ethnic identity is important in jazz? Does it inform your playing/repertoire? Perhaps your national or regional identity is important—if so, how does it manifest itself?
Ethnic identity has been very important for black American jazz musicians. Although I note how many of them have been surprised how African musicians are often uninterested and indifferent to African/American music. My own view is that the ethnic/colour stratification is a localised way of dealing with class struggle (there’s an old-fashioned term for you!). National and or ethnic identity is of no importance to me at all. Even when we were starting out, in our young romanticising way we probably were expressing our own alienation, but we didn’t want to bolt that on to Africa-American experience in their music, no. All my experience is that young intelligent people in this (albeit homogenising) world of ours, can accommodate each other very productively, in a non-exploitative situation. I have been running a weekly workshop in London now for over three years in which time there have been musicians of at least twenty different nationalities. Never has there been a particular problem in musical communication. Quite the reverse.
Does it mean anything to you to be male or female in jazz? Jazz performances in Britain on stage and in audience are seriously male-dominated—is that significant to you?
A dozen musicians involved in the entire thirty-odd year history of AMM, and they have all been men. Yes, we are conscious that there have been no women ever in AMM. When we were starting out, women in the scene were more involved in the feminist movement than in improvisation, and we would have felt that it would have been playing at politics. Also, AMM was quite a fierce, no-holds-barred experience, and it needed a strong personality to impact on the music. There were very very few women musicians around then who could have done that.
In improvisation, the balance of gender is changing. Slowly—perhaps still too slowly. But there is a shift. I see it reflected in my workshops where I could never get all the women to come in the same day. So that normally there might be only one or two women in a class of 12-15. Last week however, I had four women in a class of twelve. Progress—maybe! The only thing that maybe is surprising is how long this has taken. After all, there seem to be so many particular practices—‘operational qualities’—in collective improvisation that reflect feminine aspirations. What I mean here is that part of the music-making process is the development of a social relationship between the musicians, and for women coming to the music that is an attractive element to them.
Is jazz alive or dead?
It depends what you mean by jazz. All the jazz taught and nurtured at jazz festival and our club level I think is now completely immersed in market forces. Success is only measured by the bank balance. And, it has been the nature of jazz business only ever to be able to support fully three of four major saxophonists, for example.