Double bassist, bandleader of Jazz Jamaica Allstars
Telephone interview, 2 December 2002
Musical and cultural background
When I was a child there were a few pianos around the houses of family members, and the music we had at home was mento then ska—we had nearly all Prince Buster’s records. Rhythm and blues too, and while there was jazz around, it wasn’t modern, not bebop or Coltrane. But I didn’t feel I came from a musical family: for my parents music was functional, it was for pleasure, not for education or something like a career. There were lots of American soul records around later, Atlantic and Stax, but I was listening to the Beatles too—actually after listening to them I made a guitar out of cardboard so I could pretend to play along with them [laughs].
I was totally aware that there was a Caribbean culture—for a start there would be lots of family members coming from and going to there all the time. Jamaica was called ‘home’, we all used that word—and I think lots of youth of my generation got hung up on that term, it made it difficult for us to locate ourselves. There were a couple of family members around who were sort of Garveyites on the quiet—one in particular did introduce me to those ideas. He would occasionally talk quietly to me about Garvey, and you know he was a DJ too, had an amazing record collection. It was him who introduced me to all the music coming from Studio One. The first improvising I took notice of would have been the solos in Jamaican music—Rico on trombone, Roland Alfonso on sax. In my late teens, 1972-73, I was still in my Rastafari phase, and we would have long and many discussions and arguments about colonialism and civil rights. You know, the Vietnam War was still going on then, and we went to all the marches—and all kinds of issues and campaigns from black power at Olympics, the Mangrove 10, the Spaghetti House siege, the New Cross fire. At the same time I heard jazz then, that did turn me on. A lot of young blacks born here felt that we didn’t belong in Britain, and one way we dealt with that was by looking to our own black heritage, for comfort, for inspiration. The element of black nationalism in jazz was attractive to me at that time, it spoke to me in my position in England.
Black British jazz of the 1980s
In the 1980s I was working with the big band the Jazz Warriors, and sometimes with musicians from the other camp too—Loose Tubes. I never had any problems working with musicians black and white. At one level, I think it doesn’t really matter what musicians say, it’s in the end the music that matters. Because I was a bit older than most of the new generation of black British musicians that sprang up in the early 1980s, it surprised me: I didn’t know where Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson musicians like that, came from! It was as much a shock to me as anyone else. I think some of it was to do with a particular schooling that these guys got in London in the 1970s—there were schools where there were good music programmes that encouraged pupils to listen to and play jazz, and maybe that paid dividends fifteen years later. A number of musicians came up from the Weekends Arts Centre as well, that was important. Once success came with the Jazz Warriors, well, success breeds jealousy, even paranoia, and there was a bit of that around. There weren’t really two camps, but some things did get said that were probably regretted later, and they were quickly seized on. Actually I think the press wanted there to be separate black and white jazz scenes, even a split, it confirmed something for the critics. It’s true that there were stylistic differences: the Jazz Warriors played original music from the black diasporic experience, I think the only standard we did was ‘A night in Tunisia’. Loose Tubes were more beginning to explore new European sounds. One regret is that perhaps we didn’t work enough together to develop a new urban English (not really British) sound of jazz. There were some crossover projects, like Ashley Slater’s The Big Blender, a big band with musicians from both Loose Tubes and the Jazz Warriors, but looking back it was an amazing period, when maybe we missed an opportunity too.
The black side of the Jazz Warriors is one part of the band’s story that’s survived, and seems to have become more significant than certainly I thought at the time. The more important factor really from those two big bands is not so much that one was black and the other white—actually I never really thought about the Jazz Warriors as exclusively all-black, and can hardly remember a gig when there wasn’t some white presence in some way—but that our parents were working class, we were descendants of poor immigrants. They came over to Britain in the mid 1950s, early 1960s, and not many of us were encouraged by our parents to become musicians. There was no money or desire to pay for private lessons, to go to college, no extended family support networks so that an uncle would find you an old instrument to learn on, none of that. Even my uncle Ernest Ranglin, he acted as an inspiration, but he was in the States. So quite a few of us in the Jazz Warriors were self-taught, and a number of musicians couldn’t read that well—but remember, a number of the guys in the band could read, had been to college. That got picked on by some sections of the jazz scene, there was a bit of criticism from the pro[fessional] side, the acoustic jazz side weren’t always helpful, the established British jazz scene, musicians press and promoters. And to be honest, there was some hurt in the band because of various comments. There was resentment because it appeared that we weren’t having to pay our dues like all the other British jazz musicians had! You have to remember too that we were allowed to jump decades of experience because of the interest in us because we were black. I would not say that that has harmed us: most of us from back then still have a positivity towards making music, we’ve used that exposure and built on it for our careers.
The fact that all this happening during the 1980s so-called Thatcherite revolution is complicated: it was an 80s attitude that provided the Jazz Warriors with an outlet, the professionalism of the behind-the-scenes organisation and financial support did help. Some people were good at getting funding, selling culture, being entrepreneurial, and we were a big band after all, we were expensive to run. The acid jazz, the dance jazz side of the new promoters that had felt shut out by the jazz circuit—a bit like us—they helped us out, we helped each other really. There’s been some serious money made on the back of that experience, though not by us, not by the musicians! What that taught me though was the importance of jazz being more than blowing—and out of that experience came, the commercial development of the solid business we’ve built up based around the various music projects: our record label Dune Records, the band Nu Troop (and yes, there’s definitely a Nubian thing, an Egyptian thing going on there, a reference back to the old Rastafari period). Some of these have received good financial support, from organisations like the Arts Council (let’s skip the rejections, they don’t get on to the website!). It is the case that our music is relatively accessible, and especially with Jazz Jamaica the idea is are the audience having fun.
‘Jazz Warriors’ as a name came from Courtney, and we kept it for Tomorrow’s Warriors. There is something heroic about it, I suppose it is fighting, for better music! But it’s not just music: it’s also the case that, more than any other music, you see in jazz mixed racial groupings, and I like that. Tomorrow’s Warriors is like an alternative education network, we support young musicians. In the mission statement we use the word ‘streetwise’ to describe who we’re aiming at, rather than black—it is a sort of code, I suppose, though it’s become more multiracial. We have found it really hard to find young women musicians, who will join and see it through. That’s because jazz is still so male-dominated, and there aren’t enough female role models. It’s changing, slowly.
Playing with John Stevens round then too. He found me, I’d had no involvement with Community Music or any of his workshops. I didn’t really have an appreciation of free music, it wasn’t until after I’d seen him and Courtney Pine playing together that I realised there was something else. Playing with John did free me up. I would groove a lot in that music, and then John and I would try and destroy it, working together on bass and drums. The scene misses him, his energy and character.