Keith Tippett

English improvising pianist, bandleader

Telephone interview, 29 January 2003 

Jazz and me

I first heard ‘Midnight in Moscow’ by Kenny Ball, and went out and bought the sheet music, and that was my introduction to jazz. While other kids at school were forming Shadows-style guitar groups, I played in a trad band. I moved on to bebop. There were no jazz summer schools then—you learned through playing on the stand, and of course through listening to records. All through this time though, these early jazz years, I studied classical piano, was a chorister, played the church organ as well.

After I’d moved to London, I went to the Barry Summer School in its second year. Pat Evans had started it, and he’d suggested I apply to the MU for a scholarship, and I did and got one. I met a lot of people there—Mark Charig, Nic Evans, Elton Dean, for instance—and it wasn’t that long before we were back in London, and we had a residency at the 100 Club, supporting other better known players. There were a lot of little pockets of activity in London, not that they were separate, a good amount of cross-feeding went on. But there was Ronnie Scott’s, the Little Theatre Club, the Musician’s Cooperative, and the Blue Notes. Quite by luck really, although Chris McGregor was the de facto leader (and as another pianist, we never got the chance to play together), musically and socially the Blue Notes was the grouping I gravitated towards.


What happened with the 1980s in Britain—and in America—was a consolidation of earlier jazz. Nothing as radical came out during scene as there had from the ‘60s. I think that’s a pretty commonly held view.

I draw a line under the jazz tradition before you get to improvised music. Improvised music means for me no preconceived architecture, it’s not a given—if it’s free jazz it can still have a head and then go off for solos, and also there’s generally some sense of rhythmic attention. But improvised music is different—many European free improvising musicians have never even played jazz, nor wanted to. I think the important thing though is that we do have to put our hands on our hearts and thank black Americans for keeping improvisation in the frame, within earshot, in the twentieth century.


Centipede was formed in 1970. I had this idea of writing a piece virtually for all our friends to play. We knew a lot of people from different musics. Julie was from a soul/R&B background, there were the jazz musicians, string players from western classical music, and then those playing what goes by the label of progressive rock. Those sorts of people hadn’t really worked together at that time. So we formed Centipede, featuring them all. There were fifty musicians involved, but actually there could have been 100—there was a lot of enthusiasm for it. It was done innocently, we were all friends, we were all young, no-one was doing it for the money—actually the first gig, at the Lyceum, was a benefit, for the never to happen Jazz Centre.

This was a time when youth had power, but I’d stress that the project was quite innocent. Of course we were in the midst of a cultural revolution at the time. People born just after the war were shaking off their parents’ attitudes, and [in the 1960s] the music, the whole scene, was changing, evolving. And the world was different because everyone had jobs, you could afford to experiment, the music business allowed you to take more risks.

It wasn’t an American model we were using, because nothing quite like that had been done before. But I didn’t see it as a European or a British model of music either. It was more simple: it was a glorious musical circus, that happened to exist from a bunch of musicians who happened to be British.


I am involved in education in a small way, but I’m not a teacher, by the way. I work at Dartington Summer School, though there are no auditions for that, it’s all-comers, with very varied ability, across the range of ages too. That’s a large ensemble, and by necessity broad brushstroke approach: we create an architecture, and they look at building a vocabulary. My second main education work is at the Royal Welsh College of Music. There I take mainly classical musicians in spontaneous composition—no time, no key, nothing fixed, just there and then, and listening [to each other]. It’s purely about being a sound sculpture. I recognise the reservations some musicians have about teaching jazz in colleges—you know, the ‘Would Thelonious Monk have got into Juillard?’ type question. Jazz was introduced into conservatoires as a result of market forces—but jazz courses are a curate’s egg. Of course, the danger is that students can be all taught to sound the same, and you just can’t apply the same criteria to jazz as to western classical music. I say to students: ‘Would your mother recognise you on the radio?’ It should be remembered too that what’s out there for music students when they leave college is only the concert pianist for very, very few: for the others it’s working in the theatre, cabaret, film music, and so on. If it was up to me I’d have them in year two out on the road—having to play ‘Autumn leaves’ seven nights a week, with the flu, staying in a grotty bed and breakfast!


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