Steve Beresford

Improvising pianist, commercial musician. Telephone interview, 28 November 2002 

American music

Racial impersonation has been central to the development of US society.

From personal observation as well as endless discussion with Americans, the USA is the most de facto apartheid state I’ve ever been in. But it’s also the case that jazz wouldn’t have got as far as it has, or did, if it weren’t for American capitalism. It’s an ambivalent form: look at the way the Soviet Union veered towards it in Stalinist times: first they say it’s the decadent, hedonistic soundtrack of the west then it’s the music of the people, of oppression. And the fact is, jazz is both of those. At the same time. I think we all have ambivalent relationships with America. I don’t think it’s just my old hippie side coming out, but I continue to believe that music can be a uniting force, and jazz is a music that connects.

Jazz, other musics and me

I come from a musical family. In my childhood, my dad had a great collection of American dance band 78s, and he was—still is, at 82—very knowledgeable, very discerning about music. He was a semi-pro dance band guitarist. Rumour has it that my great-uncle Jim Hands—what a name for a pianist—played with Louis Armstrong when he was over here in the early days. So jazz was all around. The first album I bought was Glenn Miller. One of my early bands was when I joined a soul band, playing Hammond organ, to be honest though I was a bit of a snob about it, like 15 year old boys can be about music. In the mid to late sixties I was a mod, but I switched to having short hair, big boots, rolled up jeans—the skinhead look, before I knew there were unsavoury political associations with that.

For some reason I then started wanting to listen to the weirdest music I could find, which meant Cage, Ornette. At university (York, BMus, 1968-71), I came into contact with the hippie thing more, and tried to listen to the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, all that. I tried to like them, but I couldn’t do it. I liked singles, you see, that pure pop rush of mostly black music—soul. I mostly played with people from outside the Music Department, I was pretty unhappy in there. I stayed up north after my degree for a while. We started putting on improvised music gigs in York—Evan Parker and Paul Lytton, Derek Bailey and Han Bennink, I really remember those two gigs. In fact those were two of the life-changing gigs for me at that time. Sounds grand or pompous but it’s true. There were two others, really important nights for me musically, in York. First was seeing AMM at the arts centre, when Cornelius Cardew was in it. Second was Bob Marley and the Wailers, the originals, with Peter Tosh and Bunny, on their first tour of Britain, 1972. Actually there were musical similarities between those two gigs for me: the Wailers were playing really slowly at the time, they had a fantastic simmering energy, and AMM had this slowness too, this deliberation without loss of spontaneity. So my post-student musical life there was so much going on musically, and we were conscious of that at the time, were trying everything: reggae, soul, slowed down Terry Riley, etc.

In 1974 I moved to London, with a soul band, we thought we were going to  be stars. I played with the Portsmouth Sinfonia for three years, was introduced to the Little Theatre Club in its later days. Then I joined a band called Roogalator, on bass. I got sacked just before they did a gig when the support band was the Sex Pistols on their first gig [laughs]. Come 1976 and the founding of the London Musicians’ Collective, at the same time as the punk rock scene was starting. I did feel there were connections between punk and the free improvisation scene, though maybe that was to do with attitude rather than the music played. At the time you’d read in NME about all these great new bands and none of them had recording contracts so you didn’t know what they sounded like. And when the first Sex Pistols record came out I remember being disappointed, thinking, oh dear, the music sounds just like the Rolling Stones. When I heard punk music it didn’t match the interest that was around the whole scene. I did like some of the more chaotic stuff.

Black white

I think there’s a danger of imposing an issue here, from where I am now in the improvising scene (it might have been different in the early days of jazz in Britain, with the ODJB and white jazz from America): to break it down into black or white is too rigid, simplistic, and very dangerous. You’ve got to look at these things individually.

I grew up in Shropshire, the English countryside where you might expect folk music, traditional, what you might be calling ‘white’ culture to be the norm. But I wasn’t raised on traditional music at all, I didn’t know about folk, and to be honest I don’t much like English folk music anyway. I am conscious of and can enjoy the folk influence in classical English music, Vaughn Williams, Elgar even.

There have been, continue to be, critics in Britain who totally valorise the black contribution to the music, even if it means overlooking the white one. But consider the case of the development of American free, or experimental, jazz in Europe: look at guys like Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd, they’re absolutely central to that bridge between modern Monk and something much looser, and also to its rise in Europe, especially Lacy, and they are white. That says to me that jazz is one of the places where we might be able to transcend modern problems around the issue of race.

Improvised music and the London Musicians’ Collective

Now I remember that entire debacle of the Jazz Centre Society in the 1980s. This building in Covent Garden that was going to be the centre for British jazz, rehearsal rooms, performance, space for hanging out, all that, right in the city. All these promises, and it was, ‘Oh yeah just give us another million quid and we’ll be ready’. And like Clive Bell says, in all that time, with all that money, the Jazz Centre never put on a single gig, and we at the LMC were organising hundreds! Gigs, festivals, British and international musicians, multi-media events, we did the lot. It’s insane: the LMC, this is where the real thing happens. Okay, there were no toilets in the building for years, you’d have to run over the road to the pub, but the music… There are amazing numbers of improvising musicians in London, and musicians come from all over, the US, Japan, and comment on the thriving energy of the scene. I have this sort of semi-jokey answer to people who ask why there’s such a scene here: it’s because there’s no money in it. We don’t get the grants, we get sidelined by fucking everyone in the arts establishment, the media—but, you know, we’ve been a continual presence for more than a quarter of a century. One small recent example: the London Improvisers Orchestra has been around for five years or more, a fluid big band that really gives a focus to that part of the scene. We were invited to play at a big festival in Switzerland, and they applied to the British Council for funds to support the trip, application rejected. That’s always happening.

The scene supports itself better now, socially and artistically. Of course we’re affected by economic climate. No, we don’t stay in this field because it’s anti-establishment or rebellious: we get really pissed off, and there are some musicians who’ve been doing this for thirty years, recognised elsewhere in the world, and they may be alcoholics or have psychological problems, because of the near total lack of support and respect. So we have to supply that for ourselves, from within. One advantage I suppose is that we don’t need to take any of the bullshit traditionally associated with the established art avant garde, but like I say we don’t have the profile or opportunities it has either. For myself, I’m lucky in that I have a foot in commercial music in many ways, so don’t have to totally rely on improvising.

Gender, sexuality and the politics of improvised music

There is a real issue here, a worry at the heart of the improvised scene. It may be getting better, or it may be that the history of the scene, as mostly male dominated, is perpetuating itself. At the last LIO recording, one woman came. When she walked in, she said ‘Oh my god, I’m the only woman here!’ We all looked around, and she was. Yet, at the same time, there are numerous features of improvisation as a cultural and social practice that have been or may be of particular interest to women: I’m thinking of intuition in playing the music (I don’t mean by this to suggest women are intuitive, flaky, whatever), of its non-hierarchical aspirations, of the way it offers the opportunity for cross-dialogue in music. You might think all of these would or could appeal to women looking for creative opportunities for music-making. But, in proportion, they are not there. On the other hand, go into the classical scene—which is frankly more hierarchical, more authoritarian altogether—and there are, comparatively speaking, many more women musicians. Also there are very, very few out gay men on the scene.

Is it entirely fair to talk about these, what you’re calling ‘limitations on the assumptions or inscriptions of liberty’ in improvised music? We’re not in utopia! It’s just a music scene in a problem society!

Twenty years ago, I guess early on in the process of us establishing ourselves, there was an intense period of discussion about politics, about technique in the music, about our relation with and difference from the so-called ‘first generation’ free improvisers. And that was when we were doing all those thing like Music for Socialism gigs—they were hilarious, Evan Parker, Sham 69, the inevitable Henry Cow—when FIG were bringing the politics and music together too from their position in the Women’s Movement. But lots of us have moved on: the music is the one thing that’s stayed with, constantly changing, and it’s the most important thing.

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