Leader, Grand Union Orchestra and Music Theatre Company
Telephone interview, 15 December 2002
There s an ambivalence in American culture itself. I think it’s the other way round—jazz can absorb all sorts of other musics in a fraternal way—there are paradoxes in that, but it’s tracing the elements of real music freedom through jazz that’s important.
There’s a curious old fogeyism now—Marsalis and all that—I think that’s horrible! I do think jazz is still a progressive for, though I’m not really recognised as within the jazz mainstream so …
I was a jazz pianist, made part of my living out of playing it. But I was a theatre musician, providing live music for theatrical productions from the late 1960s on: I was MD at Nottingham Playhouse, and worked at the two Leicester theatres, Liverpool Everyman. I worked with John Arden’s plays, with the 7:84 company for a while [political theatre] writing original scores. When we formed Belts ‘n’ Braces it was as an independent, cross media company, which went three ways after a while. One of these was Red Brass, in the 1970s, a political musical project.
The politics of music-theatre
What Grand Union does, taking individual styles and forms, creative essential elements of different styles—improvisation obviously, a balance between order and chaos, the voices of individual musicians. The freedom relies on structure. This has an incidental relation to politics—it does encapsulate freedom, but I don’t think it’s very deep. I absolutely resist and resent the idea of a message! There is always within our work primarily an artistic purpose, not a community-centred or social one in the first instance. It’s no use me articulating this, that’s your job, in a way. My job is to talk through music. It’s more a question of moving people through your art. I’m nearer the Brechtian position than I am jazz: it’s a complicity built up between the audience and performers.
It’s lyric based—lyrics have always played a large part in my work. And increasingly the language of the lyrics is not English. There’s only a limited amount you can do with singers in the English language—so Bangladeshi or Chilean experiences are sung about in their own languages. How do you communicate that to the (British) audience? There’s a compromise for the purpose of communication, which is to use the other language and English. The difference between us [and other music-theatre approaches] is to do with time and with the cross-cultural nature of our work: Grand Union has 12 to 15 years of working as a group of Caribbean and Asian and white players, and this gives us an entré to all communities and audiences across the UK. This is an extraordinary social and cultural advantage. We’ve tried to develop our audience within the Turkish, Chinese and Asian communities, and—in the big cities at least—this has worked. By contrast, the jazz audience is small and, well, a bit miserable! We want further to develop our audiences, and widen it out, to get more coverage.
Grand Union does what nobody else does at such a scale, it combines music from different backgrounds: very large-scale projects are funded, and many amateurs and young people are involved. But this is not really highly regarded, nobody values it in the critics’ world, for instance: because of the categorisation of Grand Union as presenting community events, we don’t receive artistic recognition.
It’s a hippy thing to say, and it does sound so daft, but music can dissolve all the differences.