Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

A parlour game for Easter

This has flown in from Dan McKevitt in Carlingford (via Facebook). A musical parlour game for the holidays.The emphasis is on records that have meant a lot to you rather than the all-time greatest.

“Here are the rules. Post up 12 albums on to your timeline that have stayed with you for whatever reason. One album per Artist/Band. Tag 12 friends and get them to do likewise, include me so I can see your choices. Don’t overthink it. Enjoy. No Compilations.”

1 Kind of Blue – Miles Davis [how to become tranquil in 5 easy steps/tracks]


2 Jesus Christ Superstar [as a young teen I used to spend hours and hours drawing and colouring to this]


3 What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye [I played it the night my fist born made his appearance]


4 Another Music In a Different Kitchen – Buzzcocks [my route into punk]


5 A Love Supreme – John Coltrane [took me somewhere higher]


6 Hot August Night – Neil Diamond [the first LP I bought myself – helluva jean jacket]


7 Let’s Dance – David Bowie [helped me find the joy in my first year away from home]


8 Glorious Fool – John Martyn [prompted me to recognise that JM was the greatest singer of them all …ever]


9 Give ’em Enough Rope – The Clash [trudging through the snow to get this from Loppylugs the day it came out – there’s never been such anticipation]


10 Moondance – Van Morrison [contains my eponymous wedding dance]


11 The White Album – The Beatles [teen memories of discovering the Fab Four and others with JRT]


12 The Scream – Siouxsie & the Banshees [will life ever get more exciting?]

Hot_august_night

By the way, here are the Best Albums ever

And here are some more music lists

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Joie de Vivre revisited

view from the picasso museum antibes

I’m standing on the terrace of the Château Grimaldi in Vieil Antibes (aka le Musee Picasso). Below is an expanse of azure sea punctuated with dozens of white sails travelling in various incomprehensible lines as they race from whoknowswhere to somewhereelse. I couldn’t be happier being back in Antibes/Juan Les Pins. I’m here for the MIP TV market/Digital Emmys, my usual reason for being in this neck of the woods, but as a veteran of such things, I know to stay in Juan rather than Cannes.

Juan-les-Pins has two particular resonances for me – my European grandparents and jazz. The former, a Germano-Polish alliance, used to come here in the 50s and 60s as it was à la mode, the In place. They both enjoyed gambling so I expect the casino was a significant attraction. The latter I suspect was not unrelated to this modishness as it was the golden age of modal jazz and other such modern experimentation. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen stuff about Miles and Coltrane playing here. This hotel (I’m now on the balcony of my room at Le Grand Pavois as my phone ran out of juice at the end of the first paragraph) has a Sidney Bechet room. Somewhere near the patch of sea I can see through the pines is a commemoration of the international jazz festival they used to hold in town.

A quick bit of Googling shows that Trane played at the festival in 1965 and a live LP was recorded, and Miles played here in July 1969. That probably makes the Trane performance within 6 months of the release of ‘A Love Supreme’.

A bit more Googling reveals that Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison & Jones (the recorders/creators of ‘A Love Supreme’) were the band who played in Juan on 26/27 July 1965 and they played A Love Supreme, Impressions and Naima, which makes it I believe the one and only live performance of ‘A Love Supreme’, one of my favourite records, the opening track of which I’ve left a request to have played at my funeral (on the way in).

view from the hotel grand pavois  juan les pins sunset

Back in the land very much of the living, today has been a pretty blessed one. The taxi driver who picked me up in Nice had a PhD in history of art from the Sorbonne and taught there. Cue interesting conversation about Fragonard, Boucher, etc. The hotel room they put me in is a corner room and because of its odd shape is big enough to play football in and has this huge sweeping balcony hugging the curved corner of the building where I’m now sitting in the golden rays of the evening sun in just a clean white towel (refreshing after the London winter).

around provencal market old antibes

So I dumped my coat and baggage, changed into shorts and my Save Ferris T-shirt and headed over the hill to Old Antibes. Steak frites for lunch with a glass of rosé. Crêpe citrone and café crême. Reading The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell), my book club choice. Then into the back streets by the marché provençale to the Musée Picasso, like an annual pilgrimage. It’s one of my favourite places.

picasso nu assis sur fond vert 1946 musee picasso antibes

I delighted in revisiting the fabulously Mediterranean ‘Joie de Vivre” (1946) which Picasso painted in the building after the war and about which I’ve written at length. This time the work that really stood out for me was ‘Nu Assis sur font vert’ (1946) which is a good example of Picasso capturing the human body in geometric, sculptural forms.

jaume plensa nomade antibes sculpture

From there I passed a happy hour reading, snoozing, listening on the small harbour beach beside the marina. A walk over to Jaume Plensa’s Nomade sculpture (2010) on the harbour wall. Pleasant memories of one of my best days at Channel 4, rounding the corner of a wood to see for the first time ‘Dream’, which Plensa made as part of the ‘Big Art Project’ series. I met him that day.

On the late afternoon walk home I had one of the best ice-creams I’ve ever had (rum & raisin and coffee if you want to know).

The feeling that came to me walking over that hill on the way out at noon was that for all the crap going on in the world (and there’s no end of it) we need to stay in touch with the joys of living and appreciate them each and every day. That’s the only way to live. Otherwise it’s a road to madness.

Inheritance Tracks

Inherited:

Sing Sing Sing – Benny Goodman

It turned me on to Jazz, not least through Gene Krupa’s drumming. I always had a bit of a thing for the drums anyway, even tried to learn to play at Saturday morning lessons at the Fender Soundhouse in Tottenham Court Road, with my long-lost step-brother who was quite a gifted drummer from the Carl Palmer camp. Strange this inheritance came from my step-father rather than my parents. My dad did have a decent collection of jazz records ranging from George Shearing (spotlighted in On The Road which I just finished reading yesterday) via Jack Teagarden (with the bright yellow sleeve) to Stan Freeman (a Sinatra alternative) but he never really communicated the passion for them – I think Barbra Streisand and Beethoven was more where he was really at). My mum has always loved music and taken me to hear it live but we’re more in the realm of Mahler and musical theatre with her – I guess a track from Jesus Christ Superstar could have been it, one of my first LPs (nabbed from her) which I drew and coloured along to for happy hours on end (we also saw Godspell together with David Essex in his Superman shirt). Her second husband was involved in the Archer Street generation, the musicians’ labour exchange on the streets of Soho habituated by the Ronnie Scott circles. I’ve just acquired a ticket to see Van at Ronnie’s little place which is a prospect and a half. And Benny would probably have enjoyed the trip back/forwards to 70s brown if his band would have fitted on stage. I’ve seen Maynard Ferguson’s big band there with an incredible young drummer called Stockton Helbing so it’s probably feasible. The drumming is primeval on Sing Sing Sing in the vein of Soul Sacrifice at Woodstock with the young&beautiful Michael Shreeve. And the Keith Moon craziness is key to the energy too. I like the way the Chicago Polak gets in touch with the roots of all ancestors through his insistent pounding – as Gershwin did in another way through Porgy, a profound understanding transcending race. Goodman is celebrated for breaking the race barriers with his mixed band – I love that too. By some twist of fate his great-niece ended up marrying my best-man via Argentina. The world swings in mysterious ways. And Sing Sing Sing swings with a mysterious primitive energy which does it for me deep deep deep down.

Bequeathing:

Flamenco Sketches – Miles Davis

Jazz too. It was a tough battle between Miles and Trane (A Love Supreme), my two funeral tracks, the former to end, the latter to start. I love this track because it leads me consistently to a transcendant place of tranquility. It soothes my soul. I was first transported by the record (Kind of Blue) driving home from St Albans one day, I just had one of those moments when I heard it properly. I can recall other such incidents clearly too – Love Theme from Spartacus (Bill Evans) in Kilburn, Hyperballad (Bjork), Into the Fire (Bruce) in Parliament Hill. Music lifting you beyond. I leave this beautiful performance, a one-off moment of semi-improvised perfection, the culmination of the second wonderous side of Kind of Blue, to the Enfants Terribles as a key to peace on earth.

Has anybody here seen my old friend John?

Music, love and friendship

Catching the next train home

Wild child

Wild child

I heard Solid Air performed live just last week at a performance of Nick Drake’s songs at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush by Keith James and Rick Foot. It’s such a unusual song in that it’s equally associated with its subject, Nick Drake, and his friend the creator, John Martyn. What really struck me was what a warm, open expression of friendship it is, especially as I imagine the communication was rather one way.

The last time I saw John Martyn live was when he played the whole of the Solid Air album live at the Albert Hall. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest albums ever. I went that night with a friend whose life subsequently took a bit of a nose dive due to drugs – a close-to-home illustration of how delicate we all are with regard to alcohol and the like. Watching JM decline from beautiful boy to one-legged survivor wasn’t easy but his unique voice and experimental energy was an enduring thread through his music-packed life.

The penultimate time I saw him was from a red velvet seat in the front row of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with Una. The performance had a beautiful later life serenity.

Dyed in the wool Londoner that I am, I’ve never been a big lover of West London beyond occasional quick sorties to the All Saint’s Dinner (sic) and the Hammy Odeon, but West London seems to run as a skein through my life with John. One of the first times I saw him was in the Underworld/Westworld (? darn, what was that place called?) somewhere under the Westway near Portobello market. I just remember it as electric.

I saw him live around a dozen times – the Town & Country Club (Kentish Town), the Jazz Caff (Camden Town), the Mean Fiddler (Harlesden) – he struck a chord with me. We shared a birthday. Cooltide accompanied me down the Nile at sunset. One World has that special vibe of Jamaica which runs deep in me.

On the subject of Island, if I had to pick just one song to take to a desert one, it would be Don’t Want to Know:

I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
Only want to know ‘bout love
I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
Only want to know ‘bout love

Sometimes it gets so hard to listen
Hard for me to use my eyes
And all around the cold is glistenin’
Making sure it keeps me down to size

And I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know about love
I don’t want to know one thing about evil
I only want to know ‘bout love

I’m waiting for the planes to tumble
Waiting for the towns to fall
I’m waiting for the cities to crumble
Waiting til’ the sea a’ crawl

And I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
I only want to know about love
I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
I only want to know ‘bout love

Yes it’s getting’ hard to listen
Hard for us to use our eyes
‘Cause all around that gold is glistenin’
Makin’ sure it keeps us hypnotized

I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know ‘bout love
I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know ‘bout love

Not much more to say after that. From the words of another great English bard, if music be the food of love, he satisfied us wondrously in his six decades – and I couldn’t love him more for it.

The Opposite of Digital

Camille at the Roundhouse

Camille at the Roundhouse

It started deep below Tate Modern. In three large circular spaces, formerly oil tanks for the Bankside power station, Will Gompertz, Director of Tate Media, mentioned he would love to do an event in the brick-walled space before it gets transformed into new gallery space for 2012. The acoustics were enchanting, a huge cylindrical echo chamber punctuated with iron pillars, and a low hum from the remaining generators which made me think of Le Fil, the album by London-based(?) French singer Camille. The name of the record – the Thread – comes from the single note which threads across the whole of it. So when I noticed Camille was playing at the Roundhouse I invited Will.

Le Fil I came across by chance. Just liked the cover. I was down in Brick Lane with the Enfants Terribles one weekend when I ducked into Rough Trade East. When we pass a record or book shop they habitually form up into a SWAT team to bar my way but on that occasion I was too quick for them. It was a good session of buying on instinct – I came across Burial’s Untrue for the first time that day too.

As things turned out Will couldn’t make it in the end (had to meet Steve McQueen of Hunger fame) and I ended up inviting James, my neighbour, on the touchline at Finchley RFC vs Harrow RFC U12s out in Stanmore on an autumnal Sunday morning.

Now James hadn’t been to the Roundhouse since ’69 when he saw Pink Floyd, of which there are colourful accounts in Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles, including a mention of Donegal’s own Henry McCullough, the only Irishman on stage at Woodstock (with Joe Cocker). So it was a pleasure to reintroduce them and resonant to be standing next to an iron column not dissimilar from that secret Tate space.

Camille‘s performance was the opposite of digital. In this age of easy copying, reproduction, recording, on demand, clones – it was a unique performance of an unpredictable singer in dialogue with the live crowd. She seems to have a thing about the colour orange which suits me as so do I (childhood bedroom colour at 2A Selvage Lane aka La Sirene, appropriately enough – lord knows why my parents called the house that (or anything) but the sign ended up being flipped around and having the even worse Popin added to the former reverse side at the next house where my mum still lives and Sirene still hangs hidden).

Camille in short hand is Bobby McFerrin meets Kate Bush with a bit of Swingle Singers, Marcel Marceau and Beardyman thrown in for a good measure of machine-free madness. So all voices and body beats with no instruments beyond a piano which she doesn’t really need.

The gig came to a collective climax and just to show how live it was she came on for one too many encores and an improv with Jamie Cullum which didn’t quite work and dissipated the hard-won energy. But that’s the beauty of transcending the 1s and 0s – you win some, you lose some, you can’t tell til you try, human fallibility seeps in alongside human spirit.

The best 0 of the night was when she came back on for the encore that took the performance to its high point. She’d changed from the LBD under her orange robe to a Longer Black Dress. Then at 1 point she turned around to reveal a large 0 cut into the dress at the base of her spine, revealing an expanse of back which recalled Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger and a delightful toppest bit of bum, an emblem of that mad French sexuality we know and love from the likes of L’Ete Meutrier (One Deadly Summer) and 37.2 degres le Matin (Betty Blue). That threat of madness, that touch of unpredictability, the moment of unevenness, the ambiguous attractions among the band are the undigitalness we all need from time to time.

Random poll brought to you courtesy of WordPress’ new alliance with Polldaddy – couldn’t resist having a quick go

100 Greatest Songs

curtis mayfieldmarvin gayefrank sinatra

Ever wondered what the 100 greatest songs of all time are? Well trouble yourself no longer – here they are…

(only one song per artist/band; songs with words, not instrumental)

Hells Bells – AC/DC
The Stars We Are – Marc Almond
Uptown Top Ranking – Althea & Donna
Ventura Highway – America
The House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
Across the Universe – The Beatles
Harrow Road – Big Audio Dynamite
Hyperballad – Bjork
The Last Month of the Year – Blind Boys of Alabama
In the Sun – Blondie
Everything I Own – Ken Boothe
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed – David Bowie
ESP – Buzzcocks
Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
White Man in Hammersmith Palais – The Clash
Do you really want to hurt me? – Culture Club
Ninety Nine and a Half – Dorothy Love Coates
Alison – Elvis Costello
Just Like Heaven – The Cure
Eloise – The Damned
Knowledge of Beauty – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
Soolimon – Neil Diamond (from Hot August Night)
The End – The Doors
Fruit Tree – Nick Drake
Ballad of a Thin Man – Bob Dylan
That’s Alright Mama – Elvis
This is the house that Jack built – Aretha Franklin
Sometimes – Michael Franti & Spearhead
Inner City Blues – Marvin Gaye
My Sweet Lord – George Harrison
Hatikvah
Sonny – Bobby Hebb
The Wind Cries Mary – Jimi Hendrix
Winter in America – Gil Scott Heron
A Town Like Malice – The Jam
Jerusalem – hymn
Tainted Love – Gloria Jones
Atmosphere – Joy Division
Danny Boy – Brian Kennedy
Batonga – Angelique Kidjo
Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks
In My Time of Dying – Led Zeppelin
Oh Yoko – John Lennon
Freebird – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Jealousy – Geraldine MacGowan [County Clare’s finest]
Fairytale of New York – Shane MacGowan & Kirsty MacColl
The Snake with Eyes of Garnet – Shane MacGowan & the Popes
The Prince – Madness
Like a Prayer – Madonna
Shot by Both Sides – Magazine
My Little Empire – Manic Street Preachers
Natty Dread – Bob Marley & the Wailers
Don’t Want to Know – John Martyn
Wandrin’ Star – Lee Marvin
Move On Up – Curtis Mayfield
Amazing – George Michael
Monkees theme – The Monkees
Moondance – Van Morrison
Police & Thieves – Junior Murvin
Jerusalem the Golden – Effi Netzer singers
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Raglan Road – Sinead O’Connor
West End Girls – Pet Shop Boys
Julia Dream – Pink Floyd
Public Image Limited – PIL
Fanciness – Shabba Ranks & Lady G
Try a Little Tenderness – Otis Redding
Cold Water – Damien Rice
Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones
Chase the Devil – Max Romeo & the Upsetters
Street Life – Roxy Music
In a Rut – The Ruts
Anarchy in the UK – The Sex Pistols
If I Was a Bell – Jean Simmons (in Guys & Dolls movie)
One for my baby – Frank Sinatra
Icon – Siouxsie and the Banshees
Because the Night – Patti Smith
Ghost Town – The Specials
For What it’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen (MTV Plugged session 1992)
Down on Mississippi – Mavis Staples
Father & Son – Cat Stevens
Runaway Boy – The Stray Cats
You’re the Best Thing – The Style Council
Forbidden Colours – David Sylvian & Ruichi Sakamoto (from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence)
No Scrubs – TLC
Listening Wind – Talking Heads
Fire & Rain – James Taylor
Treason – Teardrop Explodes
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg – The Temptations
The Boys are Back in Town – Thin Lizzy
One – U2
Ivory Madonna – UB40
Mannish Boy – Muddy Waters
My Generation – The Who
Armagideon Time – Willie Williams
That Girl – Stevie Wonder
Old Man – Neil Young
Freedom Suite – The Young Disciples

Drinker with a writing problem

brendan behan

What do I think of when I hear the name Brendan Behan?

* Drink
* Fighting
* IRA
* Dylan Thomas
* Woolly jumper
* Dexy’s Midnight Runners

Drink:
By all accounts the man was an alcoholic for years. It certainly done him in. He described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem” (not quite Oscar wit, but amusing enough).

Fighting / Woolly jumper:
He looks like a brawler in the photos, even with those 50s Irish woolly jumper and tie arrangements. I’m not sure how much fighting he actually did – suspect most of it was with himself.

IRA:
He seems to have got caught a lot but I suppose at least it gave him raw material for his writing. His first stretch, the time he did in borstal, was for republican activities, specifically a half-baked attempt to blow up Liverpool docks. His first writings, poetry and prose, were published in Fianna, the magazine of Fianna Eireann, the youth organisation of the IRA. (My first published photos were in An Phoblacht [it’s a long story] but from there, besides our shared wild&windswept hairdo, our lifestories diverge.) I get the impression he eventually grew out of the IRA and came to doubt political violence.

Dylan Thomas:
There appears to be a number of close parallels between Dylan and Brendan – lionised to death in the US, hounded by the media, the drink, the woman they couldn’t live with or without (Caitlin and Beatrice respectively), the woolly jumper with tie look, money worries, New York, the White Horse Tavern on Hudson St. in Greenwich Village. My sister-in-law Bronagh is arriving from Dublin this evening and she knows about these things so hopefully I’ll be a bit more clued up about these connections by the time I hit the pit tonight. Poking around on the web I came across a bit of a spat in the mid-60s on this very point between Conor Cruise O’Brien and a certain Constantine FitzGibbon (a biographer of Thomas) – O’Brien made connections between the two and FitzGibbon denied them.

I stumbled across this rather neat link last night: “Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood” – referring to Joan Littlewood whose Theatre Workshop put on The Quare Fellow at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1956, transferring to the West End and ultimately to Broadway, establishing his international rep.

It’s the last commonality on the list above – time spent in New York – which gives rise to this posting. A new play entitled Brendan at the Chelsea is coming up this month at the Riverside in Hammersmith (starting 15th January) written by Behan’s niece Janet and starring Adrian Dunbar (The Crying Game, The General, My Left Foot, Hear My Song – who co-directs) and Brid Brennan (Dancing at Lughnasa, Topsy-Turvy).

It’s set in the 60s in the “legendary bohemian bolt-hole”, The Chelsea Hotel (where Dylan Thomas checked out of this world in 1953 with alcohol poisoning – hang-out also for that other poet who adopted Thomas’ name, Bob Dylan, and his buddy Allen Ginsberg, not to mention writers ranging from Eugene O’Neill to Arthur C. Clarke [who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there], and musos including Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, and of course the ungrateful dead, Nancy Spungen, who had no fun in a room there with Sid back in 1978). So, fellow playwright Arthur Miller is just across the hall, the grooves of free jazzer Ornette Coleman are drifting down from a floor above and Brendan’s in his room, short of dough and inspiration – he’s hung over and way past the delivery date of his next book, not a line written. He’s been told to stop drinking or he’ll be dead in six months – and that was two years ago….

So all set for a lively night on 23rd Street. I’ll report back when I’ve seen it and if you fancy a night of drama, drink and the fascinating interaction of human Behans, you’re just a click away from the Riverside

Dexy’s Midnight Runners:
I remember buying their first single Dance Stance and being intrigued by the litany of literary Irish (including Brendan who I hadn’t read but if he was in the same list as Oscar Wilde that was good enough for me)

Never heard about Oscar Wilde
Don’t want to know about Brendan Behan
Don’t think about Sean O’Casey
Don’t care about George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett
Won’t talk about Eugene O’Neill
Don’t know about Edna O’Brien
Won’t think about Laurence Sterne

Shut it
You don’t undertand it
Shut it
That’s not the way I planned it
Shut your mouth til you know the truth.

Oscar’s on the night train

Bon voyage to jazz great Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson

I only saw him once live, opening the show the first time I saw Buddy Rich, so he was instrumental in my intro to live jazz.

Apparently he came to jazz through listening to Benny Goodman – same for me, it was hearing ‘Sing Sing Sing’ and the drumming of Gene Krupa that got me hooked.

I remember seeing Martin Amis at a book reading in 1997 and him describing how he had written the whole of his eponymous novel listening to ‘Night Train’.

So all abooaaard to the Big Jam in the sky – where he can hook up again with his Montreal high school pal, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, a regular at Ronnie’s in his latter years with fantastic young bands (including the superb Stockton Helbing on drums who I had the honour of meeting there on a boys’ night out with my step-dad and younger brother), Maynard Ferguson who took an earlier train last year.

Godspeed, Oscar…

Now on the subject of jazz things passing, I’ve just watched a charming documentary on BBC4 about the sad demise of the Hammersmith Palais. I was only in it once but according to ‘Last Man in Hammersmith Palais‘ (specifically, a music promoter called John Curd) it was one of the best nights ever. It was 1980. I went to see The Clash. It was the first outing for my middle class black bondage trousers. It was with Nick Golson (who I’ve recently reconnected with thanks to David Baddiel, Nick’s an archaeologist now apparently) and Simon Hollins (who I’ve no idea where or what he is though I did bump into his younger brother Johnny a few years back at some publisher’s do). We pogoed. We heard ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ – probably the best Clash song – right there in the Palais. At the end of the gig Paul Simonon chucked his towel into the crowd and I went home with a piece of it, presumably infused with the sweat and tears of the great man. It lived under my bed as a relic of The Greatest Era in Music History for a good while but probably got lost in a move. Or maybe it still lurks above my head right now in a box in the attic. The Clash only ever played two nights at the Palais.

Ian Dury mentions the Palais in the first verse of his wonderful ‘Reasons to be Cheerful part 3’, sandwiched between the Bolshoi Ballet and boats. This blog ultimately has its roots in that song as Simple Pleasures part 1 was a list of reasons to be cheerful.

Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly,
Good golly Miss Molly and boats.
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet,
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats.

The Palais de Danse started as a dance and music venue in 1919 taking over from a roller skating rink. The first stuff played there was some new fangled import from the States called ‘Jass’. The last gig there was The Fall on 1st April 2007 – a day when the fools triumphed. It’s an office block now. But deep below in that West London soil lurks dance, romance, energy, punk, roots reggae, spirit, love, youth, cultural mix, sex, laughter, London pride, simple pleasures and jazz.

the clash
Oscar Peterson photo – courtesy of Tom Marcello

We got the Jazz

Lafayette Flying Corps

The other afternoon I had a fabulous chat over tea with director/writer Peter Kosminsky (Britz, The Government Inspector, Warriors) about a forthcoming scriptwriting project of his. It was refreshing for me because the conversation centred on stories which is not usually the focus of much of my work in the Factual arena. Stories are so fundamental to human culture and I came across the beginnings of a fascinating one today.

Like my earlier post Je suis un chef noir – Heart of Darkness, it’s a story involving France and Africa (in this case, indirectly through Afro-America) and racism (in this case, the prejudice of America not of France).

The protagonist is Eugene Bullard. The entry point is the Paris jazz scene between the wars.

The scene was based in the seedy quarter of Montmartre. Bullard, a black American born in Georgia or Mississippi [depending on what you read] in 1894, was programming Zelli’s Club, one of the key clubs in the area (set up in 1919 or 1922 [depending on what you read] by Joe Zelli, a London restauranteur or an Italian-American [depending on what you read] – guess he could have been both, a restaurant and club which dominated the scene til the 30s. The walls were decorated with movie star caricatures which were later emulated at Sardi’s in New York which is where I’m writing this post [in the city not the restaurant, that is]. I came across this story whilst reading about purposeless wandering around cities and today in my purposeless wandering around Gotham I found myself under the red awning of the Village Vanguard where, for example, John Coltrane played in 1961 – the year Bullard died in this same city. So all the skeins of this narrative have been weaving themselves together all day.) Bullard went on to own another hot jazz club, Le Grand Duc. Zelli’s, with its underground dance hall, was less upmarket than the Duc and regularly raided by les flics.

Back as a child in the deep South, Bullard had had explained to him by his father: “in France there are not different white churches and black churches, or white schools and black schools, or white graveyards and black graveyards”. His mother was a Creek Indian which makes the decoration of the biplane, above, all the more resonant.

When he was ten, Bullard stowed away on a ship and made first for Berlin or Scotland [depending on what you read], then London (where he was a boxer and music hall performer), reaching Paris in 1913. When the Great War erupted the following year, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion. He won the Croix de Guerre for his role at the crucial battle of Verdun. He went on to join the Lafayette Flying Corps, a volunteer squadron who fought for France before America entered the war (the outfit to which the plane above belonged). He flew 20 missions and downed two enemy planes. So he was the very first African-American military pilot. His nickname was Black Swallow of Death. When the USA did enter the conflict in 1917, Bullard was transferred to the US Air Force and immediately grounded. He ended up back in the French infantry. He’d literally been “uppity”, thousands of feet uppity in the French skies.

Our hero died in poverty and obscurity in New York in 1961, having had a series of non-uppity jobs from perfume salesman to interpreter (for Louis Armstrong) to security guard, ending up as lift operator at the Rockefeller Centre (which I wandered past last night aimlessly).

Despite decades of obscure wandering in the aftermath of his Parisian heyday, Bullard was buried with military honours …by French Officers in the French section of the military cemetery in Flushing, Queens, New York. Two years before, the French had made him a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. By contrast, the Americans waited 33 years after his death and 77 years after his pioneering heroism to eventually make him a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Not the ending the story deserved.

eugene bullard

Starless and Bible-Black

Dylan Thomas

Came across an astonishingly beautiful piece of music this week thanks to my friend – writer, music-lover, and fellow enthusiast for creative thinking – Doug Miller. STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK is a tune inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, from an eponymous record of 1965 by the Stan Tracey Quartet. The Quartet was a British jazz outfit right there on the front line, “one of Britain’s few genuinely original contributions to world jazz”. The tenor saxophonist on Starless is a Glaswegian called Bobby Wellins whose performance is Something Special. I really, really love the title.

STARLESS AND BIBLE-BLACK.

It’s just one of those perfect phrases. It comes from the very beginning of Under Milk Wood: “To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black”

I once started a novel (inspired by Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones) and took the rather over-reaching step of starting it “In the beginning…”. Proved a bit too much to live up to.

Tracey worked outwards from the titles which I really love as a working method – titles can be key and inspiring. “I settled down with the book and the album [original performance of Dylan Thomas’ play], and as I was going through I jotted down ideas for titles. By the time I’d got to the end of the play I’d got all the titles worked out and just went on from there – writing for the titles”.

The phrase immediately brought to mind my favourite sentence from my favourite book:

THE HEAVENTREE OF STARS HUNG WITH HUMID NIGHTBLUE FRUIT.

It’s from James Joyce’s Ulysses (page 619 in my trusty old Penguin Modern Classics copy). It’s from when Bloom and Stephen go back to Bloom’s house after a wandering night on the lash and go out into the back garden for a piss.

Which brings us round to the Simple Pleasures – an outdoor piss after a great night out; an inspirational read; and a musical surprise. Total cost: about a fiver.

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