Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

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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