Some idle moments surfing YouTube proved to be not so idle when I came across this wonderful performance from Oscar Peterson and Clark Terry…

The unbridled joy of this playing provoked a deep response… All this talk about the death of jazz, oh dear.

It’s time for a reality check and an appointment with our hearts rather than the opinion formers. Can we seriously witness these artists creating such joy and then yield to a musical nihilism? I must chose my words carefully, but can’t suppress the thought that the so-called death of jazz is just a version of “it will never be the same”. Sure, on one level it won’t, Oscar, Bird, Louis, Miles, ‘Trane et al have passed, but might we be confusing the natural passing of time and evolution of an art-form with another perspective – that the essential characteristics of the music are archetypal and therefore timeless? As archetypal qualities (or indeed Platonic Absolutes), joy, swing, groove, pathos and so on can be accessed by every generation of artists, so long as we don’t overly distract ourselves with pity, or dare I say it – vanity.

This is a tad candid, but is there not something wrong when we can’t be inspired by a fully realised expression of joy, whatever the genre, location or date? For the record, in 1959 Panassie and Gautier’s Dictionary of Jazz, 1959 stated that bebop had been “wrongly described as jazz” (page 36). Lets quit our embarrassment and renew our love with this music.

These clips are good too…

Gordon Beck 16th September 1935 – 6th November 2011
It is desperately sad that so many musicians have passed away in recent times (Tony Levin, Jeff Clyne, Michael Garrick). Pioneers of the post-bop period in British jazz, a time when British musicians forged their own path, forming a sound that is disecernably  “local”, Gordon Beck was a formidable artist and pianist of international stature, appearing on numerous broadcasts and achieving a reputation beyond the UK. Despite his formidable playing and work with Phil Woods, Clark Terry, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Gary Burton, Lena Horne, Tubby Hayes, Kenny Wheeler, Alan Holdsworth and many others, typically, he was pretty much ignored amongst many jazz aficionados in the UK and worrying so, amongst younger musicians and sorry to say, students of the music. Click here for a more complete biography.

Gordon, I imagine along with Michael Garrick, John Taylor, Mick Pyne, Pete Leemer and Pat Smythe, was clearly influenced by Bill Evans, indeed he told me himself that they would go to Ronnie’s and try to sit behind the piano to watch Bill’s left hand, because “that was where the action was”. But while Bill Evans was an anglophile and the romanticism, melancholy and timbre of his music seems to resonate with much British jazz from the 1970s and 80s, those musicians drew on it to form a new sound that made a massive impact on own generation – ask Nikki Iles. Whatever British jazz musicians might think or say about American jazz (and I love it), they certainly cherish their “lineage”. We would do well to learn from that.

Gordon was a massive inspiration to me at the time (along with John Taylor, Stan Sulzman, Kenny Baldock and Tony Oxley) instrumental in making me want to become a jazz musician after hearing him along with Tony Oxley, Alan Skidmore and Ron Matthewson on the first night of the Barry Summer School in 1978. I was blown away and can still remember how they played.

I also recall a lesson with him on that first day of the summer school. Tony Oxley and Gordon (the directors of the Barry Summer School) maintained that they were anarchists and began the first day of the course by instructing all eighty of us that they were vehemently opposed to any kind of jazz education at all and that “we don’t want any of you asking us how to play like Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner”. Yet half an hour later Gordon was demonstrating every conceivable approach to jazz piano, playing “Pennies From Heaven” in the styles of Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor. It was extraordinary and attracted an audience of students and tutors. Gordon was actually also a good teacher, well informed, clear, methodical, generous and funny.

For years I have been shocked and frustrated that 99% of my students are/were completely unaware of Gordon’s music. What a terrible shame. I wish that more folk knew of his incredible playing.

Check out Gordon’s legacy – my favourites are “Seven Steps to Evans“, “Experiments With Pops” and “Gyroscope“.

I regret that I didn’t hear him more often or keep in touch. I feel immense sadness and gratitude.

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Postscript: Interestingly, Martin Speake is currently recording interviews with a number of musicians from this special generation. This will form an invaluable oral history of a defining period in British Jazz. I look forward to hearing them…

Shock horror – jazz genius recorded “Nardis” 41 times (as far as we know)…
I wonder why? Perhaps he wanted to go deeper.

I have heard many famous jazz musicians advocating the necessity to learn a lot of repertoire. Nameless esteemed artist number one recently encouraged students to know at least 100 tunes, while esteemed artist number two advocated just 20 – and that some musicians are just “tune nerds” (not very helpful).

Number two misses the deeper and more useful point which is about and memory and the challenge to be thorough enough in our practice so that song-forms present as few problems as necessary, while we deal with the principal issues of improvising and expression. Many aspiring jazz musicians struggle with the repetition required in order to internalise, often losing focus and moving their attention to another new tune, the next good idea or something they have heard at a gig or on Spotify. it is worth noting that Bill Evans recorded “Nardis” at least 40 times, and quite possibly played it on most gigs. I encourage you to welcome the sensation of boredom with a form, and see it instead as indication of the right time to go deeper.

Click here for a practice strategy for learning tunes – thoroughly and usefully.