“Jazz music objectifies America, it’s an art form that can give us a painless way of understanding ourselves,” are the opening words in Ken Burns’ ground-breaking documentary about the history of jazz. It is the unique American art form that sprung from the Mississippi Delta and made its way by river and rail to the stomping grounds of Kansas City and Chicago, and then to New York.
Looking back, my obsession with jazz was inevitable. It has been a recurring soundtrack from the moment I began to audibly absorb. My parents’ best man was Jamaican bass player Coleridge Goode. Jazz filled the house much of the time.
Humphrey Lyttelton’s The Best of Jazz, originally a Saturday lunchtime broadcast on BBC Radio 2, and Steve Race’s Jazz Record Requests, only hours later that day on Radio 3, were weekend fixtures.
The first jazz to make its impact on me, probably before my sixth birthday, was Dave Brubeck’s recording, History of a Boy Scout. I also found the driving rhythm section of the Basie band spine-tingling when pumped through my father’s hand-made speakers, complete with beautifully-crafted cabinets that dwarfed the sitting room.
Although my tastes since those early years have broadened, these recordings are still my favourites. Has there ever been a sound with the raw blowing power of Count Basie in his pomp? My collection of his work alone runs into three figures, so much of it on vinyl, which has a magic all of its own. Records look so much better on a shelf than ubiquitous plastic cases. And the accompanying sleeve notes, crafted by some of the most knowledgeable writers, are themselves just as collectable.
Jazz has been my permanent sporting soundtrack, too. Sidney Bechet’s recording of Just A Closer Walk With Thee was playing in my head as I made the lonely walk from the warm-up track to the stadium at the Moscow Games 40 years ago, and minutes before the Olympic 1500m final.
During the morning of the final presentation in Singapore that saw London cross the line in the race to stage the 2012 Olympics, I lay on my hotel bed listening to the mellifluous piano of Jimmy Rowles.
My favourite pieces? That’s a tough one and so dependent on mood and surroundings. Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording of West End Blues, opening with the hauntingly beautiful 12-second unaccompanied trumpet cadenza, is up there. As is Lester Young’s Lady, Be Good, eight years later. Coleman Hawkins’ incomparable recording of Body and Soul, too. All these are emotionally overpowering. Each musician a giant of their art. Others legitimately cite the talents of so many who have dignified and distinguished its history. And most would press the case for the genius that was Charlie Parker.
I am writing this column on a plane. My scribbling has been suspended by a member of the cabin crew who has asked me to remove my earphones as we prepare to land. ‘You wouldn’t be able to hear the emergency instructions,’ she explains. On reflection, I think it’s better not to tell her I’d much rather go to the strains of Erroll Garner when my time comes.
Originally published in Country and Town House magazine, April 2020 edition and re-produced with kind permission.