The UK musical community knew Kenny Wheeler was ill, so Ken’s recent death wasn’t such a shock. However, the sudden passing of his long-term collaborator John Taylor in France at 72 was very different. This was far too soon: John was always a backdrop in British Jazz and we felt he would always be there.
Over the last 40 years in the UK it was pretty hard to avoid John’s influence on the subsequent generation, not just pianists but many other musicians as well.
Although he rarely played in the UK in recent years (one of the many British-born Jazz musicians more appreciated elsewhere in the world), when he did it was a special occasion and the room would be lined with all the local players influenced by him and wanting to soak up some more of the beautiful atmosphere that he always created in his music. Almost despite the beauty of his compositions, his improvising, like all great masters, always sounded on the edge.
I remember a wonderful packed night at the Vortex with Palle Danielsson, Martin France and Julian Arguelles. The worrying thought I had after was that it only seemed to be musicians in the audience. I probably knew them all. Where was the public?! It made me think of what Stan Tracey said to me “Jazz is a bit exotic for the English.”
I had been playing the saxophone for about 3 or 4 years and met John in the late 1970’s where he was a tutor on the Barry summer course in Wales. With hindsight, the level of teaching was low then (in comparison to now) but that wasn’t the point! Myself and the other young musicians on that Barry course such as Clark Tracey, Simon Purcell, Eddie Parker, Nick Weldon, Roland Perrin, Mike Mower and many others just wanted to hang out and hear our musical heroes at close quarters, soaking up the musical information and their spirit that way. None of the tutors could really explain how to practice Jazz or maybe they wanted it to be mysterious and find our own way and the joy of self-discovery, which of course is good but maybe a few pointers would have helped us all!
I interviewed John in February this year (2015) when we were both teaching ensembles on the Jazz course at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
He mentioned that his first recording was How Many Clouds Can You See by John Surman. He was 28 when that was released. Surman and many of his generation were strongly influenced by John Coltrane and the freer jazz coming out of the USA.
Shortly after this John Taylor recorded his first album Pause and Think Again, which was influenced by Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and Speak Like a Child.
However, it didn’t take long for Surman or Taylor to develop their own European voices beginning in the 1970’s and look for other inspiration beyond the American model (which they both loved though).
John had been working in the civil service since he left school at 16 and in the early 1960’s he eventually had enough gigs to give up the day job when he was 25. Many of his generation had the same experience. There were no music colleges to study jazz then. This probably contributed to these musicians being so individual and learning in their own way about the music. John Taylor’s generation was also the first that specifically looked for other influences than New York for musical inspiration. The previous generation of UK musicians such as Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes quite clearly wanted to play like US musicians and that was their dominating influence. As bassist Jeff Clyne said to me, “In 1960 there was only one way to play Jazz. Like the Americans.” This is no longer the case and since the mid 1960’s there has been a significant contribution to the development of the music by European musicians and John Taylor being one of the most important.
John loved Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock and these were his early influences amongst many other US piano players but as he developed his music he began to realise that he was hearing something else for his own expression.
He played with Ronnie Scott’s band and often was in the trio at Ronnie’s club playing with American saxophonists such as Joe Henderson and Lee Konitz, which he loved. He played pretty regularly at the club from the end of the 1960’s until the end of the 1980’s and relished that experience.
In the mid 1970’s he contacted several record companies with a view to getting a release for his duo with Norma Winstone. He made an appointment with Manfred Eicher of ECM who was interested but said the duo will sound better with a third voice. Manfred suggested Kenny Wheeler and so the group Azimuth was born. This proved significant as ECM’s reputation for releasing high quality recordings featuring original music from US and European musicians was in its ascendancy. John was around just at the right time it seemed. Undoubtedly having the Azimuth releases on this label brought John’s playing and composing to a wider audience.
On the other hand, Kenny wanted John to be on Gnu High but Manfred said, “I think it will be better if Keith is on it.” Which was probably right for Kenny’s career, and then we got to hear John with a similar group for Double Double You.
Americans may also know the group of ECM albums with Peter Erskine and Palle Danielsson. Erskine is great of course but never seems quite right for me with John’s aesthetic. Erskine is a great groove drummer (Weather Report) and big band player (he’s heard to best advantage on Kenny’s Music for Large and Small Ensembles) but seems the wrong drummer for John’s freewheeling improvising trio approach. I didn’t know how John felt though!
The introspection and romanticism of Bill Evans was a big influence on John (although John was much more reckless than Bill in his improvising) along with the European classical tradition, in particular Messiaen, Chopin, Hindemith, Ligeti and I am sure others. He loved playing in odd times before it was fashionable but did it unlike anybody else. Never sounding as if it was 5 or 7 or 9. I always felt it was in 3 or 4 until I listened a bit more intently!
I have a lovely memory of a week at Ronnie Scott’s club in 2005 when I played a week with my quartet with Mike Outram, Simon Thorpe and Dave Wickins playing Charlie Parker tunes. (British bands could play a week at the club in those days!)
We played opposite Elkie Brooks, a good blues singer, and miraculously on a Saturday night at the club we had a listening audience who probably had come to listen to her but appreciated us as well. Rare for a Saturday night as it was notoriously the rowdy night and normally difficult to play over the noise of the audience. We felt good after our first set and went to the dressing room and John Taylor walked in. He said he hadn’t been to the club for about 15 years and was on a date with his childhood sweetheart who he had reconnected with and who wanted to come and hear Elkie Brooks. John was so complimentary about our music. It meant a lot to us all. He was always supportive and encouraging.
Here are some quotes from the interview I did with John on the 11th February 2015. We talked about getting together again to do another interview as he had more to talk about but sadly that didn’t happen. I felt very lucky to have spent that intimate hour or so with him.
“My sister, who was 15 years older than me, when I was born was already practicing the piano and she was already pretty good so my first memories of anything was of her practicing the piano. So I was a baby and all her musical practice and sound came to me. I have realised since that was such an important thing for me to hear her play …Chopin, Bach and Rachmaninoff and so on. When I was old enough to reach the keys somehow I started to play. Without any lessons I just picked things up by ear. I suppose after a few years I got quite good at playing some of the pieces my sister was playing.”
“I was about 14 or 15 and I heard Bad Penny Blues (Humphrey Lyttelton), that was important and I got the record. When we used to go to coffee bars, which used to be the thing of the day, there was a jukebox, and they would have all the pop hits of the day but then they would have Black Nightgown by Gerry Mulligan and all that sort of thing. That would be somewhere on the jukebox and my mate Dave and somebody else, we liked that so we used to put that one on.”
“I went to London with my day job but of course it kicked off then. I was going to concentrate on my job and try and get promotion and all that but after two days I was at the Bulls Head and then Ronnie’s Old Place and you know….”
“Finding out more about what I could do that wasn’t necessarily of the tradition, that I loved to be in as well, I was probably trying to search for search for some other avenue to develop what I had.”
“Kenny (Wheeler) has always been a big influence on me. Fantastic to have been so closely involved with him over the years and I know I have learnt an awful lot from him. Particularly about this area of how it all fits together. His wonderful skills of melodic improvising and his rich harmonic, the depth of his harmonic understanding. Unbelievably clever.”
“Rather than the other road, the more American kind of jazz model, which I love, but I get more involved in the other side of both harmonic and melodic and how people react to one another so that there is not always the same pattern. I am still struggling to escape from it, well escape from it not all the time but escape from that thing where you’ve got a tune, then an improvising bit on it and then you play the tune again.”
Of the many other tributes to John on the internet, I especially like the one by Simon Purcell at London Jazz News. Simon and I met John at the same time on the Barry Summer Course I mentioned earlier.
Azimuth box set on ECM
Angel of The Presence (with Palle Danielsson and Martin France)
Where Do We Go From Here? (duo with Kenny Wheeler)
Music for Large and Small Ensembles (Kenny Wheeler)
Like Song, Like Weather (with Norma Winstone)
Journey’s End (Miroslav Vitous)
Epiphany (Vince Mendoza)
More complete discography here.