Peter King in his Own Words
edited, with a forword by Don Rose
Peter King is one of Europe's great jazz artists—a legendary figure on the Continent, but virtually unknown here except for those sharp of eye and ear who saw his brief moments playing with his quartet in the film "The Incredible Mr. Ripley." He also appeared on stage in London as part of the hit play "Lenny," based on the life of the great social critic and comedian.
Born 60 years ago in Great Britain, King is a self-taught musician who first tried to make his own clarinet when he was a kid so he could emulate Benny Goodman. A dynamic altoist and composer, he has worked with Europe's finest musicians, including Tubby Hayes and the Johnny Dankworth band.
Members of his own group have included bassist Dave Holland and drummer Ginger Baker. He's jammed or worked with American stars such as Bud Powell, Elvin Jones, Zoot Sims, Paul Gonsalves, Philly Joe Jones and dozens more—but appeared in the U.S. only twice in his life, most recently a year ago at the Charlie Parker memorial symposium in Kansas City, where I first met him.
The French magazine Jazz Hot recently published a wide-ranging article based on a series of questions put to King in writing. I obtained a full transcript of his responses, which I excerpted and edited below to provide a glimpse of his problems as a jazz man in Europe, his views of jazz and its directions today and notes on his own current work.
The two biggest problems as I see it today, are: It is very hard for musicians to get recognition in their own country, let alone the world—and there is a tendency on the part of the media and, unfortunately, the public, to believe that anything American is great and anything else is not worth listening to. There was a time when this may have been true, back in the days of the great legendary figures of jazz; however, these days jazz is an international language. I have heard great players all around the globe: black, white, yellow etc., etc.
In my experience, the first guys to recognize the talent of good musicians outside America were those very legends we hold in such high esteem. Just one of many stories I could tell is about when Sonny Rollins first played in the UK. He was accompanied on piano by Stan Tracey, one of Britain's own legends and the house pianist at Ronnie Scott's during the '60s. In an interview with Sonny he asked the interviewer, "Don't they realize what a giant they have here in Britain"?
I have very rarely experienced any bad vibes from any of the older great jazz legends because I was not American or not Black. The problems have come from other people. It cannot be denied that if you "make it" in the States, which is even more difficult than ever, you have a much better chance of working anywhere in the world; whereas, if you are British, French or from the Ukraine, you can be sidelined in your own country and excluded from working elsewhere.
There are, of course, understandable reasons for this. It is very hard for even American musicians to make out in the USA today and some of them are naturally not keen on "outsiders" taking what little work there is.
* * *
To me, the big scandal is the way the whole international jazz scene is set up today. It seems that the only way you can get any kind of recognition and good quality work now is if you have a recording contract with one of the big International (usually American), record labels.
These are run, of course, not by people interested in promoting good quality music but by accountants and lawyers, whose only remit is to make big bucks now. They have, in the main, no interest in building up a good quality, long term catalogue. So, as someone pointed out to me the other day, "You have to either be a big established 'star' or you must be very young and have won some kind of high profile jazz competition".
One of the problems with this is that many young players are catapulted to stardom before they have had any real experience. They make a record, it doesn't sell enough copies and the recording company soon drops them.
The other scandal is the way most of the remaining major international "Jazz" festivals seem to be totally under the power of the major labels and have to promote the record company's artists to the practical exclusion of anyone else except for maybe a token helping of local talent in that particular country, if you are lucky. I, along with many other good musicians—American or otherwise—are still trying to find a way around this impasse.The struggle is on-going.
* * *
I never like to put music into categories or to make dogmatic statements but I guess what makes jazz different from other types of music is its original rhythmic concept. That is not to do with the actual rhythmic figures as much as the way they are expressed. By that I mean that intangible but vital ingredient, "swing." The other totally unique thing introduced to the musical world is, of course, the blues, which is again a feeling rather than a system of bars and harmonies.
Actually, I really think the most important thing about jazz is that it seems to encapsulate a whole way of looking at the world. It is a kind of moral philosophy. It's amazing how so many people who play and listen to Jazz will tend to be have quite similar outlooks on the world. It is a humanist and compassionate way of thinking and one can't help but believe that if all the politicians liked Jazz, the world would be a much more tolerant and cultured place.
Because Jazz was born out of so much suffering, by its very nature it is very tolerant of human nature at its best and at its worst. It is capable of expressing all the resultant emotions from pure joy to deep sadness through to profound anger—at intolerance and man's inhumanity to man. It is unique in music and is, without doubt, the greatest contribution to music to come out of the USA in the 20th century.
However, I now believe that the aesthetic elements that make for a great jazz performance are very similar to any other type of music, or for that matter, painting, literature or any other form of art. That is, a good feeling for form, dynamics, rhythm and dramatic tension and release. In other words, what makes say a violin concerto played by Heifitz so much above the run of the mill is the same thing that makes a solo by Bird or Trane so great. The same principles are at work in both.
* * *
As to the evolution of jazz over the past 20–30 years—this can only be a very personal opinion on my part—I believe we reached a crisis in jazz development back in the late '60s that still has to be resolved. Unlike classical music, jazz developed at lightning speed, covering in 60 years, developments that took 300 years in classical music.
Of course this was bound to happen because we now have all that classical music at our beck and call. Jazz went down a path of more and more harmonic, melodic and rhythmic complexity. With Coltrane and maybe Ornette Coleman, jazz seemed to be reaching a high point where any more complexity would quickly take the music into total incomprehensibility—at least to the listening audience.
Bear in mind also that most of the real revolutions in jazz had been sparked off by individual geniuses, like Armstrong, Ellington, Bird and Coltrane. People of this stature do not appear every day and we had been lucky to see so many in so short a time!
With Miles, Chick Corea and others the music still developed at great speed but with a decline in popularity.The music started turning towards various kinds of "fusion." Jazz-rock, for example, seemed to be the way forward. This became very popular but like all things the novelty started to wear thin.
[There are also the many fusion experiments with music from different cultures, i.e. the European tradition, Indian, South American and African music. All have produced some great music and much mediocre music as well.]
Nowadays the development has been in the direction of rediscovering an earlier tradition, i.e, Wynton Marsalis etc. I admire Wynton's abilities and his work in teaching the jazz tradition to a new young generation of musicians and audiences. We have now reached the stage where jazz is getting recognized as one of the most important developments in music of the last century. It is now being studied alongside Beethoven and Bach as it should be.
The problem with all that is, where is the next great breakthrough—the next Coltrane or Charlie Parker? I fear we will have to wait a long time for another true genius to arrive. There are of course, the new—I suspect record-company driven—pseudo popular movements like acid jazz, hip-hop etc., which claim to be the new "hip" sounds and certainly have a big following among young listeners. Perhaps because that is mostly what they have access to through the media. Maybe they are the way to the future.
Music should generally aim to reflect its own time and yet I can't help thinking that this may be one time in history when this is a wrong way to go. Maybe some periods of history are better not documented by the arts. Perhaps we are in a new "dark age" of rampant capitalism, globalization and "dumbing down." This suits very well the new corporate power driven governments of the world today and I think we are heading into an abyss as big as the decline of the Roman Empire.
I also am an optimist and believe we will see what is happening and do something about it before it is too late. If anything can turn this world around it may well be triggered by a new movement in jazz. After all the rock generation managed to change things. What most people do not realize is that jazz was preaching a similar but more civilized political message before rock was even thought of.
* * *
Although very Parker influenced in my early years, I have been much more influenced by Coltrane in the last 15 to 20 years. I guess I will always be stuck with the Bird influence though. It is pretty ingrained in me. I still love to play in a very loose and free way when I play live with my quartet; however, I have become more involved in writing lately and I feel that when I make a recording, I want to produce more than a string of tunes, all with the usual quartet backing. I felt it was about time I started to show some of my other, wider musical interests.
Miles Music [the record company] and I also believe that it makes for a CD with more depth and variety. We try to tell a kind of story through the CD, so that the listener will find new things in it each time he plays it. I also love the sound of strings etc and get a different type of inspiration, soloing over the richer sound that they produce. We still try to vary the tracks from heavily orchestrated ones to plain hard-edged quartet tracks. Is it compatible? I certainly hope so. I only do what I feel works musically for me and hopefully for the listener.
If the music appears tightly structured it is not so tight that we feel restricted by it. In fact within the structure we still solo with a lot of freedom. I would not want it any other way. I think I am trying to work towards a synthesis between my two great loves: Coltrane and Bartok. This is something I have worked towards for years and it is a real challenge to do this without ending up with another type of watered down jazz fusion result.
I am still working on this but it can only happen by a process of gradual natural development. It cannot be forced. It must still have soul and must still swing. It helps that Bartok's music is full of "soul," probably because of his love of his native folk music. The more I read about him, the more I believe he thought much like a Jazz musician in many ways. The most ambitious thing I have attempted along these lines was my BBC commission to write a suite for double quartet. This is a five-movement work using my jazz quartet and the classical "Lyric String Quartet."
The way I handled it was to allow the two different disciplines to do their own thing without getting in each other's way. I composed quite long sections of pure Bartok-inspired string quartet writing, between which the jazz quartet plays normally using themes derived from the motives in the string quartet sections. We gradually play more and more together as the piece progresses. It seemed to work out OK and one of the practical advantages of this separating out is that the strings are not overpowered by the sheer volume of the jazz quartet, playing full out.
We have played the piece on tour in England and at a festival in Spain but we are still waiting for someone to take an interest in recording it. We have some live recordings where the piece worked really well but they are dubs from the sound desk onto digital tape and therefore it is impossible to mix them, or there is one proper recording where we had a few awkward moments in the music. We really need to go into a studio and record the thing properly.
I am working on building a big band library of my original compositions and plan to maybe do a big band thing at the Appleby festival next year. This is where we premiered the Double Quartet thing for the BBC.This year I am writing for an octet at the festival. I am working in Oslo at the end of the year with the radio and a big orchestra and also appearing in Holland with a big band.
My biggest project for the future is an opera. I had an idea for an plot and showed it to Sir Peter Hall and Julian Barry when I played and acted in Julian's play, "Lenny," which Hall directed—all about comedian Lenny Bruce. We did it in the West End last summer. Sir Peter has shown some interest in the idea and Julian is writing the libretto. It is a labour of love at this stage but we hope we may eventually get it performed.I am also working on a piano concerto and have completed the first movement of a new string quartet and am now looking for commissions in order to finish them.
From the Rough Guide:
Peter King has worked with the big bands of Maynard Ferguson, Tubby Hayes, Harry South and Stan Tracey, and played in small groups with Philly Joe Jones, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Red Rodney, Hampton Hawes, Nat Adderley, Al Haig, Bill Watrous and others. He has also done a European tour with the Ray Charles band, and has worked with singers such as Jimmy Witherspoon, Joe Williams, Jon Hendricks and Anita O'Day. In 1985 he recorded a broadcast as featured soloist and composer/arranger with the Brussels Radio big band. In recent years he has continued to lead his own small groups, and regularly appears with Stan Tracey. His favourite saxophonists include Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Lester Young, and among other influences he names Gillespie, Ellington, Bartók and Chick Corea. King has always been a brilliant soloist in the bebop tradition, but he has developed over the years into very much more than that. His great technical virtuosity and powerful swing have gradually been leavened by a very advanced harmonic element and a penchant for pan-tonality. During the 1990s he has been a star soloist with the Colin Towns Mask Orchestra, which has extremely adventurous charts written by the leader.
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