Billie Holiday's ultimate triumph

Billie Holiday

When Stuart Nicholson’s biography of Billie Holiday was published in the USA it was nominated a “Notable Book of the Year” by The New York Times Review of Books. Here, Nicholson reflects on the enduring artistry of the singer they called Lady Day, talks about how he discovered some of the previously unknown facts he discovered researching her life and discusses the sensational conclusion he came to after his book was published

The polarities of art and life, once carefully separated by T. S. Eliot and the New Critics, collided with such violence during the 44 years of singer Billie Holiday’s life they became bonded into one immutable whole. Together they give force to the Billie Holiday legend, a legend that has grown with increasing definition since her death in 1959. Although a sense of sadness and waste provide the backdrop for her troubled yet colourful life, that life is ultimately redeemed by the joy, the passion and, in her final years, the pathos of her music.

Yet standing back from this simmering life engaged to disaster, it is impossible not to reflect that it is not so much what happens to us, as how we handle what happens us, that decides our fortune. Billie’s great rival, Ella Fitzgerald, had to endure a family background and social conditions not greatly different from Holiday’s; two years younger, Fitzgerald was almost certainly sexually abused as a child – as was Holiday – and both hung around whorehouses in early adolescence. Each was the product of a broken home, each suffered years of poverty and each stared racism square in the face in 1930s, 1940s and 1950s apartheid America. Yet Fitzgerald worked her way to Beverly Hills luxury and was still singing into the 1990s, while Holiday, who was never able to come to terms with her personal demons, died in poverty in 1959.

From her early teens Billie Holiday associated marijuana and alcohol with good times. As a young woman she lived it up with a vengeance. Yet she found it within herself to create a series of enduring jazz classics during the 1930s in the company of pianist Teddy Wilson and some of the finest jazz musicians of the day for the Brunswick label including, ‘I Wished on the Moon,’ ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do,’ ‘I Cried for You’ and ‘This Years Kisses.’

Both with Teddy Wilson and under her own name for the Vocalion label she also created a series of recordings with Lester Young on tenor saxophone that see a degree of mutual inspiration that epitomizes jazz at its highest level of creativity – ‘Sun Showers,’ ‘I’ll Get By,’ ‘Me Myself and I,’ ‘A Sailboat in the Moonlight,’ ‘He’s Funny That Way,’ ‘When You’re Smiling,’ ‘Back In Your Own Backyard’ and ‘All of Me.’ These recordings, together with the Brunswick recordings with Wilson, available on Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, reveal a singer of broad emotional range able to narrow her focus at will, able to seize the pressure points of a song to reshape it so profoundly that once heard, it goes on to enjoy a second life, a life within memory; indeed many songs from this period are truly unforgettable.

Although she enjoyed success and admiration for her recording of ‘Strange Fruit’ (Billie Holiday: The Complete Commodore Recordings) that portrayed a Southern lynching, few listeners realise how Billie Holiday took the tradition of the previous generation of female blues singers and applied it to the American Popular Song. By careful selection of material, she sung these songs in a way the invoked a blues mood on non-blues material. Bessie Smith, a special childhood favourite, sang in the first person about sex, infidelity and broken relationships. Billie carefully chose popular songs with lyric content that dealt with similar issues. In effect, she created a character part for herself that evolved directly out of the blues tradition, without being a blues singer per se herself.

The “character” she chose to portray was a woman unlucky in love and whose life’s experiences appeared to be mirrored in the text of her songs. Even when singing in the big bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw, she refused to sing songs that did not conform to the role she created for herself. Frequently she sang “I” songs, addressed to “you,” but changed the “I” from positive to negative: ‘I Cover the Waterfront,’ ‘The Man I Love,’ ‘I Can’t Get Started,’ ‘My Old Flame,’ ‘I’ll Get By’ and so on. Indeed, Artie Shaw, as he pointed out to me, was well aware of the role Holiday was creating for herself, and wrote ‘Any Old Time’ for her when she joined his band – “Any old time you want me, I’ll be there…” In the 1940s she created a series of enduring classics for the Decca label that included ‘Lover Man,’ ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ and ‘That Old Devil Called Love,’ the latter two also specially written for her to frame her character part (Billie Holiday: The Complete Original Decca Recordings).

Through the mediation of her “character” part with the songs she sang, audiences gradually began to read her real-life history into her performances. In the late-1940s when she never seemed far from the clamour of the tabloid headlines, she chose songs that interacted with her real-life image, such as “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” Recorded a year after she was released from prison for a drugs conviction, it triumphantly reinforced her “notoriety” while defiantly justifying her indulgence of the self. As her voice deteriorated in the 1950s, it paradoxically became the source of her authenticity on albums for Norman Granz’s Clef and Verve labels (Billie Holiday: The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes), and on the album Lady In Satin (Columbia/Legacy), where the dues she had paid, the wrong associations she had made and the collapse of a promising career all seemed to be refracted in the flaws of her latter day voice.

Even today the way her image interacts with her music remains the least understood aspect of her art. When in November 1956 she performed a concert alternating readings from her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, ghost written by William F. Dufty, with songs that had become associated with her, she was consciously erecting the legend into which she would finally step, closing the doors behind her, on 15 July, 1959. Yet the essential truth about Billie Holiday is that she was a great artist, not because of her hedonistic and much publicised lifestyle, but in spite of it.

Because the image of Billie Holiday-as-all-purpose-victim, part romantic martyr and part heroine of excess has gradually tended to overwhelm her artistry, in 1992 I set out on a two year odyssey to try and discover the real Billie Holiday. As a member of a deprived minority of American society struggling to make ends meet during the formative years of the twentieth century, tracking her down her early years proved a challenge. Even so, everybody, at some point, comes in touch with the system, and in the 1920 US census the five year-old Billie, then known as Eleanora Harris, was with her mother Sadie (or Sarah) in the household of Robert Miller and Eva Miller.

The relationship of Sadie to the head of the household, a standard census requirement, showed her to be a sister-in-law, which meant Robert and Eva’s children, Charlie and Dorothy, were Eleanora’s cousins. This was confirmed in a TV interview Billie gave in 1956, where she refers by name to Charlie and Dorothy in an anecdote about growing up. The Baltimore City Schools Record Retrieval Office gave me the dates when she started her education and where. Then, on checking a 1938 interview Billie gave to Melody Maker’s Leonard Feather, both Billie and Sadie both confirmed she was born in Philadelphia. This corresponded with an interview she gave the following year to New York Amsterdam News, the leading Harlem newspaper.

A copy of Billie’s birth certificate and later her passport details both gave Philadelphia as her place of birth, so there can be no question where Billie was born. Within a few weeks I had discovered that all the history books that gave Baltimore as her place of birth were wrong.

Billie Holiday

The next problem was Billie’s own assertion she was admitted to The House of Good Shepherd, a Catholic run house of correction for “wayward girls.” After much initial reluctance, they finally faxed me all they had in their file. It confirmed Billie had been admitted to their institution not once, but twice. The first time was on 5 January 1925 for bunking off school. The second time was 24 December 1926 as a state witness for the prosecution in her own rape! The name of the correspondent was given, a Wilbert Rich. A search of the Baltimore archives produced his trial papers – the trial was on 18 January 1927 and he received a three month sentence for the crime.

This was an important find, since most people had written Billie’s autobiography Lady Sings The Blues off as a self serving, grossly exaggerated account of her life. One biographer even dismissed Billie’s claim to have been raped as a child as “a metaphor for her relationship with men.” But here in front of me was the official documentation that proved her claims were right.

At the end of 1928 Sadie and Billie tried her luck in Harlem (Billie says 1927 in Lady Sings The Blues). Billie claims in her autobiography to have been imprisoned for prostitution. Several days research in New York’s City Hall records office yielded the Court Records for the Women’s Night Court of Friday, 3 May 1929 that proved Billie was arrested on a prostitution rap. In the top left hand corner was stamped “Jean H. Norris” the judge presiding – Billie actually refers to her in her autobiography. From there her records were easy to trace confirming her subsequent incarceration on Welfare, or Rikers Island. Billie was just 14-years-old.

Lady Sings the Blues was right again. Yet after this traumatic upbringing, after being raped as an 11 year-old and institutionalised three times, her talent as a singer somehow grew to the extent that just three years later, as a 17-year-old, she was making her recording debut under John Hammond’s supervision with Benny Goodman.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, I obtained Billie’s complete prison file from Alderton where she was incarcerated following her infamous drugs bust in 1947. It included a list of people who wrote to her, including her cousins, Charles and Dorothy. Charles was then a sergeant in the army. Anyone in present or past employment of the US Government will, as of right, have any correspondence forwarded on to them. I wrote the usual letter explaining my project, but heard nothing for over a year.

Then, six weeks before my deadline, Charlie’s wife phoned. Charlie had died seven months ago, she said, and she couldn’t remember anything Charlie had told her about Billie, and yes, Charlie was Billie’s cousin, but she was his third wife and hadn’t been around during Billie’s lifetime. It seemed I had drawn a blank.

“Anyway,” she added, “you don’t want to be talking to me, you should be talking to Evelyn, who knew Billie as a child.” She gave me Evelyn Conway’s telephone number. Evelyn (neé Miller) was the only child of Robert Miller’s first marriage. Evelyn was 88, but clear and lucid. When she was 11, she said, Robert Miller went to Philadelphia to pick up the babe-in-arms Eleanora from his sister-in-law Sadie (by his second marriage) and brought her into the household where she was living with her Grandmother (Robert’s mother). This was the household where Evelyn and Billie were brought up.

Since I was the only person who knew Billie was born in Philadelphia at this point, this woman was clearly the real thing. And more to the point, here was further confirmation Billie was born in Philly. This was the older “cousin” referred to as Ida in Lady Sings the Blues. Evelyn explained the whole story as she remembered of Billie’s childhood, and her daughter Janice (whose middle name is Eleanora after Billie), gave me her reminiscences of Billie, so filling in vital, first hand information about Billie’s early years. Both Evelyn and her husband Matthew remembered Clarence Holiday, Billie’s father, for example.

The prison file also included one small document that had a massive bearing on Billie’s career. It was a letter under the signature of E. Fred Sweet, Chief Probation Officer, and Violet A. Jersawit, Probation Officer, both of New York’s Probation Service, who interviewed Joe Glaser, Billie’s (and Louis Armstrong’s) manager, to help compile a profile and social history of Billie at the request of Alderton to aid in her treatment for addiction. In it they wrote, “Mr. Glaser states that he cooperated with the Federal Narcotic Agents as he had no recourse except to have her forced to take proper treatment [for drug addiction].”

Incredibly, Billie’s 1947 drug bust was done with the connivance of Billie’s own manager. I obtained the trial papers for Billie and her then boyfriend and co-addict and trumpeter Joe Guy (two separate trials, by the way). The papers make clear it was at the instigation of Glaser, the one person she thought she could trust in her plight, that Billie waived her legal defence.


“Any half competent lawyer could have got her off the charge, but she was not given the opportunity because Glaser had told her to plead guilty


After performing at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia, Billie had been driven back to the Attucks Hotel. According to the testimony of Agent Roter, Billie dropped off her accompanist and assistant, and with her chauffeur drove off, a statement that is crucial. The agents went to Room 7 that had been occupied by Billie with the accompanist and assistant (who had returned to collect Billie’s luggage) and the agents found drugs and drug impedimenta. Billie was subsequently arrested in New York for possession. The key element here is that there was nothing to connect Billie to the drugs found in her hotel, they may have been hers, but she was not in possession of them, as required by law. Any half competent lawyer could have got her off the charge, but she was not given the opportunity because Glaser had told her to plead guilty.

It is interesting to contrast Billie’s fortunes with that of Joe Guy, who had made his way back to New York from the Attucks earlier that day. He too was arrested, but he was represented in court. Despite confessing to have shot up drugs just before his arrest in New York, his testimony was set aside because it was not relevant to events in Philadelphia. His charges were dropped because, of course, there was nothing to connect him to the drugs in the Attucks Hotel since he, like Billie, was not there at the time.

This episode was crucial in Billie’s career because having served a sentence for a year and a day she was unable to secure a Cabaret Card so vital for playing the New York clubs. She could play Carnegie Hall and the big New York stages, but her day to day living in the New York jazz clubs was shut down. “The Queen of 52nd Street,” as she was known in the 1940s, was no more. She had to find club work outside New York where the Cabaret Card rule did not apply. Like Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, she could never return to her home port, and was doomed to playing the smaller clubs outside New York for the rest of her life (she called it “My years of exile” in Lady Sings the Blues). Without a New York profile, her price began to slide, and so did her career, and so too the cycle of drugs and alcohol.

In Billie’s final years, she was married to Louis McKay, who never gave an interview about Billie, even though he acted as consultant for the feature film Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross. But he did make a court testimony under oath just after Billie’s death. I was able to obtain a transcript of this from New York’s Surrogate’s Court and here we get an insight into his relationship with his former wife. In it he alleged Billie’s then lawyer Earle Zaidins was responsible for putting her back on drugs and claimed to have discovered him in an act of sodomy with Billie when she was high on drugs. The important thing about this interview is that it is one thing to make sensational claims, but it is quite another to do so standing up in open court under oath.

Should we believe this testimony? I had the good fortune to meet with the lawyer representing McKay at the time (and who had also represented Billie from time to time while she was alive), Florence Kennedy. Flo was not just any lawyer. She was a formidable black lady who stood some six foot high, and had an impeccable record in Civil Rights and frequently lectured on the subject in America’s Ivy League Universities. Flo allowed me to go through her old files relating to Billie Holiday, and over lunch said that contrary to how Billie’s other men had been portrayed, McKay worked hard on Billie’s behalf to resurrect her flagging career and keep her off drugs. Billie loved him and he loved her. She said he was “kind of compassionate” to Billie, but conceded he was “streetwise and a pimp.” But she did believe him when he made those remarkable allegations in open court, adding, “What’s more, I still do.”

Billie Holiday’s final years were spent in extreme poverty. She was reduced to going to her manager Joe Glaser for handouts against future earnings. I have a copy of a pathetic IOU, signed in Billie’s very shaky hand, and dated 2 June 1958. It reads: “This will acknowledge the fact that I have received from you [Glaser] the following amount of money – $50 cash, $135 for my rent, $50 for my current necessities amounting to $235 in addition to other monies owed to you per signed receipts.” When she died on 15 July 1959, her manager Joe Glaser made great play of the fact he paid for her funeral and hospital expenses in the press reports of the funeral. What was not known until I pulled file A1859 from New York’s Surrogate’s Court was that Glaser immediately claimed back these expenses from Billie Holiday’s Estate.


Many of the personality problems she grappled with through her life could indeed have had their roots in her traumatic childhood


Billie Holiday’s career was not the shooting-star ride to success it is often portrayed. She had a huge talent, but her temperament frequently stood in her way. As Evelyn told me: “Sadie left her all the time and that was the problem, the child had an attitude, I guess from being abandoned.” Many of the personality problems she grappled with through her life could indeed have had their roots in her traumatic childhood. Being constantly abandoned to friends and relations and the emotional havoc wrought by her rape as an 11-year-old could well have contributed to the diminished sense of self that those close to her spoke of. This feeling of rejection would also go some way to explaining her abnormally dependent personality, her desire to attach herself to someone who would love and care for her, and then once in a relationship, do anything and accept anything to maintain it.

Equally, the absence of parental supervision in her formative years might have had a bearing on her moral discipline, expressed at an early age through truancy and lack of interest in academic activities. Yet such calm, after the fact rationalisation can never fully explain the dark and destructive forces that inhabit human nature. Looking back on a life with so many wrong turnings, wrong associations, seemingly inexplicable behaviour and a failure to take responsibility for a career that once showed such great promise, a pattern emerges.

Billie Holiday was a loyal person, but was often highly impulsive. Yet she felt little or no guilt or regret for her actions or their consequences, either to herself or to those associated with her. It is difficult at this distance to determine precisely why she acted as she did; frequently it seemed as the result of some trivial whim. Her outward appearance of loyalty, pride and sincerity seems to have concealed a deficiency that led her to being incapable of remorse or any desire to avoid damaging or destructive behaviour. As her biographer, I have spent considerable time studying the circumstances of this woman’s troubled life.

After my book was published in the UK, the USA and Japan, I looked again at her life as a whole, and the picture that emerged was of someone who may well have suffered from a psychopathic personality disorder. Many of the characteristics of such a disorder are present: irresponsibility when important issues are at stake; the absence of any remorse or shame; an inability to learn from experience or to follow any consistent life plan. When viewed in terms of months and years, these traits reveal themselves as a recurring pattern and, as a layman (albeit guided by some unofficial expert medical help and many discussions with Norman Granz, who founded Verve records and knew her well), I found myself strongly drawn to the conclusion that Billie Holiday’s life may indeed have been cursed by what psychiatrist Robert Lindner has called the “most destructive of all forms of aberrant behaviour.”

This disorder was only beginning to be understood in the late 1940s and was barely recognised during Billie’s lifetime. Therein may possibly lie the greatest tragedy of Billie Holiday, that she may have been struggling with a destructive mental disorder that neither she nor anyone around her could comprehend. Perhaps the extreme contradictions to be found in her character created the tensions that gave rise to her genius. That she was able to achieve so much with the burdens she had to carry must surely be her ultimate triumph.


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This article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit:

Matthew Bourne and Franck Vigroux revisit Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity


"When you play electronic music, you have the control of the imagination of the people in the room, and it can get to an extent where it's almost physical." (Ralf Hütter, 1975)

"Reworking something that is already so complete is really hard. I suppose having a jazz or improvising background means there's always things to respond to." (Matthew Bourne, 2015)

First things first. It's to be pointed out that when award-winning pianist Matthew Bourne and composer Franck Vigroux agreed to revisit Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity LP for some live shows early last year, it was only initially that they considered staying faithful to the group's original recording. The Leaf label's press release for what's since become an album, Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited, reveals the idea was soon dismissed due to the unavailability of the (now-outmoded) synths and Moogs employed by the Dusseldorf four.

Kraftwerk Radio-ActivityReleased in the winter of 1975, Radio-Activity has been described as "a highly innovative science-fiction movie soundtrack about radio-activity and the activity of the radio" and, as with all of Kraftwerk's catalogue, it's a record that points to the future while encompassing the past. But away from the wires, delays, machinery, buttons and all the underlying themes like motorways, telephones, cycles, calculators and radios, Radio-Activity is more than anything a brilliant, forceful, sinister, intense, precise, crisp celebration of popular music.

A record that inspired a whole new wave of musicians, photographers and artists, it pressed all the right buttons for (radio) stars such as Brian Eno, David Bowie, Björk, O.M.D., The Orb, Frankie Knuckles, The Human League, Derrick May, Aphex Twin, Tuung, Gary Numan, Afrika Bambaata, Joy Division, New Order, Iggy Pop, John Foxx's Ultravox, Moby and Heaven 17 to name just seventeen. Bowie even went as far as to air the album in full before taking to the stage during his 1976 Station to Station tour, taking things a stage further by recording three of the most defining (and kraut-inspired) albums of his career (Low, Heroes and Lodger).

Radioland's stunning reading of Radio-Activity is a two-man show. Three counting installation artist Antoine Schmitt whose live visuals have proved integral not only to the live end of this project, but the whole experience. Built on the blueprints of Kraftwerk's original, yet allowing space for stunning improvisation, the Leaf label's press release notes that it "weaves its own, highly individual mesh of electronics, including blizzards of analogue, antique futurist percussive patterns, rewired melodies, processed versions of sounds recently discovered in space by NASA..."

Located on a sofa in his home somewhere near Leeds, Matthew Bourne agreed to talk to Mark Youll about this ambitious project, rewinding back to the beginning of last year and a series of shows that led to the release of an inspired album...

Could you tell me when you first heard Kraftwerk's music?

Matthew Bourne: I'd heard the odd track that people had played to me, or stuff on the radio, but I'd never really heard any of their albums until last year. I called up Franck (Vigroux) and recommended we do some stuff together as we hadn't done anything as a duo for ages. So he picked me up and we drove to his house and he said 'look, we can both improvise, we don't need to rehearse that, we can just turn up at a gig and do it.' He suggested we cover the music of somebody else. He told me about this French band that did a live version of Dark Side of the Moon. They used cash registers, tape loops, the same synths and it looked incredible on stage. Franck asked me if I knew Radio-Activity and I hadn't really. I knew the tune but couldn't say I knew the album. He mentioned it was the album's 40th anniversary and said we could try and look at doing the same kind of thing. So we started to transcribe the record if you like, searching for the same sounds. With the equipment we had between us we got pretty close to replicating the same sounds. Some of the sounds we couldn't, like the Vako Orchestron (synth, of which there are only 75 in the world, costing ten grand each), but we thought maybe we could find decent software samples for that. But then samples don't sound as good.

So did the process of replicating the record sonically prove challenging?

MB: The second time myself and Franck met up we went through the songs but figured the music didn't really do justice to what we were about as musicians. We thought that if we don't have the exact same equipment to reproduce the exact same sound there's going to be a lot of geeks out there that are going to come and see this recreation and comment on how we didn't do this or didn't do that. So we thought let's just kill the idea of making a recreation and just take what we want from the music and put our own mark on it. It was more about using the original themes as a spring board. Of massive importance was the visuals, the gigs were supposed to be a largely visual experience. So having Antoine (Schmitt) in the room with us was very important, it meant that we were always working towards the visual thing.

As well as being sonically striking, Kraftwerk had a real visual thing going on.

MB: Well we went through the tunes for a couple of days and Franck said we can't just go on stage in our normal clothes, he said it would be boring. We really needed something visual to tie this all together because it's not about us. So Franck put a call out on social media and within the hours we had lots of people respond, one of those was Antoine Schmitt who Franck had worked with on other projects. We went with Antoine.

Was Antoine present while you were piecing together the music?

MB: Yes, having a third person in the room is like having another band member. It was a strange thing because we only had four weeks before the first gig and on the day of the first show we couldn't rehearse. We just had a longish sound-check and it was straight into the gig, so I was shitting myself. We were all a bit worried actually because we'd never done it before. I mean, we ran it through maybe twice on the last rehearsal but we had a gap of four weeks. Franck and I sent files backwards and forwards and mapped out the whole show so Antoine could get to work visually. Really four or five days isn't a long time to put something like this together, so we had to get that sound-finding thing out of the way so we could concentrate on how we were going to arrange the running of it live, and in what order to do the tracks.

Much of Kraftwerk's music was recorded to tape; can you hear the difficulty in that process?

MB: I think the process of capturing the sound is certainly different. I don't really know how they put it together, whether they recorded each part separately or tracked the rest in over the top. I don't think it was recorded all at the same time. Recording to tape means you can do less editing. There were obviously not as many editing capabilities as there is now working with digital. I suppose the problem with hindsight is you always look back and think it must have been difficult to make because things are easier now. There are differences definitely, but there are creative arguments for both. I think today it's about combining digital with analogue. Combining the convenience of digital with certain analogue touches to give a certain colour or character to what you're doing. With Kraftwerk, I was always struck by how clean the recording is. The production of that particular album is spotless. It is digital in that there's no hiss, that's amazing really. Once we started the process of looking at all the material I really started to listen more to their work. I thought it was an amazing vision. So, it's been a double journey for me.

Franck is similar to you in that he is a composer that thinks outside of the box and ventures into many music settings and styles. How would you describe your working relationship with him?

MB: We met in 2006 I think; he came to Leeds to play with the LIMA orchestra with Marc Ducret and did some conducting. We got talking and we found out we both love Scott Walker and so we connected and I stayed in touch with him. I think I emailed him and suggested we do something, so we did a duo album. Then he working with turntables, synths, circuit equipment, filter pedals and guitar and I played Rhodes and piano and it was great fun. He wrote a piece for the Ars Nova ensemble called 'Broken Circles'.

Does he also have a background in jazz music?

MB: To a point, yes. He used to have a band called Push the Triangle and he's always been an improviser, but not typically, no. He's been involved in experimental, more rocky bands but they were always pushing for something else. Doing this project has been really interesting because technology the way it is, we've been able to work on this without being in the same room. He will send me his parts and I will add to his parts. Potentially, there's another project next year, something to do with Erik Satie, a show in Paris. Everything we've worked on together is different. I did a project with Franck and Bruno Chevillon and Michel Blanc called Camera and for that he worked with two tape machines and a contact mic. Bruno played bass and pedals, I played piano and string synth and Michel played various bits of percussion. The Ars Nova stuff was all fully notated where this is a reworking of an iconic album, so it's never routine and I always feel I'm being pushed by him.

Of all the Kraftwerk albums, why the Radioactivity record as a subject for this album?

MB: The anniversary really. We were also thinking practically. The 40th anniversary thing would sell the idea. Luckily, there was other Kraftwerk stuff in the air too so it appealed to a lot of people. It was a happy coincidence really. Franck's thing was to do something that would be a real challenge. We can both improvise but that wasn't going to help us get any work, so there was definitely a practical side to it. As soon as we started listen to Radio-Activity, and we were checking out some of the sounds, we were in, we were focused on doing it. It's been brilliant. If somebody had told to me I was going to re-work one of Kraftwerk's albums in the next five years I would have been like 'yeah, whatever'. It's like somebody telling me that when I get to the age of 32 I'd have learnt to ride a motorbike, and I'll ride it to Valencia. I wouldn't have dreamt it but I've done it. For me, this (project) is almost an intrepid thing because essentially, for a lot of people, Kraftwerk is a holy grail.

How did the idea of an album come about and what challenges did recording an album like this throw up?

MB: It was in Brighton that Tony Morley (from the Leaf label) asked if we were going to record it. He said it would be great and that he could do something interesting with it. At the time Franck wasn't interested, he said he was busy with other stuff. But I suggested to Franck that if somebody was offering to release a record of this we should do it. I explained it wouldn't cost us anything and we'd already done all the work, that we'd mopped up the whole show, we'd perfected it. It was just a case of changing a few bits and recording it. Once some time was mapped out to do it the whole thing took less than two weeks to record. I think we'd also then decided to present the album in the same order as the original. The flow of the show was not in the order of the album, so a few sounds had to be changed for the purposes of the album. As much as the show was quite loud and dynamic in parts, we had to make it work as a record. Not as in your face really.

What elements of the original album did you feel you had to keep in place and what have you changed?

MB: For example, there are no lyrics in our reading of 'Radio-Activity'. There's no call-and-response sung melody but we kept the same beat and same bass part. The same with something like 'Airwaves', there's no vocals. For us to get away with that we had to stick with the mood really. We were originally going to stick with the original demo we'd made but I wasn't very happy with some of the parts, I knew I could do better. I'd recorded this Minimoog solo because on Kraftwerk's original version of 'Airwaves' there's these intertwining minimoogs at the end of the tune. I went a bit overboard and recorded 3 minimoog solos that sounded a bit Stevie Wonder. I thought as it's us playing it, and these are old synths, we can have to have some fun with it. There has to be one tiny corner of this record where a bit of zaniness comes out. Franck at first was like 'if you listen to the original I think the solos you've done are a bit over the top' but I was like 'oh come on, let's stick it in and listen to it' and he agreed to go with that version. The other one I feel really proud of is the version of 'Transistor'. That was a series of overdubbed Minimoogs put through a tape delay which I had to then replicate live. I thought I could replicate the same Minimoog sound and put that through a delay, but then I needed to generate other rhythmic things so I searched around on the Memorymoog and found a sound that wasn't the same but created the same momentum. That track is a lot darker and bears very little resemblance to Kraftwerk's original. Apart from maybe the Minimoog sound and some little melodic hooks I tried to work into our version from the original, so that it still has that identity. But it became its own thing, and took on a life of its own the more I played it. This is what we wanted to achieve revisiting this album. There are certain tunes on there that we completely inhabit. Therefore we used the original as a springboard for something new. It is testament to the fact that the original music, you could argue, is quite minimal. But actually, there's nothing wasted in the musical material. No wastes gestures or notes.

Does improvising around something minimal give you more leeway, more space to paint?

MB: I think because its minimal it makes it harder. Their statement on that music is kind of quite final, it's total. It's the economy of it, and the equality of the economy means you listen to it now and it only sounds dated because you know when it was recorded. There is a kind of charm to it, but I can't help but think that is constructed because of our sense of history. When you listen to Radio-Activity nothing gives away when it was made. If you'd never heard it before and you had no idea where that music came from you wouldn't know that it was recorded in the 1970s. That in a way makes revisiting this music more difficult. It is really easy take this and fill it with loads of sound or extra parts. With our album we tried to go the other way. We were trying to look for sounds that weren't obvious or that different to the originals that related to our own equipment and way of working. Franck was using a lot of equipment he's been using on other projects and for me I'm using a couple of keyboards that I really love that I've had for ages. We have very different roles and how we use that equipment. I'm actually playing the notes and Franck is using the sequencer and Vocoders and stuff. Everything is played, there's nothing pre-recorded. It's not a case of plug your computer in and press play!

Have there been any hiccups performing the album live?

MB: There was one gig when something went wrong with the sequencer. Franck didn't come in when he should have and he had to switch everything off and turn it back on again. There was a moment when everything seemed to fail but he managed to get it going and it was fine. Reworking something that is already so complete is really hard. I suppose having a jazz or improvising background means there's always things to respond to. You're more able to adapt or switch and go with difference, as and when it occurs.

Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited is out now on Leaf

Miles Davis – Tutu

Miles Davis Tutu

Miles Davis biographer George Cole recalls the significance Tutu, regarded by many as Miles’ last major statement, and talks to his main collaborator on the album, Marcus Miller

When the Tutu album appeared in 1986, it divided both fans and critics: some loved it; others hated it. For some, Tutu heralded an exciting new direction for Miles’ music; but for others, it was a sell-out to commercialism and new technology. When you listen to Tutu it’s easy to see why it provoked such strong reactions: instead of recording the album with live instruments and a band, Miles recorded his trumpet parts over a lush electronic soundscape, produced from a battery of samplers, synthesisers, sequencers and drum machines. Although synthesisers had long been used in jazz, no jazz artist had ever made an album like Tutu.

Tutu was a product of the 80s, a decade where music was often in danger of becoming subservient to technology. But while much of the music from this era is now long forgotten; Tutu continues to thrive; artists such as George Benson, Al Jarreau and Cassandra Wilson have recorded cover versions of the title track; Warner Jazz UK have released a deluxe version of the album, and Marcus Miller, who produced, arranged, played and composed most of the music on Tutu, has released a CD/ DVD package of his Tutu Revisited project, which saw Miller touring the world with a group of young musicians and performing the music from Tutu.

Marcus Miller once noted that, the problem with making contemporary music is that, you never know whether the music you make will only exist for the period in which it’s made or whether it will become timeless. So how does Miller feel about the fact that people are still listening to Tutu? “That makes me feel wonderful. There are two goals for me, primarily. One is to create something that describes the time that you’re living. The second one you don’t have any control over, because how your music is viewed down the road is as much a function as what happens down the road, as what happens in your music. Who knows what will happen in 20 years time? I have no idea, but it’s really beautiful to see that Tutu has developed.”

Some of the criticism of Tutu was harsh – it wasn’t jazz, and Miles was just a sideman on his own record. Did any of this get under Miller’s skin? “Honestly, it didn’t bother me at all. In terms of ‘it’s not Miles’ albums, it’s Marcus’,’’ well you know man, I was there. I was the one that was inspired to come up with those things. I was the one noticing the difference between writing for him and writing for other people. Once Miles puts his presence on it, it’s his. In terms of ‘it’s not jazz’; I bought a Downbeat magazine when I was 15 years old and they were arguing about that. The last time I looked at Downbeat, they were still arguing the same stuff.”

Conversely, there are those who see Tutu as being the most significant Miles Davis album of the 1980s, but Miller qualifies this viewpoint: “I think there were two [Miles Davis] periods in the 80s. There was the first period which started with The Man with the Horn, and there’s the second period with Tutu. Of the second period, I think Tutu is probably the most definitive album.”

Tutu had a lot of elements that represented the 80s; that for better or for worse, represented where we were at, not just musically, but as a society’ – Marcus Miller

Miller believes that “Tutu had a lot of elements that represented the 80s; that for better or for worse, represented where we were at, not just musically, but as a society. The technology had just been introduced in the last ten years and we were just struggling to figure out how to co-exist with these machines – they were making our lives better, they were making our lives worse, depending on who you talked to! My whole feeling was that, the ultimate example of this new age of machines was that we wouldn’t be able to tell that machines could be used so creatively; that they would simply be an extension of our humanity. And I think Tutu really represented that, and I really enjoy hearing Miles in that atmosphere. Just as you have Miles in the 1940s and the 50s; in the 80s, you hear him with the synth stuff and I think it was really representative of where he was as an artist.”

Has Tutu influenced jazz or was it, as some claim, a one-off, with no discernible impact on the music that followed it? “That’s just a function of the jazz world being stratified,” says Miller, “and there are people who don’t hear the influence, but that says more about you than it does about Tutu and its influence. I go all over the place: you hear a synthesiser and a muted trumpet and it’s like – here we go again! There are people who only live in the world of acoustic jazz who aren’t going to hear it.”

Regarding the various cover versions of ‘Tutu’, Miller says, “to me, that’s like a sign that the song is creeping into the jazz language. I love Cassandra’s version; I love George Benson’s and Al Jarreau’s version too – any version that tries to stay true to the feeling of the song. Some people simply use it as a blowing tune and they’re not careful with it. Whereas people like Cassandra, they really approach the music with more care and try to figure out what the feeling of the music is.”

Tutu has also gained many new fans thanks to the Tutu Revisited project, which was originally conceived as one-off concert. The project began when the organisers of a major Miles exhibition in Paris in 2009 asked Miller if he would play the entire Tutu album in concert. “I was reticent because I know that Miles wasn’t the type that wanted to do something like that – if they’d had asked him, he would have said no! He wasn’t the kind who really liked to look back, although Quincy [Jones] convinced him towards the end of his life. [Miles played the classic Gil Evans arrangements at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival]. So, I was a little reluctant, but I wanted to pay a tribute to him, so I looked for an idea that might offset that negativity. My idea was: ‘I’m going to find some young musicians.’ Miles really loved finding new guys who could inject new energy into his music. I thought that if I could find some really great guys, although Miles might not have cared for me going backwards, he probably would have got a kick out of what we did.”

The band Miller put together consisted of three twenty-somethings – New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott, alto saxophonist Alex Han (who Miller discovered when teaching a music course at the Berklee College of Music), and drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. Keyboardist Federico Gonzalez Peña, who’s in his forties, is a relative oldie. Miller was determined not to play a carbon copy of the original album. “When I told the guys we were going to do Tutu Revisited, people broke out the synthesisers and everybody was getting ready to reproduce the CD! But I didn’t want to waste all the talent doing what some pop bands do – replay a great album from 30 years ago. I wanted to start at Tutu and see where we can take it.” The title track, for example, has been played with a jazz-swing section in some concerts, and in others, with a reggae break. Such was the demand for the Tutu Revisited project, that it morphed from a one-off gig into two world tours, with Sean Jones (formerly of the Lincoln Center Orchestra) replacing Christian Scott on trumpet, and Louis Cato playing drums on the second tour.

Miller recalls playing the Tutu album live the first time. “The first notes were very emotional for me. Not in terms of being sad, but every note brought back a memory I hadn’t remembered. When you start playing the notes, they trigger memories of when Miles said this to me or how he reacted when he first heard that note. So the first few gigs were a trip, but eventually it got more comfortable.” Miller also learnt new things about Miles. “With the Tutu Revisited band, those guys would listen to the music and say, ‘OK on this section, do you want me to do this or should I try that?’ The sort of thing you normally get when you’re working on music. But the thing that struck me was that Miles never asked me any of those questions. He’d come into the studio and I’d play the track for him. Then I’d write out the music for him, show where the melody went and then he just played. He just reacted – he didn’t ask me what key it was in or what the approach should be.”

So what is Tutu’s legacy? Keyboardist Kei Akagi, who joined Miles' band in 1989 and later became professor of music at the University of California, says: “This music has influenced a generation of younger musicians, who now treat ‘Tutu’ as having the same significance as ‘So What’.” But Miller finds it hard to define, “I don’t know; it’s beyond me. Miles is so much bigger than any of the individual albums that he made. The thing that I’m most proud of is, regardless what you think about Tutu, you’ve got to admit that, for a guy who was 60 years old to be creating music that had so much relevance for the time, is pretty inspiring. Miles was committed to continue making relevant music, from day one to the day he died. Tutu was simply a chapter in that story.”

Ten facts about Tutu


The album was originally going to be called Perfect Way (the Scritti Politti song), but producer Tommy LiPuma suggested the shorter, snappier title.


Many music collaborators were considered for Miles’ new album including, arranger/composer Paul Buckmaster, producer Bill Laswell, Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro, Lyle Mays (Pat Metheny’s keyboardist) and British keyboardist Thomas Dolby. Miles also contacted George Duke, and Prince sent Miles a track ‘Can I Play With U?,’ but the tune was pulled at the last minute. Miles worked with producers Randy Hall and Zane Giles on an album, Rubberband, which was shelved.


Several tracks are named after people: ‘Tutu’ (Archbishop Desmond Tutu), ‘Full Nelson’ (Nelson Mandela and Prince – Nelson’s his surname) and ‘Tomaas’ (Tommy LiPuma).


Many artists have performed cover versions of the title track including, Stevie Wonder, Cassandra Wilson, George Benson and Al Jarreau, World Saxophone Quartet with Jack DeJohnette, Gordon James, Russell Gunn, Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers, Humberto Ramirez, Manhattan Transfer, Marcus Miller, Endless Miles Project (including Bob Berg, Wallace Roney and Lenny White), and the bass super-group SMV – Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten. There’s even a vibes version.


The album’s photography was done by portrait photographer Irving Penn.


Spike Lee directed a video medley of the first four songs – ‘Tutu’, ‘Tomaas’, ‘Portia’, and ‘Splatch’.


Tutu won two Grammy awards, for best jazz instrumental performance – soloist, and best album package.


Sampled voices are used for one of the bass lines on the title track, and a sample of Count Basie’s trademark cry, “One mo’ time!” appears on ‘Perfect Way.’


The only track Miles never played live was ‘Backyard Ritual’.


‘Tutu’ means ‘cool’ in the Yoruba language of south-western Nigeria, and refers to the concept of grace under pressure – a very fitting description for Miles.

More on Miles Davis...

Feature Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

Feature Miles Davis – The Lost Quintet

Feature The 100 Jazz Albums that Shook the World

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Jazzwise. For more information about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit:

Keith Jarrett – Point of Departure

Keith Jarrett

A singular force in the realm of spontaneously created music, Keith Jarrett has an unmatched body of work that straddles both jazz and classical worlds. This is reflected in the release of a new improvised solo live album, Creation, and a previously unreleased double classical album from 1984-85, Samuel Barber/Béla Bartók. With the shock news that Jarrett’s acclaimed 30-year old Standards Trio has now disbanded, Stuart Nicholson spoke to the pianist about how he discovered his own voice between these two musical worlds and what he plans for the future

He’s been called ‘the enfant terrible of jazz’, ‘the Elvis Presley of High Art’ and ‘one of the greatest improvisers in the history of jazz’. His performances on the great concert hall stages of the world have yielded some of the finest jazz recordings in contemporary times; he’s been the subject of a biography and a major television documentary and he’s been lauded as a legend in his lifetime. So it comes as a bit of a shock to realise that on 8 May, pianist Keith Jarrett turned 70. But as G. K. Chesterton, that grand old man of letters, wrote almost a century ago: “The first fact about the celebration of a birthday is that it is a way of affirming defiantly, and even flamboyantly, that it is a good thing to be alive.” Which is exactly the way Jarrett is playing it, with the release of Creation (ECM), a solo piano album of nine concert recordings from Japan, Canada and Europe from 2014, plus a pairing of Barber’s Piano Concerto with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (plus an encore) from 1984 and 1985 respectively on the ECM New Series label.

Keith Jarrett CreationCreation offers something quite new in Jarrett’s discography, since it breaks with earlier live performances such as The Köln Concert, Vienna Concert and Rio, which comprise entire concerts, by taking the best individual tracks from concerts in Tokyo, Paris, Rome and Toronto sequenced to create a new concert that never happened in real-time. “What I noticed when I did the sequencing was how the disparity and the similarity between these pieces enhanced each other,” says Jarrett. “But in a way I could never do live, I couldn’t play Creation for an audience because there would be no let up in a certain kind of intensity. But with a chance to do it this way, I had a whole other universe opening up… [because] it does have a story to tell, as a whole, it has a story to tell that a concert cannot tell. It all grew out of something that was already happening in front of an audience, [so] it’s a live performance but for no ‘single’ audience – [it’s a concert for] the CD purchaser.”

In all, Jarrett had material from nine concerts in his 2014 concert tour to select from, 18 performances in all when you take the first half and second half of the concert into consideration, “This was the most labour intensive thing I have ever released,” he reflects, “I was able to pull these things out of these 18 hours of music that represented what I was trying to do. So it’s in some very real way more personal than anything else [I have done].” In fact, the concert tour from which Creation emerged was the result of quite unique circumstances – after 30 years together, Jarrett’s critically acclaimed Standards Trio reached the point where they felt they had said all they could say together. “There were lots of reasons for the trio to break-up… but absolutely no hard feelings of any kind, we’re just as much friends as we always were,” confirms Jarrett. “So I had to fill a little hole where we used to do our major tour in the summer in Europe, and I had a couple of concerts in Japan and a couple of concerts in Canada, altogether nine concerts in a – for me anyway – fairly short period of time.”


For Jarrett, audiences create a very particular kind of tension that provides the creative spur that make his live concerts the event they are in jazz. It is a relationship that is always in fine balance since when it works, his unique improvisationary gift is allowed to blossom. When it doesn’t – when the audience cough, whisper among themselves or find some other way of intruding into his creative space – the result is not creation but frustration. This happened at the Paris concert at the Salle Pleyel, yet it paradoxically yielded one fine track for Creation that gives no hint of the stress between audience and artist. In fact, I put it to Jarrett that audiences might be quite surprised at the positive role they can play in a Keith Jarrett concert, “I think you’re right,” he says, referring to the creative tension they can create, “It wouldn’t happen in a studio. As much as I love the audience it’s also a pressure.” Yet despite this love but never-quite-hate-them relationship, Jarrett does point out there is one cough from the audience in Creation, but observes, “In the entire nine tracks, I did not think of that until I chose the music but it follows perfect logic that if in any of the playing there was a cough it might throw me into a different place, but it just didn’t happen on this occasion!”

Keith Jarrett Barber BartokOn Samuel Barber/Béla Bartók the enormous breadth of Jarrett’s talent stands revealed with two superior performances that seem destined to become – this is their first ever release, despite the 1984/85 provenance – the benchmark by which other recordings of these piano concertos will be judged. They come from an interesting period in Jarrett’s life, when he was pushing the boundaries of his creativity, in both jazz and classical music, to its limits. The performance of the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3 took place at the Kan-i-Hoken Hall in Tokyo on 30 January 1985. Enthusiastically received by the press, Jarrett had a few days off and was then joined by Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette for a 12-concert tour of Japan with The Standards Trio. After that, he was back on the classical circuit playing recitals of Beethoven, Scarlatti and Bach, followed by his New York debut playing this material (which received a laudatory review from The New York Times). The immediate juxtaposition of the two musical disciplines had a profound effect on Jarrett. What he was doing was unparalleled in the music world – working at the highest level of his profession in both jazz and classical music.

Leaving aside the fact that he has never really received the kind of recognition – then or now, and especially in his own country – the magnitude of this achievement deserves, something had to give. “I got as close to a nervous breakdown as I’d ever like to get,” he reflects. “I marched into my little studio and started doing Spirits as a reaction against the classical nervous ‘Edit from bar 267, we want to start there’, and all that stuff. I would say things like, ‘but I am supposed to be in an emotional state at that moment in that piece, I can’t just jump into that emotional state because you don’t have it there perfectly’. And then not long afterwards I read a quote from a Beethoven player, it was the early days of recording, making 78s I guess, and he was the guy, the Beethoven player, and he was quoted as saying when someone said ‘don’t you think we should do this over?’ and he said, ‘if we did it again it would be better, but it wouldn’t be as good!’ [laughs] I love it. I relate to that – I don’t know that there is anyone whose playing I love who plays ‘perfectly’. I know there are players – I can think of names but I don’t want to desecrate their work – and they do it perfectly, but I don’t get anything from it.”

Keith Jarrett

When the album Spirits was done, he felt better able to come to terms with his feelings about classical music: “I appreciate everything about it and I was trained in it, and I have more classical recordings and LPs than I have jazz, and I listen to more classical music than most jazz players, but no, the world itself I find a little bit unfortunate. I’m involved in the world of creation from the ground up, because I can do – luckily – both things. I know what I am hearing, I know if I am successful at playing what I hear: the art of interpretation exists, but it’s not my thing, it was my thing, during that period of time in the 1980s. But then I just got overwhelmingly, let’s see, I was in the classical world in that period and walking out that door and breathing the air and thinking, ‘wait, I was so involved in this, editing at bar 167 was so not a good idea, can I possibly remind myself why I am in music at all?’ And I threw myself – came back down and had my pseudo nervous breakdown – and threw myself into the most spontaneously crazy thing I had done up to that moment [the album Spirits], and I had trio concerts that would make me smile while I was playing… and I thought shit! That’s what it is! You can’t do that in a concerto or classical thing, you just can’t do that!”

As Jarrett’s career trajectory subsequently revealed, his enormous creativity found its true voice in jazz – he once said his humming during a jazz performance was a response to the sounds he heard in his head, while in classical those sounds are pre-ordained by the music manuscript so he remains silent – which has been all the richer for his commitment to the music (with just a few detours into classical over the years).

So at 70, how does he view the future? “Well the first thing I’d like to see is what kind of response this music [Creation] has, as it’s so radically different, as radical as the very first solo concert I played as it doesn’t follow any of my own rules in the past, and then I’ll figure it out from there. I don’t ever have a deep seated future planned out for adventures, but I don’t have a trio now so all I know is that I’m not going to look for other guys who I would need 30 years to get as good as we got, that’s the biggest problem of all. How much rapport and understanding we had, it’s unmatched anywhere I think. I can pick up albums I forgot about and listen to them and go, ‘Oh my God! Yeah, that’s right!’ So anyway, at the point we had all the information [for Creation] together we sent it to ECM and included in it was this quote, ‘Only age reveals our drive, our compulsion to say something, youth has nothing to declare’. It’s a very, very interesting quote.”


Review KEITH JARRETT – RIO ★★★★★


This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit:

Top photo courtesy of Henry Leutwyler / ECM Records

Steve Coleman – Body of Elements

 Steve Coleman

Rhythm has always underscored saxophonist Steve Coleman’s 30-year recording career. Across some 27 albums as a leader, he’s exerted a vortex-like pull of ancient and modern sounds, blending deep African and Asian rhythms with biting street funk and angular jazz harmony, forging a sound that’s made him one of the most original and influential musicians of his generation. With the release of his expansive album Synovial Joints, which draws on the interlocking pulses of the human body for inspiration, Coleman tells Kevin Le Gendre how much of this music emerged from the swirling grit of a blinding Ghanaian desert wind

From the mid-1950s, American governments recognised the role jazz artists could play as cultural ambassadors by way of the landmark State Department tours undertaken by Duke, Dizzy and ‘Pops’ in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. These icons visited Togo, Pakistan and Egypt, playing with locals and often providing the kind of souvenir portrait, none more exotic than that of Louis Armstrong on a camel with his horn tilted against the triangular backdrop of the pyramids, that would have puffed up the smart suits of the US diplomatic corps.

Some four decades later Steve Coleman made a vaguely similar journey but with far less regimentation. In 1993 the alto saxophonist traveled to Yendi in Ghana, West Africa entirely under his own steam, the corollary of which involved him hiring and driving a vehicle and negotiating the testing aftermath of a collision with an animal that had paws rather than humps. But his motivation was undimmed, his agenda precise. “I wanted to go to this very particular village because there was a guy who got up every morning and would beat on these two big drums and beat out the story of the tribe, the lineage of the kings and all this kind of stuff, without singing, just in drums. So I had to see this and know how it worked,” Coleman tells me on the phone from his home in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“I was fascinated by it from reading about it and I went there specifically for that reason; to find out the musical mechanics. I’d always heard about ‘talking drums’ all my life but I wanted to know literally how it worked. So I went all the way there just to go to this particular village, I wanted to see it and feel it for myself. And then I wanted to talk to the elders in the village and interview them.”


“I wanted to see how it was possible for somebody to tell a story without words, with just sound and rhythms… how can you use these sonic shapes and tell a story?”


Musician as investigator-explorer is by no means a new phenomenon, and Coleman would be the first to acknowledge the research of many of his forebears, above all those he claims as sources of inspiration, but the anecdote is telling for a number of reasons. The Ghana excursion effectively opened up “a whole new world” for Coleman. He has since committed himself to at least one ‘study trip’ a year, the primary destinations thus far having been India, Indonesia, Brazil and Cuba. Added to this quest for information en situ is a seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge that can be sourced in the calmer environs of a library or bookshop, settings in which Coleman has spent many sabbaticals, expanding his mind with a variety of tomes that include anything from biographies on 16th Century European classical composers to Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction Of Black Civilization, a thought-provoking account of the hidden history of African culture.

Steve Coleman Rhythm PeopleOne can see a slanted reference to that work in the name of Coleman’s 1990 recording Rhythm People (The Resurrection Of Creative Black Civilization), and in many ways all of the epithets used in that title are very much key words that illuminate a body of work that now stretches to 27 releases. Rhythm, set in intricate matrices beyond the standard organisation of a pulse into downbeats and upbeats in clearly drawn measures, is a cornerstone of Coleman’s grand sonic edifice but the influence of civilizations, particularly ancient ones, as well as ritual and mythology, has also been crucial. As is the input of non-western culture. The superb 1996 album The Sign And The Seal, recorded in Cuba with Coleman’s group The Mystic Rhythm Society in collaboration with the entrancing folkloric drummers AfroCuba De Matanzas, remains one of the most fulfilled expressions of the leader’s desire to engage with a complex, ages-old belief system, in this case Santeria, and distils its very essence into intensely rich original music.

Steve Coleman HarvestingAlthough synonymous with the term M-BASE (Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporisation), which he coined in the early 1980s, the 58 year-old Chicagoan, who impressed through his work with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band after moving to New York in the late 1970s, has always aspired to being more than an exponent of fluidly uneven time signatures that nonetheless had the kind of taut, sharp, locked-down funkiness of a musician who greatly defined his youth, James Brown. Later recordings such as 2004’s Lucidarium and 2010’s Harvesting Semblances And Affinities, revealed a desire to articulate metaphysical and philosophical musings through sound as much as to construct music in mathematically challenging permutations. Yet this mission reaches back to the early jam sessions Coleman attended in Chi-Town.

“When I was younger I would get up and play,” the saxophonist recalls. “And some old guy would be saying ‘tell your story, young man’ and I always wondered what are they talking about. What story can you tell with music that doesn’t have words? I used to always wonder that when I was younger and all of this is connected because that’s what drove me to Ghana. I wanted to see how it was possible for somebody to tell a story without words, with just sound and rhythms and pitches and tonality and whatever your using. How can you use these sonic shapes and tell a story? Can somebody else understand?”

One might say that the subject matters Coleman has chosen to broach lie at the more esoteric end of human discourse. If his 1997 2CD-set Genesis & The Opening Of The Way saw him meditate on “the symbolic meaning of the seven days of creation” and “the concept of growth and regeneration” then his new work, Synovial Joints, has a biological rather than theological magnitude by way of composition inspired by the functions and rhythms of the human body. Sounds are based on the spring of limb, shift of fluid or rise and fall of breath. Flesh and blood are both score and orchestra. Some 21 musicians are deployed to achieve these ends as Coleman augments his longstanding Five Elements ensemble with horns, strings and percussion, and the results add more density to the leader’s patented vocabulary. Rhythm, melody and harmony tightly entwine like threads in a fabric, the specific lines coming together in a kind of warp and weft that shifts its centre in subtle ways. Internal tensions evolve as much as they do resolve.

As important as the overarching theme of anatomy is on Synovial Joints the album has other pieces that also draw on what has been a recurrent strand of Coleman’s work: nature. Clouds, water, earth, air and fire have all been the subject of previous compositions and the piece on the new set that reinforces the pattern is ‘Harmattan’. It is a wind that Coleman experienced in Ghana, a relentless blanketing of the air with fine dust that seems to get under as well as on top of the skin.

His experience of it dates back more than 20 years but the memory burned into his psyche, and its translation into music is fascinating. “It’s like it just engulfs everything,” Coleman explains. “This whole thing was like this grainy net that was constantly shifting shape and it was just throughout the whole air. Because of the wind it was constantly changing shape and I wanted to get that kind of shape-shifting feel, the grainy feel, all of that kind of stuff so the orchestration had that kind of thing… sometimes somebody would be walking towards you and it’s almost like they would come out of the dust. Their form would be like vague and as they came closer to you they become clearer. I tried to get that feel with some of the melodies, like they would rise up out of the net then fall back into it.


“The drums, bass and guitar… it’s like a puzzle in terms of the way they’re put together”


“I created this melody on my saxophone, just from the sensation that I had… with the other things that you put with the melody it becomes how to enhance that feeling. That’s where the orchestration comes in. It’s like making a sketch, then colouring it. You’re trying to select things in terms of which instruments play what to intensify the feeling.

“The drums, bass and guitar… it’s like a puzzle in terms of the way they’re put together. If you listen to any one by themselves there’s a lot of space in the part. But the way they’re put together it’s sort of like the fingers of your two hands interlocking if you folded your hands together. There’s this kind of interlocking puzzle effect, which is in African music in general, but
I wanted the rhythm to be like a really fine net of interlocking pieces that go on over this kind of long cycle.

“And the interlocking pieces that I used were heartbeats, just like if you touched your toes and you have a doum doum, like a heartbeat.” Coleman elaborates, his speech steady. “The overall mosaic or weaving you could say doesn’t sound like a heartbeat, just this driving rhythm. For me the individual heartbeats represented like individual particles that are interwoven in a certain way to form a fine kind of net because that was the feeling I got with the Harmattan.”

As Coleman stated, part of the conceptual base of his work can be traced to African music, to the complex percussion orchestration in which multiple drum figures are carefully arranged to create a single powerful sensation. With that in mind it’s also easy to see why the saxophonist would have been fascinated by the workings of the bata ensembles he found in Cuba, where the three members of the family of cone-shaped drums, the iya, itotele and onkokolo, cannot be separated.

Each is inextricably linked to the other, and although Coleman’s identity as a soloist is emphatically strong, above all the phrasing that potently blends drilled, snare-like staccato and fluttering, cymbal-like allegro lines, his music is decisively guided by the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In that respect he upholds the legacy of Thelonious Monk, one of the ultimate exponents of an ‘all sounds into one’ musical philosophy, as he does that of any other artist from the improvising tradition. One thing that jumps out from a dialogue with Coleman is the enormous breadth of his artistic and intellectual references. By his own admission he is now less attuned to pop culture than in his formative years but that does not stop him professing admiration for blues behemoth Muddy Waters, or recalling his jams with Junior Wells and Buddy Guy at Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge, or evoking long conversations with James Brown’s alto maestro Maceo Parker, or terming the Godfather’s music a “major innovation”. Or saying that he once went through what he calls “a Prince period”.

By the same token Coleman can name the latest reading material recommended to him by Sonny Rollins, for whom he has enormous reverence, or quote music theory expounded by the ancient Greeks.

Steve Coleman Synovial JointsAbove all there is a deep respect shown towards his predecessors, particularly those who have perhaps been marginalised by the jazz establishment. No greater manifestation of Coleman’s desire to bring such figures into the spotlight was his role as producer of fine albums by Sam Rivers and Bunky Green, when he was contracted to BMG and Label Bleu respectively, and exerted some influence on their A&R policy.

Then again it takes little prompting for him to explain a passion for the music of the elders. His own learning process is at stake. “Duke Ellington, he did these Sacred Concerts at the end of the 1960s, and I studied that because I wanted to know… not because I was religious necessarily, he was, and I wanted to find out why this music for this impulse, that feeling,” Coleman notes. “Then I would contrast that with something like A Love Supreme, which was also, you could say, very spiritual in its genesis. The music was very, very different because Coltrane was very different to Duke, but I still wanted to know what was the connection. What was the connection between Duke’s spiritual feeling and the music he produced and Coltrane’s spiritual feeling and the music he produced? And Yusef Lateef’s spiritual feeling and whoever. I wanted to know, just as a music student, specifically what devices they used, what approach did they take, all these questions you’re asking me. And then Béla Bartók, for example, was fascinated with nature and got a lot of inspiration from nature. Well, how? How exactly did he do that? Beethoven was very spiritual. How? How did that manifest itself in the music, and what are the mechanics behind how he did that? In essence the same reason I went to Ghana is the same thing I’m looking for in these people. I wanna know.”

This chimes with an earlier statement Coleman made. “Music is not an agreed-upon language… it’s a magic thing. If I play a note… what does that mean to people? There’s other things that have to come into play, those are all the reasons why I went to India and Ghana and all these places where people are playing music that is attached to meaning.”

Now, some 30 years into his career, Coleman appears to have lost none of his desire to broach the eternal mystery of sound. The stature that he already had as the leader who gave important early sideman gigs to some of the notable progressives in jazz in the past 20 years – think Robert Mitchell, Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer in terms of pianists alone – was recently consolidated by the receipt of three major accolades: a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Doris Duke Artist Award and a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’. But the saxophonist is keen to state that his core motivation remains exactly the same. “There’s no award in the world that’s ever written any music,” Coleman argues. “It all comes from inside you. It doesn’t change the music at all, not one bit. You still have to work just as hard as if you had nothing. It doesn’t change anything musically. You just keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t try to think about anything else but that.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out how to subscribe to Jazzwise, visit:


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