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Interviews

Nik Turner: Bringing the Music to the People

By Published: February 24, 2010
Independent of his work with Hawkwind, Turner has an extensive performance history with his own bands such as Sphynx, Inner City Unit and Space Ritual, and has performed and recorded with such artists as Farflung, the Stranglers, and Sting.

All About Jazz: What influenced you to start playing music?

Nik Turner: I grew up on jazz. Rather, my mother played the piano. She played sort of the stride piano. One of my uncles played clarinet, although I never really heard him very much. One of the first records I bought was "12th Street Rag" by Pee Wee Hunt

Pee Wee Hunt
b.1907
. I was sort of subjected to a lot of jazz—Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
and stuff like that. My aunt used to sing like Billie Holiday [laughs]. We used to take turns at Christmas. I remember singing some sort of songs when I was about six. I grew up in a jazzy sort of environment. My mother liked jazz. She was a fan of Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
and Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
1890 - 1941
piano
and Fats Waller
Fats Waller
Fats Waller
1904 - 1943
piano
, people like that.

For myself, I was very interested in the clarinet at first. There was a guy called Sid Phillips who was a British jazz clarinetist, and I seem to remember hearing him. I really got into traditional jazz, what they call Dixieland jazz. One of my first influences regarding the saxophone was hearing Earl Bostic

Earl Bostic
Earl Bostic
1913 - 1965
sax, alto
playing "Flamingo." I heard it in a jukebox. I used to hang out in a sort of juke joint on my way home from school and they used to have all of the latest records in there. This is like in the '50s, probably about 1956 or '55. I thought it was fantastic. It just really made an impression on me.

Around that time, I can't remember exactly when, I got into Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
and Stan Getz
Stan Getz
Stan Getz
1927 - 1991
sax, tenor
. I got interested then in learning to play, initially, the clarinet. I liked traditional jazz a lot. Friends of mine played in trad jazz bands and I used to listen to it a lot. It was quite popular in Britain at the time. There was a guy living up the street from me who was a band master for the Marine band. He taught woodwind instruments and I got a clarinet and had some lessons from him when I was about 17. I used to go to him every week and I learned a few scales. He showed me how to read music a bit.

Having been influenced as well listening to saxophone a lot, I really wanted to get a saxophone. Initially I bought a tenor sax from him, and he said, "Well, if you learn to play the saxophone you must continue to play your clarinet." I said, "Okay," but of course I didn't [laughter]. As soon as I got the saxophone I sort of abandoned the clarinet and got into listening to Art Blakey

Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
. I mean, John Coltrane I listened to then, but he was a bit beyond me, at that point. I listened to Charlie Parker. I learned a few Charlie Parker tunes.

Shortly after that I got an alto saxophone. I traded my tenor in for an alto. There was a local band that played around that played a lot of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
, quite a lot of that sort of thing—a lot of different bands, Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet

band/orchestra
. But I liked them. I listened to Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
, and I just listened to a lot of that stuff. There were a lot of jazz musicians around at that time. Modern jazz was becoming quite popular in Britain. This was probably in the late '50s.

At the same time I was listening to rock and roll as well. You know, the Coasters and "Yakkety Yak" and old stuff like that, all the sax parts on those records were played by jazz people, even Bill Haley. I bought a Bill Haley record and [tenor saxophonist] Rudy Pompilli is actually a jazz player, I discovered later.

I was interested in Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond
Paul Desmond
1924 - 1977
sax, alto
with Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
1920 - 2012
piano
and I listened to Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt
1924 - 1982
saxophone
. I used to see concerts and ended up going to see Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
. I had been going to trad jazz clubs in London seeing Cy Laurie
Cy Laurie
b.1926
and Ken Collier. I hung out with, like, Bohemian people at the time. I was very young and they were sort of giving me my musical education. Then skiffle hit Britain and I was hanging out in these little skiffle bars in London. And then I got involved and interested in the modern jazz idiom, listening to John Coltrane then and sort of finding it very difficult and thinking, "Wow, I'd really like to play like that but it's quite hard [laughs]. "

I practiced a bit for quite a while and I learned a few tunes, and never played in a band though, really. I started getting into playing "Intersection" with a band very briefly with my music teacher, then I sort of gave up playing for some time. In about 1968, I went to Berlin and met all of these free jazz musicians that hung out in the Blue Note. I think that's where Eric Dolphy

Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
reeds
and John Coltrane had played, and I think some of these people had played with them. They turned me on to the fact that you didn't have to be technical to express yourself. I realized then I'd met some guys who played in a band and talked about getting involved in a band with them, and then it just sort of struck me that I could play free jazz in a rock band. That's how I became involved in Hawkwind.



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