Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond by Colin Harper

Colin Harper By

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Exclusive extract adapted from Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond
By Colin Harper. Published (UK and US) March 26, 2014 by Jawbone Press

"British jazz is awash with young talent which, given a healthy set of circumstances and a fair share of work, could produce a generation of outstanding musicians." —Bob Houston, Melody Maker, January 1967

"As a job with security and prospects, being a jazz musician is just about on a par with shooting Niagara Falls in a barrel. Worse, in fact, because one of the greatest problems for a young jazzman is to find somewhere to play at all." —Bob Dawbarn, Melody Maker, January 1967

Nobody goes into jazz for the money. In the 21st Century, people in Britain with jazzward inclinations can go to university and do a jazz course, get funding for a jazz doctorate, cast around for gigs at publicly subsidised arts centres and festivals and apply for Arts Council bursaries for compositional retreats or other projects. Various grant-awarding charities are also available for the proactive musician to pitch at. Back in the 1960s, all of the above resided in the realms of fantasy. Bassist/composer Graham Collier became, towards the end of 1967, the first jazz recipient of an Arts Council bursary (£400 towards a large ensemble piece, "Workpoints"). It was not quite the announcement of a gravy train newly arrived at the station of Cashstrapped-under-Ronnie, but it was a much reported novelty and in retrospect an important moment for British jazz.

Trad trombonist George Chisholm, a jazzman at heart but a breadwinner through his involvement with BBC Television's Black & White Minstrel Show, found himself relinquishing the dark side (Light Entertainment) in October '65. He wanted to try and rescue his soul, and his career as a jazz musician, but he was aware of the cost: "If you say, 'I'm going to stick to my beliefs and play nothing but jazz,' you would end up in Leicester Square selling matches," he said at the time. "I'm sorry to say it but it's true."

Things, nevertheless, were beginning to change, however slowly and precariously it might have seemed at the time. 1966 had seen two developments which were pivotal for jazz in Britain: the opening of the Little Theatre Club, in January; and the opening of (Ronnie Scott's) Old Place in September. A significant array of world-class musicians and composers from John McLaughlin's generation—including John himself—would hone their craft, galvanise their confidence and forge their identities in these twin crucibles over a relatively short period of time.

As Ronnie Scott's biographer, John Fordham, observed: "It was a forcible reminder of how unlike New York London was (and how unlike itself in the busy clubland years of the Second World War) that the presence of two such venues in one of the world's great capital cities should seem like any kind of a luxury."

Or, as Ian Carr reflected in his classic Music Outside in 1973: "It is a sobering thought that the development, even the continuation, of jazz in Britain has often relied on the chance generosity of a few remarkable individuals."

In Britain, nobody owed jazz a living; and very few were given one by it.

In the first week of January '66 the Melody Maker could report that, on the one hand, Ronnie Scott's house bassist Rick Laird was forsaking Britain for America but, on the other, John Stevens was opening a new venue, the Little Theatre Club.

"Musical policy won't be self-consciously hip," said John. "We want to give people a chance to play their own music. Personally, I like everything, blues and standards. Some beautiful things can be done with standards. But I think there is a lot of restriction in jazz. As soon as you count '1-2-3' you've set one restriction—of meter."

To an extent, John's club would address some of the home truths which Rick was offering on his departure for a period of study at Boston's Berklee College:

"There's nowhere else to work," he explained. "If I were to leave Ronnie's and stay in Britain it would be a step backwards... The biggest trouble here is lack of opportunity for the guys to play... and there's not the competitive spirit either... [which] is good for the music. I think it's needed... Very few of the established musicians here sound like they're developing. It sounds as if they're stuck in a thing. The lack of opportunities is the cause of that."


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