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Courtney Pine: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

David Burke By

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"We come from a time when jazz musicians were session men. They didn't have their own identifiable sound. They had to fit in with all the different sessions. Their skill was that they were adaptable. Whereas the solo artists, like they have in America, whether it's Bobby Watson, Grover Washington, Jr. or David Sanborn, that was a rarity in the United Kingdom. And now we have so many of those guys who have the intention of being solo artists." One of the standout tracks on Black Notes from the Deep is a revision of Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly," on which Omar is joined by Charleen Hamilton, inspired by a dream Pine had.

"Three years ago, I was at the International Jazz Day with Herbie Hancock in Osaka. And I was actually standing on stage playing. Herbie Hancock was to my right, ten feet away, doing that thing. It was just unbelievable that someone like me was in this situation. I had that out of body—is this really happening?—experience. I just zoned out. There we were playing in front of 5,000 people, Japanese, and Herbie Hancock was doing Butterfly and I had to play that horn line for Herbie Hancock. During that trip I took pictures of everybody—Dionne Warwick, Marcus Miller, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sheila E, Gregory Porter... Then I went up to Herbie and said, 'Do you realise I've got pictures of everybody, except you?' He just smiled —and I didn't get a picture with him! He was the only one.

"I had this mad dream—I dream about music, I dream about three-headed saxophones and chords that don't exist. So I had this dream that I was performing Butterfly in a white room and Omar was singing the lead vocal. That dream was almost the first brick in the wall for Black Notes from the Deep, talking to Omar, that concert with Herbie Hancock. So it all kind of fell into place. It's a great tune. I don't know why, but in the dream we played it as a drum and bass deal. I made it solid. I made a dream into a solid."

The ruminative Rivers of Blood evokes the struggle and ultimate triumph of the so-called Windrush Generation of immigrants from the Caribbean that arrived on British shores in 1948—a generation that included Pine's own parents. He's mindful of the sacrifices they made in leaving the West Indies for a better life in a country that didn't exactly welcome them with open arms---mindful too of his responsibility in keeping this narrative alive, and helping to write new narratives.

"I do feel that I'm standing on the shoulders of giants, whether that's Harry Beckett or Joe Harriott or Coleridge Goode—I do have a responsibility to turn up on the bandstand and present my culture in a positive way. I remember when I first started as a solo artist in '87, I made it a purpose to talk to people like the NME magazine and explain to them who we are. A lot of the questions were, 'Is there any such thing as black British jazz? Who are you?'

"It's like we were invisible as a culture because we were -a lot of the time they would say -sons of immigrants, as if to say we were invisible and we hadn't taken part. But my dad was a carpenter and he contributed to a lot of the buildings in London. He was in there building them. He's a part of what we call the United Kingdom. I saw him physically do it seven days a week. So that contribution is still kind of unknown. And people like me, we have to tell the story, we have to stand up and say, 'We are here and we are taking part and we are willing to contribute to the United Kingdom.' We weren't just lazing around. My grandfather was a pilot in World War Two. Our kids have to know this story.

"You can't deny your past. You can't deny where you come from. We all know how that works and what is actually going on in West Africa, China, India, the Caribbean. Whether it's done on the athletics field, the football pitch or in music, in a genre that people call jazz, it has to be done, it has to be told. Our kids have to know that they have worth and they should turn up for that job dressed well, prepared, and not think, 'There's no point because I can't get that job, I can't contribute, so why should I study? Why should I learn an instrument when I can just spit some lyrics on my mobile phone?'-which is kind of the current epidemic for music."

Essentially what Pine wants is for black Britons to raise themselves up and declare that they matter, that they also have a stake in Great Britain, both historically and within a contemporary context. It's the same integrationist philosophy he applies to his music, particularly when collaborating with other artists.


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