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Graham Collier: Forging Ahead

Nic Jones By

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Jazz is a different kind of music than any other, because it relies on improvisation. So it follows that jazz composition is different than classical composition. And my feeling is--very strongly--that many jazz composers don
GrahamBritish bandleader and composer Graham Collier is seventy this year. In the course of his career he has, perhaps, unusually become more expansive in his musical outlook, fashioning pieces for ensembles larger than those he was working with during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period which is effectively the high water mark of the documentation of his music on record.

One of the many characteristics of his work is a singularity of artistic vision, arguably the pinnacle of achievement for any creative individual. At the same time he has always fashioned music in which soloists as diverse as trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Harry Beckett and John Surman (reeds and keyboards) have flourished.

I recently put a few questions to him about his music and his life.

All About Jazz: Prior to your career in music you were a bandsman in the British Army. In much the same way the likes of drummer John Stevens and trombonist Paul Rutherford served part of their musical apprenticeships in the British armed forces. Do you think it would be true to say that an enlightened attitude to music and musical expression was a part of the institutional culture in that respect?

Graham Collier: We joined the forces because we had to—I joined for longer because there was a chance for some musical training, my family were working class and universities weren't on the cards and I wasn't interested in classical music which, of course, is what the music colleges did at that time.

I don't think it was anything to do with enlightened attitudes—just that we had to, and the services gave you a degree of freedom and access to other musicians—and travel— which most of us wouldn't have been exposed to at home, so our outlook was widened. I certainly feel that I would have been a different person if I hadn't joined up. I attribute my liking for travel to that experience also.

AAJ: In the early 1960s, whilst you were getting your degree at Berklee on the back of a very small scholarship, you served a different kind of time in the ranks of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Was that band a home for the tried and tested at the time?

GC: It was Jimmy Dorsey's ghost band. We were once asked if Jimmy had got off the plane yet and we said we hope not.

Not really—New Zealand pianist Mike Nock was in the band with me for a time (he was a fellow student at Boston's Berklee College of Music) but no one else I remember. It was just a way of making a few bucks.

AAJ: Graham, you were the first person to receive a grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain for Workpoints (Cuneiform, 2005) back in the late 1960s. What was the attitude of that august body towards the music? Was it an achievement in itself convincing it of the artistic value of the medium?

GC: I was encouraged to go in for it by a friend who said it's about time jazz got a slice of the Arts Council cake and to my surprise I got the commission. As ever one had to couch the application in serious words—"a long work exploring the area between what's improvised and what is composed —that sort of thing, but I think there must have been a feeling there that the time was ripe and my application came at the right moment. I was getting publicity in the Sunday Times and such classy papers (there was more of that around then!) and that could well have helped.

AAJ: You've gone on record as saying that "jazz happens in real time, once. How does that belief influence your work as a composer, antithetical as it might be to the notion of composition?

GC: Ah, the 64,000 dollar question. Hidden in the phrase is the implication that jazz is a different kind of music than any other because it relies on improvisation. So it follows that jazz composition is different than classical composition. And my feeling is—very strongly—that many jazz composers don't realize this.

[Trombonist] Bob Brookmeyer was quoted in the New York Times recently, saying that he didn't bring a solo in until he—as a writer—had nothing else left to say. There are two problems I can see with that statement apart from its arrogance. One is that if you're not using the soloists strengths then why are you bothering writing jazz in the first place, and the implication that what is written is sacrosanct.

In my view there needs to be space left for something to happen—in the writing, which is difficult. But thinking the other way places too much emphasis on the written notes, and uses the musicians—apart from the rhythm section and soloists—as cannon fodder. Just like the classical approach in fact. There should also be regard to using the soloists' strengths, allowing them room to influence the composition.

It's a delicate balance and my new book—being read by an American publisher as we speak—deals with this, historically, philosophically and practically. It's called The Jazz Composer. Moving Music Off The Paper. And the moving should have its double meaning. In it I talk about how many so-called jazz composers haven't moved on in any real way from what Don Redman was doing all those years ago.


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