Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

Maxim Micheliov By

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Howard Riley gave his performance in Vilnius, Lithuania in September, 2009. It was his first visit to the country in a five-decade career, and one of just a few eastern Europe destinations made at the time, by the British free jazz pianist. The concert was recorded and released in 2010 as the double-disc set, Solo in Vilnius, by No Business Records.

All About Jazz: Describe your musical background.

Howard Riley: I was born in 1943 in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. But for the first 6 years I lived down in Harrow, which is a place very near London. Then my parents moved back to the north so most of my childhood was spent there.

I started playing the piano at the age of six in 1949. My father was a semi-professional dance band player. He played in a local band but he was an engineer, professionally. He gave me the first piano lessons. He got an instruction book with children notes there. He gave me my basics, so that was a start.

AAJ: At what point did you start to be interested in jazz?

HR: I started being interested in jazz in mid-'50s in terms of listening to it. I was about11 or 12 then, and what I heard was people like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie—the bebop school. That caught my ear. I remember thinking—"this is fantastic music. How do they play it?" Because in that era in mid-'50s, there were no instruction books. Now it is different, of course. You've got jazz education, books, tuition records—everything but then there was nothing like that. It was up in the north of England. So what you did was listen to records with few other people interested in playing. I just got together with the local guys. We used to listen to records and tried to reproduce them.

But the other thing I was still at school when started playing in public. I was always playing with people at least ten years older than me. But I used to get gigs because I was the only person in that area who could play that. And I used to play three nights a week, a regular gig, that was really good. Anyway, playing with local musicians was my first experience.

And then in 1961, I went to Bangor University in North Wales. I originally went to do English Literature. But when I got there, they had a quite active music department—active in contemporary music with a couple of composers called Bernard Rands and Reginald Smith Brindle. They happened to be teaching there and I thought this is an opportunity to learn more about music, broaden up my horizons a bit, and I switched at the end of my first year from English to music. That's how I ended up doing a degree in music.

For the next five years, I was a student at Bangor University but every summer I used to take playing jobs because I had to earn some money. I used to play at a holiday camp in 1962, then I played on the boat from the European Line going around the Mediterranean playing in a band and all these jobs were to earn money. And one thing I realized from doing that was that I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life [laughs], because it was pretty boring. But it was an insight into what that kind of music all about.

So I used to play commercial music during the summers to earn some money and study music during the winters on that period 1961-66. I was still playing jazz at the university. I had my own little trio. In fact, during that period I first met Evan Parker because he was also at the university. And we linked up together and had a quartet. That was in 1965, up in Birmingham in the middle part of England.

And then in 1966 I left Bangor; I had a year at the Indiana University in the States. I did a master music degree. There was a trombone player called David Baker. He played on some of George Russell's recordings from the early '60s. He was just starting a jazz course at Indiana University so I was lucky to catch it from the beginning. I played in his band, did a little studying.

I came back in 1967 to London. That was when I started living in London.

AAJ: When did you realize that you have this passion for experimenting, searching for new forms, developing own language?

HR: It was a gradual realization really, because when I was at Bangor I was quite happy just to learn a basic vocabulary of jazz. I still tried to master that and my heroes where people like Gillespie. I felt happy playing conventional jazz but when I came to London in 1967... when I passed through London in '66 on the way to America. I stayed up in London a couple of weeks just to check out the scene. I met a lot of people I'd liked to play with. I met Barry Guy, Tony Oxley—at that time a resident drummer at Ronnie Scott's club. I met a lot of musicians. So when I came back to London, I formed a trio.

It is difficult to think now but that period in the '60s it was in the air—this experimentation. I don't really like this word "experimentation." It's just an attitude that was pushing me forward to doing something a bit different because the basic problem which everybody had in England, and also in Europe is the "American problem": the fact that you are not American. And that, never the less, American musicians that I have mentioned were my starting point. So the thing is how can you develop your own voice within this new thing—this is the problem to get your own individuality. I think that was the basic impulse behind it. That generation of musicians in the '60s realized that just imitating Americans wasn't enough.

Up to that point in England, if you imitated Americans well that was considered to be enough. You didn't go any further than that. I think my generation realized—"well, you've got to do something acknowledging that we are a starting point"; we've got to get to the point when we were producing something distinctively European if you like. And I think that was the root of your question really.

The music just evolved. When it evolves you don't sit down and think it through in advance. It evolves by playing. Everything what happened in that period—people were just playing together. Also it was a very good period for different people trying to invent together. There was good atmosphere in the '60s in London.

For example, I played with John McLaughlin quite a bit at that time. He became very famous and a worldwide star, but then we played together little gigs around London. I used to have him to my trio before he became famous and too expensive for me. And occasionally I did a duo gig with him. Things hadn't solidified at that point. There was lots of interchange and there were people who were playing free music conversed with people who played conventional jazz. I mean myself—that was my roots in jazz, playing bebop if you like, that was where I started out from. And then freer forms only came out of the result of this mindset of thinking that we were Europeans and just keep evolving.

But at that time people interacting was very intense. I suppose it was also the fact that a lot of people now have obtained reputation but they haven't got it at that point. John McLaughlin, nobody heard of him. I remember that time he was out of work. He was a great guitarist but it was difficult getting hold of him even. So before everybody entered an invented "hall of fame," there was a lot of interaction.

All that little things were going on and it wasn't about money. It was really about that "let's see what happen if we try something." Obviously in music as in anything else "what happens" is affected by the society around you generally. The atmosphere in the '60s was very adventurous in a lot of aspects. It's amazing. These days we are so used to consumerism and everything being presented in a slick way, but it wasn't like that then.

So coming back to your question, I didn't set out to do anything deliberate. I just liked the things that evolved. The trick with that is to try let it evolve and not be affected by other considerations. The moment you start thinking "will I get work with it?"—usually that means you start compromising the music itself. So it is a tricky thing to do but that was basically my attitude anyway.

AAJ: Please describe the scene in more detail.

HR: Do you mean in London? I mean, you see, in Britain, in England particularly that time, if you had any ambitions in terms of developing your play you had to really go to London. There weren't too many players out in the country. This was my problem because then I was a kid in Huddersfield I've done everything you want to do. By the age of 14, I was playing with guys who were in their thirties. Local musicians but I could see that I had to get out of there in order to develop.

And, of course, the university thing it was a different set of circumstances because I had to earn some money during the summer which meant doing some commercial music. But that was valuable—it taught me never to do that, never even think of doing that as a life time occupation.

There were different little cliques although there was interaction. A little theater club was one point of reference to all of that, that was for developing free music up there. People like John Stevens, Evan (Parker) played there. Barry (Guy), of course. That's how I first met Barry. He did a lot of the Little Theatre club. And that was for free playing. John Stevens was a central focus there. He was undoubtedly a catalyst. And Trevor Watts was very important with that. They used to work there six nights a week often not getting paid. They were incredibly dedicated. The club didn't start until 10:30 at night because there was that Little Theater happening earlier. The only problem from my point of view was that the piano was lousy. That piano was really bad but suppose you learn something from that—how to master bad piano playing.

Then there was Ronnie Scott's old place, which was left over from Ronnie's moving to bigger premises on Frith Street. And they lasted for a year-and-a-half at the least, and it was very generous because he didn't have to do this. He just gave it over to the younger guys to present themselves in this club. That was my first place where I've started getting known a bit.

And the people whom we know today were just starting out. I've mentioned John and Trevor, Evan and Barry. Tony Oxley was a resident drummer at Ronnie Scott's but he was also quite important in free music, but again, he liked conventional playing and regular gigs and also free music. Derek Bailey of course—all these people started out that time. And then John Surman emerged and he was playing with Mike Westbrook. I am going to miss people out there. That's just for example.

Yes and Keith Tippett, he emerged slightly later than the rest, in about '69, but that's important. And South Africans: Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza—they were very important because they injected something totally different into the London scene. Reverting to my earlier words, that was another little camp. Never the less, people did interact a lot. We did gigs together, there wasn't segregation.

The thing we all had in common—we were all starting out in our early to mid-twenties, that age group. And the attitude was as I said earlier: "let's try and see what happens if we do this or that..."; to get unusual combination in that area. It was a very active thing.

The problem was in terms of exposure. In that period, the last half of the '60s, there was a very active rock scene. Because in Britain there was the emergence of... I am going to give them more publicity but I have to say this—The Beatles, the The Rolling Stones, The Who. Bands like that were emerging and they were quickly becoming international superstars. And all the music magazines and the music press were writing these guys up.



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