Mosaics: The Life and Works of Graham Collier

Duncan Heining By

Sign in to view read count
The following is an excerpt is from "Chapter 9: The Eighties or Graham Collier -The Wilderness Years" of Mosaics: The Life and Works of Graham Collier by Duncan Heining (Equinox Publishing, 2018). All Rights Reserved.

The late Graham Collier was a bandleader, a composer and a jazz educator. As far as this latter role was concerned he was arguably one of the most significant figures in jazz education, a point supported by the many awards he received in this respect.

AAJ writer Duncan Heining's detailed and insightful biography, Mosaics: The Life and Work of Graham Collier, succeeds in revealing and even celebrating the complexities of his subject. In many ways, Collier was an outsider in a 'music outside,' to use trumpeter-author Ian Carr's telling phrase. Collier emerges as a contradictory figure falling between several different camps. He was never an out-and-out musical, cultural or political radical but rather an individualist continually forced to confront the contradictions in his own position—a musical outsider working within a marginalised area of cultural activity; a gay man operating in a very male area of the music business and within heterosexist culture in general; a man of working class origins stepping outside traditionally prescribed class boundaries; and a musician-composer seeking individual solutions to collective problems of aesthetic and ethical value.

The edited extract that we publish here will hopefully reveal Collier's commitment to the music and to jazz education, as well as highlighting his often combative personality and frustrations with the music business and jazz press . It tells of Collier's involvement in the birth of Loose Tubes, one of the most intriguing and anarchic big bands to emerge in the 1980s, as well as discussing one of Collier's most important works, Hoarded Dreams (Cuneiform).

In his private life, Collier seems to have been very settled in this period. In 1980, he and John Gill had moved out of Earl's Court and bought a Victorian house in Shell Road in Lewisham. They entertained regularly and film director/producer David Cohen, who visited them at their home on several occasions in the 1990s, described it as a 'kind of slightly chaotic, comfortable, very middle-class home. They were always very hospitable.'

Collier and Gill were, by all accounts, very happy there and this was their home until 2000, when they moved to Ronda in Andalucía. In 1983, they began taking holidays on Paxos, Greece. There they made friends with another British citizen, who had a house on the island. When the friend died, they left Collier a half-share on the property, and for many years, Collier and Gill would spend at least a few weeks annually on Paxos.

Reading Collier's papers and talking to friends, one gets the impression that there was often a gap in Collier's emotional world between the private satisfactions of home and relationships and the public dissatisfactions of career. Some of this may be explained by the nature of the artistic life itself. To a degree, this could only be fully lived in the act of creativity—that is, writing or making music itself—or at least engaging with music in some other way, such as teaching. One does get the sense that Collier was a person who never quite relaxed, and perhaps it was at those times of inactivity, enforced or simply the result of circumstances, that the doubts crept in.

The feeling that somehow he was not receiving his due persisted for Collier and would even be amplified by changing fortunes in British jazz. In the 1980s, jazz in Britain saw a resurgence. Even major record labels such as Columbia, EMI (through the relaunched Blue Note imprint), Polygram and RCA suddenly began to take an interest in music that they had promoted so abysmally just a decade and a half earlier. Of course, the extent of that interest depended on who one was and how one looked, as much as the actual music. With the exception of veteran Stan Tracey, whose contract was briefly picked up by Blue Note, the musicians who signed on the line were young, good-looking and image-conscious, a situation that reflected similar happenings in the USA.

These labels were, of course, international companies and required sales not just in Britain but across Europe and in the USA as well. In the case of essentially North American concerns such as EMI/Capitol/Blue Note, Columbia and RCA, a further problem arose with British artists signed to these labels. They and their music did not travel to the USA—physically or metaphorically.

Whether in North America, Britain or mainland Europe, these young musicians looked good on album covers and in magazine features. They might, it was felt, be the kind of 'cats' that could turn the fortunes of the music around and finally lay claim to that chimera—a young audience for jazz. Andy Sheppard signed first to Island Records, along with Courtney Pine and the Jazz Warriors. Sheppard would later record for Blue Note but would find himself out of pocket on the deal (Heining 1998b). Trombonist Annie Whitehead recorded for Paladin, a Virgin records' subsidiary, and saxophonist Steve Williamson and trumpeter Guy Barker landed deals with Polygram. The other major big band of the time, Loose Tubes, a band midwifed by Graham Collier, were somewhat cannier. Their first two albums, Loose Tubes and Delightful Precipice, were released on their own imprint, before their final album of that period, Open Letter, came out on the independent EG Records.

That said, the lack of interest shown in those d'un certain âge, who did not wear sharp suits or look quite so hot on the cover of GQ magazine clearly rankled with Collier, as did a sense that he did not rank with others of his own age amongst jazz critics. For its April 1985 issue, The Wire celebrated British jazz and, though he featured in a short piece by Roger Cotterell (Cotterell 1985: 43), Collier's name did not make it onto the front cover alongside the names of Annie Whitehead, Harry Beckett, Mike Westbrook and John Surman. Interviewed by John Wickes a year later, it is evident this 'oversight' still hurt (Interview Collier/Wickes 1986).

This resurgence in British jazz fortunes coincided with an artificial, credit-driven boom in the economy during the period of the Thatcher government between 1987 and 1990. Neither the resurgence, nor the economic boom, which shattered with the recession of 1990, lasted. At the same time, looking back at the period, it is hard not to see the efforts of these major record companies and their executives as inept, firstly, in signing these artists and, secondly, dropping them as soon as the expected sales failed to materialize. For reasons that will become clear, Collier largely lost interest in making records after The Day of the Dead. His only release in the eighties was Something British Made in Hong Kong, which came out in 1988.

However, he was far from inactive during the decade. He toured, undertook commissions and began teaching at the Royal Academy of Music. Such opportunities came Collier's way because he pursued them, though perhaps the renewal of interest in jazz might also have opened a door or two. As we have said, inactivity was avoided like a curse. Collier's ability to negotiate with arts bodies continued to be a feature of his career. In 1982, he decided to form a rehearsal band for young musicians. As he later told John Wickes, he was aware that a number of experienced composers—not just himself but others such as Mike Westbrook—had music they had written but which was rarely performed. He saw this as a way of providing an opportunity to bring together players new to jazz and give them the opportunity to develop their skills as performers and writers through exposure to material that would stretch and challenge them. As he said in 2010,

"The band was formed using some money left over from an Arts Council grant as a rehearsal band for the young musicians, who I felt were being denied effective big band experience—for which, read 'NYJO.' Many young players didn't want to join because of the NYJO ethos of louder, higher, faster." (Interview Collier/Heining 2010).

Trumpeter Steve Waterman had taken part in the European Youth Jazz Orchestra workshops in London in 1981, where Collier had been one of the guest tutor-composers. Waterman suggests that it was this experience that made Collier realize that 'there were young musicians interested in the kind of music he was writing,' which encouraged him to set up the rehearsal band and in which Waterman was one of the regular participants. He added, 'It wasn't just Graham. He was bringing in other composers. I certainly remember Roger Dean coming in and working with us' (Interview Waterman/Heining 2014).

As Collier explained to John Wickes, '[I]t worked for about six months. Then suddenly it seemed to develop a life of its own' (Interview Collier/Wickes 1986). There was a parting of the ways that was at the time quite acrimonious. That rehearsal band, of course, became Loose Tubes. Quite what went awry is hard to say at this distance in time. Interviewed in 2010, when Loose Tubes' live album Dancing on Frith Street was released, both parties had mellowed somewhat in their take on events (Heining 2010). The immediate incident that caused the split seems to have been the band's failure to invite Collier to a gig they had set up. Collier saw this, with some justification, as a snub and one that smacked of ingratitude at the time and money he had invested in the band. However, this particular gathering of young players contained more than its share of strong-minded individuals—people such as Django Bates, Steve Berry, Eddie Parker, Chris Batchelor and Ashley Slater. Quite a few were already connected personally and musically. With hindsight, it was not a case of whether there would be a split between Collier and the band, but rather when. The signs were there once Django Bates and Steve Berry and others began bringing their own tunes to rehearsals, though Collier was certainly not opposed to this, as Steve Waterman, then a student at Trinity College, explained: 'Graham was very encouraging over allowing people to bring their own pieces in to rehearsals. I don't think he was particularly pushing his own music. He was trying to get everyone to contribute. It was more a collective with Graham being the figurehead pulling it together.'
About Graham Collier
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...


Jazz Near London
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.