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Presenting Problem

Duncan Heining By

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Perhaps the greatest mystery to me is why jazz musicians do not engage more actively with contemporary dance. Back in the early seventies, both saxophonist Bob Downes and the saxophone trio SOS (John Surman, Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore) worked with the dancer-choreographer Carolyn Carlson at the Paris Opera Ballet. In fact, Downes has worked extensively with a number of dance companies. Colin Towns is another who has worked with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, including on the commission for The Orpheus Suite. We saw it at Sadler's Wells and it was astonishing. In all these examples, jazz was an equal not a junior partner.

Finally, what of jazz and poetry? It is true that the combining of spoken word and music is not an easy process to master. For reasons that relate to our animal origins, we tend to privilege the human voice over musical sounds when these are used either as lyrics or poetry. This means that artists wishing to work with jazz and poetry must be able to respect the requirements and value bases of both mediums.

It is true that there have been some awkward juxtapositions of spoken word and jazz. Despite the quality and ambition of much of his other work, Graham Collier's The Day of The Dead (based on Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano) falls short in both the musical and spoken word departments. While Jack Kerouac's recordings with Steve Allen combine attention-seeking prose-poetry with polite cocktail jazz piano, his recordings with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims are more successful. However, both Langston Hughes and Kenneth Rexroth worked with jazz musicians as far back as the 1920s. Hughes' sides with a group organised by Leonard Feather and another with Charles Mingus are fine examples of jazz meets poetry. The same can be said of Rexroth's work, most notably Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk. Kenneth Patchen was another poet whose sense of jazz rhythms combined well with music on a number of LPs. And what of Tom Waits, Gil Scott-Heron, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez and the Last Poets?

In the UK, Michael Garrick worked extensively in the 1960s with poet Jeremy Robson and a number of poets including Adrian Mitchell, Spike Milligan, Danny Abse and Laurie Lee. With the exception of Robson, few of the poets read with music and the format was essentially that of a review. Despite this limitation, Garrick and Robson's venture accounted for some three hundred concerts between 1964-1969. Michael Horovitz and Pete Brown, on the other hand, offered one of the most remarkable and effective combinations of poetry with jazz with the The Live New Departures Jazz Poetry Septet band, featuring pianist Stan Tracey, saxophonist Bobby Wellins, bassist Jeff Clyne and Laurie Morgan on drums. More recently, Colin Riley and his Handmade Moments give a fine example of how well the two art forms can come together in the group's work (importantly, aimed at younger audiences) with peace activist and the one-time Children's Laureate Michael Rosen on You Tube.

And I haven't even mentioned the possibilities of jazz and theatre or jazz and film. My point is that such cross-genre collaborations can be healthy and stimulating artistically and offer the potential to open up new audiences without compromise or waiting for yet another, all-too-brief resurgence of fortunes for jazz. Jazz is a music that relies on experimentation. All too often any discussion of how best to present the music ends up trivialising it and the audience. It does not have to be that way. It can be done with integrity and still reach out to those, who have yet to unlock its mysteries.

Painting by Jane Davies

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