Being a theologically-conservative Seventh-Day Adventist and jazz musician has been the hardest thing I have ever experienced- the best and the worst aspect of my entire life journey. And before I get to John Taylor, I’m going to go back to the beginning.
Sometime in the 1990’s I switched on the TV just in time to witness a young British saxophonist called Courtney Pine, playing an instrument that up to then I had only ever seen in books – a soprano saxophone. I fell in love – head over heels.
The story of my Courtney-Pine inspired odyssey can be found here. This blog post is going in a different direction and is about a different instrument. I went to my local library and checked out every single Courtney Pine album that I could find. And one piano player jumped out at me: Julian Joseph.
Nothing was the same after that. And so I am one of those British jazz musicians who plays jazz because of British jazz musicians. Later on, I would get to know what was at that time the only SDA professional jazz musician – Norman Clarke. I still have memories of Norman casually playing Donna Lee in F# in his house one night upon request (he told me that he’d learned the tune in all twelve keys, and when I asked him to play it in F#, he did so without any hesitation whatsoever. [For the record, that is the highest level of integrity I’ve ever seen from any British Seventh-Day Adventist musician.]
But full-time music and Sabbath-keeping don’t go together well financially, so Norman chose another path. But I wanted to try, and so I did – and he’s part of the reason why.
Jason Rebello had so much more to offer than the one amazing solo on Summertime that made him an international name overnight. Kenny Kirkland himself – no less – described Jason Rebello as a ‘bad little cat’ in our first conversation; it’s hard to imagine higher praise from one jazz pianist to another. Jason knew things on more levels than most musicians, and he was the first jazz piano teacher to actually scare me. It’s taken me a long time to absorb some of the advice he gave me, but that’s another conversation, and I will always be grateful to him for telling me the truth.
But before Jason, I spent a little time with the late Michael Garrick, who was a much better teacher than some have understood. He was gentle with me. And now that he’s no longer with us, I occasionally look at some of the notes he wrote for me and remember. He helped me believe that I could do something.
I’ve never had a lesson with Julian Joseph, but he would definitely have kicked my behind in a similar way to Jason. He knew that I had language issues and told me as such, but Julian was the first person to talk about the actual sound that I got out of the piano. [And that touch and concept do indeed remain some of the strongest parts of my playing.] But I’ve been privileged to watch Julian play on many occasions, and it has ALWAYS been an education. I owe him and the family a great deal.
Keith Tippett must also be acknowledged – I did seven years straight at the Dartington International Summer School for six of those and his jazz course was my biggest reason for being there. His entire oeuvre has been under-rated for many years but it has been amazing to see the resurgence in his career. My first MA thesis was on his contribution to the European free-improvisation scene, and his support and encouragement of my (at times wildly-idiosyncratic) playing was massively important – at times, he would have been the only one who understood what I was trying to do as an improvising pianist.
I’m not sure how happy I feel about mentioning this, but I did have a few lessons with a jazz pianist and educator whom I regard extremely highly, but who saw the worst of me in that I was going through major life-crises when I was trying to learn from him, and as such, I was a quite terrible student. History would have been very different if I’d been disciplined enough to learn from him for long enough to get good. His name: Pete Churchill.
And how could I leave out Robert Mitchell, who taught and mentored me in a most unconventional way when I was at Kingston University (where I was also encouraged by Charlie Beale, who should be mentioned in the interests of fairness and integrity because he also offered wisdom and insight that has remained with me) and with whom I’ve been privileged to share solo piano events with, and whose music I’ve appreciated in so many ways?! Robert did one concert on January 5th, 2005 that may have been the biggest reason for me to not give up piano playing for good – that was the day when I realised, listening to him playing, how much this music meant to me, and how much I wanted to still play.
Some wonderful musicians are named above and yet, the jazz pianist that I would most like to emulate is John Taylor – with whom I had the privilege of being mentored for a number of very intense sessions back in 2011. It is amazing what one realises in hindsight. Even as I write this blog post, I realise that all my experiences prior to spending time with John helped me to understand what he had to offer me. John offered support and criticism in ways that related to that which I had received from others, but was also qualitatively different. He was both confused and respectful of my religious approach to this music, and offered some warnings which have been proven to be more accurate than I could ever have imagined. But this was not to dissuade me against my faith. It was to make me REALLY think about the enormity of the challenge that sacred jazz was going to pose to me – and up until then, I had not faced some of those questions.
John questioned EVERYTHING.
It was humbling. It was terrifying.
And then, one day, he picked up one of my own arrangements and sat down to show me something that I wish I had recorded, but maybe it was not something to be recorded. It was a bonding moment – he played my own harmony and rhythms, and then did a cascading solo that burned a hole in my heart and mind – THAT was what I wanted to achieve, and the only two people who heard it were me, him and the wildlife outside the window of his home in Kent…
My life changed, right there.
But then we both knew that I was aspiring to something that was very, very far beyond my natural resources. And he told me stories and explained certain things about his career – about the influence of Kenny Wheeler on his work – and he showed me mind-boggling things that literally hurt my head to kingdom come and back. The sheer level of intellect that man possessed was surpassed by his non-religious spirituality. He was very strongly opposed to religion, so to have a mentee who wanted to play ‘sacred jazz’ was not going to be an easy experience. But it was the best experience.
*sidelight:* One of the best memories of my late sister was when I persuaded her to come with me to his solo gig at the old Vortex in 2002. Jazz was one the biggest things that she and I shared away from our parents, who had been raised to see jazz as the devil’s music and found it incredibly hard that their only son had become a jazz musician. She had originally seen things the same way, but as time passed, she had understood things differently. That night, John was monumentally inspired. As she said afterwards, “he was so good it was actually shocking…”
At the end of our time together, John gave me some stern advice before telling me in no uncertain terms how much he believed in me. That has meant more to me than I can say. John knew that the forms of contemporary sacred music in the form of gospel and CCM would not be enough for the level of jazz artistry that I aspired towards, and four years later I know he was right. I will have to find new language and new understanding to write what is deep in my heart, but his music and that of Kenny Wheeler now needs to become even more of a priority for me as I seek to make sense out of how I am going to find my best level of improvising piano that combines the visceral power of my free-improv inclinations, the spiritual weight and force of my gospel concept, the multifarious assimilations of my understanding of modern jazz along with the world and folk traditions in my head and fingers to find something that is going to be several years in the making.
I had hoped to make him proud, but he won’t be here. However, the best thing I can do is honour his memory, and I am DETERMINED to do this – and to the glory of the God in whom I believe. Artists like him are exceptionally rare, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to be touched by his life.