I'm quite often asked how and when I cultivated my obsession with sixties jazz. I'm equally often asked why I did, and how come nobody staged an intervention. Well, as bewildering as it might sound, it all started with an album called Music From BBC Children's Programmes.
Technically, and notably less bewilderingly, it actually started when I was trying to find a copy of that particular album. For reasons that we'll be going into over the next couple of posts - and believe me, we'll be going into them alright - I had become ever so slightly fixated on finding a copy. The only problem, albeit something of a serious one, was that this apparent Noah And Nelly In The Skylark Of The Covenant wasn't exactly easy to track down. BBC Records And Tapes had deleted it from their catalogue many years beforehand, so simply walking into a shop and buying it was out. It wasn't really the sort of thing that second hand record shops bothered touching with a bargepole at that point either, so simply walking into a second hand record shop and buying it was out as well.
The only hope, it seemed, was endless rooting around in charity shops. But these were the days before fund-raising joints wised up to the financial potential of a copy of Bringing It All Back Home with a huge coffee mug ring on the cover, and all 'Long Players' tended to be flung haphazardly into the sort of shabby corner-shoved cardboard box that required anyone who'd been within ten feet of it to be treated for trichodermic mould inhalation. And even if you had managed to circumnavigate the weird characters standing at awkward angles whilst perusing the same Decca Stereo Sampler tracklisting for hours on end and got to flip through the contents, whilst carefully avoiding the urge to punch Mario Lanza in his irritatingly recurring cardboard face, there was no guarantee that you'd actually find an album that hadn't been smeared with peanut butter and used as a makeshift trouser press by its previous one careful owner. What you did sometimes find, though, in amongst the miles upon miles of James Last, Bert Kaempfert, Ray Conniff, Johnny Mann, Nina And Frederik, Nana Mouskouri, Johnny Mathis, Manuel And His Music Of The Mountains, Mario Lanza, Mario Lanza, Mario Lanza and Mario Lanza, was an unusually high proportion of sixties jazz records. Presumably the genre afficionados hadn't quite got around to appreciating the merits of vibe-heavy breathy-lady-voiced Modern Jazz with world music inflections and touches of sitar-and-backward-tape experimentalness yet, because this stuff really did just used to sit there untouched, with the intriguing-looking tinted sleeves and elongated typefaces seeming to become more and more appealing as Barnaby's Heavy Concept Album seemed to become more and more elusive. After a while, it seemed churlish not to give a couple a try.
This was, it turned out, an entry into a very different sort of secret world to the quasi-psychedelic retro-heavy nirvana seemingly and tantalisingly promised by Music From BBC Children's Programmes. It was similar how you'd always thought jazz sounded as a youngster - albeit in the mould of those piano-syncopating characters that showed up in the middle of chat shows, rather than stripy-blazered 'ragtime' loons like those planks who did the music for Harold Lloyd's World Of Comedy and indeed exhorted us all to "laugh a while", "dig that style" and surrender to the comic value of "a pair of glasses and a smile" - but spiralling off in all manner of unexpected directions, with vibraphones and electric organs to the fore and full of smooth instrumental textures, modal chord changes and wild improvisation that evoked some lost Beatle-John-Lennon-Meets-Dalek-era world of arty sophisticates slipping into hip modernist joints serving terrifyingly strong coffee. Even beyond the expected likes of Georgie Fame, Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Dankworth And Cleo Laine and Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger And The Trinity, and half-familiar names like Mike Westbrook and Michael Garrick, there was a whole alternate musical universe of just-out-of-view sounds to explore. There was Blossom Dearie, who sounded on her That's Just The Way I Want To Be album at least like some hip Kohl-eyed psychedelian that the cover photo confirmed she was most definitely not. There was the entertainingly-named Tubby Hayes, whose frantic impressionistic 'sound pictures' seemed almost too fast for the vinyl to keep up with. There was The London Jazz Four, whose underappreciated Take A New Look At The Beatles succeeded in making even the overfamiliar likes of Michelle and I Feel Fine sound like totally fresh compositions. More exotically, there were the bossanova-toting likes of Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, and the deeply hallucinogenic raga experiments of Wolfgang Dauner, The Dave Pike Set and, of course, The Joe Harriott And John Mayer Double Quintet.
All very exciting, but in the words of another charity shop find from around the same time, "nice though this be, I seek yet further kicks". And where soft drugs and soft porn lead some on to harder drugs and harder porn, the hapless jazz addict will find themselves drawn towards ever lengthier and more abstract ventures until they arrive at that point of no musical return - 'free jazz'. No, this doesn't have anything to do with Jools Holland And His Boogie Woogie Big Brigade playing for the benefit of non-paying passers by. It's a style of jazz where improvisation takes precedence over melody and structure, and the players dispense with such trivialities as chord sequences and tempo and literally 'play how they feel'. It's complex, it's challenging, it's intellectual and it gives you an air of depth and sophistication. The only problem is that a good deal of it is basically an unlistenable racket. And yet even that sounds like Mantovani covering Take That's most commercial single next to the... well, you can't really call it 'music' of a certain band responsible for a certain album with a certain yellow lorry on the cover.
You may struggle to pick out a discernible tune in the wilder works of Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus, but AMM pretty much dispensed with the whole notion of a 'tune' altogether. This fluid collective were regulars on London's mid-sixties 'psychedelic underground' circuit, where they donned lab coats and turned the scoffing that free jazz was 'just noise' to their advantage, recruiting someone to 'play' the transistor radio alongside conventional instruments and doing away with anything resembling riffs or melody to concentrate on creating evocative soundscapes with names like Later During A Flaming Riviera Sunset and After Rapidly Circling The Plaza. Yes, there are moments when the screeching and scraping can all get a bit too much. Yes, there are moments when it sounds like a BBC Sound Effects One Hundred Best Parking Buses With Knackered Brakes album has been dropped on the floor and smashed and then haphazardly glued back together. And yes, there are moments that can only be described as sounding like a goose, browbeaten and exhausted by the relentless cacophony, is weakly pleading to be allowed out of the room. But if you're in the right mood, it can be quite an entertaining listen. Although it's not exactly one to break out as 'mood music' for a first date.
Free Jazz - it may be 'clever', but it's not big. And what's more, as the spectre-at-the-feast that was Derek Griffiths yelling "doo dk'n dk'n doo da dooda dadooda, do do do do do d'doooo!" kept naggingly reminding me, it was an improvisation too far from the real musical holy grail; as indeed the above overlong and overcomplex write-how-you-feel free-form shenanigans have been from the point that I'm supposed to be getting to. As Sun Ra And His Arkestra jetted off further into some kind of sax-wailing cosmos, Bod And His Friends were wandering into a horizonless green void. And I was somewhere in the middle, still rifling through those hazardous cardboard boxes in search of Music From BBC Children's Programmes.
Top Of The Box, The Complete Guide To BBC Records And Tapes Singles, is available as a paperback here or an eBook here; a sequel covering the albums is coming soon! And as a special bonus treat, here's myself and Ben Baker talking about Take A New Look At The Beatles: