Never Missing a Beat

REVIEW: 'On Jazz: A Personal Journey' by Alyn Shipton

June 19, 2022

The English bassist and broadcaster Alyn Shipton has spent his life in jazz. Some might consider that a life sentence. If so, Shipton deserves time off for good behavior. He has devoted himself not just to keeping jazz alive in Britain, which is an uphill endeavor of Everest proportions, but also to preserving the memories of its inventors, many of whom were on the downhill when he met them. His memoir, as its title suggests, is really two intertwined stories. Both are worth reading.

Reviewers are paired with books either because they know the subject, or they have an ax to grind. In the case of Shipton's On Jazz, I have both. I am a jazz musician, like my father and grandfather before me, and my brother beside me. As the black sheep of the family—they're all tenor saxophonists, while I play guitar—I have ground my ax into the ears of audiences from the Arctic Circle to the cellars of Paris and the dancehalls of San Francisco. So Alyn Shipton has my deepest sympathy—not the sympathy of pity, but the sympathy of fellow-feeling.

I get on well with religious fanatics, and fugitives from communes. We have so much in common. I grew up in what I now realize was an Old World cargo cult. Our hearth gods were American. We were raised on old music, we socialized with musicians and their children, who in turn went into the game. I was 8 years old when I first went to Ronnie Scott's, the club in London that my father had helped set up, and 22 when I first played there. Later, my brother ran it. I exchanged practicing and gigging for writing 20 years ago, but I consider myself to be a jazz musician on an especially long interval between sets.

If, as Walter Pater said, all art aspires to the condition of music, then there is no finer artistry than aspiring to play jazz. Jazz is hard work. The hours are long, the money is short, the road is endless, and so is the ignorance and hostility of the public. The only people who play it and pay to hear it do it for love, so there are not many of them. I understand why many people hate jazz in the way they loathe tax collectors and kiddy-fiddlers. Jazz is an ethical affront to the wisdom of crowds, which doesn't exist, and in this context means the public's right to pay their money and be flattered by banal crap, which is what most popular music is.

Born in 1953, Shipton grew up west of London. Like most hardened criminals, he began with harmless transgressions—Fats Waller 78s, experimenting with a double bass in the back rooms of pubs. He soon became addicted to Trad, the unrefined hard stuff from New Orleans, and by his mid-teens was hanging out and sitting in with notorious lifers like the trumpeter Ken Colyer, who had made the pilgrimage to New Orleans as a sailor in the merchant navy.

Almost all non-American jazz is imitative. This is not as humiliating as it sounds, because almost all American jazz is imitative too. The first distinctively British jazz of any note came in 1965, with the pianist Stan Tracey's jazz suite inspired by Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. The distinctively British part was not so much Tracey's playing, which was very much in the line of Thelonius Monk, but in harnessing jazz to Dylan Thomas’s verse. But the jazz life in England is, for all the effort of its practitioners, helplessly English:

"During his early years at sea in the merchant navy, Ken [Colyer] had learned many of Kipling's poems by heart and on our journeys back from the gig, after several gin and tonics, he would recite his favourites at length. He had a scheme to record them to his own guitar accompaniment, but this was thwarted because Kipling remained in copyright until 1986 and his literary estate was controlled by the National Trust. They refused to allow Ken to record what they feared would be 'skiffle' versions of the great man's poetry. This was a source of sadness to him."

George Melly, the most prominent Trad singer, performed like a transvestite Bessie Smith, and was also a connoisseur of Surrealist art. The only time I ever listened to Melly on headphones was his spoken-word audio guide to the Tate Museum's Surrealist show in the '80s. Melly was notorious for his party tricks, which included impersonating a dog by stripping naked, getting down on all fours, jamming his genitals between his legs, and woofing. His self-conscious artiness and degradation led to him being dubbed the "Oscar Wilde of British jazz," a title which flattered neither. There is no analogue to this in American jazz.

As a student at Oxford, Shipton commuted regularly to revivalist gigs in London. One night, lugging his bass along the canal on his way back to his digs in the small hours, he found himself "trapped on the towpath between a hostile swan, who thought I was attacking its nest, and a very drunk tramp, who decided I should give him all my money." He jabbed his double bass at the tramp—"he subsided with a groan into the undergrowth"—and made a run for it. The night life is full of dangers, but only in England do they include being pecked by an angry swan.

Jazz came and went in the lifespan of its first players. Shipton first visited New Orleans in 1976, when some of them were still alive and working. Hearing the 79-year-old trumpeter Kid Thomas play "Algiers Strut" was a "visceral shock." In England, the drummer in the Chris Barber Band played his kick drum "four-on-the-floor," on each beat of the bar; a precedent which, in the Trad tradition of imitation, became pervasive in Trad groups in Britain and northern Europe. But the New Orleans drummers, Shipton noticed, played "a relaxed two to the bar, sounding the bass drum on beats one and three."

Jazz is not so much about the notes, but about the rhythm. The more spacious kick drum of the New Orleans drummers made for a more swinging feel; combine that with the two-and-four backbeat, and you have the rhythm of funk and soul, as well as the simple barbarities of rock. It sounds simple, and on paper it is, but these are the trade secrets of a trade that cannot write down the fullness of its secrets. You have to earn them, and you have to learn how to play them just right, for swing is a matter of feel and physics. You cannot learn jazz in college, even if that is where many players now learn to play. You learn it in the arena, sweating it out in fear and joy, playing with better players and listening to every other player.

Jamming with the "stocky ex-prizefighter" Chester Jones, Shipton picks up a further refinement: "Chester liked to accent the final beat of the last two bars of a tune, which local players call the 'eighth beat' in a two-bar phrase. Followed by a thumping downbeat [the second beat] in the following bar, it was a brilliant way to create momentum and swing." You can hear the echoes of this kind of trick in the emphases of older and better rock drummers like Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts.

In New Orleans, Shipton studied the stylists of the double bass. The "slap players" use the "percussive snap of their gut strings against the fingerboard to add depth and drive": a technique that later defined rockabilly. The "hard-swinging players" used "more modern strings of nylon or metal and tended towards more of a four-four feel": the origins of the smoother style of Modern jazz. Shipton, drawn to the older styles, loved the "powerful rhythm section" of the clarinetist George Lewis's band in the 1950s. The bassist on those recordings, Slow Drag, had died in 1969, but Shipton discovered that Slow Drag's bass was languishing in a cupboard in Preservation Hall.

"Despite the instrument missing a string and having a rather warped bridge, I worked out that he had produced his slap sound by pulling the string directly away from the fingerboard and then releasing it. The 'action'—the height of the string above the lower end of the fingerboard—was about half an inch, allowing his right hand to catch the string from behind and pull it outwards. This explained why he often bound the ends of his fingers with adhesive tape, as this method is particularly tough on the skin."

This is the musical equivalent of notes on how the apprentices mixed the paints in Rembrandt's studio. The pianist Eubie Blake, then 89, was even older than the music: Blake had started out in African-American vaudeville and medicine shows. He dropped by Shipton's hotel after his set, demonstrated some tap-dance steps, and sat to the piano: "Hearing Eubie play his own pieces, including 'Charleston Rag,' 'I'm Just Wild About Harry' and 'Memories of You,' I sensed that however up-to-date his right-hand phrasing might have been, his left hand never entirely escaped the rather rigid timing of the 1890s. He was a living connection to African American piano music in the era just before jazz."

The bass player Ray Brown describes how he developed his telepathic understanding with Oscar Peterson. "It was sort of like a marriage. You meet a lot of girls and then meet one all of a sudden where something happens and you've been zapped, and you know this is the one." At their first night as a duo in a club in L.A., Peterson and Brown played to eight people. With first Barney Kessel and then Herb Ellis on guitar, they became one of the tightest and most ingenious trios in jazz. Peterson, meanwhile, was picking up tips on how to accompany singers from Hank Jones, the pianist in the Jazz At The Philharmonic house band.

The economics of British jazz being what they are, Americans usually visit in ones or twos, and are then backed by pickup groups of local players. Shipton became one of the regular players, and then a fixer of gigs and line-ups. I played this role a few times, backing soul singers like Bettye LaVette and Doris Troy. The education is more than musical. This is why jazz musicians call it "The Life": It is all-encompassing. The general public may prefer romantic tales of addiction and destruction—the Bop drummer Stan Levey describes how, when the train to California paused in the desert to take on water, Charlie Parker, who was suffering from heroin withdrawal, got down and set out into the desert in search of a fix—but musicians will always look for the laugh. Buck Clayton, who had played with Count Basie and Billie Holiday, shares one of the Basie band's milder diversions, "rug-spotting":

"Playing theatres and dances, and egged on by Lester Young who was one of the founders of the game, the band awarded one another points for identifying those in the audience who were wearing wigs or toupees. At the very smart London restaurant where we'd gone to celebrate publication [of Clayton's autobiography], Buck appeared to be having trouble reading the menu. The waiter kept leaning forward to help him and Buck later confessed that he'd hoped one of the ceiling fans would blow the man's toupee off onto the table."

Many of Shipton's affectionate snapshots show the pleasures of mutual exoticism. The clarinetist Willie Humphrey, in London with the Preservation Hall Band, enjoyed an evening of Irish folk music in the Empress of Russia pub in Clerkenwell. The pianist Mal Waldron is interviewed "in a noisy pub in the small Oxfordshire town of Abingdon," the legendary Bop drummer Roy Haynes, cut off from the BBC building by the police cordon set up after a terrorist bomb, is interviewed in the flat above the Pizza Express jazz club.

One of Haynes's most telling lines is that he and Bud Powell didn't much like the term "Bop." "It was just a new way of phrasing, maybe," he tells Shipton, "but I consider myself a swing player, then and now. Maybe that's what has kept me out here so long! 'Cos I can swing, in the real meaning of the word 'swing.' I'm an old-time swing drummer, with a modern touch." Shipton emphasizes similar continuities in the overlap of personnel and phrasing between Swing and Modern jazz, styles which, then and now, the critics tend to view as antagonistic.

George Russell, Shipton reports, began with the Swing saxophonist Benny Carter, then worked with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Hospitalized with TB in 1945-46, Russell wrote the modal section of "Cubana Be-Cubana Bop," which, recorded by Gillespie in 1947, was "one of the very first examples on disc of a jazz composition based on modes." Soon after leaving the hospital, Russell met Miles Davis, who would break new ground using modes with the Kind of Blue album in 1959. Russell, having described how he explained modal theory to Davis—"every chord has a scale"—then relates how he first heard Ornette Coleman, also in 1959. In a little more than a decade, the career of a single musician connects several styles.

The same can be said for Shipton. Apart from playing bass in bands from Trad to Classical and Free Jazz, Shipton has written 24 jazz biographies and an acclaimed history of the music. He also hosts a BBC program that cuts across the genres. Among the many things that were new to me in this book is the source of Sonny Rollins's "St. Thomas." The calypso is a popular tune from Rollins's mother's birthplace, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But, Rollins tells Shipton, it comes from further afield, in a typical crossing of styles and distances that, like jazz, makes the song more modern than it might sound:

"And let me say this, the Virgin Islands used to be possessed by Denmark. … Now there was a Danish folk tune called 'Vive la compagnie' that I heard in a movie one time sung by Lauritz Melchior. When I listened to that song, I thought, 'It's basically the same as "St. Thomas."' And I suspect the native population were listening to that song, 'Vive la compagnie,' and turned it into 'St. Thomas.'"

On Jazz: A Personal Journey
by Alyn Shipton
Cambridge University Press, 310 pp., $24.95

Dominic Green is a historian, a weekly columnist for the Washington Examiner, and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and New Criterion.