Edinburgh Festival / Day 4: Having a grand old time of it: At his masterclass, Jools Holland takes things in his stride. Not to mention his boogie woogie

Click to follow
It's a little-known fact about Jools Holland that he comes from a musical dynasty. There was his grandmother, who had an old player-piano in her front-room (a wedding present from her mother). There was his uncle - Uncle David, actually - who played the bass in an R & B band but had mastered the St Louis Blues on the keyboards. And there was his Aunt Eileen who, frankly, taught him all he knows. 'She played the stride piano with that oompah, oompah, oompah rhythm, only she'd keep her left hand in the same place all the time. And she'd leave the sustaining pedal on all the time, so that it sounded like this . . . ' Jools Holland, on stage at the Assembly Rooms, clanked up and down the gleaming black Bosendorfer grand to stunned silence. 'She was,' he continued proudly, 'probably the worst pianist in the world.'

Jools Holland has been coming to Edinburgh since 1983, when Rik Mayall accosted him on The Tube and said, ' 'You must come up, sleep on my floor, you'll love it, it'll be fine' and it wasn't fine, it was disorganised and uncomfortable and I had a great time.' But this is the first year he's allowed himself to become so personal. On somebody's whim - probably not his own by his air of bemusement - he's presenting a midday masterclass, 'a guide to the piano, or rather to the styles and sounds and people that influenced me . . . how I learnt the piano and didn't fight in the war.'

But mornings are not really Jools's thing: he's a late-night man, a creature of smoke- filled clubs and television after hours. His manager, greeting the intimately seated group of spectators with his breakfast still inside him, was clearly slightly fazed: 'HELLO EDINBURGH,' he hollered over their heads. Jools, though, sloping on in a pair of shabby cords and a dressing-up-box dinner-jacket with piano keys running down the lapels, had it gauged about right. 'I think this is the earliest I've ever got to a piano,' he said with a lopsided smile, 'which is rather exciting really.' Backstage afterwards, he confessed to having devised his talk in the car on the way to the venue ('I'm dreadful, I always do everything at the last minute') and to having felt unusually nervous. 'With Squeeze I didn't get very nervous; there were a lot of you together - if one of you fainted it didn't really matter. Same with my band, but with this thing if you pause or stop there's nobody else . . . ' But you never would have guessed.

For an hour he wandered, in that casually charming, raffishly relaxed way of his, through stride and boogie woogie, New Orleans, R & B, Auntie Eileen, stopping off to elaborate on certain pianists' physical mannerisms - Thelonious Monk stooped, Jerry Lee Lewis kicked, Count Basie walked, Fats Domino moved the piano across the stage with his legs ('once he pushed it off the edge altogether, he was left with nothing - absolutely true'), and Duke Ellington 'had this thing which I'm beginning to have - his trouser legs would always be too short, there'd always be this expanse of shin showing above very dated silk socks.' And along the way, accompanied by ex-Squeeze drummer Gilson Lavis, he'd pause to demonstrate, a slightly hunched figure, head nodding, fingers racing over each other.

In the dressing-room, over coffee with a quarter of a teaspoon of sugar, he suddenly remembered another avant-garde pianist: 'Cecil Taylor] I'll do that tomorrow, that'll give me an opportunity to hit the piano with my fists a bit. And Ray Cooper] Have you ever seen Ray Cooper, the percussionist? He does a thing with a piano. Steinway arrive and say, 'we'll just tune it' and he says, 'no need'. Another sort of pianist, you see . . .'

Any other additions to the following day's performance will have to wait until the car journey home. In the meantime, his mind's darting to his concerts at the Queen's Hall later in the week, to the live albums he and his band will record there, even to some engagements later in the year. On the back of his hand are some letters in biro. 'Ah, yes, HYNDE, that says. I drew up alongside a car today and the guy was playing the Pretenders and I thought Chrissie Hynde] Hey] She'd be a good person to sing with a big band because she doesn't do that. We're doing a special on television in September and I heard her playing and I thought 'Yes'.'

There is a further performance of the 'Jools Holland Masterclass' today, at 12.30pm, at the Assembly Rooms, 54 George St (031-226 2428). Jools Holland and his Big Band are at Queen's Hall, Clerk St (031-668 2019) 19-25 Aug, 7.30pm; 26-28 Aug, 10.30pm

(Photograph omitted)