Black magic: Gilles Peterson on the enduring appeal of 1960s Afro-centric jazz

They were Afro-centric, space-travelling musical pioneers of far-out 1960s America. He was a DJ with a bongo habit in 1980s London. Gilles Peterson tells Nick Coleman how he fell for the art, sound and heroes of radical jazz
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New arrivals from Saturn will be wondering why anyone here bothers with jazz. "What's all the fuss about?" they'll say, looking at jazz in the 21st century, its conservatory-trained orthodoxies and its faintly glamorous yet profoundly recessive position among Earth's cultural industries. "We can't see why you ever bothered."

Saturnians are noted for their gloomy, saturnine dispositions, so they will not be surprised when it is explained to them that the chief purpose of jazz in the 21st century is to remind Earthlings of a time when things were better. Earth's spokesman will then have the devil of a job explaining to our new guests quite where Freedom Rhythm & Sound fits into the picture. "Ah, yes," he'll find himself mumbling, "but it's complicated. Here on Earth, 'better' should only ever be taken as relative."

Freedom Rhythm & Sound is the title of a handsome new large-format book put together by the DJ/broadcaster Gilles Peterson and the proprietor of the hipsterish Soul Jazz record label, Stuart Baker. Its subtitle is "Revolutionary Jazz Original Cover Art 1965-83". Anyone shaking off the intergalactic dust will be forgiven for wondering just how the word "revolutionary" came to sit next to a word which, more often than not, these days, serves as an excuse to introduce the words "shiny shoes" and "Michael Parkinson". They should buy the book.

Here's the back story: in the mid-1960s, the social and artistic certainties which had served to hold together "modern jazz" as an idea began to fragment, for a number of reasons. For a start, the modern-jazz idea had been around for 20 years, since Charlie Parker's wartime be-bop reformation, and now it was a little tired. Second, modern jazz had achieved the status of "high art" and was subject to the same economic and cultural pressures as literature, painting and drama.

The third factor was history itself: this was the middle of the 1960s and the civil-rights struggle was at the top of every right-thinking American's agenda. Fourth, and perhaps most perniciously from the jazz-musician perspective, rock was the new game in town: serious rock now aspired to the status of art too, and an awful lot more people were prepared to buy into the Beatles, Dylan and Hendrix than into Hank Mobley. By 1965, the major record labels were already beginning to lose interest in jazz.

Jazz's response was to pull in a variety of directions. It is necessary to generalise a little more here. Smart, worldly, high-art jazzers such as Miles Davis stood on their principles as commercially viable artists and embraced the coming of rock as a part of jazz's necessary modernisation process. They retained their major-label deals and set sail for modernism's materialistic new world: electronics, funk, personal autonomy, interesting trousers. Equally principled but less commercially engaged were those jazzers prepared to follow the modern-jazz argument to its harshest logical conclusion: "free jazz", with all its spiritual ancilliaries and political implications – the door unlocked by John Coltrane, then kicked open by Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp et al.

Then there was the space which opened up as a result of that polarisation. This is the space that will especially interest our friends from Saturn, not least because it was the void first colonised by Sun Ra and his Arkestra, the only band leader in history to insist that he came from the planet Saturn and to bring with him an entire theosophical belief system explaining the black man's place in the universe. It is certainly the space which interests the editors of Freedom Rhythm & Sound: you might call it the realm of radical jazz art.

Afro-centrism, Egyptology, space travel, home-made graphics, independent production methods, minuscule print-runs: hardcore black self-determinism supported by a withering DIY ethos – all were tokens of a renunciation of the political and economic status quo and its sexy handmaiden, the music industry. The unflinching Afro-centric jazz of the late 1960s proposed a new start for black American culture. The music was not so much the soundtrack to the radical black politics of the period – from the civil-rights movement to the Panthers and beyond – as a continuation of those politics by other means. English white people now into their middle years will be reminded of something from their own past: isn't this all just a little bit like... well, like punk?

Maybe. But only a bit. Both Baker and Peterson are English white people staring down the barrel of their middle years, and although the former certainly did do the punk thing at the time, Peterson belonged in the early 1980s to the "casual" soul-boy confraternity, before going on to become our most prominent representative of the jazz way of being young and hip. Both are hardcore record collectors and dogged explorers of the more arresting nooks and crannies of jazz's recent history.

Peterson tells a story about the evening he first came to realise what he was dealing with. It was in the early days of his Radio London jazz programme in 1987. "I got a phone call from security HQ. I was on the air at the time and they told me there was a man on the phone who'd told them that unless I spoke to him, he was going to plant a bomb in Marble Arch."

The would-be bomber turned out to be Jalal Nuriddin from The Last Poets, the radical "jazzoetical" group of the early 1970s credited with laying much of the groundwork for rap. Nuriddin had been travelling in a London taxi and heard the Poets' "It's a Trip" issuing from the radio. This was unexpected, to say the least. He immediately rang the BBC and, "There I was," says Peterson, "live on air, talking to one of the proper radical, black, hardcore, pre-Chuck D players. Which was weird. I had no idea about 'blackness' in the intellectual sense; I didn't know how to talk about these things. I'd just heard 'It's a Trip' and thought it was a wicked track I could play."

Peterson's passion and curiosity are as undammed as they were 25 years ago. He doesn't talk about the imagery in Freedom Rhythm & Sound as an academic might – as an interesting anthropological phenomenon – but as an enthusiast who gets the vibe. He digs the imagery and the ethos and is entirely aware of the awkwardness of his own position in relation to the world that gave rise to the art.

"I got away with it at the time as I was totally naive," he says, referring to the Nuriddin episode. "We were just a bunch of kids playing bongos and reading poetry in the studio, imagining we were living in 1968. Jalal was rather charmed by it, I think. But it was easy to annoy other people who knew more about the subject than we did, I can see that..."

The material in the book comes exclusively from his and Baker's ludicrously extensive private collections. Baker wrote the introductory essay, which perhaps ought to go down as a definitive account-in-brief of a complex passage of cultural upheaval – and its conclusion at the start of the 1980s, as new tastes, technologies and attitudes left precious little room for a sensibility that had become as tired as modern jazz had been in 1965. The subsequent text also imparts plenty of wisdom about the artists involved, from the drummer Steve Reid, who designed some of the most graphically sophisticated covers in the book (his Odyssey of the Oblong Square is a period classic), to Herman "Sonny" Blount, Sun Ra himself, whose hand-painted record covers remain compulsively sought-after – and whose music is as challenging yet wonderfully agreeable to the 21st-century ear as ever it was.

Does Peterson himself have a favourite? "No. But the cover I was most delighted to discover, the day before we handed the book in, was Coltrane's Cosmic Music."

We turn to it in the book. It's a monochrome hash of badly spaced faux-medieval Letraset mounted on what appears to be textured wallpaper, said to have been produced "from an original sketch by John Coltrane" a year after his death. The music it contains is late-period 'Trane, recorded in 1966 as an exploration of the outer limits of jazz language, but not made available at the time to his record company, Impulse. The album was later released by, and co-credited to, Coltrane's wife, Alice.

"That day, I'd gone to see a record-dealer friend of mine, Jazzman Gerald," says Peterson. "He has a warehouse in Ladbroke Grove. He has great ears and he buys good stuff. You have to pay good money. Well, I was buying some stuff off him and I was about to leave and I looked up and there was this Coltrane record I'd never seen before on the wall. Gerald said, 'Didn't you know about the two independent records Coltrane put out in the 1960s when he had a bit of an argument with Impulse?' And I had to confess that I didn't. But there it was, up on the wall.

"I thought, it's everything this book is all about. It's 'Trane, it's independent; the inner sleeve's even got pyramids on it. I've got to have it. Gerald said, 'I'll see if I've got another copy' and went next door and, sure enough, he had another. And he let me have the better-quality one for about £60." Peterson's eyes widen. "Which has got to be good value."

The inveterate record collector's gaze travels over the image in the book, registering quiet satisfaction. "It was meant to be," he says.

'Freedom Rhythm & Sound', by Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker, is out now (Soul Jazz, £20)