Boogie-woogie man

Jools Holland is Mr Cool. Even on the naffest night of the year, says Ann Treneman.
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In his passport, Jools Holland lists his profession as "expert" and this begs an obvious question. "Yes, well, I find that keeps it nice and open," he says. "Actually, I was hoping that someone would notice and congratulate me. I thought I might get treated specially. You know, `Oh yes, he's an expert!''' But what about the obvious question? "Well, then I can make something up. Piano, I suppose." Interviewing people? "Hmmm, yes. And ambience. Bar ambience. Yes, that's it!"

One of the world's great boogie-woogie pianists and Britain's coolest television presenter seems quietly pleased with this answer and I cannot help but note that Jools Holland is a man who has mislaid his ego. Where could it be? Outside in his Bentley? Up the sleeve of his rather crumpled black jumper? Back home in Greenwich? Next door in the BBC studio where he and his 23-member big band have been rehearsing for his New Year's Eve Hootenanny programme? It cannot possibly be inside his Yamaha piano because nothing could have survived the pounding he gave it a minute ago.

I notify Holland of the missing object and he smiles. "Thank you very much. Kind of you to say so." Yes, this really is the way he talks and it can get even more painfully old-fashioned. He and John Major - both south-London boys - may be the only two people in Britain who still use phrases that were otherwise last heard in classes to teach English to the colonials. These include sayings like "as fortune smiles upon us". Holland doesn't say disco but "discotheque". At one point, he says that the audience can "kiss or cuddle someone in an appropriate manner". Earlier, he explains that, when not on tour, he and the members of his big band "aren't round at each other's houses borrowing a cup of sugar all the time".

Never mind that no one these days trades in confectionery with the neighbours - much less saxophonists and ska trombonists - this is the way things are on Planet Holland. "He's a lovely guy," says one of the Hootenanny crew. "Great musician. Lives on his own planet, of course." He stops and thinks. "But I'm sure it is a very nice planet." And nice is a good, Jools Holland sort of word, because this is a man whose glass is not so much half-full as running over.

"This is a week of weeks for the treat of treats," he exclaims when we meet. "It is a week of excitements in a year of excitements!" Treats include recording with BB King and Dr John; excitements take in touring with his big band and their new album, Lift the Lid. The week of weeks entails recording the Hootenanny (with King again) and two dates at the Albert Hall. Plus, it was a friend's birthday the night before and there had been rather a lot of "spag boll and cake".

His dressing room is tiny but has just enough room for what Holland calls a "convenience piano". We eat take-away sushi and then he produces a small camera to take our picture, complete with empty food containers. "I'm recording every meal this week," he says as the camera whirs. On television, Holland looks slick in his old-fashioned black suit and slippery hair, but, in person, he is rumpled and his hair even more so, with serial cowlicks sending it flying in a dozen directions.

He is going to be 40 in January and has enough street cred to look tired enough to be it. He is charming and wry, but, occasionally, just gives up on these cumbersome things called words and turns to the "convenience". Then his music really does do the talking - and how. The key, evidently, is to do with the left hand. "I didn't think anybody young could play like that," says BB King. "He's got that left hand that never stops. When the likes of Pete Johnson died, I wondered if I'd ever see that kind of playing again."

I look at 72-year-old King - who is, says Holland, the undisputed king of the blues - and see that he is taking a BBC sandwich out of its plastic flip-top container. His room is next to Holland and has no piano, but his legendary guitar, Lucille, stands in the corner. They have come to London to pre-record the Hootenanny with the big band, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Blur, Jewel, and the Fun-Lovin' Criminals. The next stop is the Vatican where Holland will be playing the Paul VI room for the Pope himself. "You know Jools is just a real nice person," says BB King. "You'd never know he was so great until he plays."

This kind of talk will thrill Holland, or at least I think it will. Just before the Hootenanny recording is to begin, I ask producer Mark Cooper if Holland is getting excited. "I don't think I've ever seen Jools get excited," says Cooper, "but I'm sure in his heart he is." Nor, it seems, has Cooper ever seen Holland get angry. This is amazing considering they have worked together for five years' worth of Hootenannies and more than 10 series of their BBC2 programme, Later. That's a lot of extra takes, late nights and recalcitrant guests. Can it really be true? "Yeah, I think that is the case," says Holland. "I don't find anything is ever gained by getting shouty or anything. You know the only thing that really gets me cross is packaging. If I get a cassette and cannot open it, I will throw it and start smashing it up with a hammer. But that is the only thing that makes me angry in a physical way."

OK, but what about the other guests? Surely some of them must have thrown a temper tantrum or two? "I just never notice things. I never notice if someone has a big ego," he says. "I never notice if people are gay or anything like that. I mean, I literally don't notice. It always comes as a surprise when someone tells me. I like to keep my eye on the idea of what we are trying to do - which is communicate music - and, by and large, people try and do that. Besides, if I ever do encounter problems like that, I immediately walk off and have a cup of tea and let somebody else sort it out."

So has anyone ever been really out of it on the show? Jools looks at me in a puzzled sort of way. "I never noticed that anyone was too incapacitated to play." It is only then that I truly digest the fact that here is a man who gets to interview some of the biggest rock stars in the world and only cares about music. "It's because it's the BBC that we are allowed to just talk about the music. You know it just might be of interest to people rather than talking about their new trousers or something." In our Hello! and tabloid age, this must be heresy. (Holland, by the way, is wearing crumpled Lee jeans.) He does not like to talk about his own private life - he is married to his second wife and has three children - and isn't interested in anyone else's either. His favourite question recently seems to be about what people do to pass the time when they are touring. Jay Kay from Jamiroquai says he filled his hotel room with the smoke of the "wagga wagga plant", Bjork makes food on a Primus stove. Holland tells me that you have to do something or you can go crazy like Johnny Cash did when he painted everything in his room - curtains, bedding, walls - yellow.

I ask what he and the big band do and he perks up. This is his kind of question. "We create an ambience! It doesn't matter if you stay in an expensive hotel or not, the atmosphere in the bar can be gloomy. But we can change that it moments. We've got a few joss sticks, we take in a little sound system and start playing some ska music or some blues and we make the lights go down. There are quite a lot of us and we do manage to switch the ambience wherever we go into a sort of brown, candle-lit smoky bar." What, like a night-club? "Our ambience is like our own version of a glamorous night-club. That would be sort of a 1957 drinking club, I think."

This idea of updating something from the past is something Jools Holland really is an expert at. That is the key to his music, and perhaps his life. He talks about a good pub as a place where there is a family and a tradition of people of all ages coming in. "That's the way it should be and there is humour and all of that. I think modern big corporatism is not for me. I find that a bit boring, really. I prefer characters." This idea - which a man who hadn't mislaid his ego might even call a philosophy - extends to his oldish suits, his oldish cars, his office that is designed to look like a train station. But he also wears jeans and drives a Mercedes.

This ability to link past and present applies to the Hootenanny, too. After all, the very idea of providing New Year's Eve entertainment for the masses teeters dangerously close to naff. But, somehow, despite the clock countdown, the whole thing comes off as a rather cool party. How does he do it? The elliptical answer is that he doesn't like the idea of jumping around in the frozen fountains of Trafalgar Square but something quieter with friends and, yes, ambience. "I tell you why this is so good: because it means that we do something here and, in turn, everyone who has a television licence can come to the party. That's a thrill, doing that."

For Holland, however, the real thrill lies in the music. "I am always thinking, how can I make what we are playing more exciting? That's mostly the reason I do it. The excitement that I got when I was a child and heard a record like `I'm Down' by the Beatles or by Little Richard. I want to get that excitement again and then be able to communicate it to others." He first heard boogie-woogie played by his Uncle David when he was a kid. "I just spent hours and hours sitting at the piano trying to make that noise and I think that is what most people who are successful musicians do. They hear a thing as a child and try to make that sound." But did he have an ear? "That is something you develop. You get an ear because you want to do it so much that you want to play all the time."

Holland still spends his time playing - or listening. "I listen to Chuck Berry the way someone studying Mozart would listen to a classical pianist. You study exactly what they are doing and work out how you can interpret it and then connect with people."

He's always been this way and left school at 15 to play in pubs for a pittance plus a pint or two and some adoration on the side. He had some hits with the band Squeeze and also presented The Tube on television. It is great fun to watch him and Paula Yates now on The Best of The Tube and to catch snippets such as when Yates is gushing about how great George Michael was when he first appeared. "Do you remember? He was wearing those little shorts. Fantastic! Fantastic!" she exclaims. "No," says Holland, sounding bewildered. "I don't remember him being on the show at all." In the end, Holland achieved some sort of infamy by getting kicked off the show for saying "fucker". That was 1987, but presenting jobs come and go while music is here to stay. He and his big band - officially called the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra - tour for at least 100 days a year, and now he also presents Later and, of course, the Hootenanny.

This brings us back to Television Centre on this rather warm December day. To be precise, it is the 10th and it is sort of strange that at 9.30pm on this Wednesday we must all pretend that it is really midnight on the 31st. "We are all actors living a lie," Holland tells the audience. "The lie is that it is 10 minutes to midnight and every one of us must believe this down to our socks and shoes that this is so. Can you believe it?" We can, and, frankly, as soon as Jools Holland and BB King strike up "Let The Good Times Roll" we would do almost anything just to be allowed to stay and listen. I glance over and see Chris Evans, a Welsh Guard and a member of Fun Lovin' Criminals enjoying themselves in the same vicinity. The ambience is good but the music is better and that is exactly what is to be expected from the expert on Planet Holland.

Jools Holland's Fifth Annual Hootenanny is on BBC2 this Wednesday at 11.55pm.