Revelations: When Jools started jamming

The time: 1966 The place: Blackheath, London The man: Jools Holland, musician
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Before the war, there were more pianos than cars in London. It was standard for even small terraced houses to have one in the front room; nowadays, it would be considered a luxury item. My grandparents had been given a piano as a wedding present in 1938. As a child, I had to go to my grandmother's because our house had no bath. I used to hate it, much preferring to stay at home and not have to wash at all. However, there was one advantage - my uncle used to play boogie-woogie on their piano. I just loved the sound and the excitement of it. I'd put off going for a bath as long as possible so I could listen. I was already into music - especially the Beatles, who I used to mime to on the radio. I'd push two chairs together and trap a broom turned upside down between them, creating my own stage and microphone stand. These days, it would be banned because it could lead to a horrible accident. I also had a wooden guitar that my grandfather had made - but I couldn't play it very well.

My uncle only really knew one piece, but he knew it very well. One day, I had the courage to ask him to show me how to do it. To my real amazement, as he showed me first the left hand and then the right, I discovered that I had a gift. I could just copy exactly what he was doing. It was extraordinary and very exciting.

The front of the piano was rather blackened and knocked about after a bomb had gone off at the end of their road, but when you opened the lid, you could see that the beautiful rosewood veneer was still intact - that it had withstood the war made it extra special. I remember playing chords when the sun shone across the keyboard, sometimes wondering whether it was related to the music. Since then, sadly, I've discovered it wasn't.

While other children were outside playing football in the street, I was happy just sitting there playing the piano. I would love more than anything to have a picture of that room. You always remember from childhood a room that was particularly joyful to be in; this one had huge 1930s armchairs, an electric fire, a large valve wireless tuned into Helsinki and Oslo, Chinese-style wallpaper and carpet typical of a 1930s or 1940s interior.

The one piece my uncle knew was "St Louis Blues", and that grounded me in the idea of the blues. Nowadays, I realise that it is the roots of all rock 'n' roll - part gospel, swing and jazz. It's like a beautiful form - similar to what doing portraiture might be for a painter. You might think that once you've drawn one head, you've done them all - but you haven't. It's the same with the blues. Everything fell into place for me.

About the same time, I heard the song "Oh Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers on the radio and I burst into tears; the chords and the harmonies were so beautiful. I found it incredibly moving. I whipped out and bought the record. I played it over and over, until, for the first time, I managed to work out the chords on the piano. It was incredibly exciting. I think the best things you learn are the things you teach yourself - those lessons are always the clearest.

Once it was spotted that I had a natural flair, I was sent to the local conservatoire of music. I must have been nine and I hated it. Miss Brown, the teacher, was a perfectly nice woman, but I had just learnt boogie- woogie music. I didn't want to know about "Dance of the Pixies", thank you. I wanted to swing and be groovy. After a couple of lessons, I was so bored that I just stopped going - but I pretended that I'd been and made up little pieces I had supposedly learnt there. Finally, my deception was uncovered and I was told off for wasting money my parents could ill afford.

I wasn't particularly clever at anything at school and didn't like sports at all, so finding something that I was good at was an incredible boost to my confidence. Suddenly, I was playing the piano and I thought "this is really great". Firstly, there was the sheer pleasure of the sound and the excitement I intuitively felt. Next, I realised you could show off with it - as every child loves to. Finally, I saw it as a way forward. Even if you didn't make much money, it was better to do something you really enjoyed than whatever else I could have done - which wouldn't have been much. I wish for everybody that they could be great at one thing.

To this day, the pleasure has not gone out of playing or hearing new things. When I'm in the car, I hop from radio channel to channel until I hear something special. I will still intuitively like it in the same way the boogie-woogie music first hit me. I love that feeling. It's a bit like a junkie looking for his fix. I have to keep searching around and hunt it down. If I buy an LP and I like one or two tracks on it, then it's worth every penny. You have to wade through a lot to find something you really love.

I worried for a while that it would become more difficult to find these fixes as I got older, but things still spring up. I hear something on the radio, stop the car and write down their name and try to book them on my show. Although I'm still finding out about new groups, I'm also going back as much as I go forward. I literally have one ear in what's happening today and the other listening to a particular Elgar recording or a load of blues tunes I heard years ago which re-listening has made fresh again.

We've had some great guests on Later with Jools Holland. The legendary figures always have a certain amount of quietness about them; they're just taking everything in all the time. From one of them, Dr John, who is now a friend, I've learnt a lot about the piano; not necessarily from what he will play but just talking to him, because a lot of it is about attitude. I particularly enjoy the guests who have tuned into what I call the "large idea of music". Sometimes I imagine that music is going on all the time and when I sit down to play, I'm plugging in and becoming part of a great thoroughfare that is always there. I'm happiest when I blend in and become part of it.

Guests this week on `Later with Jools Holland' (BBC2, Saturday, 11.35pm) are Radiohead, k.d. lang, World Party, Alison Krauss and the Foo Fighters.

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