The interview: COURTNEY PINE, MUSICIAN, TALKS TO DOMINIC CAVENDISH
Purists may scoff, but with his teched-up, crossover sound, he aims to take jazz away from old men in pubs and bring it to the masses
Sunday 25 August 1996
He's the closest thing contemporary British jazz has to a household name. Unfortunately for him, it is that cutesy moniker ("I hated it as a child - I wanted to be called John Smith") rather than the face, or more importantly, the music, that people recognise. "It happens all the time - the guy at the airport who sees the name on the passport and says, 'Oh, I know Courtney Pine. Which one's he?' " He laughs. A big, bass, eyes-to-heaven chortle. He has the right face for stardom - perfect syncopation of lips and eyes and eyebrows - a shining, cherubic intelligence. His speech is an endearing fusion of well-spoken London and ghetto-speak ("Yeh, like ... I can't wear Versace because people in the 'hood don't wear Versace.")
He is so effortlessly charismatic than when he first burst into public view 10 years ago, he was hailed as a 21-year-old Messiah, performing jazz miracles. It wasn't just excitement about his talent that shifted 100,000 copies of his debut album, Journey to the Urge Within, and moved an artform that was redolent of old men in pubs into the charts for the first time. It was his presence: show-stopping live performances; pictures of him in his beret and swanky suits all over the shop. He was articulate, smiled a lot and even wrote articles for the Guardian. But his music was a lot less accessible than he was. Apart from one jazz-reggae album, his subsequent work revealed a musician intent on learning the ropes ("studying the masters - the bebop of Charlie Parker, the jazz-rock of Miles Davis, the freeform of John Coltrane") rather than holding on to mainstream success. It is only with his latest album, Modern Day Jazz Stories, that the dreams of reaching a wider audience have resurfaced.
Here, his sax wails, screeches and performs virtuoso monologues on top of a soundscape that undulates to dystopian hip-hop scratching. "It describes a musician who has been listening to what's been going on in London over the last two decades, who has absorbed European as well as African influences," he says. Its teched-up, crossover spirit has earned him a Mercury Award nomination, but will it be the album to give him a sizeable following? He has already written off the jazz purists, who, he says, have given him the cold shoulder from the start. "They have their polls and charts and I'm never in them." But he still needs to win over his own generation. His two-year tour, which comes to a close next week, has seen him take his DJs into nightclubs and alternative festivals such as Phoenix and Earth Energy. Inevitably this looks like someone chasing after street-cred - something which his artistic development, built on unflinching optimism and a punishing work ethic, would seem to rule out.
Growing up in Paddington, he rebelled against his Jamaican parents, both practising Methodists, by ignoring their plans for him to become a doctor and teaching himself the tenor saxophone that they had given him, reluctantly, when he was 14. He played along to their ska records and imagined himself as the saxophonist Sonny Rollins on the cover of Way Out West, which he had borrowed from the local library: "At school, I was just an average guy. I had these big eyes. None of the girls liked me. I was a goal keeper. But the jazz took me out of that. I could say [he beams] 'I play sax. I've got a big case'.'' He parted company with the reggae outfits that he joined after leaving school at 16, not just because his musical tastes lay elsewhere, but because they weren't serious enough: "They'd stop off to get some stuff and would either turn up late or miss the gig. That wasn't my scene." His parents are still distinctly unimpressed. "My dad has stopped coming to the gigs because he was falling asleep.''
He has, he believes, turned disapproval on its head and shows an almost masochistic gratitude for obstacles placed in his path. For him, the exclusiveness of the jazz scene ("being a minority music, people get away with murder") was not a source of rancour, but the much-needed spur to setting up another one: the Jazz Warriors, a big band which provided a vital platform for young black talent in the mid-Eighties, and propelled him into a record contract with Island. He even sees a formative trip to Jamaica at the age of nine as empowering rather than embittering: "There I was, walking round, seeing black people running things, organising positions of power - which you just didn't see over here - and it was like, Wow. It made you feel you could do something."
"Ivory tower" is his ultimate term of abuse ("ask yourself - am I going to stay in my ivory tower or am I going to the rave?"). And yet, as Pine well knows, practice makes perfect. By his own admission, he is too busy composing to get out much. He lives in suburban Harrow with his psychologist wife June and their three young children: Jamaal, Isis and Janae (whom he calls Marley, "because she was born on his birthday"). Leisure time is confined to jogging and hanging out at a local internet cafe and watching television. He may be following in the musical footsteps of his heroes but he is not copying their self-destructive templates. "I'm not going to try to act like an American - it would be fake. We've learned from the people who came before us. Coltrane's liver gave out. Davis went through a lot of cocaine, which affected his music. If it wasn't for drugs, Charlie Parker would have lived ..."
Yet he is keen to make his music more underground, breaking down boundaries: "I wanted the album to have more jungle music, because as far as I'm concerned, that's where I want to go next. It has the duality that interests me as a jazz musician - fast and slow, soft and loud; a mix of reggae and technology." He sees ample opportunity for a new meeting of dance and jazz, but laments the stay-at-home mentality of other jazz musicians: "They can be so narrow minded - they were left standing by the house explosion and now they're missing out on drum and bass." If they're not interested, he will have to go to the rave on his own.
His description of jazz has an oddly familiar ideological tang to it: "When you are playing, you have to stand on your own two feet. You have to think for yourself. That's the kind of creative energy we need in this country, or we're going to be left behind." Coming of age in the Eighties, he is inevitably connected with those yuppie times,but his values are not so easily labelled. On the one hand, he is entrepreneurial and eager to crack the American market; on the other, he insists that he wants to stay in Britain, wants to help the cause of black British musicians, wants to "bring jazz to the masses". Could he be that rare creature, a New Labour stakeholder?
"I like Tony Blair," he says, and he means it. "He's the man. The way he got rid of those bad seeds, he's a leader. He's the one to take us into the millennium.'' At a time when you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't tend to your image, perhaps Courtney Pine will suffer a similar fate. Demonised for trying to make jazz more appealing to the pop electorate; too clean-cut for his own good. One of "them". Only time will tell.
8 Courtney Pine plays the Forum, London NW5, on 6 Sept (for details, call 0171 344 0044)
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