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

I wish I'd known that there was going to be a photographer." Courtney Pine's big, doleful eyes brim with disappointment. "I would have brought my saxophone. You could have had a great picture of me with my sax." Hold on a minute. Doesn't he know that the way he strides into his manager's office - shades perched on close-shaved crown, red shirt buttoned all the way up, pumps lapping at iron-pressed black trousers - he don't need no sax? Is this the opening gambit of a modest craftsman or of a relentless self-publicist miffed at a lost photo-opportunity?

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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?