Graham Collier: Jazz musician whose work explored the space between composition and improvisation

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The Independent Online

Graham Collier spent the last few years of his life living on a Greek island, so a famous line from Greek philosophy isn't inappropriate, even if he would have questioned its underlying premise: "You can't step twice into the same river".

This is a virtual mantra for jazz musicians, whose conjoined blessing and curse is that everything is in the moment and then is heard no more. Collier devoted much of his nearly50-year career to bridging the usually illusory gap between improvisation and composition, writing jazz down and then working through the more difficult task of getting it back "off the page", and also to the patient though sometimes fraught documentation of his own work. Philosophically, he seemed committed to a not very Anglo-Saxon belief that nothing ever completely fades away, that the dead and their doings are always present. Such ideas drove some of his most remarkable work.

Rivers played a central role in Collier's life, though the Mediterranean Sea dominated later. He was born in February 1937 in Tynemouth, and though his family was from the south he always regarded himself, in the words of his long-time partner John Gill as "romantically a Geordie". His father was a semi-professional drummer who earned extra money accompanying silent movies. Collier learned trumpet, but on national service as a band boy he also took up the double bass and began to learn composition.

While stationed in Hong Kong, he entered and won a Down Beat competition with part of a suite called Macao Interlude. The prize was part-payment of fees at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he was the first British student. Other firsts followed, notably a pioneering Arts Council grant for jazz composition which significantly repositioned improvised music within British culture. That was in the future, though. At Berklee, Collier studied and played with the trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, an underrated musician and an important catalyst in jazz writing. He also worked for a time with the Jimmy Dorsey "ghost" band.

After graduating from Berklee, Collier returned to the UK and formed his first group, an ambitious septet. An early LP, Deep Dark Blue Centre, established a compositional style based on solidly grounded arrangements, subtle harmonic movement and expressive soloing from group members; Duke Ellington, Gil Evans and Charles Mingus were the most prominent influences. He also began what was to be a lifelong pattern of educational work, culminating in a role at the Guildhall in the 1980s. With Arts Council backing, he wrote Workpoints for a mid-size ensemble that combined instrumental detail with big-band weight. The working group, which often featured trumpeter Harry Beckett, was renamed Graham Collier Music on 1970's powerful Songs for My Father. Other important recordings included Mosaics (1971), Portraits (1972), Darius (1974), Midnight Blue (1975) and Symphony of Scorpions (1976), among others.

Collier would later comment wryly when these records were reissued in the 1990s that while it was nice to be recognised for work done more than 30 years before, it would be nicer still to be acknowledged for more recent endeavours. In fact, the process of documentation was to prove complex and often frustrating. After recording for Deram and Fontana, Collier established his own Mosaic label (not to be confused with the limited-edition American imprint) but found it difficult to keep work in print, a situation that persisted after his work began to be revisited for CD issue.

In 1977, Collier wrote an important suite called The Day of the Dead. It was based on Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano and was presented, significantly, at the Ilkley Literature Festival. Two years later, he gave up bass playing in favour of full-time composition and educational work, and Lowry's work continued to be an inspiration, suggesting ways of balancing tempestuousness (always a feature of "hot" jazz) with calm and affirmation, and of solving the particular problem in improvised music of how solo figuration relates to the "ground" of composition, something Lowry – who was also raised in a seaport and obsessed by the ocean – seemed to have resolved in his own alternately stormy and rhapsodic work.

Collier was also influenced by the visual arts, though the title of his 2009 epic Directing 14 Jackson Pollocks was suggested by a friend, and seized on by Collier as a good working definition of the improvising composer's job description. His long relationship with the writer and critic John Gill opened up a world of ideas and led to extensive travel. In later years, Collier was almost the type of Bernard Berenson's "passionate sightseer".

Having first met in 1976 at The Salisbury pub on St Martin's Lane, Collier and Gill eventually left Britain to settle first in Spain (where he wrote Winter Oranges) and then at Skopelos in Greece. "He had a minor epiphany two hours after setting foot on Hydra in 2006," said Gill, "which led him to declare that he wanted to live by the sea." As the "team Grecophile", Gill enthusiastically agreed, but the decision may have been made earlier, during a tour in 1983, at what seemed a golden period for Collier's music. That was the year of Hoarded Dreams, an epic composition for the Bracknell Jazz Festival in which each and every member of an impressive international big band was featured in solo. It's a work that inhabits the collective unconscious of a whole generation of British jazz fans. In the early '80s, Collier, in a new role as elder statesman – or mischievous uncle – of British jazz, was responsible for forming the rehearsal band that became Loose Tubes, an often maligned but undoubtedly influential fraternity for young British improvisers.

In 1987 he presented Charles River Fragments, a deprecating title (unless it referred to late-winter broken ice and flotsam) for such a mighty work. He also experimented again with smaller group settings, notably on Something British Made in Hong Kong, which might seem to have brought his compositional life full circle and to a pause were there not to be another dozen years of activity, culminating in Directing 14 Jackson Pollocks. A knee problem slowed him down a little and called for surgery and a move to flatter accommodation. He and Gill were visiting Crete looking at property when Collier took ill.

Like Lowry, and despite his relatively undramatic progress and ease in pedagogical situations, Collier was never an establishment figure. His music has never become canonical, a fate that overtook some of his contemporaries, but has remained fresh, hard to pin down and resistant to generic pigeonholing. Inevitably, proponents of "pure" improvisation found him too committed to stave paper and structure, while mainstream composers routinely overlooked him as a "jazz" artist. Collier's creative enthusiasms always stayed one step ahead. He lived and eventually died, in Lowry's phrase, "outward bound" and in the ultramarine.

James Graham Collier, composer, bass player, educator, author: born Tynemouth 21 February 1937; partner to John Gill; died Crete 9 September 2011.