Obituary: Lionel Grigson

Lionel Grigson, musician: born 12 February 1942; died 14 June 1994.

LIONEL GRIGSON was a jazz pianist, cornettist and teacher sure to provoke a reaction wherever he went. Whether he inspired or inflamed, Grigson's energies often acted as a catalyst and his interest in, and support for, young jazz musicians contributed significantly to the growth and consolidation of jazz education in Britain.

As a musicologist, Grigson did much to focus the analysis of jazz harmony and rhythm along the lines of Johann Fux, the great classical theoretician, whilst most of the time patiently sharing his insights in a non-academic and practical context. Within the context of a leading international conservatoire, the Guildhall School of Music, in London, Grigson did much to demonstrate and explain the underlying principles common to jazz, classical and indeed all music, and as a result produced a generation of jazz educators possessing a thorough grounding in an area where much educational work is left to chance. Alongside the folkloric tales of his exploits at the Guildhall School of Music (where he was Professor of Piano and Improvisation 1983-93), I suspect that Grigson's presence did much to sharpen the minds of students, colleagues and friends.

I first met Grigson at the 606 Club in the King's Road, London, a haunt of jazz musicians, in 1981. That night I heard his detailed and considered approach to the piano as he drew on the music of three of his 'masters' - Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Horace Silver. I also encountered the maverick academic shouting out his preferred chord changes. Later that night he switched to cornet and invited me to sit in. We played 'Autumn Leaves'. At the suggestion of the bass player I played some substitutions of my own, temporarily fazing Lionel, but moments later, mid-chorus, he shoved me off the piano muttering 'Yes, actually I knew that, but do you know these ones?' And off he went.

All his friends have favourite Lionel Grigson stories, some funny, some touching and some horrendous, but when we lose a man with such a skill to inflame and endear, there must be some lasting quality to have engendered such love. Much of this was born out of a shared experience as jazz musicians. We could identify with the symptomatic responses to the knock-backs and frustrations that Grigson suffered, forgiving the sometimes bizarre and extreme manifestations of his reactions.

On a more subtle level, I suspect that many of us empathise with Grigson's commitment. Here was a man passionate about music, literature (his father was the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson), politics and justice. Generous with his knowledge, Grigson would share what he knew with anyone who was interested - an attitude not common to all jazz musicians. Courageous, misguided at times, Grigson communicated his ideas fearlessly, a man of principle, risking, often experiencing, rejection.

I myself experienced the whole range of emotions in my long relationship with Grigson. My early opportunities as a player and teacher were influenced by and, in some cases, provided by him - my appointment at the Guildhall in 1987 was not only on Grigson's recommendation but partly as a result of his own indiscretions - but what I owe him is not about which scale goes with which chord (although I'll always be grateful for the Fats Waller changes for 'Tea for Two'). What I owe to Lionel Grigson is having my mind challenged and the experience of a passionate and courageous man who took the step to be what he believed to be true.