A sure-fire way to drive young men to acts of rebellion - Scottish dance music

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The Independent Online
THE Associated Board are the people who hand out grades to children. Well, not to any children. Just to children who are good enough to get grades. I think I got Grade 3 trombone once. I never got any grades for piano playing, because although I was better at piano than trombone, I didn't want to get piano grades for classical playing. I wanted to get piano grades for jazz playing, and that was impossible because they didn't award grades for jazz playing.

Well, they do now. Or at least they are about to do so. If you were to pass the Purcell Room this morning shortly after 11am, and hear the sounds of jazz piano seeping out, it would mean two things. One, that you had supernaturally good hearing, because sound doesn't seep easily out of the Purcell Room. Two, that the Associated Board are holding a press conference to announce the addition of jazz to the syllabus - grades for jazz piano playing and for jazz ensemble playing - and that young British jazz star Julian Joseph is on hand to help in the proceedings.

Good stuff, but all a bit late for me. When I was fifteen and desperately wanted to learn how to play jazz, there was no encouragement from music teachers and no recognition from the authorities that jazz could be respectable, or even teachable. After all, I already played the piano to a reasonable standard, so I thought it would merely be a question of working out how jazz was played and then playing it.

What I found was that I was already so classically brainwashed that I couldn't do it on the piano. Classical music is all about slavery to the written score, not about making things up. The trouble was, I was a good sight reader. If it was written down and within my technical grasp, I could usually play it straight off. If it wasn't written down, I couldn't begin to handle it. I was the worst possible candidate for jazz. On the piano.

Still, at least I had the sense to see that if I were to take up another instrument and treat it entirely as a jazz instrument, I would have a much better chance of getting somewhere, so I started trombone lessons. I never got very good on trombone but at least I learnt to play rough and ready jazz, and to improvise as I couldn't on the piano, and I formed a jazz band from my fellow pupils at the far-away boarding school in Scotland to which I had been sent by well-meaning parents (the same one to which Robbie Coltrane was later sent by similar parents).

Now, this is where we see how music education has changed over the years. Today jazz is being admitted to the Associated Board's syllabus. Then, the head music teacher sent for me and said that I was not allowed to form a jazz band.

"You cannot stop me," I said.

"No, but I can stop you rehearsing in school music rooms and make life very difficult for you," he said.

"But why?"

"Look, Kington, I have no objection to dance music as such. We all need dance music. But this is a Scottish school! If you form a band, you must play Scottish dance music. Jazz is an alien music! I cannot allow it!"

The prospect of being forced to play Scottish dance music (much more alien to me then than jazz was) seemed so appalling that the band and I were forced into direct political action. We were not in fact very politically conscious (except for the bass player, Alexander Cockburn, who was always a better writer than a bass player and has since then developed into one of America's leading left wing journalists) but it occurred to us that most of us also played in the school orchestra and that if we withdrew our labour from the orchestra shortly before an important concert, our strike action might force the authorities to cave in. Amazingly, it did, and we got clearance and rehearsal space for our band, though looking back I think that going on strike was probably the most enjoyable bit of the episode.

Today, we would be received with open arms and made to take grade exams. I wonder if we would have survived the approval...

Looking back, I realise that almost everything I have ever wanted to do in life - play jazz, write humour, speak Welsh, kick a football so that it bends round the edge of the defensive wall and inside the post - are things that couldn't be taught, or at least couldn't easily be taught then. Now almost all of them can. But if I were at school now, would I actually want to do these officially approved-of things? Would I not look round for something more rebellious? If Alex Cockburn and Robbie Coltrane were back at school now, and were being actively encouraged to be left- wing scribblers or comic actors, would they become something else?

Who knows?