Richard Cook

Jazz writer and editor

Saturday 01 September 2007 00:00

Richard David Cook, writer, journalist and record producer: born Kew, Surrey 7 February 1957; married 1987 Lee Ellen Newman; died London 25 August 2007.

R. D. Cook is the kind of name you might have found somewhere in the Surrey batting order of the mid-1970s. In figure, though, Richard Cook looked more of a fast bowler, tall and rangy, eagle-eyed and always in a hurry. Though he had a "proper Englishman's" passion for cricket, as well as horse-racing, he didn't, in adult life at least, have much enthusiasm for participant sport. He bowled line and length in his writing on music instead, in the NME, later in The Wire – which he also edited - and more recently in his own Jazz Review, and, most extensively, in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD (1972).

Cook wrote with an accuracy and consistency of judgement that made him one of the most perceptive and admired commentators, not just on his beloved jazz, but on a whole range of other "sonics" (as he liked to put it), and not just in Britain but internationally. Though his fabled impatience was part of an Englishness cultivated quite without irony, it was also a measure of Cook's utter rejection – in life and music – of the sub-standard. He had an unerring nose for the ersatz and fudged, and though his opinions were strong, sometimes too strong for those who prefer a more liberal rhetoric, he was anything but a bully. He was very happy to see his few loose deliveries driven into the covers, his more controversial assertions batted straight back at him.

Richard Cook was born in Kew, London in 1957. His father Ray was a teacher. His mother Margot later bred and showed dogs in Cambridgeshire. Richard was the third of four children and the Cooks' only son. He later said that this had undoubtedly had a bearing on his personality but that his father's early death, when Cook was 12, leaving him the only male in the immediate family, probably had an even greater impact. His father's legacy to his son was a passion for music that was lifelong, intense and seemingly without boundary. Cook's collection of 78s – music-hall stars and obscure opera singers in the main – was a direct connection back to his father. It also steered him toward his ultimate career.

When his mother moved to East Anglia, Cook remained in London and lived with his older sister while attending Latymer Upper School from 1968 to 1974. Though his father was a Cambridge graduate and despite his own excellent academic record, he opted not to go to university, a decision that set him apart, sometimes abrasively, from the mostly graduate commentators he encountered in the media. His first job was with the Charities Commission, but while there he began moonlighting as reviewer and feature writer for NME and other music papers, originally as a jazz specialist but with an increasingly eclectic purview.

Cook joined the NME staff in the early 1980s and immediately stood out, not just for a stance that was less anti-intellectual as anti-academic, but also because in personal style he could not have been less like the hippie-punk coalition that dominated British music journalism at the time. Always neatly dressed and businesslike, he turned up at the paper's offices each morning in a white mackintosh and carrying a briefcase. More importantly, though, Cook stood out for the sheer quality of his writing. Here and subsequently his approach was to ignore fashion and PR puffery. Instead, he listened, and with an attention that took him every time to the heart of whatever music he was asked to consider. (It was a quality that later made him an extremely effective music producer as well, though opportunities in this direction were frustratingly few).

In a decade that elevated style over substance and put old-fashioned musicianship at a discount, Cook always looked for substance and often found it in unexpected places. He wrote as trenchantly about Abba as he did about the improvising ensemble AMM, and his passion for singers, female singers in particular, enabled him to write perceptively about Nina Simone, Joan Armatrading and the soul diva Anita Baker.

The last of these was the subject of an interview in The Wire, published in September 1986. By this time Cook had left NME and was editing The Wire, which had been founded as an avant-garde jazz magazine four years earlier by Anthony Wood, who had sold the title to Naim Atallah and Quartet Books. As part of his contract, Cook also served as a commissioning editor for Quartet and, more briefly, as publisher of another of the company's titles. Auberon Waugh, editor of Literary Review, cordially disliked the upstart and insisted on printing his name as "Richard Cock" on the magazine's masthead. In response to Cook's comment that there was perhaps too great an emphasis on the subject in LR's pages, Waugh took to printing "SEX" on every cover, whether the contents required it or not.

Under Cook's editorship, The Wire evolved from a small, coterie magazine into a more broadly based music journal that covered mainstream jazz as well as the avant-garde, but one that also began moving into other areas of music: pop, soul, reggae, classical. Though he deplored some aspects of the magazine's house style in subsequent years – articles peppered with references to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, or Jacques Attali's monograph Noise – he did encourage intelligent writing about popular music and jazz.

In 1993, Cook left The Wire for the corporate world, taking up a post as head of jazz at Polygram UK. Here he signed trumpeter Guy Barker, whose Cook-produced debut record was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize, and initiated an important reissue programme that made available again some long-forgotten masterpieces of modern British jazz, work by Joe Harriott, Dick Morrissey and others.

Though he enjoyed his tenure at Polygram, it brought inevitable frustrations, not least a certain restriction on opportunities to write. In the late 1990s he went freelance. The largest of his writing projects was The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, co-authored with Brian Morton, now in its eighth edition (and retitled The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings) .Other books followed, including a "biography" of the Blue Note label in 2001, and in 2006 a study, It's About That Time, of Miles Davis. The year before, Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia, its title a reflection of his authority, was published by Penguin.

He also wrote a large amount of journalism, as music critic of The Sunday Times, but also at various periods for Mojo, Punch and the New Statesman. He also made a number of jazz documentaries for BBC Radio 3, and he had a quirky, deftly opinionated style as a DJ on GLR and on Jazz FM. Long-haul flyers could for a time plug into his syndicated in-flight jazz programme.

In 1987 Cook married Lee Ellen Newman, a New Yorker living in London and working, like himself, in the music business. They settled in Chiswick, in a house which groaned with music in every form. He was also passionate about horse-racing – his last phone message to a co-author before his final illness was a tip for a novice's race at Newmarket; it limped in last – fine red wine, Islay malt whisky and, despite his late mother's vocation, his cats.

He was endlessly curious, almost hyperactively busy and, for all the Eeyorish gloom he affected when talking about the English weather – too wet in winter, too hot in summer – the Jockey Club, Surrey's batting and bowling statistics, phenomena like Nu-Jazz, he maintained an exuberant optimism.

It sustained him through his final illness. In the autumn of 2006 he was diagnosed with bowel and liver cancer. It proved to be aggressive and despite extensive treatment, which he bore with amazing good humour, he succumbed less than a year after diagnosis. "It's cured me of being a hypochondriac", he said.

Brian Morton

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