Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

On Saturday, August 25, I lost a friend, a collaborator and a constant source of inspiration. Richard Cook was also best man at my wedding to Sarah and delivered his reading with a straightforwardness of expression that would have brought tears to a glass eye. It was a quality he himself most admired in jazz – the straightforwardness, rather than the tears. Richard had an unfailing ear for anything fudged or stilted, for mere flashery and insecure technique, and for anything that smacked of unearned emotion. He also lamented our collective forgetting that jazz isn’t by any means always about anguish and troubled inscape and rather more often than we currently concede an expression of simple joy.

Our main collaboration was, of course, the Penguin Guide to Jazz, which has been published every two years since 1992. I’d guess that, allowing for deletions and wholesale disappearances along the way, we’ve reviewed around 20,000 records in that time. Some have expressed doubt, or outright suspicion, that two guys could possibly listen to that amount of music, let alone write about it. Sadly, for our partners and respective social lives, we did. I never called Richard but something wasn’t playing in the background. It became a kind of impromptu blindfold test, though I still maintain that trying to identify anyone less distinctive than Charlie Parker or John Coltrane down a rural phone line is a fool’s errand.

We came to jazz by rather similar routes, listening to classic jazz on record – Armstrong, Bechet, Morton, Oliver – while at the same time watching the steady development of British improv at pub and club gigs in London and elsewhere. We had slightly different musical hinterlands – mine classical music, his English music hall and early opera recordings – and that perhaps affected the way we each mapped out what might be considered jazz. Richard had more time for singers. I tended to let in more scored and abstract situations than he would have liked. Draw a Venn diagram of our interests, though, and the cross-hatched overlap was bigger than the exceptions.

We probably disagreed – or diverged – most on the status of jazz recordings. Richard was not a man for crowded rooms (not usually a problem on the British improv scene!), and disliked the beery bar-propping of an older jazz scene. For Richard, though he went to concerts on and off duty, jazz was primarily communicated through records and he regarded the greatest ones, those we granted small constellations of approval in the book, as iconic statements of a music he considered art rather than entertainment. My own default position is that jazz is work, rather than art or entertainment, not in the sense that is has been my work, or an aspect of it, for more than thirty years, but rather than jazz is a matter of continuous processes rather than monolithic leavings, and thus that even the greatest records are no more than glimpses into a realm where the uncertainty principle applies in spades.

I’ve thought about this constantly since Richard died, not least since news of the onset of his final illness coincided to the day with the arrival here of the newly discovered Charles Mingus Sextet tapes from Cornell in the spring of 1964, a tape no one seems to have known anything about until Sue Mingus turned it up. We never had a chance to speak about it and I would have loved to do that because for me the set, for all its faults, strikingly repositions Mingus’s discography and completely changes my views about that particular group. There is a fuller and more eloquent account of the disc elsewhere in this issue of PoD, so my general point needs to stand alone. Consider, though, how it would be if we only had the March 18 Cornell tape and then rediscovered the Town Hall concert from April 4. What revisionism would be called for?

Perhaps the two most salutary conversations I had in my early “career” as a jazz writer were with drummer Jimmy Cobb and tenor saxophonist David Murray. In the kind of awestruck tones you might use to a man who once saw Napoleon ride into battle (and remember the famous story about the young historian who tracked down just such a witness only to be told “Ah, yes, I remember Buonaparte like it was yesterday, a tall, white-haired man on a bay horse . . .”), I asked Cobb what the Kind of Blue sessions had been like. “Oh, to us it was just a gig like any other”, was the staggering reply. At first I couldn’t work out whether this was false modesty, boredom at being asked the same question yet again, or perhaps the fall-out from some long-ago falling-out with Miles, but as time went by I came to see it as the normal attitude of a working player who sees the music from the production end and does not have the curious experience of tearing the cellophane off a “finished” entity. Both are alienated positions, neither is unduly “privileged”.

I met David Murray at that period in his career when albums were appearing, quite literally, in threes. Richard opened his review of one batch with a version of Duke’s call for Johnny Hodges: “David Murray. David Murray. David Murray.” Some time later I asked Murray how it felt to be one of the most generously documented jazz musicians of his time. Did it make a difference that so much of his creative evolution was out there in public? He looked slightly irritated, but also resigned. “Ah, you should have heard the nights in between, when the microphones weren’t there.”

That’s the side of jazz that fascinates me, the nights in between. I agreed with Richard that the CD-era practice of padding out reissues with alternates and rejected masters was mostly self-defeating. Those, after all, were the tracks that Coltrane or Miles or whoever explicitly didn’t want us to hear. On the other hand – and ever willing to argue opposite points of view with equal conviction – there is a special fascination to those halting first attempts on “Giant Steps”. That an iconic modern statement once limped around the studio is grist to my strong feeling that work is always more interesting than “works”. By the same token there is both fascination and genuine research value in another jazz marketing phenomenon Richard disliked, the high-price boxing of Miles’s album sessions, though here the twinned conclusion may be that Teo Macero did a remarkable job with some very patchy material and that the album as originally issued really was the best of that stuff.

We live in an Alexandrian age, which fosters the illusion that everything ever written – or in the shorter history of jazz, which coincides exactly with the emergence of a new technology, ever recorded – is available to us. When Richard and I wrote the first edition of the Penguin Guide it was just about possible to think that every jazz record commercially available could be covered in its pages. By the third or fourth edition, that was already a hopeless chimera. But what is harder to spot, given the massive proliferation of jazz recordings in the present market-place, is that a great deal has fallen by the way, some of merely set aside for the moment by the cycle of fashion, some of it possibly lost for ever. In the course of writing, we saw the large-scale disappearance of several labels, Xanadu, Muse, large chunks of Carl Jefferson’s legacy at Concord, and while many of these sessions have subsequently reappeared in some form, others drift into the fossil record. Those of us who have substantial vinyl collections will pull out treasured obscurities from time to time, convinced that they will never make the digital transition. For years, I played my precious copy of Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff (go on, make me an offer) only to have it reappear in a Blue Note Connoisseur edition. By a similar but opposite token, I always expected to see trumpeter Ric Colbeck’s glowing Sun Is Coming Up rediscovered by a new generation, only to see it and him slide ever deeper into historical obscurity.

One can argue that a similar situation applies in literature and other arts. Ethel M. Dell and Marie Corelli were once million-selling authors, now only found in mildewed corners of second-hand bookshops or distorted by damp on rectory window-sills. Some of the most admired artists of the Victorian era are now stacked in museum basements. Composers once regarded as major geniuses languish unplayed for centuries – the Salieri Principle. Few cultural phenomena seem to disappear more completely than once-popular pop bands who nowadays fail to rise high enough even for the internet’s radar.

Now that LP-era jazz is coming out of copyright, now that labels in Spain and Andorra are able to turn out endless rows of musical revenants from the 1950s, cheaply and in decent sound for the most part, we are able to think that a decent collection really can cover the waterfront from early jazz to the latest cutting edge or blunt instrument. It’s an illusion, of course. Not quite the familiar iceberg where the visible (audible) is dwarfed by a submerged nine-tenths, but probably not far off it. It’s also a precarious situation. The carefully placed rumor that CDs would self-destruct like Mission: Impossible tasking messages didn’t come to pass, and it seems unlikely that our Alexandrian archive will be sacked by Caesar or consumed by fire. A prolific culture is also a careless culture. While every one of my LPs is carefully suited and protected, the liner bag turned opening-inwards to protect the contents from dust, I frequently open a CD case to find nothing there, while some of those that have been left playing side down on our wooden floors have already found new employment dangling from our scarecrow among the lazy-beds. Richard had a hefty collection of 78s and played one religiously every day, but he often couldn’t put his hand on a new release that had just arrived that week.

So what’s it all for? Musicians I talk to frequently say that commercial or self-produced CDs are really most use as business cards, a way of saying “Here’s what we do”. Psychologically, I think our collections do serve as a kind of Waste Land consolation, fragments shored against our ruin, but deeper than that is a growing sense that – in jazz at any rate; other forms of music are probably different – records serve as a perverse reminder that records are not really what this music is about. That comes close to suggesting that they are a necessary evil, and I have no stake whatever in suggesting that records have any truck with evil . . . other than Kenny G records, of course, which bear the spoor of Satan on every cut.

I played The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions twice and then went back to playing In A Silent Way. I look forward to and dread the arrival of the On The Corner box in a similar spirit. I’ve spent far longer with the Black Hawk and Plugged Nickel boxes, not because they represent a more favored “period” in Miles’s career (Richard, you’ll know, wrote illuminatingly about Miles on disc in his It’s About That Time) but because there is a sense of evolution, context, mood and happenstance about those and similar boxes that I don’t quite get from the studio palimpsests of the following decade.

It’s an inconsistent position, and one unabashedly put to the service of a belief that jazz is a verb rather than a noun, and that, unless it is caught in progress and in process, fated to be misunderstood and undervalued. Our collections offer an enticing flicker of what lies beyond, or between, those reified slices of time. I wouldn’t have it any other way because I can’t in real time have it any other way.

I would cheerfully trade the whole lot in to have the last few weeks come out some other way. Richard’s death has brought a lot of sadness and a huge sense of loss, and like all deaths, premature or not, prompts a regret at things left undone. We talked endlessly about music, less often about other shared delights, like horse-racing and malt whisky, but when you get down to it, even a studied monomaniac (which he wasn’t) has other histories. I guess I know pretty much what he thought about jazz. I could make a fist now of his thoughts on Kenton, Papa Celestin, Rollins, Nu-Jazz, fusion, Jamie Cullum. Richard the music writer survives as long as there’s a sentence of his out there. It’s what’s in between that we’ve lost. And it’s what lay in between that made him Richard Cook.

Good night, old boy.

Brian Morton©2007

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