By Martin Smith
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‘Playing jazz is a form of resistance. It’s about being independent and not conforming. But resistance can also mean standing up to authority’

This article is over 15 years, 10 months old
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Courtney Pine spoke to Martin Smith about how the battle against prejudice has been a backdrop to his musical career, and about his new album, Resistance.
Issue 304

In 1986 a 22 year old jazz musician from north London released his first solo album, Journey To The Urge Within. His name was Courtney Fitzgerald Pine. The album was a huge hit, breaking into the British Top 40, the first album by a British jazz artist to do so. It established Courtney Pine as a leading figure in the jazz scene. Twenty years later he has just released his 11th album, the critically acclaimed Resistance. He took time out from his 40-date tour to speak to SR about it.

“Resistance means several things to me,” he said. “Playing jazz itself is a form of resistance. It is a music that is about being independent and not conforming.

“I make my living playing jazz music. In Britain this is a minority, minority, minority music. It’s a weird thing – you appear on television once, and because you are the first and only black British face seen playing jazz, people just assume everything is just fine and dandy, but things aren’t. I’m still struggling to make a living, struggling to get my art heard and respected. So on one level Resistance is really about that, but an alternative title for the album could have been Survival.

“But resistance can also mean standing up to those in authority. I have learnt on my travels that during the Second World War jazz was used as a form of resistance to the Nazi occupation in Czechoslovakia. More recently black South African jazz musicians used it as a form of protest against the apartheid system.”

Although his music is firmly rooted in the jazz canon, he has never been afraid to experiment. Albums such as To The Eyes Of Creation and Underground are a melting pot of musical styles and textures. They incorporate everything from hip-hop to reggae, from drum & bass to West African percussive rhythms. The use of samples, loops and beats shocked many jazz purists.

This has not deterred Courtney. He refuses to be pigeonholed, and has striven to use his music to reach new audiences. “Like Coltrane,” he said, “I am very interested in uniting people through music. It is so important that we do this. I am fortunate enough to be able to tour the world and meet musicians from as far afield as the Philippines, Russia, South Africa and Brazil. There is a commonality in all our music, and I have been able to link up with these musicians, exchange ideas, learn new skills and create new sounds. This is something that has to happen. I can’t see why anybody would want to play music just from their own community when the world is such a rich and beautiful place.

“When you start playing and researching jazz, you realise that there is a connection between Africa – its musicians, its rhythms – and the way slaves in the US, the Caribbean and South America used their music to express their social condition in a coded manner. It is not enough for me to see myself as a north Londoner, or someone from the Blue Mountain in Jamaica. My heritage goes much further back. I haven’t had a minute to go back and research where my DNA comes from, but it is definitely of African descent. I am all these things and many more – that’s why I describe myself as an Afropean.”

His new album marks a change in musical direction. Tracks such as “Right On” and “Soul Power” are rooted in the soul jazz sound of artists Eddie Harris and Nat Adderley. Their music was inspired by the civil rights and Black Power movements in the US in the 1960s. Another song on the album, “Joan of Arc”, is a two-minute blast of punky jazz that takes you back to Britain in the late 1970s, a time when the Nazis were on the streets and the black community was fighting to defend itself.

Musical apprenticeship

Born in Paddington, west London, in 1964, Courtney Pine was the son of Jamaican immigrants. He explained, “It was an area destroyed by the Blitz. One of my earliest memories as a child was playing in these disused buildings. It was a time when buildings were being torn down and skyscrapers were being put up. That part of London was one of the few areas where black families emigrating to Britain could live. My parents did a great job of preventing me from feeling inferior, even though we were living in a one-bedroom flat. There was such a pride in who they were, which rubbed off on me.

“North west London was at this time, and still is, a vibrant place. You didn’t just have Jamaicans, Ghanaians and Dominicans, you also had Indians, Pakistanis and Cypriots. The place was a melting pot of sound and colour. It was a great environment for a young man who was attuned to sound.

“I grew up with the music of Bob Marley. My parents also listened to a lot of ska music. I preferred the B-sides, which were instrumental versions of these songs. These B-sides were performed by Jamaican jazz musicians such as Don Drummond and Ernest Ranglin. There was just something in that sound that I really liked, it was different and unique. The older I got, the more positive black faces I saw – I guess they were survivors. It just inspired me to doing something with music.”

Courtney began his musical apprenticeship in the reggae scene, and soon joined the popular 1980s reggae band Clint Eastwood and General Saint. He remembers, “That band played at a lot of CND rallies. I can remember supporting Madness a couple of times and The Stranglers. We were big favourites on the peace scene. As a 17 year old it was a big eye-opener.

“From the age of 15 I was going out socialising a lot. I remember sitting in the back of a Cortina going to jazz funk clubs in Southend and Basingstoke. It was an amazing scene. I was having a great time drinking and partying. Black and white kids were dancing to the same music – it was a time of unity, and for me of personal growth. So I had this reggae thing going on and this jazz funk thing happening.

“Around this time my parents moved up to Kingsbury, north west London, which was a real conservative area at the time. I can remember working in the local Sainsbury’s while the National Front would be standing outside giving out flyers. They were bad times – young black guys were being stabbed. I remember walking down the street, and there would be guys in cars screaming racist abuse at you. It was very much a culture shock, but it was kind of happening all over England at that time. I remember touring in Holland and buying a knife – I felt I needed to protect myself. That was the scene in those days.”

One of Courtney’s key musical turning points was seeing one of the true legends of jazz, Freddie Hubbard, live. But even that experience was not free from prejudice:

“I went to see Freddie at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho with a friend of mine. The bouncers on the door just assumed that these two young black guys wanted to go to the disco upstairs. But we wanted to hear Freddie. They tried to stop us, but we were determined to get into the club. We handed over £20 each for our tickets, but they still gave us the worst seats, the ones behind the drummer. But for two 15 year olds, one a drummer and the other a saxophone player, it was the best thing. From that moment on I wanted to play jazz.”

By the time Courtney reached 16 he had discovered the music of John Coltrane, Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins. But playing jazz live became a new hurdle for him to jump.

“I found out who all the local jazz musicians were, and I went down to see them. I asked them all the same question: ‘Where can I play jazz?’ They all came up with the same reply: ‘Don’t bother.’ They all urged me to stick with my reggae music – some even suggested I got into the disco scene. As you can imagine I was disgruntled, but I started to find out about jam sessions, and started to go along to them with Steve Williamson [another young saxophone player who was part of the British jazz revival scene in the late 1980s]. We would search all over town for these jams. But when we started to play they would turn the house lights on, and the sessions would end. So I decided, ‘If that’s what you are going to do me then I am going to do my own thing.’

“Many of the bands in the reggae scene had their own horn sections. Many of these guys were desperate to play jazz. In a short space of time I had enough players to form a jazz collective, The Jazz Warriors.”

This grouping of musicians was like a university for musical experimentation:

“In the 1980s the pathway for higher learning for me was also cut off. You couldn’t even study saxophone as a main instrument in British universities at that time, you had to play the clarinet. Today things are completely different. I have been made an honorary doctor of music at the University of Westminster. We also have the situation where a lot of young players like Soweto Kinch and Denys Baptiste are university graduates.”

The Jazz Warriors toured the country exposing jazz to a much younger audience. They shook up the British jazz scene and launched the solo careers of a new generation of black jazz musicians – Cleveland Watkiss, Gary Crosby, Steve Williamson, and of course Courtney Pine.

Eleven albums later Courtney Pine is a youthful elder statesman of jazz. He presents an acclaimed BBC Radio 2 show, and in 2000 he travelled to South Africa to make a brilliant documentary about the musicians who campaigned against apartheid.

As the interview drew to a close we ended up talking about one of his greatest compositions, “I’ve Known Rivers” from the album Modern Day Jazz Stories. The song is based around the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks Of Rivers”:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow
of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went
down to New Orleans, and I’ve
seen its muddy bosom turn
all golden in the sunset
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Langston was a poet, playwright, novelist and grand figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He was also a supporter of the US Communist Party. Courtney explained where he got the idea of a composition based around the song: “It came from my research into Gary Bartz, a great alto saxophone player. I had the privilege of playing with him a few years ago. I checked out his back catalogue and discovered his Live In Montreux album. It contains a version of “I’ve Known Rivers”, and things just snapped into place. I just wanted to put the two sides together – this great poet and this great jazz artist. But for my version I wanted to use a female voice. The only person I could think of was Cassandra Wilson. Also at that time I was working with samples and breakbeats. It just made sense to update the song, and it seemed so relevant for today because the song is about bringing people together.

“I believe music has the power to bring people together – that is a message I end each concert with. There are a lot of people in the world who are trying to divide us, and sadly the world is a pretty divided place right now. All I know is that when I play music I am just thinking about the whole world in a positive light. This century has got to be about peace and unity.”

Martin Smith is the author of John Coltrane – Jazz, Racism and Resistance.

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