How did you get into jazz? Tell us your story

From first Blush to Bluish. We all have a different way into jazz. All it took for me eventually was hearing a legendary figure from the Polish avant-garde stepping back into the limelight after his wilderness years were through. There was no jazz …

Published: 13 Oct 2021. Updated: 14 days.

From first Blush to Bluish. We all have a different way into jazz. All it took for me eventually was hearing a legendary figure from the Polish avant-garde stepping back into the limelight after his wilderness years were through.

There was no jazz at all in my family. But my brother and I used to sit at home inspired by a music teacher and listen to classical music that we borrowed from the library or film soundtracks that I bought in the local record shop. Some of these choices were exploratory. I also liked poetry a good deal and still do and loved a recording of a reading of Paroles by Jacques Prévert. Old movies on TV also appealed to me and I was a devoted watcher of Barry Norman on his Film programme which probably inspired in me a desire to be a critic. But there was still no jazz. It's difficult to think of days before the Internet and the sheer scarcity of music. If it wasn't on TV or on the radio or in the paper or in your local record shop it didn't for practical purposes exist. It wasn't much so it didn't and as an obscure object of desire it tantalised. I was absorbed in school activities like editing a satirical magazine and in music there was mainly what we studied for O Level, in my case Mozart and some Richard Strauss. Music beyond school was far more interesting. But I loved Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks and when music appreciation in class went off on a tangent because my teacher loved film soundtracks and we would listen on the class stereo particularly to Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and so much more) so we listened to a lot of Bernstein and John Williams (Star Wars) on the side. I conducted the school choir and brass at Christmas concerts and other occasions and took part in some Gilbert and Sullivan productions in the pit band playing timpani.

Still no jazz and the clock was ticking as the end of my teens approached. I went through a brief heavy metal stage, ideal for male teenagers but pretty useless when you are older but genuinely liked the band Rainbow and particularly the grammatically challenged but powerful 'Since You've Been Gone'. My friends at school tended to be into the New Wave and what's now called post-punk. I didn't really get all that. We all were too young when punk broke so that meant little to us. But there were other currents. I credit Celtic-rock as a way into jazz for me because I liked the band Horslips a lot and the way the band harnessed loud electric rock with the rhythms and mystique of traditional Irish music. My first live jazz gig happened because I read in my local paper that trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton was playing the Town Hall. I never became a fan of Humph although I saw him play a few times later but the light was definitely turned on sure enough. I had never heard anything like this in the flesh. I also began to listen to his jazz radio show. But it wasn't the jazz I wanted to hear I soon decided.

In the mid-80s I went to university and was the first in my immediate family to do so to initially study history but changed to English after a year. The university had a festival in the autumn every year when I was studying and so I went to a place called the Guinness Spot (a converted exam hall turned into a night club) to hear the tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and more to my taste the singer Betty Carter who was so good I went back the next night to hear her again. But still at ''uni'', an abbreviation that was not used then, jazz was not the main music people were into. Most of my friends were interested in going to a Bruce Springsteen concert so I went too down to Slane in County Meath for an outdoors concert around the time of Springsteen's Born in the USA album and this was a thrill. I was also beginning to appreciate the music of firstly Them and later solo Van Morrison. A friend of mine John Kelly from my hometown (now a very well-known Dublin-based writer and broadcaster) gave me a home taped cassette version of Moondance which I played to death. I didn't really think of Van as a jazzman then and didn't hear him live until for the first time a London concert in the Barbican with the Danish Radio Big Band in 1990 years after I stopped being a student and thankfully numerous times since. But at heart he is by way of singing the blues and he also added spark and insight to my journey into jazz. But really I hardly knew anything still. Yet when there's a hunger and there was there's something inside you so strong wanting more. I saw a film which was important to me at the time and still is called 'Round Midnight, the late great Bertrand Tavernier's homage to Lester Young and Bud Powell and starring Dexter Gordon. Because of this I suddenly started to know more about the mystique of it all and how jazz is more than music and read as voraciously as I could mainly through record sleeves and old encyclopedias that I found in the university library.

I was on my way but after uni I went to live in Greece and there was no jazz there in the small town in Thessaly where I was teaching. I however got into Atlantic soul given a local record store's generous stocking of bootleg cassette compilations. The following year working in Turkey in the capital Ankara was better and I helped form a jazz society where we chatted about records and crucially met a pianist called Janusz Szprot who told me about his favourite magazine back home in Poland called Jazz Forum. I interviewed my first jazz star, Courtney Pine, in Ankara and heard the great saxist play. Janusz knew that I wanted to be a journalist far more than remain a teacher. So he helped me get in touch with the magazine's editor-in-chief Paweł Brodowski back home in Warsaw and after covering jazz in Ankara and Istanbul for the English paper Turkish Daily News I moved to Warsaw and began working for Paweł and the local English paper the Warsaw Voice. There it was Tomasz Stańko's music ultimately that changed my life. These were my beginnings. I learned a lot working at Jazz Forum, reading their archives, attending gigs and getting to interview some of the icons of the music there such as violinist Michał Urbaniak, pianist Andrzej Trzaskowski, saxophonists Jan Ptaszyn Wróblewski and Zbigniew Namysłowski and later on return trips singer Urszula Dudziak and pianist Marcin Wasileweski. The finest experience was getting to hear and know a bit the iconic trumpeter and aesthete Stańko who died a few years ago. In the space of a decade since first hearing jazz live I was completely hooked and into it for the long term. What is your journey into jazz? Email stephen@marlbank.net and we will run yours

Tags: Opinion

The BrknRecord feat Zara McFarlane, 'Lifeline', Mr Bongo ****

Jazz singer Zara MacFarlane is superb on 'Lifeline' here on the hard hitting Jake Ferguson-led project The BrknRecord's The Architecture of Oppression Part 1, the Heliocentrics bassist's debut as a bandleader and orchestrator joined by bandmate …

Published: 13 Oct 2021. Updated: 14 days.

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Jazz singer Zara MacFarlane is superb on 'Lifeline' here on the hard hitting Jake Ferguson-led project The BrknRecord's The Architecture of Oppression Part 1, the Heliocentrics bassist's debut as a bandleader and orchestrator joined by bandmate drummer Malcolm Catto. MacFarlane, best known for her work with Jazz Jamaica in the early part of her career before forging out as a MOBO-winning bandleader herself on the Brownswood label, is among a wide range of contributors who also include Lee Jasper, former advisor on equalities to Ken Livingstone when he was mayor of London, and by Leroy Logan MBE, founder and former chair of the Black Police Association, who was an inspiration for director Steve McQueen on an episode of the acclaimed Small Axe. Look for The Architecture of Oppression Part 1 on the Mr Bongo label in November. Zara MacFarlane, top