August 8, 2009
Music Outside, Contemporary Jazz in Britain
By Ian Carr
Hindsight may be 20/20, but this reprint of Ian Carr’s 1973 classic Music Outside, reveals that he beats the law of averages. However, anything written 36 years ago resonates with the attitudes of the time. Some musicians who seemed significant then are more the province of nostalgia than admiration; others mentioned briefly are major figures.
Parenthetically that sense of being of one’s time makes Roger Cotterell’s contemporary postscript frustrating. While he does tie up loose ends and outlines the subsequent career of some musicians, a few are still ignored. His updates are also mostly personal anecdotes.
One can’t fault Cotterell for following the author’s lead. Opinions trump research throughout Music Outside. Flugelhornist Carr, a Miles Davis biographer, describes jazz as “… a music outside, a perpetual Cinderella of the arts in Britain”. This volume aimed to prove improvised music’s “cultural worth” by creating portraits of “those heroic few who … continue to be totally committed to the music”.
Versatility and virtuosity are cited along with commitment as considerations for making a difference. Today Mike Westbrook and Chris McGregor are still acknowledged as band leaders who redefined comfortable British jazz into something edgier. Saxophonists Evan Parker and Trevor Watts plus drummer John Stevens and guitarist Derek Bailey created distinctive free music, which continues to gain adherents. Thus Cottrell revealing that Carr once stated that “Derek and Evan – I like both of them very much but I’m not interested in their music at all,” proves Carr’s good intentions.
Carr’s treatment of Watts’ and Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) provides insight on the methodology that birthed British improvised music. He notes that the “development of the SME has been a gradual movement away from predetermined structures” and then describes how group improvisation works. Carr’s chapter on Parker deals with Incus Records, precursor of many experimental labels. “I don’t see the point of making a record for … CBS or RCA because when music like ours gets recorded only a minority audience is ready for it,” noted Parker. “But maybe when it’s been around for a year, a few more people are ready for it…but by that time a big company would have it deleted.” More than 35 years later, Parker’s actions seem foresighted and practical.
Carr’s prescient outline of experimenters’ triumphs and failings is balanced by chapters devoted to himself and drummer Jon Hiseman, who led commercially oriented fusion bands. Carr’s reminiscences about organizing the personnel of his group Nucleus, securing management and record deals plus working out crowd-drawing strategies, reads like a manual for launching a pop band. As he writes: “apart from prestige and the approval of posterity, there is also money to be made if one can establish that one is a true original.” Linkage of originality and monetary rewards clashes with his mention of pianist Stan Tracey, who because of his uncompromising talent was then “on the dole”, a situation Carr decries. Yet he doesn’t seem to notice that his game plan was the antithesis of what Tracey and others do.
Hiseman trotted out the argument that those who play “more accessible forms of the music would subsidize the more way-out forms and a natural balance would be found.” The abandonment of experimental music by mainstream outlets negates this theory. The drummer started his band Colosseum after touring with a Rock outfit because “I’d got used to …a big time way of life… where you play to large audiences. I couldn’t really face going back to playing in dreadful pubs to 40 people”. That Hiseman isn’t mentioned in the postscript, may say something about the fickleness of mass popularity.
Contrast this with Carr’s observation that “[Evan] Parker’s music is difficult but he is at pains to make people aware of it”. Then decide which interviewees’ musings and actions resonate almost four decades later.
— Ken Waxman
— MusicWorks Issue #104