A few months ago, I reported an email conversation I had with a disappointed reader of this blog who thought I’d rather missed the point of such a platform. What he was looking for was a site that reviewed albums, books and gigs (as indeed do many other jazz-themed blogs currently operating). I tactfully replied with something along the lines of Ronnie Scott’s riposte to those who used to criticise his predilection for booking tenor saxophonists into the old Gerrard Street premises; ‘you go open your club and book who you want.’
I was, I think, a tad premature for, in the last entry and this, I’ve done exactly as my correspondent wished; a few days ago I reviewed an album (Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain, Decca/UMO) and now I’m about to review a book, Derek Jewell’s The Popular Voice (Andre Deutsch). However, as is so often the way with me, I’m late to the party. Forty-one years late, to be precise, as the book in question first appeared in 1980, when I was a mere five years of age, and has, as far as I can make out, never been republished since. This in itself is a great shame as it contains, to my mind, some of the best, most colourfully characterised and incisive music journalism I’ve ever read. But more of that anon.
So why review it now, four decades after the fact? Well, regular readers of my Facebook posts will know I’m a great lover of charity shops, out of which I’ve been fortunate to pluck some incredible jazz-related bargains. Some observers think I’m putting them on when I post a photograph of five or so vintage jazz albums picked up for a fiver, but hand on heart I’m not. In fact, if I can be said to have a knack for anything in life (suggestions on a postcard, please) it’s finding discarded jazz. Albums are, of course, the main acquisition (just this week I found a bumper crop of Oscar Peterson, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Bill Perkins in one single shop) but every so often you’ll come across a book which is also in urgent need of rescue. Like the aforementioned LPs, The Popular Voice came from a branch of Oxfam barely half a mile from my front door. Instantly it caught my eye, sat between a biography of U2 and a history of Line Dancing. The cover features photographs of Duke Ellington, Cleo Laine and the Beatles under which there is the legend ‘A musical record of the 60s and 70s’.
The byline alone was enough to convince me.
Derek Jewell was music critic for the Sunday Times from 1963 up to his death in November 1985, which, in effect means he was covering both jazz and popular music right at the key juncture for this listener, when both styles were still relatively free from the kind of ‘manufactured’ legends we see today. I’ve known his name since childhood simply because in among the many music books on the shelves of my father’s office at home when I was growing up was his biography of Duke Ellington (Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington, 1977). To my shame, I never ever read it. The loss was clearly mine as Jewell was that rarest of rare beasts; a music journalist (I hesitate to use the word critic) whose prose on those he covered was as enthralling to read as their music was to hear. Moreover, he was even rarer in the fact that, as general ‘music critic’ for a national newspaper he covered jazz and pop with remarkable openness, feeling as disposed to criticise or praise one or other without the usual hint of high-handedness prevalent in other jazz writers of the time.
As such, The Popular Voice covers everyone from ABBA to Ornette Coleman and is, I suppose, rather misleadingly-titled if you’re going to be really picky about things. But in another way, the title is spot-on; all the musicians featured in the book (from Bing Crosby to Tina Turner) were popular ‘voices’ of one kind or another during these years, as indeed were the collective voices of, say, the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Sex Pistols, to chose two extreme examples alighted upon within its pages. Jewell’s opening paragraph more or less sets out his stall; this is a study of a scene, an eye-witnesses account of the flux of popularity (in jazz, chart-pop and musical theatre) during these years, not an indictment of a rot setting in:
‘For popular music, the 1960s and 1970s were a golden age: the most fascinating, eventful and confusing period of the [20th] century. Old heroes were still performing superbly. New heroes arose by the hundreds. More good music was created than ever before and, conversely, more bad music. Adventure, innovation, iconoclasm and outrage were in the air. Above all there was diversity. At no other time had so many performers offering so many different styles of music found an audience.’
Remember, this was written four decades ago. Plus ça change.
Naturally, my focus is upon Jewell’s jazz studies, although this is the kind of book which you can peel open at any page and still find the style delightfully engaging even if the subject is not. Mostly pulled from reviews in the Sunday Times (with the odd concert programme note thrown in) occasionally there’s a period feel that is downright awkward, reminding today’s reader that Fleet Street in the 1970s was still a predominantly middle-aged male preserve. Transfixed by Agnetha Fältskog’s posterior – something of a obsession of journalists at this time – he can’t resist transforming the ABBA singers rump from physical feature to iconic object. ‘Someone, some day, somewhere will sell postcards of it as other sell views of the Taj Mahal.’ Words disinterred from a time capsule, they make you wonder what he’d have written about a Kim Kardashian, except that in Jewell’s day a celebrity bottom might still come attached to a talent worth celebrating.
There is very little artistic padding in The Popular Voice. Quality dominates, whatever the idiom, and even when dealing with ‘talents’ that still have the jury debating (Andrew Lloyd Webber for one) you sense Jewell’s meticulousness in documenting their emergence. He’s no easy touch though; discussing the Sex Pistols in late 1976 he’s minded to call their music ‘garbage’ full of ‘anti-life, anti-human’ sentiments. The Beatles’ with their sense of sunny melody, James Taylor, Bette Midler – these were artists close enough to the Tin Pan Alley/Jazz stream that a man of Jewell's generation (he was born in 1927) might enjoy them almost unreservedly. Beyond those boundaries, he slips elegant dismissals in between eloquent observations.
Several of the jazz essays stand out. All ought to be better known. Covering Sonny Rollins’ stint in London while writing the music for Alfie (Surprising Sonny Rollins, 5 December 1965) he creates as vivid a portrait of the saxophonist as any, capturing the quirks and the calm of a performer even then beginning to attract a kind of shrouded mysticism. Asked if he was adapting his music to the story’s surroundings, Rollins replies ‘Well, I didn’t do research into Cockney music, if that’s what you mean.’ It’s a priceless rejoinder and one a writer of more vanity might not have had the courage to include. Jewell also unwittingly answers all the ‘did he, didn’t he?’ mystery over whether Tubby Hayes played on the Alfie sessions, noting ‘six British musicians’ were involved besides Rollins (Ronnie Scott, Keith Christie, Dave Goldberg, Stan Tracey, Rick Laird, Phil Seamen). He also reveals, again unknowingly, something which has caused the odd moment of intrigue for this writer, Ronnie Scott telling Jewell that Rollins’ famous club band-room facial exercises were done in an effort to ‘straighten his nose.’ ‘I think that was a put-on,’ adds Scott. I’ve long suspected that Rollins underwent Rhinoplasty surgery in the mid-1970s but have never seen it confirmed; if he didn’t then these were some mighty powerful exercises.
A piece on Ornette Coleman written for Encounter has another bit of jazz tittle-tattle that I can’t recall ever seeing repeated elsewhere. ‘A taut, friendly man’, as in his music Coleman was unafraid to depart from conventional wisdom, railing against that holiest of jazz gods, Duke Ellington. ‘I’ve never seen him take a stand for jazz,’ the altoist begins, further adding that in being ‘a character created by a certain group of people and put in the system to balance it’ Ellington was nothing less than ‘a glorified Uncle Tom.’ Explosive stuff, little known and hardly chiming with the Marsalis-era redefinition of respect and reverence passed from innovator to innovator.
I suppose, outside the controversy, what is most admirable about Jewell’s encounters with his jazz subjects is his knack of eliciting honest, unvarnished responses. They’re not all dismissive though. In Still King Goodman (1971), a programme note for a tour the veteran clarinettist was then making with a largely all-British band, Goodman openly answers those wondering why, unlike contemporaries Woody Herman and Buddy Rich, he wasn’t playing the newly-minted big band-meets-rock repertoire. Having recorded songs by the Beatles, Blood Sweat and Tears and Fifth Dimension two years earlier, Goodman states ‘I don’t think it’s for me’:
‘Youth must be served, and that’s good – young people have always wanted to make their own kind of music from what went before – but there’d be no sense in my trying to play like Coltrane. My tours are nothing to do with public taste, they’re to do with Benny Goodman. Importing a rock rhythm section into my band wouldn’t fit – they make too much noise for a clarinet player, anyway, don’t they?’
And in responses like that – pure musical honesty – The Popular Voice plays its trump card. Whether it be Cleo Laine or Charles Aznavour, the Modern Jazz Quartet or Ornette Coleman, this is a book which allows each musician, each band, each style, their head without too much needless journalistic meddling. Jewell wrote keenly observed reviews, got great interviews and saw music with the wider frame of reference that all great music writers do; he placed the people he studied in context, socially, musically, chronologically, allowing the reader to join up his portraits to create a mis en scene both rich and varied, both jazz and pop.
Written with such flair, The Popular Voice is a book I wouldn’t hesitate to call ‘unputdownable’ (to coin a word). Indeed, I’ve coincidentally just finished Craig Brown’s highly entertaining One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (4th Estate, 2020), another beautifully created example of placing music in context which likewise grips from start to finish. Published forty years apart, sometimes these two books coincide (Jewell covered the Beatles regularly for the Sunday Times), sometime they diverge, but both are examples of the highest end of music journalism, that in which reportage, incident, character and charismatic style combine to make words as powerful as the music they describe. The Beatles book is now out in paperback, a steal at under a tenner. The Popular Voice will be available somewhere in the internet marketplace, doubtless for peanuts (I paid a whopping £2.99).
For those who want to explore the era in which jazz and pop both still sensed their own purpose, I recommend both books unreservedly.
Photo: Nothing to do with public taste: Benny Goodman rehearses his British band, 1970. In the background, trombonists Nat Peck and Keith Christie.