Interview: Graham Collier


The following interview was conducted by e-mail in October 2008.

Interviewer – David Grundy


DG: The development of big band music after the Swing era tends, I think, to be something that’s rather overlooked in much jazz criticism, and by jazz fans as well. Apart from exceptions like the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and Kenny Clark/Francy Boland bands, or the Gil Evans Orchestra, small groups seem to have become the dominant form in the last 50 years. You’re in an excellent position to talk about this because you played, for a time, in the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra, but your own bands are obviously part of a much more ‘modern’ tradition, so the scope of your experience is very wide. Do you have any thoughts on the changing status of the jazz big band?


GC: I’m not sure that big bands have vanished. Economics have led them to be less visible, and the small group has become as you say the dominant form, but big bands exist when and where they can. Ron Atkins made an interesting point when he said that the long-term existence of a band such as Ellington’s would have made his working with such as Eric Dolphy or Roland Kirk difficult. I think he has a point, but perhaps Ellington didn’t want to work with those people? But the more important point is that the ad-hoc nature of bands such as mine can lead to the inclusion of people for one project (be it a short tour or a one-off) who the leader might admire, without the commitment on either side to ‘join a band’. When I’ve worked recently there are some core people I always want to have around me – John Marshall, Art Themen, Steve Waterman to name three – but, for example, I had the chance to ask Karlheinz Miklin from Austria for the Third Colour gigs, James Allsopp for the 2004 concert, which is due out on CD next year, and the mass of people (trumpets: Wheeler, Lowther, Curson, Stanko, Schoof!!!) who were involved in the Hoarded Dreams project.

I think – and say in my new book, the jazz composer, moving music off the paper, that there are various kinds of big bands – although I prefer the term large ensemble. There are the recreators, ever popular, but in essence repeating with small variations what Don Redman laid down all those years ago – what I call grey music! Then there are the orchestrators, such as the early Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan, who do something different with more or less the basic big band set up, what I’ve called ‘advanced arranging’. Then there are those, such as Mingus and myself at times, who are ‘painting new pictures’, such as The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and finally those who I say are ‘taking a chance’. This includes late Gil Evans, Mingus again, and myself again, as well as groups like Globe Unity and the Italian Instabile Orchestra.

That’s a quick gallop through what takes four chapters in the book, but it lays out areas where, except for the first, creative large ensemble music is happening, and is largely unsung. Have you heard Paul Grabowsky’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’? Or Christian Muhlbacher’s ‘Over the Rainbow’? Both magnificent and largely unknown.


(Point of fact: I was only with the Jimmy Dorsey Ghost Band for a very short time).


DG: One thing that you are clearly passionate about is jazz education, as evidenced by your work at the Royal Academy of Music. I wonder if you could perhaps talk a little bit about what it means to you, and why you think it’s such a priority in the current climate.


            GC: I think the proof is in the pudding – in that James Allsopp, who I consider to be a great find – was at the Academy, through that he met Tim Giles, and Fraud was the result, Tom Cawley was at the Academy and met his drummer Josh Blackmore a few years later when Tom was teaching and Josh a student. And there are many more examples. Not that these kind of musicians wouldn’t have made it anyway – my generation did, without most of us having a jazz education qualification (which means nothing on the bandstand anyway!) But education quickens the process, allows musicians to learn from the teachers’ mistakes as well as their knowledge, and to meet and play with others of their age without hunting around for largely non-existent jam sessions (who are probably calling Blue Bossa anyway!).

            Tom Cawley was part of a group of beboppers throughout his time at the Academy – the Fishwick twins to name but two – and no matter how hard we as teachers tried they wouldn’t seem to budge into more creative music. The Fishwicks are doing well – good luck to them – but they are still in the same groove. Tom is doing well also, and is, rightly, being hailed as a creative find. He had the grace to tell me recently that he hadn’t listened to me in college, but it had somehow sunk in beneath the surface and he now knows what I was trying to say. Which is one for the old man I reckon!


DG: In a discussion with saxophonist Janne Murto, you talk about your perception of an emerging jazz aesthetic which is specifically European. Now I often feel that the idea that there can be particular ‘national’ sounds in music is sometimes rather unhelpful and stereotypical – for example, commentators might talk about Peter Brotzmann’s ‘blitzkrieg’ approach. But, on the other hand, I think there might be something in what you say. You were the first British musician to graduate from Berklee, and you’ve taught all over the world – so, in that sense, you have some familiarity with American, British and European perspectives, all of which can differ. Perhaps you could expand on this idea of the European jazz aesthetic, and how it differs from the American?

GC: The essential, very broad brush difference is decided by influences. If the Fishwicks listen to bebop all the while they’ll never get away from that aesthetic, but if they are exposed, as James Allsopp was, to Charles Gayle at an early age then a different kind of American jazz comes into play, one that has been influenced by the free jazz movement in Europe. I write in the book that Americans have a whole load of baggage to shed before they can be free. We in Europe learnt from Miles and Ornette who had shed that bebop baggage on their own.

            Short extract from Chapter 10, ‘On not being an American’ [in the forthcoming book, the jazz composer]: “Writing about the rise of abstract expressionism in America at a time when art was seen as European, critic David Sylvester wrote, ‘In the search for the absolute and commitment to the new, it was advantageous not to be a European, not to be steeped in a tired culture.’ He quotes Barnett Newman, one of the great painters in that style, as saying, ‘I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture … are creating images whose reality is self-evident … We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth … we are making [art] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.’ ”

“This point is nicely developed by Sylvester, who says that Newman was influenced by Europeans such as Matisse and Giacometti but ‘it was they who had to deal with “the weight of European culture” … [I]t was because Newman was free of that weight that he could deal with Matisse and Giacometti and go on from there.”

Jazz may be seen as a broader church outside of America, but some of those involved have also been defensive about their approach to the music. Although their roots were in jazz, free improvisers such as Derek Bailey eschewed the style, and the word. Others tried to erect artificial barriers, proposing that American jazz is primarily note oriented, and European jazz is more interested in concepts of space, with Michael Brecker and Jan Garbarek presented as opposing examples. There is some truth in this, but if we look at John McLaughlin, European but very notey, and Bill Frisell, American but super-spacey, we soon realise that there are too many exceptions to posit any cast-iron rule. It might be safer to repeat what critic Bill Shoemaker said, when he got involved in a spat with British journalist Stuart Nicholson, an uncritical booster of most things European. ‘The argument/discussion is not so much America versus Europe, as real jazz versus pap’.


DG: I’d like to get your perspective on something I previously discussed with Mike Westbrook, because you, like him, are a prominent British bandleader/composer, although your careers have obviously developed in different ways. What do you think is the relationship of jazz to more avant-garde forms – free improvisation, free jazz – which often emerged from it, but which mainstream jazzers often seem to look down on? Perhaps we could talk about how your perceive this in your own work – as tension, or otherwise – and, then, how you think this relationship stands in the current musical climate, in Britain and elsewhere.


            GC: In some ways I don’t understand the question. Jazz is jazz and, for me can contain free improvisation, free jazz and much else besides. Perhaps it’s time for a definition of what jazz is to me. Here’s an attempt, again culled from my new book.

            Kip Hanrahan’s wonderful quote about Jack Bruce sums up jazz’s reliance on the soloist: “[W]hat the hell does “conducted” mean anyway? … sometimes it doesn’t mean anything more than handing rolled steel to Jack Bruce and watching as he turns it into gold in front of thousands of people.”

            Following that I wrote that a friend of a friend who described my work as ‘directing 14 Jackson Pollocks’ intuitively realised that I try to live the two truths of jazz: that it is about individuals, a lesson demonstrated long ago by Duke Ellington, and that it happens in real time, once, as Miles Davis and many others constantly show.

If the individuals you use, as bandleader or composer, are into freer playing (as many of my regulars are) then it will come in where the player feels it’s appropriate. Roger Dean did a wonderfully far out synthesiser solo in part of my new CD, which was one of the reasons cited as to why it wasn’t acceptable to one label I sent it to. (It’s due out on my own jazzcontinuum label next spring.)

It’s horses for courses – in one’s listening choices as well. I find I have less and less time for the freak-out bands, all seemingly making as much noise as possible, and most of it reminds me of the 60s and 70s free jazz scene (no names but they know who I mean!). I have time for older jazz, like Sydney Bechet, who in some ways I would like to have had in one of my bands. I did write a suite for the great Scottish clarinettist Sandy Brown because I saw his style of playing could match in some ways with my band (because we had both missed out the bebop period in our influences). He admitted to being confused by some time-signatures, and, at times, John Marshall’s drumming, but the end result was great.

Another quote from the jazz composer book: “This individualisation by the performers of what is written, whether it is a full melody or a single note, a scale, or a chord progression, is arguably the most important strength for a jazz composer, and developing this line of thinking has been a strong part of my development.”


DG: Your book ‘The Jazz Composer, moving music off the paper’ is going to be released in early 2009, and will obviously deal with these issues in quite some detail, but maybe I could gather a few of your views on the subject of jazz composition here, as well.


GC: I’ve touched on jazz composition above, but I believe the term is generally misunderstood. I can’t express it better than I do in the book: “But, simple though it is, ‘C-Jam Blues’ has inspired many great jazz performances. In fact it could be argued that ‘C-Jam Blues’ is the epitome of the perfect jazz composition. It suggests and fulfils the main purpose of the genre: the provision of a strong and memorable framework which reflects the composer’s thinking, while stimulating and informing the improviser, who, ideally, is inspired without being inhibited. That statement, with one important proviso, is as relevant to a long complex piece as it is to a very simple blues.”

“The proviso is, that even though the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material of the tune stay essentially the same, and even though the structure of the long complex piece may remain, the performances will have been, and should continue to be, essentially different.”

“This openness to change is the common ground of most jazz compositions. And their reason for being.”


DG: You recorded an album based around the work of author Malcolm Lowry (‘The Day of the Dead’), and have also written pieces relating to the painters Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock – perhaps you could talk a bit about the relation you perceive between music and the other arts.


GC: The Australian composer Don Burrows said that as composers we ‘get our inspiration from anywhere which seems apt at the time’. Much of my work has been abstract – inspired by a particular occasion (Three Simple Pieces, written for my 60th birthday concert at the Academy), or perhaps a phrase which appealed (The Third Colour, from art critic Clement Greenberg, which I applied to my wish to find the third colour when you put something composed in front of some improvisers), or a physical thing (Winter Oranges, which were growing in our first winter in Spain, which inspired the idea of a loose biographical suite). It’s often the title that comes first and sets the creative juices flowing.

The ‘pictorial’ pieces such as the ones you mention are much the same, although in these cases there’s the obligation to acknowledge your sources in some way (especially the Lowry). The Klee and Pollock pieces were illustrated in their performances in Switzerland by projections of the actual paintings but that isn’t essential. With the Pollock I read up a lot and found phrases that summed up the painting for me, and which helped the inspiration, with the idea that those phrases, not the titles of the paintings, would be the main title and help the audience get into the work without necessarily seeing it. For example the piece inspired by Alchemy (which I saw in Venice recently and it’s staggering in its depth) has the title Reverberations in and Beyond, a phrase I took from this comment ‘Pollock’s [work]… has continued to produce reverberations in and beyond painting ever since.’ (Kirk Varnedoe from the MOMA 1998 exhibition catalogue.) The music I wrote was further out than the others in the suite and used freer elements.

I’m not sure that fully answers your point about ‘the relationship I perceive between music and other arts’ but I think they’re all different, but feed off each other as I have tried to show above. It was Anthony Caro who said ‘it was better to go to painting than to old sculpture because painting gave one ideas of what to do but no direct instructions on how to do it’. I listen to other jazz composers, and, to be honest, am not impressed too often. (One who has turned me on lately has been the Italian Roberto Bonati – see Recommnedations on my jazzcontinuum site).

I think one of the problems that young jazzers make is not getting into other arts, including of course literature. Some – young and old have got into ‘other arts’, often with mixed results. Writing a 12 bar blues theme, followed by solos, and adding a title which implies that it’s been inspired by part or all of a literary work, or a painting, is a joke. But it’s happened often. (Suggestions on a postcard, but again they know, or should know, who they are!).


DG: I’d like to return to the avant-garde question now, though from a slightly different angle. Free jazz is seen by some as an aberration, a radical break from tradition, but I’d argue that it was actually a truer engagement with tradition than merely preserving certain styles in aspic. In relation to this, I found some interesting comments you made in the IAJE panel discussion from 2001 (, where you point out the connection between early jazz and free jazz – both aspects of the music that tend to get rather overlooked by the jazz mainstream, fads like the Dixieland revival bands aside. Perhaps you could expand on this connection.


GC: I’ve touched on this above and if I may I’ll include the next point you raise: In that IAJE discussion, you argue that we must get students “to realise that there is a continuum in the music.” In addition, your website is called Jazz continuum – this idea of an ongoing heritage is clearly important to you. I wonder if you could expand on this.

The connection is the regard for the individual, which in a way got forgotten about in the bebop period as everyone tried to play like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and was also forgotten about in the swing big bands where a trumpet-player is a trumpet-player. Two paraphrases from quotes in the book. Bob Brookmeyer speaks of people such as Roy Eldridge virtually going out of business when bebop took over, and Fred Stone, speaks of Ellington hiring individuals, not someone just to fill a trumpet chair. Ellington often carried two drummers or two bassists because he like their playing and wanted them in the band. Which is very much the way that the freer jazz groups operate. As jazz musicians we need to recognise that it’s a music made up (pun almost intended) by a group of individuals, who in their playing touch us in a magical way, but who, in the best groups. are able to put their egos aside and make themselves into a well-functioning group.

Graham Collier with trumpeter Harry Beckett

Graham Collier with trumpeter Harry Beckett

DG: One final question arising from the IAJE discussion. You say that “collective improvisation […] has come back into jazz from the early days, but that is still not properly recognized.”  This mention of collective improvisation struck me as particularly interesting in relation to your own big band work. There’s a sense that the whole band is involved – while a particular musician, probably a reed player, will be standing up front and taking the main solo, taking the applause, what’s just as important as this individual display is the interaction between the soloist and the rhythm section, who, through what you call ‘textural improvisation,’ provide a flexible and supportive base. This relation between the individual and the collective is something George Lewis has talked about in his recent book on the AACM in Chicago, and, throughout jazz history, there seems to have been a complex relation between the two modes. Returning to the idea of the big band, Ellington wrote for individuals (Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Sam Nanton), yet the band had a collective sound as well which to some extent could be said to transcend individuality. After this very roundabout introduction, I’ll finally get to the point: what are your views on the relation between the individual and the collective in jazz tradition, and in your own work?


            GC: I think I’ve covered this in some of the answers above, but I could add that one of my eureka moments was discovering that there are three kinds of improvising in jazz. Not that it’s a new concept, it’s in jazz throughout its history, but it’s rarely recognized as such and acted upon in the way people write and create jazz. Realising this and articulating it was a big break through for me.

            The three kinds are the solo, when someone stands up in front and improvises. The second is what, as you say above, I call textural improvising – what the rhythm section do, what a good jazz singer does: in simple terms, play around with the time, with the melody. I’ve applied that to band backings where instead of playing parts specifically written for them I ask them to improvise around a chord sequence, or with a given motif. I was praised for being a good orchestrator in one track on the Winter Oranges CD but, as the liner notes said, and another version of the tune proved, I simply supplied a method and the musicians ran with it. In some ways I’m beginning to think this is why I’m misunderstood by many critics, who think, following precedents, that it’s all written down. If they were to see a concert of mine – or listen to alternate versions of the same track – they would see how it works, like the woman who said that I was ‘directing 14 Jackson Pollocks’, or the musician in Canada who said he ‘felt like a colour in a paint box’.

            The third kind of improvising (after that rant) is structural improvising, what happens in a jam session where nothing is predetermined. I’ve applied that to large-scale pieces such as The Third Colour and The Vonetta Factor. (The latter, and an alternate version of the first, will be out on a double CD next year, to coincide with the publication of the jazz composer book.)


DG: Finally, what are your plans for the future?


GC: To try to keep busy, and to try to make my ideas about jazz better known. Which is one reason for doing this interview, and for expanding my websites. And to enjoy the view from my study in Greece while reading Lowry or listening to Ellington!


Graham Collier’s websites are:, which includes news, biog and a page with MSS and audio from each of the recordings., a blog, with some earlier writings and some recommendations of who I like and what to listen to., a teaser for the book, containing the synopsis and chapter breakdown, with space for expansion once the book is published and reviewed.

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