Like Nothing But Soul
discovering Jazz with Robin Tomens and Roy DeCarava

For years I hated Jazz with a passion. I hated Jazz because it was old. I hated Jazz because it was boring, lifeless and grey. I hated Jazz because it was music for bearded old blokes in tweed blazers who would talk and write about it only in the infuriatingly over-inflated language of academicians or musicologists. I never did understand very much about the physical specifics of music. I still don't, and hope I never do. Music, for me, was never about notes, structures, sequences or whatever. I can't think in that way. Music for me has always been more about colour, feeling, memory and place. It's always been deeply personal.

Robin Tomens started to change my views of Jazz some years back with his Ego magazine. Through reading Robin's marvellously irreverent and informed words I came to realise that Jazz was actually all about the same things my favourite Pop moments were about. It wasn't all about dull theory, was in fact about passion and soul, colour and feeling after all. So, I started listening to a bit of Jazz.

Not much I confess, and to this day I only occasionally dig out a Monk or Mingus side; every month or so maybe pull some Coletrane or Dolphy's Out To Lunch from the racks for a spin. It always sounds marvellous of course, but somehow I never seem to push the boundaries. Too little time, too many other things perhaps. And perhaps too I'm still aware of the fact that I know too little, am too conscious of the fact that more than with any genre (except perhaps some of the so-called 'dance' purists) Jazz is an area where you are expected to be fanatical; to be a devout fan at the expense of all else. Perhaps that's why I've always been more drawn to Pop, which is a genre where cross-fertilisation is more of a necessity than anything else; where you can comfort yourself with less knowledge of specifics, where such knowledge indeed is almost irrelevant, the power of the Moment being all-important.

Jazz still seems to me to be so much about the elevation of the 'players' to strange pedestals, and about how recognising each player in different contexts is a signal of your 'worth' as a fan. This seems to me, quite simply, to suck.

Whatever. Robin is still out there, now more than ever battling to break down both my kind of wary opinions of Jazz and the snobbish academic tedium that gives rise to such opinions in the first place. In his new book Points Of Departure Robin instead seems to aim to replace that tedium with a dialogue on Jazz that is deeply personal, that strives to make Jazz relevant to contemporary culture by throwing in references to Club culture and indeed the Pop experience. Robin writes about Jazz in a classic Pop manner, which is a relief to me, and I don't doubt many others. I once wrote that the definition of a great book about music is that it makes you want to go out and hear the records that you've not heard before, and by that definition, Point of Departure is a great music book.

I confess though that I can see many Pop fans (who would I'm sure love Robin's book) by-passing it in the racks because it's 'a book about Jazz'. This would be a shame, because really, more than anything, Points of Departure should be racked in the Pop sections of book stores as much as the Jazz ones. So, if you're a fan of Pop for its passion, soul, vivacity, sadness and fun and you're still wary of crossing over to Jazz, then pick up Robin's book. It'll open all kinds of intriguing new avenues and will convince you that there's life in that old devil Jazz after all. Guaranteed.

Now, let me tell you what else I started to dig about Jazz, even before I really started listening to any of its sounds: I loved the Style. Because where Pop naturally has always been about clothes and haircuts as much as about music, so the Look of Jazz has always been vital. How I loved all those old Noir movies that would show on BBC2 on a Saturday afternoon as alternative to the sport on BBC1 and ITV (sorry to younger readers here, but I'm talking about a time in Britain's history when there were only three terrestrial channels, and cable/satellite hadn't been invented yet - or at least hadn't made it across the ocean), with their black and white worlds of smoke-filled bars and Jazz pianists. I loved their suits and their haircuts, which is why maybe I leaned more towards the Mods than the Rockers in the revivals of my teenage years, but whatever.

A great book that reminds me of this all over again is the wonderful The Sound I Saw (Phaidon). Originally hand-made as a prototype book by Roy DeCarava in the early 1960's, the book remained unpublished for over forty years, in that time gaining legendary, near-mythical status in the photography and Jazz worlds alike. For this is a book that is, as the author himself writes, 'about people, about Jazz, and about things. The work tries to present images for the head and for the heart, and like its subject matter is particular, subjective and individual.' Which sounds pretty much like a sweet definition of Jazz itself. DeCarava of course is most famous for his portraits of Jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, as well as for his 1955 classic The Sweet Flypaper of Life (published with text by poet Langston Hughes), but this new collection surely raises his profile to a higher plateau. The book's instantly recognised themes are Harlem and Jazz. There's page after page of players, in the clubs and beyond; a quartet packing up and leaving the stage; a man with a horn in hand standing in an overcoat and beret in the doorway; a guitarist plucking a tune on a park bench. Commuters on the train or the bus; men pulling crates through the streets, doing a hard day's work; mothers and fathers, husband's and wives alone in bespectacled beauty packing a case or drinking coffee, or else digging together the sounds of the night, sharing the experiences and loves in a crowded dance-hall. Tenements crowding in on kids running ragged-assed through rubble, playing games of kiss-chase and forget your troubles in the sun, or else slightly older beneath a cliff face of brick, in just sneakers and jeans, taunting unseen rivals, challenging for a rumble. This book is just jam-packed with evocative images of a past that can't help but transcend their place and time, rising up to meet us now, today, and all our tomorrows with a profound soul and beauty that makes you look at the world around you with a new clarity and keenness.

Through it all too, text by DeCarava that mirrors the images, clasps their hand and leads, or is led, through a spectacular dance, like Kerouac or Corso dreaming New York dreams of Jazz and kicks recording like the man says 'smoking conversations when men and men in one bag sound like nothing but soul'. Women too, naturally.

So here I am now, digging out that old Blue York, Blue York collection (obvious or not, it sounds great to these ears, especially the MJQ's 'Skating in Central Park', Reuben Wilson's 'On Broadway' and Jackie McLean's '116th and Lenox') and falling in love all over again with some of the possibilities offered by Jazz. Praise be to Robin Tomen's and Roy DeCarava.

Alistair Fitchett 2002