sat 22/06/2024

Alyn Shipton: On Jazz - A Personal Journey - digging jazz deeply and musically | reviews, news & interviews

Alyn Shipton: On Jazz - A Personal Journey - digging jazz deeply and musically

Alyn Shipton: On Jazz - A Personal Journey - digging jazz deeply and musically

Alyn Shipton is a meticulous historian

Alyn Shipton with fellow bassist Henry Grimes, Cheltenham, 2009Tim Dickeson

“I suppose you’re going to ask all the usual questions...?” When Keith Jarrett was interviewed by Alyn Shipton for the very first time, the pianist, who could often be tetchy in such situations, clearly had low expectations. Deftly, Shipton asked him what it had been like to play the baroque organ in the abbey at Ottobeuren for the recording of Hymns/Spheres for ECM in 1976.

“His eyes lit up,” Shipton remembers. “[He told] me how he had been ‘immediately lost in its world of sound’... and we were away...”

This anecdote – which is not in the book On Jazz - A Personal Journey itself, but in an interview the author has done to promote it – is revealing. Shipton has had a prolific involvement in jazz as broadcaster, author, publisher, critic and jazz historian, but that is not the whole story. Whereas Shipton has “either published or co-edited” no fewer than 24 biographies of musicians, has been broadcasting for the BBC more or less continuously since 1989, and has based the book itself on around 100 of the vast number of interviews he has done, the list of his occupations/professions includes one more, and it is a significant one: “working musician”. Active involvement in and musical literacy always shape the way he approaches the vast subject of jazz.

On Jazz, says the preface, “draws together oral history, personal experience and jazz criticism in an attempt to discover more about the circumstances and settings in which jazz was and has continued to be created.” Shipton is always assiduous in seeking out and counter-checking stories in order to improve their reliability. There are good examples of this in action in the chapter on Oscar Peterson, where he interviewed not only the leader, but also bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen, and is able to tell their interlocking stories. A similar case is that of the quotes from rhythm section players from the Basie and Ellington bands.

One early mentor who set standards for such thoroughness in his day, and whose guidance and influence Shipton gladly acknowledges, is the trumpeter and writer John Chilton. Shipton is similarly driven to seek out and tell reliable and interesting stories about the music. And there are good yarns and perspectives a-plenty. The chapter “The Dawn of Fusion” has historical insights into the jazz-rock movement of the early '70s, with the sequence of interviewees including John McLaughlin, Jack Bruce, Ian Carr and Billy Cobham. When it comes to understanding why Ornette Coleman was such an important innovator, Coleman’s own thoughts are followed, deepened and balanced by those of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and George Russell.

This meticulousness is a Shipton hallmark. For example, he continues to keep a permanently up-to-date log of his activity with a discography of the music played on every episode of BBC Radio 3’s weekend show Jazz Record Requests in the “blog” section of his website. The fact that Shipton always carefully kept and filed his interviews, either in the form of typed transcriptions (in the early days) or audio files (later), has allowed this book to be written and now to be published.

He deals with tricky issues in a similarly ordered fashion. So, when the “complex questions” raised when “a white European writer” aims to represent “the Black experience in America”, Shipton addresses it candidly and head-on in the Preface. 

This book does dig deep into the detail of jazz, which will fascinate some, and may put off others. The level of care to which Shipton goes in order to ensure that his narratives are correct and reliable sometimes feels like a dying art. Among jazz writers, there are others who care deeply in a similar way that their stories are right: the South African specialist Gwen Ansell, the pianist Ethan Iverson and the Detroit writer Mark Stryker, for example, immediately come to mind as people who uphold such standards. If only such care for the facts and the truth was more prevalent in our society.


A prolific involvement in jazz as broadcaster, author, publisher, critic, jazz historian... and musician


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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