INTERVIEW: Dr Duncan Heining (New Book, Mosaics - The Life and Works of Graham Collier published today)

GRAHAM COLLIER (1937-2011) - composer, bassist, educator, author, was a pivotal figure in British jazz for several decades. Now, just over six years since his death, a major biography written by his literary executor DR. DUNCAN HEINING,Mosaics - The Life and Works of Graham Collier - is published. Interview by Sebastian:

LondonJazz News: What would you see as Graham Collier’s most significant legacy first as a musician?

Duncan Heining: Well, no-one would claim Collier was a great bassist – competent at best. Let’s just say he didn’t get many calls upon his skills in that regard. His importance is as a jazz composer and there are few who have thought as deeply about the nature of composition in jazz and its relationship to improvisation and spontaneity in the music. George Russell, Barry Guy and Roberto Bonati spring to mind but you soon run out of fingers. For me, albums like Mosaics, New Conditions, Hoarded Dreams and Bread & Circuses are marvellous evocations of his musical vision.

LJN: Which records would you go and listen to first?

DH: Bread & Circuses is his finest record, in terms of realising his musical goals. Hoarded Dreams should have collapsed under its own conceit but astonishes every time I listen. But for something I can play to friends less jazz-savvy, I’d pick Deep Dark Blue Centre, his first, or Down Another Road, which came next.

LJN: His area of activity had many other strands, like his significance as an educator?

DH: Yes, the extent of Graham Collier’s activity was amazing and there are very, very few who have contributed to jazz in as many ways.

He was totally committed to jazz education and developed the full-time jazz degree course at the Royal Academy of Music. But long before that he was taking jazz into schools, working with the London Schools Jazz Orchestra and NYJO. And, of course, he taught and lectured all over the world. And then there is his writing on jazz.

He wrote seven books from Inside Jazz, through Jazz: A Student’s and Teacher’s Guide, with its two companion LPs and a ‘play-along’ cassette, to his final work The Jazz Composer: Moving Music Off the Paper. Somehow, he still found time to compose, make records and lead a band. That is impressive by any standards.

Jazz Lecture by Graham Collier from 1976

LJN: The title Mosaics has quite a few different resonances. Can you explain it for us?

DH: Well, of course, Mosaics was the title of Graham Collier’s fourth album, which came out in 1971. That was his last album for a major label. That was the point when the majors lost interest in jazz. Like Stan Tracey, Harry Miller and Parker, Bailey and Oxley, Collier realised that the only way to keep recording was to set up his own label. The name he chose was ‘Mosaic’. But I think the word also describes how Graham saw jazz composition – as a mosaic of all these different elements – the possibilities offered by the composer, what the musicians would bring to the table, how these aspects would change through rehearsal and performance and how all these elements might change over time.

LJN: How successful was the Mosaic record label?

DH: Artistically, very successful both for Graham and in terms of the records he released by Howard Riley, Roger Dean, Alan Wakeman and Stan Sulzmann. Financially, it was fairly disastrous – not through any fault of those involved. A distribution deal with Bellaphon that might have made Mosaic’s fortunes proved anything but. Fortunately, they broke the contract and, thanks to good lawyers, Collier got much of his investment back. Some of the records have been reissued. Sadly, Stan’s marvellous On Loan With Gratitude isn’t one of them, though I think he might have a couple of copies left.

LJN: How would you sum up his notion of what jazz in an ideal form is there for?

DH: Graham Collier’s ideas developed from his early years in the music but the core was there from the beginning. To get the full picture, you have to read his last book The Jazz Composer: Moving Music Off the Paper. Essentially, for Graham all areas of the music could be a means to improvisation – not just the melodies, harmonies and rhythms but even the form of the composition itself. His approach was modular, not unlike Barry Guy’s or George Russell’s - though the results are very different. That means that different sections could be moved around by the conductor/composer to create different trajectories within the music. It means that there can never be a definitive version of a composition. Jazz, as an improvised music, is always unfinished and he summed this up with his mantra – ‘jazz happens in real time, once’. The best way of hearing this is to compare the two versions of Mosaics, which were recorded on separate evenings at the Torrington pub.

LJN: How do you think the fact that Collier was a gay man affected his position in jazz?

DH: I think Graham was in some ways an outsider on the scene. That may have had something to do with being gay but I think it was also about coming from a working class background. No matter what he achieved, there seemed to be this sense it wasn’t enough, that he never felt secure. And that’s very sad. But Graham was quite clear that he never experienced prejudice from fellow musicians, though the same can’t be said for some jazz fans and a couple of jazz journalists, one of whom was the late Jim Godbolt - but then that’s hardly a surprise. Graham Collier was a jazz musician, who was gay. Not a ‘gay jazz musician’ whatever the hell that might be!

LJN: He was also a structured and organized person – do you have examples of this?

DH: I don’t know what he was like before his years as a band boy with the Green Howards but I don’t think that training ever left him. He was incredibly focused in the way he managed his bands. John Marshall told me that Graham had a system of A, B and C gigs. ‘A’ gigs you couldn’t miss. ‘B’ gigs were negotiable and ‘C’ gigs, if you could find a dep that was cool. He was amazing at generating work opportunities – taking his groups on tour, they would give a talk and demonstration in a school in the morning and then do the gig in the evening. And, of course, he got many commissions from regional arts festivals that other band leaders overlooked as sources of work.

LJN: Had you met or interviewed him during his lifetime?

DH: We met a few times and I interviewed him on two or three occasions but my favourite experience of Graham was at the Jazzwise 10th birthday celebrations at the Pizza in Dean Street. Jon Newey had got quite a coup by getting EST to play a short set and managed to keep it secret. Of course, everyone was cheering and shouting. All power to Jon but I was never a fan. I looked at Graham and he just raised his eyebrows in response and I just shrugged back. To him – and me – it was emperor’s new clothes. It was a moment that kind of summed him up.

LJN: He once talked to me about his role as effectively an instigator, maybe THE instigator of Loose Tubes. What is your take on that?

DH: Very definitely. Graham used some money left over from an Arts Council grant to create a rehearsal band for young musicians, who, as he said, were put off by the ‘NYJO ethos of louder, higher, faster’. And that band morphed into Loose Tubes. The parting of the ways was somewhat acrimonious at the time but, I think, all those involved with Loose Tubes would acknowledge Collier’s contribution. But then look at the guys in that band – Steve Berry, Eddie Parker, Ashley Slater, Django and the rest. They were always going to go their own way in the end and the results speak volumes.

Deep Dark Blue Centre septet - Graham Collier, Dave Aaron-flute, Mike Gibbs -trombone, Harry Beckett-trumpet,
Karl Jenkins-oboe, Phil Lee - guitar, John Marshall drums
Photo courtesy of Cuneiform Records

LJN: What was the process which led to the book? Did you approach the publisher Equinox or they you? 

DH: Graham had asked me to be his literary executor. I was flattered to be asked but had never expected to pick up the baton so soon. I was going through his papers to create an archive and realised a commentary would be helpful. I got to 16000 words and thought, ‘I’m writing a bloody biography’. So, I contacted my publisher and they said, ‘go ahead’.

LJN: Did your view of Graham Collier change at all, as you interviewed people or as you wrote? 

DH: That’s a difficult one. Henry James’ biographer said something about the task requiring the writer to fall in love with the subject. I suppose the corollary would be that you need to fall out of love with them to actually write the thing! It’s a balance. I think I grew to respect him, his music and career in jazz more and more – not uncritically but I came to realise what an interesting character he was. Very complex and, in some ways, contradictory. He could be awkward and bloody-minded but very kind, warm and generous. His partner John Gill and Jonathan Freeman-Attwood from the Royal Academy of Music both said that with Graham he could be easily moved to tears of joy or when he was hurt by something. He could shrug things off that would make others furious but then be driven to rage by something seemingly trivial. Fascinating guy.

LJN: You are his literary executor. Is there an unpublished masterpiece in his archive?

DH: I don’t think so. Graham’s partner, John Gill died a few years after Graham. There may be material on Graham’s computer or amongst his other effects. A definitive answer will have to wait until John’s executor is able to bring everything back to the UK from Skopelos where they were living. I do, however, have a CDR of his Plain Song and Mountain Birds in Cologne, which is a third stream piece for jazz improvisers and symphony orchestra, and a couple of other things, if any label owner is interested!

LJN: Is there one of his printed books that has been influential for you?

DH: His last book, The Jazz Composer: Moving Music Off The Paper. I think it encapsulates his vision of what jazz and jazz composition could be at its very best. The reason it strikes a chord for me is that, rarely for books on jazz, it addresses questions of value and aesthetics – perhaps not entirely satisfactorily – but these are issues that really should be of paramount concern to jazz musicians, makers, shakers and fans. I very much hope that that message in the biography hits home.

Dr. Duncan Heining in 2009 with his dog Dylan

LJN: What  else are you working on at the moment?

DH: I have just got the paperback rights back to my George Russell biography. I am very proud of that book. Russell is one of the seminal figures in jazz and more people need to know about him and his contribution to jazz. So, I hope to get that out soon. The other project is more long-term and looks at the relationship between jazz and vernacular music, so-called ‘world musics’. But that’s still ‘in development’, as they say in Hollywood.

LJN: The publisher’s page about the book has “General Reader” as the target audience. Do you have a reader in mind that you have written the book for?

DH: All I can say is that I try to write books that stand up academically but which are very accessible to the general reader, whoever she is! It’s a bit of a balancing act and I don’t think anyone who knows me well would use the word ‘balanced’ to describe me. Let others judge whether I got right with Mosaics.   

LINK: Mosaics - The Life and Work of Graham Collier at Equinox Publishing

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