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BOOK REVIEWS

Goin' Home: The Uncompromising Life and Music of Ken Colyer

Mike Pointon and Dave Smith
Designed by Martin Colyer

The Ken Colyer Trust
£20, including CD
ISBN 978-0-956-294012
Goin' Home: The Uncompromising Life and Music of Ken Colyer

‘He is more than a musician; he is a point of view,’ wrote Max Jones of Ken Colyer. Here, Pointon and Smith have assembled multiple points of view about Colyer himself. Goin’ Home is a fascinating book, important to the history of British jazz. Ultimately, the book tells a sad tale.

John Wurr observed that some bandleaders seem to go out of their way to upset those that are there to support them, such as sound crews and stage managers. Colyer exhibited that characteristic to the utmost. He resented mostly those who helped him the most. ‘I found it quite difficult, as an adult, to accept that I didn’t really like the man very much,’ says John Wurr. Colyer vented his hate for religion, authoritarianism and his contempt for graduates of private schools. Even his wife, Delphine, was resented. She recalls a party where Ken was playing his guitar.

Delphine asked Ken: 'What’s the matter with you? You haven’t said two words to me all night.’ Colyer replied: 'Well here’s two: fuck off!’ 'Whack! - the guitar was over my head,' she said.

George Melly summarised Colyer: ‘Awkward as an old bear, often too drunk to blow properly, he has played as he wanted to since the very beginning.’ Chris Barber’s view was similar: ‘He was a marvellous musician who became a pain in the arse.’ Diz Disley gave the opposite view: ‘He wasn’t a very good player but he was a good bloke.’ Ian Christie said: ‘I don’t think Ken’s actual trip to New Orleans changed the course of British jazz history. His style was already set.’ Johnny Parker claimed to have been frightened of Colyer. Colin Bowden believed that part of Colyer’s own psyche was a shield.

Ken Colyer was full of surprises. He was a fan of Frank Sinatra. He liked Harry James. He heard Oscar Peterson in Montreal straight after the war. He visited New York and heard the Eddie Condon band. Later, in 1952, he heard Tommy Dorsey in New Orleans. He enjoyed the Woody Herman band, but was critical of British bandleader Ted Heath. He found Thelonious Monk intriguing. Incredibly, Colyer even played and recorded on tenor saxophone.

Pianist Ray Smith recalled a trip to Beirut. On the band’s day off they drove across the desert to Petra. ‘When I asked Ken why he wasn’t coming to Petra with us, his reply was simply, ‘Oh, I’ve seen it.’ ‘Oh, when was that, Ken?’ ‘1949. National Geographic Magazine.’

In a previous book, Colyer had written: ‘I was born about 60 years too late, the wrong colour and in the wrong country - a misfit.’ We all know, of course, that had that been the case, Ken Colyer would still have been a misfit!

John Robert Brown

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