In Memoriam: John Taylor

Being a theologically-conservative Seventh-Day Adventist and jazz musician has been the hardest thing – but it has also been a wonderful experience. Before I get to John Taylor, I think I’m going to go back to the beginning.

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Sometime in the 1990’s there was an album released called The Glory of Gershwin – and a South Bank Show was made as a sort-of-documentary about it. A wide variety of artists were involved. Sinead O’Connor. Larry Adler.

And a young British saxophonist called Courtney Pine, playing an instrument that up to then I had only ever seen in books – a soprano saxophone. I fell in love – head over heels.

There’s more to this story, but I can’t digress. I went to my local library and checked out every single Courtney Pine album that I could find. And one piano player jumped out at me: Julian Joseph.

Nothing was the same after that. And so I am one of those British jazz musicians who plays jazz because of British jazz musicians. Later on, I would get to know what was at that time the only SDA professional jazz musician – Norman Clarke. I still have memories of Norman casually playing Donna Lee in F# in his house one night upon request (he told me that he’d learned the tune in all twelve keys, and when I asked him to show me in F#, he delivered. That’s the highest level of integrity I’ve seen from any British Adventist musician).

But full-time music and Sabbath-keeping don’t go together well financially, so Norman chose another path. But I wanted to try, and so I did – and he’s part of the reason why.

Jason Rebello had so much more to offer than the one amazing solo on Summertime that made him an international name overnight. He knew things on more levels than most musicians, and he was the first jazz piano teacher to actually scare me. It’s taken me a long time to absorb some of the advice he gave me, but that’s another conversation, and I will always be grateful to him for telling me the truth.

But before Jason, I spent a little time with the late Michael Garrick, who was a much better teacher than some have understood. He was gentle with me. And now that he’s no longer with us, I occasionally look at some of the notes he wrote for me and remember. He helped me believe that I could do something.

I’ve never had a lesson with Julian Joseph, but he would definitely have kicked my behind in a similar way to Jason. He knew that I had language issues and told me as such, but Julian was the first person to talk about the actual sound that I got out of the piano. [And that touch and concept do indeed remain some of the strongest parts of my playing.] But I’ve been privileged to watch Julian play on many occasions, and it has ALWAYS been an education. I owe him and the family a great deal.

Keith Tippett must also be acknowledged – I did seven years straight at Dartington and his jazz course was part of that. His entire oeuvre has been under-rated for many years but it is amazing to see the resurgence in his career. My first MA thesis was on his contribution to the European free-improvisation scene, and his support and encouragement of my (at times wildly-idiosyncratic) playing was massively important – at times, he would have been the only one who understood what I was trying to do as an improvising pianist.

I’m not sure how happy I feel about mentioning this, but I did have a few lessons with a jazz pianist and educator whom I regard extremely highly, but who saw the worst of me in that I was going through major life-crises when I was trying to learn from him, and as such, I was a quite terrible student. History would have been very different if I’d been disciplined enough to learn from him for long enough to get good. His name: Pete Churchill.

And how could I leave out Robert Mitchell, who taught and mentored me in a most unconventional way when I was at Kingston University (where I was also encouraged by Charlie Beale, who should be mentioned in the interests of fairness and integrity) and with whom I’ve been privileged to share solo piano events with, and whose music I’ve appreciated in so many ways?! Robert did one concert on January 5th, 2005 that may have been the biggest reason for me to not give up piano playing for good – that was the day when I realised, listening to him playing, how much this music meant to me, and how much I wanted to still play.

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Some wonderful musicians are named above and yet, the jazz pianist that I would most like to emulate is John Taylor – with whom I had the privilege of being mentored for a number of very intense sessions back in 2011. It is amazing what one realises in hindsight. Even as I write this blog post, I realise that all my experiences prior to spending time with John helped me to understand what he had to offer me. John offered support and criticism in ways that related to that which I had received from others, but was also qualitatively different. He was both confused and respectful of my religious approach to this music, and offered some warnings which have been proven to be more accurate than I could ever have imagined. But this was not to dissuade me against my faith. It was to make me REALLY think about the enormity of the challenge that sacred jazz was going to pose to me – and up until then, I had not faced some of those questions.

John questioned EVERYTHING.

Everything.

Everything.

It was humbling. It was terrifying.

And then, one day, he picked up one of my own arrangements  and sat down to show me something that I wish I had recorded, but maybe it was not something to be recorded. It was a bonding moment – he played my own harmony and rhythms, and then did a cascading solo that burned a hole in my heart and mind – THAT was what I wanted to achieve, and the only two people who heard it were me, him and the wildlife outside the window of his home in Kent…

My life changed, right there.

But then we both knew that I was aspiring to something that was very, very far beyond my natural resources. And he told me stories and explained certain things about his career – about the influence of Kenny Wheeler on his work – and he showed me mind-boggling things that literally hurt my head to kingdom come and back. The sheer level of intellect that man possessed was surpassed by his non-religious spirituality. He was very strongly opposed to religion, so to have a mentee who wanted to play ‘sacred jazz’ was not going to be an easy experience. But it was the best experience.

*sidelight:* One of the best memories of my late sister was when I persuaded her to come with me to his solo gig at the old Vortex in 2002. Jazz was one the biggest things that she and I shared away from our parents, who had been raised to see jazz as the devil’s music and found it incredibly hard that their only son had become a jazz musician. She had originally seen things the same way, but as time passed, she had understood things differently. That night, John was monumentally inspired. As she said afterwards, “he was so good it was actually shocking…”

At the end of our time together, John gave me some stern advice before telling me in no uncertain terms how much he believed in me. That has meant more to me than I can say. John knew that the forms of contemporary sacred music would not be enough for the level of jazz artistry that I aspired towards, and four years later I know he was right. I will have to find new language and new understanding to write what is deep in my heart, but his music and that of Kenny Wheeler now needs to become even more of a priority for me as I seek to make sense out of how I am going to find my best level of improvising piano that combines the visceral power of my free-improv inclinations, the spiritual weight and force of my gospel concept, the multifarious assimilations of my understanding of modern jazz along with the world and folk traditions in my head and fingers to find something that is going to be several years in the making.

I had hoped to make him proud, but he won’t be here. However, the best thing I can do is honour his memory, and I am DETERMINED to do this – and to the glory of the God in whom I believe. Artists like him are exceptionally rare, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to be touched by his life.

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Music is not enough: a strange tale of three musicians

Twenty-one years ago, despite my having strong support from the Head of Keyboard and the Head of Woodwind, Brass and Percussion, I was rejected by the Director of Music for entry into the sixth form (this is two years before university here in the UK) at Chetham’s School of Music. The name of the man who rejected me? Michael Brewer – currently serving a custodial sentence for the sexual abuse of some of his former pupils and stripped of his OBE.

Imagine: I would have been one of his former pupils; one of his protegés. And my heart goes out to all the many excellent musicians who really and honestly thought that he was a good guy; those who were given opportunities to grow and develop and fulfil their potential as musicians under his guidance – and especially at Chets. As it is, Michael Brewer is only a part of my story in the sense that his belief that I was not good enough to be with the other pupils that were going into his sixth-form that year meant that I ended up going to another school that I might not ever have considered – and my life has been so much better because I went there instead. My development as a musician would have been very different if he had said ‘yes’ – exponentially more focussed – but God has called me to do more than just be a great musician. But at the same time, He has also called me to be the best musician that I can be.Which adds to the strangeness of this tale.

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In 1998, I took my very first trip to New York City for the sole purpose of spending time checking out the jazz scene. And I had the privilege of meeting a great number of my heroes in the music. One of them was the great piano player Kenny Kirkland – and I had no idea that four months later the ‘Doctone’ would be dead. It was not an overdose. It was not suicide. It was a complex physiological breakdown with heart failure at the centre. And this breakdown was due to the fact that he was a serious drug user – one who had refused medical attention despite the earnest entreaties of those closest to him in the music.

When he died, I went into mourning. And the hardest truth for me to accept was this: the music was not enough. The music was not enough. Despite having the level of artistry that feeds both heart and mind, he still needed dope, and did not see that he could ever be free.

~

Fifteen years later, the third musician of this strange tale took her own life after testifying against Michael Brewer. Her name: Frances Andrade, and she was by all accounts an amazing violin player. Raw and untutored, Brewer said ‘yes’ to her and his decision was vindicated. But it was not enough for him to be a teacher and mentor. He saw something in this girl that pushed buttons within him, and despite being married – and she being below age – and vulnerable in many ways due to the difficulties of her own earlier childhood – he followed his lust-fuelled sexual gratification and took the most precious gift a girl has – her feminine innocence – and gave her a tawdry substitute for affirmation and love.

For Michael Brewer, music was also not enough.

But for Frances Andrade, despite becoming a wife and mother of four children, and doing wonderful things as a violinist, playing amazing music with amazing musicians, the scars that were caused by the abuse inflicted upon her by Michael Brewer were just too much. But one of the worst things about her sad story (as far as I am concerned) is this: although she took her life two years ago, an investigation has shown that (yet again) the mental health services failed someone vulnerable and that her suicide was eminently preventable.

But as more and more people learn more and more about the healing propensities of music, the question can now be asked: surely, there would have been something therapeutic about being involved in such an amazingly emotive  – and spiritual – activity such as music?

Frances Andrade is dead – 35 years after she entered Chets thanks to Michael Brewer. She was two years short of her 50th birthday and now a family has lost its wife and mother.

Music was not enough to tame the savage passions of Frances’ abuser.

Music was not enough to heal and sustain Frances herself. It was not enough to keep her emotionally – and mentally. It was not enough to overcome the horrors of what she experienced. In my case, I was a 15-year-old who was not as advanced as pupils of that same age at Chets, and Michael Brewer said ‘no.’ For Frances, she was a 13-year-old who was not as advanced as pupils of that same age at Chets. Michael Brewer said ‘yes.’

Frances Andrade may well have been exponentially more talented than myself. I’m not getting into that. But I can only wonder – if Michael Brewer had said ‘no’ might she still have been alive today? Her gift for music opened a door for her. Michael Brewer – faced with the same type of decision that he had to make for me – gave her the gift of entering a music institution which recognised her talent and let her shine. But he took something essential away from her, and all those years later, even as she faced him in court, even if she embellished some aspects of how this abuse took place, the fact is that walking into Chets may have been the worst thing that ever happened to her. Without Chets, she may never have learned the Sibelius Violin Concerto or Ravel’s Tzigane. She may never have known that she could have been that good. But she may still have been alive.

Music was not enough to keep Kenny Kirkland away from drugs. It was not enough to live for. He refused to get help. Death came as a release. Whatever was in him, he was at his best playing the music. Only then was he free. But that ‘freedom’ was not enough.

~

I didn’t go to Chets. I didn’t get that musical education that I craved. And even after all these years, I have certain musical weaknesses that would not exist if I had been able to build a more solid foundation in terms of music education when I was still of school age. These days, I conduct the very music that Michael Brewer never thought I would, and for a long time I thought that I would give up jazz forever. As a result, I still have some unfulfilled business as a jazz pianist. I listen to Kenny Kirkland and realise how much work there is to do. If I live another decade, I will have lived longer than he did. But while he could never be a role model for young musicians as a wider human being, his essential faithfulness to his craft remains a rebuke to many of us jazz musicians.

I don’t have the baggage of Class A drug addictions. I don’t have the baggage of having had a patron and mentor who turned out to be such a terrible human being. But I know that not all of those who have been good to me have done right by other people in their lives. I have made many mistakes in my own life. God knows. Musicians know. People know. But for all the problems, there has been so much positivity and so much joy. And yes – success too, if not in ways that everyone would understand.

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The most important lesson I have learned is that the music is not enough. BUT – the greatness of the God who has saved me from each of the fates that have befallen the three musicians in this story now means that I must leave no stone unturned to become the best musician that I can be – in the context of being the best version of me that I can be. That is the greatest ‘thank you’ present that I can give to God, and that He gets to be part of making it happen is even more special.

God will do that for you too – if you will let Him…

A personal introduction to jazz for Seventh-Day Adventists (and other Christians)

For those of you that clicked the link on the ADM Productions jazz page, thank you so much for coming through to this blog – your desire to understand where I am coming from is not taken for granted in any way.

For those of you who found this post by some other route – and to the regular subscribers of this blog – you are, as ever, warmly welcomed.

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As I have stated elsewhere: jazz – as far as I am concerned – is the single greatest creative challenge in (Western) music.

If you genuinely understand and appreciate jazz, then you will know why this music matters. But if you don’t – and if you (also) happen to be from my church – then you most probably need to read this really rather carefully. And if you are curious for some other reason about my involvement in jazz and unique nature of what we do in jazz at ADM Productions, then do please read on!

Here’s a newsflash – jazz is in fact one of the most incredible mediums that we have found as human beings in the nexus of music itself. It lends itself to integration with so many non-Western music traditions, and it also lends itself to the expression of whatever ideology you believe. [For those interested, I was grilled seriously about my work in jazz on a televised interview, in which this very issue surfaces.]

Like many Seventh-Day Adventists, my parents warned me sternly away from jazz. It was the ‘devil’s music’ along with rock’n’roll, blues, reggae and the rest. But classical music?? This was the highest form of music – but somehow the problems of secular classical music were not as great as the problems with jazz. And we return to the issues of the previous paragraph; many people in my church really don’t seem to understand that it is the same deal in classical music. Mozart may have written some operas with some quite scandalous plots. But his psalm settings are incredible. Do Bible-believing Christians ignore those just because of the salacious opera scenes that he wrote? Hmm.

Handel also wrote some highly secular music – but what’s he best known for? That’s right, an incredible piece of sacred choral/orchestral music entitled Messiah…so the genre is indeed not as important in and of itself – it’s about what you make of the genre!

I only discovered this after I started playing jazz and realised that this music was the exact opposite of faith-denying. At 18, I began to play really seriously. At 19, I had become an early-career jazz professional. And the year I turned 20, I celebrated my birthday in New York, having flown out there specifically to spend part of the summer getting into the jazz scene. By the time I flew back I knew that this was what I wanted to do – to become a truly world-class jazz musician and be an Adventist witness to this community of musicians and to do more than merely entertain people (which is largely all that I ever saw taking place in our church gospel concerts. Occasionally, someone would sing or play in such a way that it really did become ‘ministry’ but this was exceedingly rare). I wanted to do more than ‘entertain.’ I wanted to communicate.

To get my head around that at 20 was one of the biggest journeys I have ever made and will ever make. And from that time, I have been both theologically-conservative Adventist and professional jazz musician.

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So, to brass tacks. If you’re not a Christian believer in any way, you may very reasonably wonder why  I am trying to do something called ‘sacred jazz.’ Why bother? Either play jazz as jazz, or don’t bother, but why try to mix the two?

And if you are a Christian, you may be wondering the same thing, but worded differently with different emphases and from different angles…

So all parties will get the same answer. Why is jazz part of what happens at ADM Productions? Well, because I’m the ‘AD’ of ADM, and I know that God has given me an interest in, feeling for and desire to make music in three genres. Classical music is fantastic, but there are times when only gospel music will do. But at other times, I need something that is more cerebral than gospel, but not as scripted as classical music. I need to ‘be’ in that moment. And I need to think outside the boundaries of language.

It’s kind of ironic, because for someone who loves instrumental music as much as I do, I use a lot of words in the course of my life. But we all have times when it’s not about verbal language at all. As Goethe (no less) once observed, “music begins where words end.”

That is the literal truth, whatever you believe. And as someone with Christian faith, there are times when expressing and articulating aspects of my faith journey (and also serious reflecting on this journey) requires something other than language. The Bible talks about meditating – how do we do that? Is it not possible that one can use artistic mediums to reflect? And why would I only  choose to find a pre-composed piece of music – the outworking of someone else’s personal journey – when I could in fact play something that I myself have created in the moment that is the outworking of my own journey and true to that moment? In case you missed that (apologies to jazz musicians!), that is precisely  what true improvisers do!

Jazz facilitates a level and a type of musical profundity that simply does not exist in any other Western music genre. Many people still don’t know or understand that the major genius composers of times past were not just ‘composers’ in the way that we construct nowadays. They were ‘musicians’ in such a deep sense of the word – and many were consummate and prolific improvisers. The negative connotations imposed by neo-colonial black people on improvisation and most forms of non-scripted music are but one example of the cruelties of ignorance. And this ignorance is hurting the Church in more ways than many people have dared to even think about (which is one of the major reasons why I do ministry).

[Indeed, some even believe that if a musician does not read music, then they are not a real musician. What’s scary about this is that I personally have ONLY EVER heard black Christians say this. My word, we do class and caste better than others at times, we really do!]

But here’s a very interesting thing: badly-performed classical music is so ubiquitous it is beyond contempt. And as for badly-performed gospel music – just don’t get me started (plenty on that subject elsewhere on this blog). The church is an excellent place to find both.

But unlike those two genres, I would contend that jazz really only  works for any audience when it is played well. Properly. And I distinguish between “jazz/gospel” and “sacred jazz” because jazz/gospel is essentially gospel music – but sacred jazz is actually jazz – with a requisite amount of rhythmic/harmonic/melodic intensity and complexity to qualify as actual jazz – but the message is one of faith and hope and assurance – and in a very spiritual sense.

Nearly all the jazz musicians who work with me do not share my faith in any way, but they share a real commitment to a brand of music-making with far more integrity than many Christians (including musicians) will EVER comprehend. And I am delighted and honoured to have them as compadres  in music and that they have been willing to be part of my own faith journey in music.

There are some very big names in SDA ministry who are anti-drums, anti-contemporary music, and more – and while I had planned to cite some of these names, this will not help. Enough controversy has been aroused courtesy of my decision to take apart certain statements by one well-known Adventist who fits into this category. And it shows me that folks convinced against their will will remain of the same opinion still.

And so, as a jazz pianist, I’m fond of ‘quipping’ that I  don’t just play any old jazz stuff – I play ‘faith.’ And while it is true that this statement applies specifically to my work in ‘sacred jazz,’ it is in fact the case that whatever the material is – as long as the song/folksong/standard/original is genuinely compatible with Biblical Christianity, then the way I play it is going to exemplify who I am and what I believe. In truth, my secular jazz colleagues worked that out regarding my playing long before I did!

For all these reasons and more, my team and I have some big plans for sacred jazz at ADM Productions. There are a couple of major writing projects which I really want to finally get off the ground. It was no less a person than Gustav Mahler who said that “if a composer could say that he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.” Developing a new, gospel-inspired language of sacred jazz for big band (and more) that is spiritually and theologically truthful is going to be an even bigger challenge than conducting the St. Matthew Passion  – but there are certain things that transcend language, and composing this sort of jazz is in fact the work of a lifetime in and of itself!

In the context of life and ministry, it is an unalloyed privilege and pleasure to be able to engaging with fellow jazz musicians and audience members. This is totally about breaking beyond boundaries and barriers of style and concept  ‘playing faith’ – but without compromising who I am or what I believe. Sadly, as I write this post, I can see that even a bunch of youngsters playing standards from the Real Book in a jam session will usually find a greater level of musicianship integrity than that found in the types of jam session that take in church sanctuaries after services. There is more listening. More technical facility. More space (sometimes). More preparation mentally (frequently). And much stronger song forms. Of course, there are some jam sessions in which the medium of jazz music is seriously abused. That is the fault of the PLAYERS, not the music (and this of course applies to gospel music and other musical genres as well!).

And so this blog post actually caps a very serious historical moment in my life. Five years ago, when called to full-time ministry, I honestly thought that I may never, ever play jazz again. But the truth is that my ministry extends far beyond the boundaries of the church walls, and it requires me to be the best version of me. Jazz was more than the mainstay of Phase 1 of my professional career; it was something which God Himself facilitated to keep me sane and to express some deep things in me that I could not express in language. But as I survey a gospel music landscape where market forces drive musical and ‘ministry’ choices, which result in a spiritually impoverished gospel scene, and a classical music landscape where at the highest level, true Biblical Christian faith is extraordinarily hard to find, I realise that to be both composer and performer in ‘real time’ is a gift from God, and while improvisation is hardly exclusive to jazz, there is no other music form that forces the highest level of spontaneity in creativity quite like jazz, and I cannot wait to return to serious concert jazz performance – in 2015. I have something to say and words are not enough…

How do jazz and Biblical Christian faith go together?

Epiphany 2012 has just ended, and I am beginning to gear up for what is going to be another wild roller-coaster of a year. And not surprisingly, there are a LOT of plans for music-making.

Have a look at the video below. One year after this interview was recorded, I was a recipient of the Jazz Factor Artist Development Award for 2011 – specifically for my solo piano work in sacred jazz.

As I prepare to launch my first-ever solo piano recording, 2012 is going to be a year of more sacred jazz. And so I thought I would share something of my journey in life, faith and music (but particularly jazz) with a wider body of people than those who have seen this interview on the Hope Channel, or on the internet. I really hope that those of you who take the time to watch it are edified. We still don’t get many comments here at the theomusicology blog, but we’d love to hear from you regardless!

There will be more posts coming up that will address a number of related issues; let’s take this conversation to the next level!

Thanks to all those who take the time to come and read (and in this case, watch/listen…); God bless you!

CLICK HERE to watch the interview!