Until the mid-sixties, jazz was the domain of Herculean drug gobblers – tar-encrusted-lung machines who had mastered circular breathing and rat-a-tat-tat drum patterns who might occasionally jolt awake sleepy bar patrons in swanky clubs in New York and New Orleans, or the bowler-hatted trad plodders playing ‘Three Blind Mice’ in unusual time-signatures to mutton-chopped wife beaters. The 1960s introduced more interesting drugs; a broader sense of humour, style and personality and genuine freedom to experiment with sound without fear of being labelled a crackpot…or perhaps a willingness to be accused of crackpotism and to embrace it. Underground London’s three discs show not just an incredibly diverse array of musicians coming from almost perversely jarring angles but a glimpse of London in the 60s which the cultural history books are rather keener to skip over – bloated self-indulgence, sixth form poets and a scene which rejoiced in celebrating the pissing about that only the post-war middle classes could get away with.
It is appropriate that the set is kicked off by Ornette Coleman, a musician who, as much a anyone, pushed free jazz into the maelstrom, slightly younger than the likes of Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy (both of whom also feature here) and with no existing style from which to suddenly perform a huge shift. Paired in with the ‘musical turns’ are poets: Allen Ginsberg offering some insight into the current political climate (“America – go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” in ‘America’); Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s ‘Dog’, which certainly sounds as if it came from a dog, and Jack Kerouac, whose reading from his own ‘On the Road’ most likely rang few bells with audiences who proudly displayed the book on their coffee table with its pages resolutely unopened. So far, so pompous, though that’s in no way to suggest the tracks on offer are not fascinating and far from declaring that some of the music here isn’t sensational.
Sun Ra sounds no less odd now than he did in 1960 when one of his standards, ‘Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus’ was recorded. The drummer, Jon Hardy, seems to occasionally be taking aim at a fly that lands on his snare; Ra himself seems surprised to be introduced to his piano and eventually leans on the keys to shut it up; Ronnie Boykins, the bassist, hasn’t been told to plug his guitar in and so attempts to saw it in half instead – he is also credited as playing ‘space gong’. It’s daft, fun, inventive and skilful, a huge “fuck off” to the mainstream, everything you hope jazz would be but often isn’t.
Other treats in store for you include Christopher Logue, whose performance with The Tony Kinsey Quintet, ‘Can You Trap Shadows Like This?’ manages in just over one and a half minutes to produce the campest song ever recorded, a combination of Frankie Howerd “Ooooh, Missus!” and Quentin Crisp archness over a tumbling jazz backdrop. It’s music as expression and provocation, a whole decade before he appeared as Cardinal Richelieu in Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’. The musicians employing electricity and technology as part of their arsenal offer a much needed counterpoint to the dumph dumph of bass strings and hissing cymbals: the baying whale sounds of Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe’s ‘The Ocean’; Luciano Berio and Cathy Berberian’s heart-attack inducing nightmare, ‘Visage’; György Ligeti’s ‘Atmosphères’ (later used in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’). Oddly, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ‘Concrète Étude’ sounds the most modern of all, yet predates every other piece by years, recorded as it was in 1952.
The copious notes which accompany Underground London make the excellent point that the jazz scene was in no way, ‘the new rock n roll’ or indeed had any fascination for the protagonists in that world. Jazz musicians made music because, shock horror, they were musicians. They were not middle class kids who failed to get into university faffing around at art school, falling into music because it was a last chance saloon to make a career not following their dad into accountancy. If they wanted nuclear disarmament, they weren’t bothering farmers with their placards, they were pushing themselves to the limit, aware that their chosen field was now crammed with artists from different cultures around the world now able to perform for audiences who would previously have mocked them (hello Ravi Shankar and Yusef Lateef). Difficult and unruly, they could also be stunningly beautiful (Modern Jazz Quartet’s ‘Lonely Woman’ has a vibraphone that could melt the steeliest of hearts) Underground London shows Britain as inclusive as it is today – the door is open provided you come with your own transport and you pay your bills.