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 Ken Clarke Interview

The Right Honourable Member For Jazz

Well known for his passionate love of jazz music, Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke, QC talks about the Trad Boom, Sonny Rollins and how not to play the baritone saxophone!

Ken Clarke and Michael FishbergThe interview was conducted with Harkit CEO, Michael Fishberg at Mr. Clarke’s office at Westminster with a stunning corner view over the Embankment and the river Thames on a hot summer’s day.  You can see the statue of Queen Boudicea at a stretch!  Notwithstanding the occasional interruption from his [evidently] long-suffering and indulgent assistant, Mr. Clarke was the epitome of courtesy and patience! 

Harkit: You obviously have a passion for music. Did this start at an early age and, if so, what is the first music you remember as a child?
Clarke: First piece of music as a child? Oh, God knows! The Donkey Serenade. I’m quite sure I was tiny - when my mother was playing the wireless.

Harkit: So how did you get from this to being a jazz fan?

Clarke: I wasn’t seriously interested in music when I was a teenager. Young-ish teenager, 14, 15. Like most teenagers, I suddenly started getting interested in music. I’m sure my old school now teaches music very well, but the music teaching in those days was unbelievably dreadful. We used to sing from The Oxford Song Book- in unison! So I only got into music in the usual way a teenager does and that could have been rock ‘n roll because rock ‘n roll took over and I had the usual teenage interest in rock ‘n roll.

Harkit:  That’s interesting, to come in from rock and roll, especially at a time when a lot of listeners were attracted by the more popular side of jazz, like the Trad Boom
Clarke: As it happens, the Trad Jazz revival was on at the same time so my social life, as soon as barmen would persuade themselves that I looked old enough to buy a drink, began to turn on the jazz clubs in Nottingham, where the Trad revival was taking place. That was the first music I heard that I actually listened to: Kenny Ball, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, all these people, and the locals as well.

Harkit:  Living in Nottingham, how did you keep up with the jazz scene?

Clarke: There was a big jazz following and there were some jazz record shops. There were quite a lot of places you could go listening to jazz in Nottingham. The older I got, and the more certain I was of getting served at the bar, the more I became quite a regular at the various jazz clubs around Nottingham.

Harkit: Is there any one venue you particularly recall?
Clarke: The Dancing Slipper was one of my regular places. I mean, every Saturday night I used to be at The Dancing Slipper, and it was a base from where my particular set of friends operated and anybody who wanted to look for me on a Saturday night knew they’d find me at The Dancing Slipper. The jazz policy was every Saturday night, but usually trad. I don’t think I ever saw Tubby Hayes there. It was the British trad bands that came through and that was what I liked at first. And because I liked it I decided to go and buy jazz records.

Harkit:  I take it you were a regular at your local record shop then.

Clarke: I went to the jazz shop, a well-known jazz shop, Wheeler’s in Arkwright Street, where the guy behind the counter must have sold some jazz records - he preferred to spend his time talking about jazz!

Harkit:  That can’t have been a bad introduction though. Were your ears ready to be opened?

Clarke: I was a schoolboy really. I was a Sixth-former, and I came wandering in wanting to buy a New Orleans jazz record because that was what I was enjoying in the evenings. And he persuaded me not to buy Chris Barber or Humph or anything like that. He said “Try this” and he sold me a Louis Armstrong Hot Seven on LP. The first one I actually bought was an LP - I must have had some money! And I bought this classic Hot Seven and it was just different.

Harkit:  Different from what you were hearing live
Clarke: The local band was Johnny Hobbs Stompers. Johnny Hobbs was some lad from Mansfield who played bad Dixieland jazz. They were the local group. The first track was Potato Head Blues, which is a famous stop-time solo by Armstrong, and I realised this was not Johnny Hobbs Stompers! It kind of related to it but this was different. The whole track - I can just remember the revealing effect of listening to that particular track. That’s when I got hooked.

Harkit:  So once hooked, where did you head next?
Clarke: Being a slightly studious sixth-former I then went off and bought books on it and started moving into other types of jazz. I got into Modern Jazz. The guy in Arkwright Street finally persuaded me to try a Charlie Parker EP. It didn’t come first. The thing that got me into Modern Jazz, that got me going to try this Parker guy, who all the Traddies hated - didn’t have banjos and that sort of thing - a mate of mine at school turned up in the Sixth Form common room, where we had a little gramophone, with an EP he’d got which he said I should listen to. We used to do this to each other. And he plonked on this thing which was Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker - piano-less quartet. It was Gerry Mulligan’s Walkin’ Shoes, and again, it was just different. It wasn’t Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven or even Duke Ellington, it was slightly different. We just kept playing it. That also got to me and that was when I rushed out to get my own copy of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. And so I decided to try some more of the modern stuff. The man at Arkwright Street recommended to me a Parker Quartet with Al Haig and a couple of other people. I found that I could listen to Parker.

Harkit:  It’s well known that you became a regular at Ronnie Scott’s club. How did you make the transition from the provincial venues to London jazz scene?
Clarke: I went there I’m sure odd times when I was a student because I used to come down to London three, four, times a term. I’m sure I first took in Ronnie’s in the 60s. Not the old club, I never went to the old club. By the time I first started going to the odd evening at Ronnie’s it would have been on the odd visit to London. I didn’t really come to London until 1970, when I was elected a Member Of Parliament, and from then on I became quite a regular at Ronnie Scott’s, which incidentally I no longer am. Even the new owners still cite me as a regular customer. I don’t go there anymore: I’m too old and I don’t have any friends who go regularly anymore. But I keep meaning to try the new club. I got down to Ronnie’s in the 70s and 80s - that when I was a regular there.Ronnie Scott

Harkit:  The club has had massive cultural importance. When one imagines the years of classic gigs there it’s a shame that more wasn’t captured on record.

Clarke: Ronnie had allowed various people to go in and record everything there and the new owners, they told the newspapers, they’re going to start reissuing some of it. They apparently found mountains of tapes there.

Harkit: Yes, there’s a real boom in issuing lost sessions. Do you have any thoughts on this kind of thing happening years later?
Clarke: They’re still going to be a bit for real buffs, aren’t they? People nostalgically re-listening to things by Tubby Hayes, re-living their youth.

Harkit: As an avid London club go-er, have you ever attended a live recording?

Clarke: The only one where I know I was there: I was once at the Bass Clef when Sal Nistico was coming through, playing with Stan Tracey. Of course the night I went to the Bass Clef it was all rigged up with mic’s and things and so they were obviously recording and put it out not long afterwards and so I bought it. I’m one of the applauding hands in the background. It was a very good evening. Sal Nistico went well with Stan Tracey and the Dutch guy who’s a consultant who’s a very good tenor. He’s never given up being a consultant, he’s a surgeon. He played with Stan for years. And the two saxes were particularly good. It was a very good night. That’s the only record I possess which I know I’m one of the audience.

Harkit: Yes, but I suppose there will always be the argument of musical importance, especially with major league players like Sonny Rollins and Tubby Hayes, They’ve both had these sort of discoveries issued years after the event.

Clarke: It’s Rollins just after he’d done the stuff on Brooklyn Bridge. It’s not my favourite Rollins. He’d got a very odd tone - it may be the recording. I didn’t think that the Rollins was a successful one. I enjoyed that but I did think it wasn’t the best Rollins.
But the Tubby ones I’ve got! I thought the Tubby Hayes ones were all good. If that was all I’d ever heard of both of them I’d think Tubby Hayes was a better tenor sax player than Sonny Rollins. I don’t actually think Tubby Hayes was a better tenor sax player than Rollins; it’s just Sonny Rollins on an awkward night. Well, sometimes it was a bit….it was overindulging himself. It depends on how he felt; he didn’t know where he was going.

Harkit:  Rollins has always been like that. Ronnie Scott used to say how hit and miss he could be, even at his peak.

Clarke: He remains one of the best improvisers in jazz. A properly constructed, thorough, session, where he was trying, comes out better. He did not quite know what to do with the sort of more modernistic stuff at the time. So he tried putting out The Bridge and he was trying to be avant-garde and a bit free-form and I prefer it a bit more structured. And this particular evening, either he’d got a bad reed or something; I just don’t think that the tone’s very good all the way through.Sonny Rollins

Harkit: That leads me neatly into a question I’m sure you’re often asked: Do you play an instrument?

Clarke: People think I do, so every now and again I get invited to go and play at gigs. I always say that if I hadn’t become a politician I’d have probably preferred to be a jazz tenor saxophonist but I never even got round to learning how to do it.

Harkit: I seem to recall seeing a photo of you playing the saxophone.

Clarke: There’s a very good picture of me in one of the unauthorised biographies. There’s a photo of me playing the baritone. Actually this is at a party held by a friend of mine who can play very good tenor. And he challenged me to get a note out of a baritone, which requires a hell of a lot of puff. You’ve got to smoke good quality cigars to get a tone out of a baritone! And I got hold of this baritone and got a great note out of it. But, as I explain to people who say can you come and play at a gig at wherever, some obscure place - it hasn’t happened for some years - I’m not quite sure what note it was and I wouldn’t have know where I was going next!
It just looks as though I play the baritone. I wish I could have got around to it. You need to practice, you need time, and you need somebody to teach you. I can do the embouchure all right. I haven’t tried for a year or two but I reckon I can do the embouchure and make a noise out of it and play a bit, but I can’t play properly.

Harkit:  Your high political profile has made you a notable endorsee of several major jazz events, including the BBC Jazz Awards in 2006.

Clarke: I did an evening with Stan Tracey. They were giving Stan Tracey some award. I acted as a link man. Stan played. Actually I’m a great fan of Stan’s. One of the best jazz musicians we’ve produced. Stan’s getting on a bit now and Stan actually wasn’t in very good form.

Harkit: Are you like a lot of jazz loving husbands, baffling your wife with a music that she doesn’t enjoy, or do you have that rarity -  a jazz loving spouse?

Clarke: She’s prepared to listen to jazz. She has listened to quite a lot of jazz in her time but it’s not her prime taste. She’s into medieval music, which is a long way removed from jazz. Well, there’s probably a certain link. They’re all troubadours, really. It’s a similar way of making a living.
My son similarly. He doesn’t mind it. He’s prepared to listen to it but otherwise, no.

Harkit: The actual formats of jazz recording have come a long way since your visits to the record shop in Nottingham. Have you kept up with I-Pods, MP3’s and downloads?

Clarke: My main listening nowadays is CDs in the car. I bought a whole batch last year and need to get some more. I tend to buy a sort of range of things. I don’t buy anything but jazz.. I’m a modernist really but I tend to add other things so I have a bit of early jazz, some mainstream things. I tend to buy ten, fifteen, twenty at a time and they last me a year or two until I’m ready to decide I better get something else.

Harkit: So who’s on your CD player right now?
Clarke: I’ve got some Oscar Peterson at the moment. Out of my normal style, I’ve got some stuff Chris Barber gave me of his present band because I interviewed his as one of the people on my BBC radio programme and he turned up with a stack of his latest CDs. I tend to play Getz. I play a lot of Bop. Bop and Hard Bop. I’ve got some Horace Silver, Art Blakey - that’s the kind of stuff I play.

Harkit:  Vinyl has had a resurgence too. Is yours still loved and played?

Clarke: All the LPs I’ve got I don’t play anymore much, I used to get by mail order. I used to buy stacks and stacks from an outfit called Mole Jazz, whose shop was up by Kings Cross. It’s all gone now. I’ve still got hundreds and hundreds of LPs. I must be getting into a couple hundred or more CDs now. Now the technology is about to move on I shall have yet more redundant music!
I’ve got stacks of Blue Note, stacks of Atlantic. I’m not thinking of selling them but they are at the moment lying around and in racks in my study, unplayed. It’s mainly Americans I’ve got. I didn’t buy much British jazz. I listened to it but I didn’t buy a lot of it. Because in the old days, the Americans were better in the 60s.

Harkit:  I guess you’re just too young to have ever had a collection of jazz 78s.
Clarke: I’ve got some old 78s. That’s what I started on. Though LPs were around, the cheapest thing I could buy was 78s. I used to buy lots of second-hand 78s. Most of those are in suitcases and things somewhere in the attic. They’re probably all smashed to pieces by now!

Harkit:  Is there any one jazz artist whom you collected religiously?
Clarke: I used to do the classic thing. There were certain people; I just bought everything as they came out: Miles in the mid-fifties, going back to the fifties when I was a schoolboy.

Harkit: Miles made so many albums that deserve to be in every collection, such as Kind of Blue.
Clarke: Somebody told me the other day, Kind Of Blue is no longer the best selling jazz album ever. Something else has overtaken it. I don’t know what it is but Kind Of Blue was for a time the best selling jazz album, and it’s a great, great album.

Harkit: It’s his greatest record, isn’t it?

Clarke: But there was a whole series of them. I am one of the sorts of jazz buffs who switched off once he started going cross-over. I could take Nefertiti and all this stuff. Then he became jazz-rock really. I can’t remember the name of the first one that came out but it wasn’t me.Miles Davis

Harkit:  So did you switch off as Miles plugged in?

Clarke: I heard him in his later years - very later years - twice in London when he came over with electric guitars and synthesisers and so on. Once, when he was obviously wasn’t very well, he wasn’t playing very well. But the last time, it couldn’t have been long before he died, at the Royal Festival Hall; he played extremely well and played quite a lot. Because sometimes you could turn up and he’d just be silent for most of the time, leaving McLaughlin and people to do all the solo work on guitars.

Harkit:  Yes, a lot of fans preferred his earlier bands. I suppose you were still in Nottingham when he began to come to the UK in the 1960s?

Clarke: I came down to London in the late 1950s, I think, when Miles first came over with what I thought was going to be his classic quintet but actually Coltrane stayed behind. He left Coltrane behind and came with Sonny Stitt. I heard him at Croydon, that big cinema in Croydon, in the middle. I’ve got a record of that somewhere because it was recorded. It was the right rhythm section, Philly Joe Jones and all that, but it was - perfectly adequately on saxophone because he’s a good player - Stitt instead of Coltrane. He was all right but it wasn’t Coltrane.
But it was still Miles, a great sensation because Miles had always been awkward, difficult - belligerent, some would say - and he was going through the classic move: ignoring the audience and going off, except when he was playing, and just being moody and surly around the front of the band. Playing very well, going off, and coming back for the ensemble or when he was going to solo again, which got written up by the press at the time. It added to the publicity of the tour and all that, but it was packed out by the faithful.

Harkit:  The whole jazz-rock movement tends to divide listeners. Do you ever listen to other genres, like pop and rock?

Clarke: Well, I was keen on rock ‘n roll when I was a teenager and my ears still prick up if I hear somebody playing rock ‘n roll. I like the Stones, The Beatles. The Beatles were brilliant, the Stones were brilliant. I can still listen to the Rolling Stones. My son bought me a Queen CD which I play in the car. There’s nobody like that now. I’m exactly as you’d expect a late middle-age man listening to pop music to be. Pop music that I listen to, I find its gone back to the days of people who needed their adenoids fixed who couldn’t really play the instruments. That’s what most of them are.

Harkit: Is it possible to select just a few records that give a picture of your musical tastes?

Clarke: I did Desert Island Discs (A long-running BBC Radio programme where famous people are imaginarily marooned on a Desert Island with their favourite 8 ‘gramophone records’ Ed.)years ago and although they said they didn’t mind having eight tenor saxophone records. Sue Lawley interviewed me very well. She insisted on doing a contemporary political interview, which was slightly irritating - trying to do a John Humphrys. And she played all my records. I decided to give my audience a bit of variety - although they told me Enoch Powell played nothing but Wagner when he came on - I didn’t give them all jazz. I actually played a Little Richard. Nostalgia. I actually think Little Richard was quite something!Little Richard

Harkit: We’ve talked quite retrospectively here. Is there anyone nowadays who has caught your ear?

Clarke: At the BBC Jazz Awards, I heard this chap who’s getting quite a reputation - although I wouldn’t buy his records - called Jamie Cullum, who is popularising kind of a jazz and who’s a piano player and singer. The only person he reminded me of was Little Richard really, although he plays a slightly more subtle music. He stands and plays and it’s rhythm mainly. His style at the moment is more of a jazzy equivalent to Little Richard. He’s got a thirteen-year-old teenybopper following.

Harkit: His success brought a crossover into pop.. How about a straight ahead instrumentalist - does anyone spring to mind?

Clarke: Toni Kofi: he’s a wonderful player who I hadn’t really come across much. I interviewed him about Thelonious Monk. He’s good; he’s a seriously good player. I got hold of a record of his. Although it sounds like Monk’s music and it’s all Monk themes, it was very much Tony Kofi as well.

Harkit:  The UK jazz scene has produced a very healthy number of great young players in recent years, which is quite different from the contained modern jazz scene you knew as a teenager.

Clarke: We are producing some good players but I have difficulty keeping up with them! Guy Barker, who I know, he’s a very good player. Toni Kofi is genuinely young. Alan Barnes must be in his forties now. There are always others coming along. I’ve heard of Polar Bear - I’m not sure I’m ready for Polar Bear! I find Jazz Jamaica quite fun, they’re quite good. I’ve no idea what Courtney Pine does now. He’s done a whole lot of mixtures of stuff. He’s become a bit of an all-round celebrity, hasn’t he?Tony Kofi

Harkit: Do you think that this sort of eclectic outlook can go too far sometimes?

Clarke: For old jazz listeners, like me, their definition of jazz is some other thing they might bring in. It’s all mixed up with World Music.

Harkit: However, there’s still plenty of straight down the line performers emerging, especially vocalists. Do you ever get to hear any of these new talents?
Clarke: We produce endless torch-singers. We’ve got lots of good women singers. Why the UK’s produced a lot of good girl singers, I’m not quite sure. The style is usually torch-songs. Night club singers are what they are. Lots of lost love. That’s fine; a lot of the best jazz singers are actually torch-singers.
I get them all very muddled up. People say “do you know what it is?”  And the name’s familiar and I know “Yes, she’s one of these night club singers” and I try and think - “now, which one was that?”
They had one on the terrace of the House of Commons recently, the All-Party Jazz Committee had some awards and they had one singing there who actually wasn’t any good I didn’t think. She was deplorable! But we’ve got some outstandingly good ones.

Harkit: Aside from Jamie Cullum, who you’ve mentioned, who do you think is taking jazz-based music to a wider audience these days?

Clarke: Jools Holland. He can play. It’s good stuff. If anything, people like me get a bit sniffy about Jools Holland because he’s a populariser of the music. And I felt listening to him last week at the BBC Jazz Awards, “Why am I sniffy about this guy just because he’s popular?” Actually, if people who don’t know jazz listen to Jools Holland, they’re doing all right. This is good stuff.

Harkit: As an international political figure, I’d imagine that you’ve heard jazz all over the world. Have there been any great moments for you in the US jazz clubs?
Clarke: I haven’t been there for a bit. I used to go to the same clubs if I went to places; Blues Alley in Washington, and I got rather into the habit of going to Sweet Basil’s in New York. One night at Blues Alley, I just wandered in and Rollins was playing. One of the best evenings of Rollins I’ve ever heard actually. But otherwise I’ve found people who are pretty deplorable. Bad young American jazz musicians, or not very good American jazz musicians, are certainly no better than bad young British jazz musicians - just with a bigger market.Jazz Market

Harkit: Marketing and promoting jazz nevertheless still presents a real challenge whether in America or Europe.

Clarke: It was ever thus. There were people who made money out of it. Today’s musicians may be more reliable, most of our jazz heroes were pretty unreliable people to work with. An absolute nightmare all of the time: everybody was being ripped off and ripping off and they’re all unreliable and you’d have great players who wouldn’t turn up, who’d turn up drunk.

Harkit: I know Ronnie Scott had fun and games with several legendary guests. Did you ever catch any of this sort of thing?

Clarke: Dexter Gordon. How may evenings have I left after half-an-hour because whatever Dexter was on that evening he was so far gone he couldn’t really play? And it was a bit of a waste of time listening to Dexter when he was drunk. Whether I ever heard Dexter Gordon sober is unlikely, I should think. Dexter could handle it in some peculiar way. It must have killed him in the end, when he was about 90. But you could have some great evenings with Dexter Gordon.

Harkit: That mix of creativity with excess certainly made the careers of some great players like Dexter like a rollercoaster ride. There were very many casualties along the way.
Clarke: Chet Baker was a disaster. Chet Baker became famous really because he was such a walking tragedy. I couldn’t understand how the immigration officials were letting him in! He’d got needle marks on his neck! He obviously was a seriously far gone heroin addict when he finally turned up. Chet Baker had been the All American Boy Wonder of jazz, with a great future before him, Young Man With A Horn, and he just couldn’t take the heroin. Most of the others got themselves off it if they got on it.Chet Baker

Harkit:  I suppose this is the dark side of the fascination with jazz. So many promising players, all over the world, ended up getting caught up in the drug culture of the 1950s.

Clarke: I mean, Tubby Hayes was killed by heroin. God know where Tubby Hayes would have gone but I’ve always understood that Tubby Hayes problem was that he was a heroin addict. It killed him.
They all did it because of their heroes. Charlie Parker had been high as a kite when he played and so you had to get high to play like Charlie Parker. It killed him. Whether Tubby’s still the best saxophonist we’ve ever produced I’ve no idea, but he was at that time head and shoulders above the other British players. But he was on heroin. He was an addict. Everybody knew he was an addict.

Harkit: You’ve talked about the BBC Jazz Awards. There is a strong argument that an organisation like the BBC has a cultural duty to retain the hours and hours of jazz they’ve broadcast over the years.

Clarke: The BBC’s archives, they didn’t keep it up on all sorts of things. Their political archives are as bad as their music archives, their comedy archives. They didn’t look after it. They’d got no room. It was a kind of stuffy thing about “we’re not a historic organisation, we’re contemporary journalists”, so people would get tapes out the archive for a half-hour documentary, hack ‘em about, throw ‘em away and just use them for their particular programme that week. Trouble with the old system was you needed a warehouse to put all this stuff in. No, I’m afraid that a great deal of the contemporary history of the 20th century has been lost because the BBC didn’t keep anything.

Harkit: Yet when you look through the archives you find people like Tubby Hayes were appearing regularly on the radio and TV. Forty years later it’s hard to realise that even the greatest British players were regarded as throwaway when set against the Americans.

Clarke: It was very difficult for our people to make a real international reputation. We had some very good players here but, it annoyed them like made and it was the one thing they had a complete paranoia about was the fact they were not quite as good as the best Americans. Which is why so few could make a living in America. There were some very good saxophonists here but you could go to America and find Detroit’s got about six as good as this. You would find in provincial American cities, Americans you’d never heard of . You’d have the equivalent of the British scene. In Boston you’d have local jazz players, and you’d sit and listen to them, and in England they’d have been absolutely stellar people but they were big in Boston. They weren’t as good as the New York guys. Some of them were but didn’t want to leave Boston.

Harkit: Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us

© 2009 Harkit Records. Interview edited by Simon Spillett.

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