Life-changing jazz albums: Miles Davis' 'In A Silent Way'

Clarinettist Arun Ghosh talks about the album that changed his life, In A Silent Way, by Miles Davis. Interview by Brian Glasser

I first heard this when I was 20 or 21. I was concentrating more on my classical playing at the time; but I was working out what I wanted to do, and really getting into jazz. Miles Davis was my main listening. I’d kept pretty much in line with his chronology, starting with Kind of Blue, and 1958 Miles – so lots of standards, as well as his modal stuff. But at the same time, in that late 1990s period, I was really into bands like Spiritualized, Primal Scream, The Verve, The Boo Radleys – very dense electronic textures. When I finally heard In A Silent Way I suddenly thought: ‘This is the sound! This is exactly the sound I want to make.’ I was a long way from making it, but it felt like it meant something very strong to me. I think I needed the background in the earlier Miles work to understand what he was doing; and I also needed the other music to appreciate the electronic textures.

What also went hand-in-hand with that was an increasing love and appreciation of Indian music – Ravi Shankar and all those other classical Indian dudes. In A Silent Way felt extremely Indian in a number of ways – that sense of space and time just stretching by, over these drones where people solo and stretch out melodically rather than grandstanding. So suddenly I’d found the right jazz sound for me – far more than bebop, far more than the cool stuff, far more than standards. It shaped how I think about sounds, drones and texture – both on stage and in my compositions for theatre.


“I bought In A Silent Way as a present for someone and then liked it so much that I couldn’t bring myself to give it to them”


It’s fascinating rhythmically – it’s so restrained. After listening so much to the 1960s quintet, where Tony Williams’ virtuosity made it sound like he’d created a new instrument, the way he just marks time on the whole of the first side was such a radical and unexpected move. Then you get to the second side, and he does the same thing. But then the magic happens, when that Dave Holland bassline comes in – it’s one of the all-time great basslines – and people are soloing over it and Miles waits till his turn at the end. And suddenly Tony just explodes. He’s held himself back for the whole album. It’s astounding; and the hit that gives me whenever I listen to it is pure joy. It takes me back to the raves I was going to then.

This album really lends itself to being an LP, with one long piece on each side. I bought it on vinyl from Decoy Records in Manchester, which I think Mike Chadwick used to run back then. I also bought Kind of Blue, which I already had on CD. In fact, I bought In A Silent Way as a present for someone and then liked it so much that I couldn’t bring myself to give it to them. They don’t know that! I feel guilty every time I think about it. In fact, you can still see the inscription on the back of my copy: ‘To someone... – who I’m not going to name – ‘Happy birthday, from Arun’. I still know this person… Actually, it’s my brother! It was for his 18th birthday. He’s going to read about this now!

Another family connection: I’ve always loved the cover. The expression Miles has on his face, his skin tone, has always reminded me of my dad. There’s something warm I feel about that, which in turn influences the way I feel about the music. The character of the playing is so gentle and tranquil, but with real strength behind it – which also reminds me of my father.

Finally – I could go on! – the texture that John McLaughlin brings to this really makes the album. Of course, he was into the Indian stuff by then. His open tuning on the first side and the E tuning on the second side shapes the sound of jazz for the next 10-15 years.

I met Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter last year when we shared a press conference, which was pretty amazing. I told Mr Shorter – Wayne – about listening to him in my flat in Manchester when I was young and had no money and how great it was to actually meet him, and he said: ‘Sometimes life is a fairy tale; and sometimes a fairy tale is life!’ These guys, man…

The Album

Miles Davis In A Silent WayMiles Davis

In A Silent Way

Columbia (1969)

Miles Davis (t), Wayne Shorter (ss), John McLaughlin (g), Joe Zawinul (org), Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock (el p), Dave Holland (b) and Tony Williams (d).




This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, please visit:

Life-changing jazz albums: John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme'

Hammond organ hero Joey DeFrancesco talks about the album that changed his life, A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane. Interview by Brian Glasser

When I started, because I played the organ, I was listening to a lot of records related to that – the obvious guys: Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, and my father. But A Love Supreme changed my whole process of music – harmonically, spiritually, everything. It just went inside my body and took over! Since that time, that record’s been a very big part of my musicality. I was probably 12 or 13 when I heard it on the radio in my house in Philadelphia. They had several jazz stations in Philly then – and there’s still one, in fact. I used to stay up late at night and sneak down and listen to the stereo real close to the speakers. Being a musician himself, I’m sure my dad wouldn’t have objected if he’d known! I was a big fan of Coltrane already, but in different settings. In our collection at home, we had mostly 1950s and 1960s records, including lots of Miles Davis, so Coltrane was on those; and of course we had ‘My Favorite Things’. When you hear certain things as you’re coming up, you can think they’re not good. I remember when I was around 10, my dad brought home Live at the Plugged Nickel by Miles and the great quintet. At the time, I was listening to Cookin', Steamin', Relaxin', which were fantastic; so when I heard Plugged Nickel, I wasn’t ready for it. I thought, ‘Miles – does he practice? What’s Wayne playing?’. But as you grow, you understand how unbelievable it is – it’s all feeling. Miles can miss a note better than most guys can make one…

“It seemed like the history of music with so much feeling in it, all wrapped into one thing”

So obviously it was the timing of the late-night radio revelation – by now, I was ready. I’d been playing for eight years, since I was four – so I had heard a lot of music. I guess I was an old 12! I was understanding a little more about other styles and harmony. The freedom of the improvisation on the record was amazing – improvising is already free of course, but this was improvising to the point where you feel you could do anything. It takes a long time to be able to do that. I heard the song ‘Resolution’, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Because there was everything – I didn’t only hear this other sophisticated harmonic approach, but I still heard the serious groove of Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, and the way McCoy Tyner was playing behind Coltrane, the feeling. I heard a lot of blues in there too – it seemed like the history of music with so much feeling in it, all wrapped into one thing. I think that was what I loved about Coltrane: you hear the big basis of the blues, but they’re stretching the harmonies, and they keep swinging and groovin’ so hard underneath. All the elements are there. I think it’s very important to know the tradition. Without the foundation, the fundamentals, there’s no depth to your music. All those guys back then knew that. When I played with Miles, he explained everything musical to me with reference to that.

Ever since then, that’s kinda been my approach. Though I suppose directly in terms of my own music, it didn’t really hit me really hard until a few years later. It takes time to digest and add that into your playing. You have to do a lot of listening to understand it. It was the attitude, the possibility that grabbed me when I was young and stuck. The radio announcer said what it was, and I thought, ‘I have to get this’. So we went to the store the next day – at that time there were incredible record stores in Philly, specific jazz stores that had everything. I went in with my dad and asked for it. We bought it on vinyl – CDs only started happening when I was about 15. The record was an old record – secondhand, but in really good condition. I still have it! When I heard the whole record, I just couldn’t stop listening to it. I didn’t know what was going on: it was so different, and so the same – it’s hard to explain, like all great music! But something about A Love Supreme drove me wild – and obviously, I’m not the only one!

The album

Love SupremeJohn Coltrane

A Love Supreme

Impulse! (1965)

John Coltrane (ts, ss), McCoy Tyner (p), Jimmy Garrison (b) and Elvin Jones (d).

Binker & Moses: twin peaks

Binker and Moses

The debut long-player, Dem Ones, from young-gun sax and drums duo Binker & Moses, garnered the prodigious pair some serious critical heat. Their forthright improv-heavy, beat-fuelled approach has also resonated with a youthful fanbase currently engaging with jazz. Kevin Le Gendre spoke to the award-wining Londoners and former Tomorrow’s Warriors alumni about their ambitious double-album follow-up, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever, which features cameos from Evan Parker, Byron Wallen and tabla-player Sarathy Korwar

Equipped with eye-catching paraphernalia, from a vinyl-cutting lathe to an all-tube mastering board, the office of Gearbox records in Kings Cross, north London, is vintage to the core, or rather wax cylinder. The fact that Binker & Moses, as in saxophonist Golding and drummer Boyd, have noticed that their 2015 album Dem Ones, one of the label’s most critically acclaimed releases in recent years, has been removed from a shelf graced by the works of legends Michael Garrick and Dexter Gordon simply emphasises the importance of artifact, as in sleeves and the black plastic they contain, in the label’s retro-nouveau raison d'être. It is also a cue for a bout of humour. “See how we’ve been replaced by bigger people,” quips Binker to a hearty chuckle from Moses.” Yeah, one minute you’re up there and the next minute you’re not, literally.”

For two 20-something musicians who are mandatorily called members of the download generation the question of formats in which music is available is an interesting one. Gearbox presciently carved its niche as a vinyl-only imprint before the recent resurgence of the LP, and Binker & Moses both have strong opinions on the cultural currency of an album, a tangible object, as opposed to a file, a digital unit.

“I’m all into hard copy,” says Binker. “Most things that I like I collect in some way. I’ve got small and large collections of CDs, vinyl, VHS, DVDs, dead animals… butterflies in boxes. Anything that I’m into I buy a lot of. I like possessions. The most irritating line that John Lennon ever wrote was ‘imagine no possessions’. It really pissed me off. I like stuff around me, I believe in people owning a physical hard copy of what they pay for. I think it changes the perception of the music. It can’t change the music, but Dark Side Of The Moon is not the same album if you just have it on download. A Love Supreme… it’s just not the same thing without the artwork. So yeah, I judge books by their covers, I even judge albums by their covers sometimes too.”

With a touch of irony, given this lionisation of ‘old media’, we glance at a computer screen to see the artwork of Journey To The Mountain Of Forever and behold a striking depiction of a fantasy world by Jim Burns in which mythical beasts are juxtaposed with illustrations of Golding, Boyd and several new collaborators ‘in character’, as befits a work that has a thought-provoking narrative spread over its lengthy duration.

A double album where one record is a duo session and the second an augmentation of the band to include saxophonist Evan Parker, harpist Tori Handsley, tabla player Sarathy Korwar, trumpeter Byron Wallen and drummer Youssef Dayes, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever is nothing if not ambitious. The music draws a coherent line between composition and improvisation, time and no time, rhythmic ingenuity and freedom of pulse and tonality. Above all the conceptual palette is multi-faceted. The flighty swing of calypso on the first disc is a point of cogent contrast to the earthy ‘sound painting’ on the second.

As graduates of the Tomorrow’s Warriors development school who came to prominence in the millennium and have distinguished themselves in different ways – Golding as an arranger for the Nu Civilization Orchestra and Boyd as the drummer for the trio of another TW alumnus, Peter Edwards – the Londoners embody a progressive slant in British jazz. They are as comfortable in a soulful, blues-based setting with the likes of singer Zara McFarlane, with whom both have played extensively, as they are in a more avant-garde context, and this new set sees them expand both the ideas and timbres presented on their debut.

There was a vague prelude to Journey To The Mountain Of Forever last year insofar as Binker & Moses jammed with tabla player-producer Korwar, whose own 2016 album Day To Day was very well received, but for the most part the gathering of guests on the second record was a high risk strategy as no music was prepared in advance for players who were unfamiliar with each other. Binker & Moses asked their collaborators to pitch up at the studio on the back of a desire to bring to fruition what they’d been hearing during ‘visioning’ periods.

Moses: “We already had a strong idea of the soundworld. Every single one of the collaborators we picked for it. So it wasn’t particularly difficult getting all the people into a room to generate that because they’re all great people and great improvisers. They were comfortable with what we were doing. It wasn’t a stress situation at all; I’ve been in a few of those. We hadn’t played with Evan until he’d turned up, but we learned a lot just having him in the room, and it changed the way I played completely because he has his own language, it brings something else out of you. There is a certain magic in that. Youssef had never played with Tori, who’d never played with Sarathy.

“We never hire somebody or an instrument because it’s a novelty,” says Binker firmly. “Hire it because you need that sound, as that’s where the sound is going. I think some people see the harp as a sort of semi-novelty instrument because there aren’t that many harpists around in jazz and they think that the musician is just gonna play glissando all the time. Well, there’s not one glissando on our record. It’s not about getting an instrument because it’s quirky. We sat down and listened to the voices in our heads and we thought the only instrument that can convey this is the harp. A harp, piano and guitar can all do similar things depending on how they’re played, but the sound we needed was the harp. You hear the music in your head first and then work back from there, rather than saying we want a tabla or we want harp. You might end up with something interesting depending on how skilled the musicians are, but it’s better to do it the other way round. You end up with a richer result. It’s like orchestrating for symphony orchestra or big band; you work backwards. You don’t say I’ve got eight French horns and I’ve got to find something for them to do. Even if they’ve only got one note in 45 minutes I have to work that way round. In the case of Evan Parker it was his sound, what he brings. It wasn’t like we need another saxophone. He’s an instrument in himself. You don’t think Evan Parker on saxophone, you just think Evan Parker.”

The resulting blend of sounds and personalities, or rather the characters as Binker & Moses see them, is refreshingly original. At the core is the saxophone-drums duo, a conjunction whose long line of precedents, from Coltrane-Ali to McLean-Carvin and Murray-El Zabar, is upheld by the sharp interactivity as well as individuality of the two Londoners. Playing together for many years in a variety of different contexts has consolidated the creative chemistry between Binker and Moses, and, as was the case with Dem Ones, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever has some thrilling exchanges between them, whether they are bringing a raw edge to music that is danceable or submerging into a much more serene, abstract, meditative space. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the two-disc set is that the second album featuring the various guests, all the while marking a significant sonic departure, sees no slip of the high standard of performance that defines the first.

Interestingly, something that becomes clear about the duo in interview is the marked difference between their personalities. Moses is genial, Binker forthright, if not intense, and by his own admission he is the one who might call for revisions when they are recording jointly composed material. He might be the one to crease his brow rather than crack a smile. “Of the two of us, I’m the worrier,” says Binker with a steely glance, as Moses beams in the background. “He’s like ‘oh yeah, it’ll be fine. It’ll be fine’, and I’m like ‘no, how do you know?’ I’ll say we need eight bars of this here and we’ll do it; and he’ll be ‘that’s good too’. Moses is like the final editor in a way. I mean we can both just balance things up.”

“I used to be a perfectionist for recording,” adds Moses. “But from just doing it so much – not with this band but with other people – I’m now at that point where it will be what it’ll be. I want it as good as it can be but there are so many factors that can affect a recording that I just accept that the day of a session will be a document of the day. By the time I’ve done a take I know what it is, I don’t need to listen and scrutinise. I know where I’ve missed a cymbal crash, if I can live with that then I will.”

“I tend to get more vexed,” says Binker pointedly. Another spontaneous chuckle breaks out. Those who attended last year’s Parliamentary and Jazz FM award shows will be able to recall the mirth of the duo as they picked up their statuettes, and the general consensus was that they had brought much freshness to the improvised music scene, challenging themselves in a format, the sax-drums duo, that is a demanding prospect for players old and young.

The musical resolve that binds the two is paralleled by what appears to be a deep empathy, and this is highlighted in a brief but nonetheless meaningful exchange triggered by an observation on their garms. Both are dressed casually, in jeans and plain-coloured tops, but Binker’s white t-shirt bears a headturner of a slogan: Reagan Bush ’84. Strangers might take him for a roadrage Republican but the ready cynicism he evinces, a characteristic that is useful in an age of spin, is not to be scoffed at. Moses is keen to debate the point in any case.

“So what’s the t-shirt saying then?”

“It’s about Trump right now. Things are so bad that people are wishing for 1984, which was obviously bad… it’s a sign of where we are.”

“You could have had Obama?”

“It wouldn’t have been enough. Reagan is Babylon-lite compared to what’s going on now. Just goes to show how bad things are.”

“I see what you’re saying.”

“It’s just the Charles Mingus in me.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to the UK's biggest selling jazz magazine, please visit:

Christian Scott interview: “Not everyone in America enjoys the same type of freedom”

New Orleans-born trumpeter Christian Scott has emerged over the last decade as a leading figure in the vanguard of younger musicians bringing jazz to a wider audience. Drawing on his black Indian American heritage, Scott now delivers his latest long-player, Ruler Rebel, the first in a trilogy, which fizzes with jazz’s ‘new vernacular’ of piercing melodies, electronica and complex beats. Ahead of his appearance at Love Supreme Jazz Festival this month Stuart Nicholson discovers the deeply emotional roots of Scott’s highly politicised music and why he’s fighting for personal and artistic freedom

Christian Scott brings a bit of bling to jazz. At a fraction over six feet tall, he cuts a striking figure on the bandstand – impressively outlandish gold rings on his fingers, gold necklace, wow-factor sunglasses and with one of his eye-catching Adams trumpets that are revolutionising brass instrument design, he has star quality written all over him. Backed-up by his assured and impressive playing against his band’s avowedly polyrhythmic backdrop that mixes live drumming and drum machines, he’s among a select band of young musicians that include Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington whose appeal is extending beyond the normal jazz constituency. Even that bastion of the popular music press, Rolling Stone magazine, was moved to observe that thanks to these musicians, “popular attention around jazz has just exploded,” to which Scott responded, “I think a big part of it is the characters, and that’s not to say the generation before lacked characters, but I don’t think they were as pointed as ours are, musically. What it’s really about is a willingness by us to build bridges. You can make arguments that what was going on 25 to 35 years ago in this music wasn’t really building bridges, so that’s partly why we are, and why people react so openly and beautifully to our music.”

To get a sense of where Christian Scott’s music is heading, it’s important to understand where he’s come from. Born into a musical family in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 1983, he was steeped in the black Indian tradition of New Orleans. The black Indian heritage involves marching in full, feathered regalia on certain high days and holidays while performing a distinct brand of marching songs. His grandfather was uniquely a chief of four tribes, while his uncle, saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. (a former Art Blakey Jazz Messenger who recorded for Columbia and Impulse!) is a ‘big chief’ of the Congo Nation black Indian group and played an important role in mentoring the young trumpeter. And earlier this year, as Scott points out: “I became chief and it was great because it was in New York and we did it as a part of my Stretch Music Festival here in New York, that was a ton of fun.”


“You can make arguments that what was going on 25 to 35 years ago in this music wasn’t really building bridges”


As gifted academically as he is musically, he graduated top of his high school class at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and armed with a full scholarship, entered Berklee College of Music where he earned two degrees in two years before launching into his career in jazz. Since his Grammy nominated, Edison Award-winning album Rewind That from 2006, he has consistently worked towards creating a personal voice in the music that connects the techniques of jazz to his New Orleans heritage and contemporary elements drawn from popular urban American black culture into an inclusive mix he calls ‘Stretch Music’.

His latest project is Ruler Rebel, the first of a trilogy of albums that celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first jazz recordings from a contemporary perspective. As Scott puts it: “It’s commemorating them in a way where it’s referencing that whole history, but also looks to try and create a new vernacular, new landscapes, a new mode of operating for the next generation of musicians and practitioners of this music. So, its taking a lot of the spaces that had existed before but really going about the business of trying to re-acculturate all of these vernacular elements that had grown out of jazz in the last 100 years back into that context.”

Ruler Rebel places Scott’s trumpet centre-stage, addressing the changing sound of jazz as the ‘swing feeling’ and harmonic complexity of traditional bebop gives way to rhythmically complex groove-based music. “This record deals more with my identity politics, the types of things in music that I enjoy in my leisure time – I like trap music a lot, I enjoy indie rock a lot, so I also wanted to make sure there were points on this record where you could hear the types of things that I gravitate to musically and couple those with traditional elements that have happened in creative improvised music in the last 100 years, but done in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re being brow beaten with all these concepts.” Described as the ‘new vernacular’ of jazz, this inclusive yet rhythmically complex groove-based music that owes as a much to black urban culture as it does jazz rhythms – elements that also surface in the music of Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington – could well become the sound of black American jazz of the future.


“Not everyone in America enjoys the same type of freedom”


Over the past year, Scott has offered education programmes reaching roughly 500 grade school students and is also planning visits to New York-area colleges where he will deliver lectures and master classes on his Stretch Music approach to improvisation. In 2015 he released a smartphone app for educational purposes in conjunction with the album Stretch Music that allows listeners, musicians and jazz students to get closer to his innovations. “It gives the listener or the practitioner or the student musician the ability to customise their playing experience, their practice, their listening experience through a manipulation of the stem of the recording,” he explains. “As an example: let’s say you play trumpet and you want to play my part and do a solo and do all of these things, well, you can just mute my instrument and take me out and learn my part and learn my solo and just do whatever you want to do over that space… The reception for it has been through the roof, Stretch Music was a number one record in a lot of countries – it did incredibly well as a record – but the app outsold the album maybe five or six times. It’s a very, very good educational tool for young, developing artists.” As soon as the Ruler Rebel trilogy has been released later in the year, apps will be available for each of the three albums, an inspired move to prevent jazz becoming isolated by the onrush of technology as well as redefining the student/teacher relationship for the 21st century.

A consistent theme of Scott’s music is its refusal to be separated from the socio-political context in which it was created. All enduring music has to come from somewhere and have a reason to exist, thus Scott’s music reflects a commitment to confronting social issues through music, something that has fallen out of vogue in most jazz circles. Ruler Rebel is no exception, with its willingness to take on such issues, though this is not immediately clear from the record sleeve. “On Ruler Rebel none of the compositions, in terms of their titles, are pointing towards their political-ness,” he explains. “But that particular record is a more political document, affirming my identity politics and what that means within the context of my life. What’s interesting about my job is that I very rarely tell people what position to take on an issue, right? I feel it’s my job to create a question and for them to re-evaluate how they feel about that issue.”

Some have argued that issues such as police brutality on Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, the post-Katrina devastation of New Orleans on the album Anthem and broader socio-political concerns on Christian a Tunde Adjuah is walking where angels fear to tread. But Scott’s response is unequivocal: “I refuse to let folks stop me from saying what it is I came to say, just because they decide that what I am saying makes them uncomfortable,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. In terms of his music, it brings a powerful emotional edge to his playing, none perhaps more so than ‘K.K.P.D.’ or ‘Ku Klux Police Department’. This stems from an incident in 2008 at 3am while driving home from a gig in his home city of New Orleans. “I live in America, I was born in America, I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana,” Scott begins. “This is not to say that as a space it’s worse than anywhere else in the country, but I grew up in an environment where black bodies can be taken away or exterminated and there is no recourse for the community, historically, to stop that from happening. In America, traditionally, when blacks try and apply the same type of self-determination that other groups are allowed, then it’s sort of presented as a nemesis or an antagonising force in the American experiment.

“So in terms of the ways police officers and the citizenry in this specific community actually relate to each other, it’s a very tumultuous and sort of charged dynamic because you think of the modern context and you say, ‘Well, don’t you live in modern America, isn’t that a free society and don’t you have freedoms and can’t you navigate the world the way that other people can?’ And if I’m being honest about that as a reality, this is inaccurate. Not everyone in America enjoys the same type of freedom.

“And so a composition like ‘K.K.P.D.’ sort of underscores part of the problem with that For me that’s a very specific dynamic, because I was driving home, I was going home that night after doing a gig and a cop car followed my vehicle for several blocks, and eventually turned the sirens on and I moved over, pulled the car to the side. Before I know it there’s a gun drawn to the back of my head and the guy’s telling me to get out of the car and take all of my clothes off and lay on the ground and all these things. I told them I hadn’t done anything wrong and maybe he could explain to me why he was making such a pointed request, and these officers essentially replied by telling me that I was a nigger and that I was supposed to do what I was told, and that they were my bosses.


“Before I know it there’s a gun drawn to the back of my head and the guy’s telling me to get out of the car and take all of my clothes off”


“I don’t come from a pedigree that’s going to acquiesce to that based on my grandfather’s history and my culture [as an Afro-Indian] and my uncle being chief and me being chief now, we don’t really yield to that type of behaviour. Those type of requests, we obey the law and if I obey the law, the officer needs to obey the law as well. So when they told me that they were my boss and that I was a nigger and all of this stuff I made it very clear to them that the way society works is that I pay my taxes and they are public servants and it means their jobs are subsidised by my tax money and that if I ask them a question that relates to why they were stopping me, then they were going to have to answer said question or I was going to have something to say or do about it.

“Obviously, police officers don’t like being dealt with like that, when they tell you they’re your boss and you turn around and show them that actually you’re their boss, they’re going to have a very pointed reaction to that. But I don’t really have patience for these types of encounters with people where they’re superimposing all these things that I have seen my entire life. Of course, we went tit-for-tat but it was also after a myriad of racial slurs were levelled by them, and their telling me I was an uppity nigger and all of these sort of things. Of course, I had a very pointed reaction to that, and my thing was, ‘If you guys are on a trip where you feel you’re on some good old boy shit from the past and maybe you decide you’re just going to pick a negro and you’re going to have a fun day with him and try and emasculate him then you’ve picked the wrong guy on the wrong day, because none of that is going to happen like that, and whatever this is that you guys are willing to go through to get your point across then I am equally prepared to go that distance and be proud to show you you’re not dealing with a boy, you’re actually dealing with a man’. It was a very pointed moment.

“That’s not an uncommon exchange in America, especially in black America, I don’t know any black males in America that haven’t had their lives threatened by police officers. So when people listen to a composition like ‘Ku Klux Police Department’ then a lot of people are saying, you know, the reaction to that is, a lot of times, ‘Why are you so angry? Why do you make such politically charged music?’ And the interesting thing to me is that it always says a lot to me about the perspective of the person that’s listening to the music when their reaction to hearing that is that we’re angry, or I’m angry – I’m not mad, I just don’t want to be treated that way. I tried to create a composition that accurately depicts the range of emotional states that one goes through when enduring an experience like that, which has nothing to do with me being like ‘an angry black man’.

“This is like something that is really palpable, it’s pervasive it’s something that inundates their culture, the culture of police officers, that essentially can turn them into pack rats that go about the business of doing really terrible things to people because they know that some people don’t have any resources. With a platform like I’ve built, it makes the most of being clear what those realities are actually like for black people in America. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m angry, for me there’s so many layers to the moment that led up to it, there’s such a history and a collective cultural memory that’s associated in a composition like that and enduring a moment like that so obviously for your young musicians and developing people, who are reading this if they don’t come from that reality obviously… I think part of why we have the issue that we have in America today, and why we’re grappling with some of the issues we’re dealing with as a global community, is because people don’t stand up for one another. Everyone is concerned with a problem that relates to their life, but they don’t actually do anything to try and jump into fixing the issues that others from a different walk of life or a different path endure. So you have all of these tribes, all of these groups, trying to get their agenda taken care of, but they’re not looking after the perspectives of their neighbours. It’s so hard to get anything done when the world is fractured in this way.” ■

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Jazzwise.

Christian Scott will be appearing at Southampton's Turner Sims on November 16, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit:

Such Sweet Thunder: inside Duke Ellington's literary world

A crucial but frequently overlooked aspect of Duke Ellington's creative life was his engagement with literature. From Shakespeare to Steinbeck, Ellington's love of the written word inspired much of his late music, as Lana Crowe reveals

Duke Ellington was an artistic polymath, displaying a talent for writing, painting and theatrical production in addition to his abundant musical talent. Much of Ellington’s written work has remained unpublished, perhaps because – as he admitted to Richard O. Boyer during an interview for The New Yorker – “you can say anything you want on the trombone, but you gotta be careful with words”. For this reason, his literary legacy has gone widely unacknowledged, particularly when compared with the abundance of writing on his catalogue of music. Ellington’s interest in literature is, in fact, discernible in both his literature-inspired musical compositions and, indeed, his own writing.

Ellington’s eclectic memoir Music is My Mistress is a rich and insightful text, full of accounts of his extensive time on the road, short poems, descriptions of the many important people in his life, and a variety of other musings that provide a glimpse into his complex and energetic mind. A personal favourite is a chapter entitled ‘The Taste Buds’, in which Ellington (notoriously a man of large appetite) advises the reader on the best places to acquire a variety of food, from Räk Crêpe in Sweden to Poppets in London to baked beans in Harry Carney’s mother’s house. However, it is Ellington’s poetic aspirations that truly enlighten his holistic artistic ability. His most significant surviving poem was written to accompany his pioneering 1943 composition Black, Brown and Beige. Despite the vast critical interest in the avant-garde musical composition, the full poetic text of Black, Brown and Beige remains unpublished, residing only in the Archives Centre of the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C..

Though never published – it gained exposure only through the publication of extracts in Music is My Mistress, and having been adapted into an unsuccessful musical (My People) and an unrealised jazz opera (Boola) – Ellington scrupulously edited and reworked the poem, once going so far as to suggest that “the script itself is more interesting than the music”. The poem undoubtedly deserves to be read as a serious work of African-American modernist literature. It follows the journey of Boola, an African-American Everyman, from freedom in Africa to slavery in America, before culminating in a poetic depiction of contemporary Harlem. The poem is saturated with American literary culture – alluding to the work of Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot, amongst others – and is an enlightening, maybe even crucial, accompaniment to the musical composition, as well as a valuable literary text in its own right.


“It is easy to imagine that Shakespeare would have felt an affinity to Ellington’s rejection of generic boundaries”


Ellington’s interest in literature extends to a number of musical compositions that were based on literary texts, the most notable being Such Sweet Thunder, a suite entirely inspired by the works of William Shakespeare. Ellington’s ambitious attitude towards jazz has elicited comparisons with Shakespeare: he is a figure in jazz of Shakespearean proportion, and critics have written of his music as having “a truly Shakespearean universality”. The harmony of the Ellington/Strayhorn writing partnership can make it difficult to discern who composed what – “a whodunit game indulged in by the band”, in Strayhorn’s words – much as the ongoing debates about Shakespearean authorship seek to determine the contribution of contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Middleton to Shakespeare’s works. It is easy to imagine that Shakespeare would have felt an affinity to Ellington’s rejection of generic boundaries; the composer considered artistic categories to function like an echo chamber, used “by a person who feels that the one he’s talking to doesn’t know enough about the language in which he speaks”.

Ellington eschewed the boundaries of jazz by using typically classical forms, creating jazz arrangements of classical suites, and referencing classical music in his more conventional jazz compositions just as, 350 years earlier, Shakespeare put deaths in comedies, jokes in tragedies and thrived in the instability of genre that was characteristic in Early Modern theatres. “Somehow,” wrote Ellington, in the programme notes of the 1956 Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival, “I suspect that if Shakespeare were alive today, he might be a jazz fan himself – he’d appreciate the combination of team spirit and informality, of academic knowledge and humour, of all the elements that go into a great jazz performance”.

According to Derek Jewell, Ellington and Strayhorn “read and re-read all the plays as thoroughly as Duke had once gone through the Bible”, research that is discernible in the playful yet complex interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays found in Such Sweet Thunder. Ellington and Strayhorn create distinctive characterisations through, for example, the gradual crescendo of the elegant jazz-waltz ‘Lady Mac’, or the unpredictable phraseology and wincing high-pitch trumpet (courtesy of Cat Anderson) in the Hamlet-inspired ‘Madness in Great Ones’. The title track of the suite, despite quoting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is in fact an interpretation of Act One Scene Three of Othello, a musical rendition of “the battles, sieges, fortunes” that Othello recounted to Desdemona during their courtship – a tale that, as Ellington often joked, must have been one swinging story.

‘The Star-Crossed Lovers’ is the suite’s Romeo and Juliet-inspired piece: a duet between Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, who dominates the piece as Juliet, and Paul Gonsalves on tenor as Romeo. It is no coincidence that the opening recalls the first chord of ‘Sophisticated Lady’: the dominance of Juliet’s voice in the piece is a comment on the relationship between the young lovers in the play. Juliet often anticipates Romeo’s dialogue – “Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’” – and becomes so instructive that Romeo’s behaviour becomes an expression of Juliet’s desires. ‘The Star-Crossed Lovers’ is Romeo and Juliet told from Romeo’s perspective: infatuated with and subjugated to his sophisticated lady. There is even a respect for poetic form evident in the four musical ‘sonnets’, which are made up of fourteen ten-note phrases following the rhythm of iambic pentameter, each with the capacity to be played alongside a spoken Shakespearean sonnet without alteration. An occasion on which the revered Shakespearean actor Richard Burton recited Shakespeare while Ellington “stroked the keys” produced “one of the greatest theatrical experiences that [he] ever had”.

Another significant example of Ellington and Strayhorn’s literature-inspired compositions is Suite Thursday: the suite is a reading of John’s Steinbeck’s novellas Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, which depict life on America’s Pacific coast before and after the Second World War. Though initial reception of Suite Thursday was wanting, it has since garnered critical acclaim for its “evocation of literary mood and character”. It was first issued, in a revised form, alongside Ellington’s arrangement of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite. Perhaps it was the controversy surrounding Ellington’s interpretation of Peer Gynt – the Grieg Foundation barred the arrangement in Norway, a condemnation of jazz and Ellington’s attempt to push its boundaries – that led the artistic ambition of Suite Thursday to fade into obscurity.

Cannery Row opens with a question about literature’s ability to truly capture a place: “how can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive?”. It is unsurprising that Ellington, the master of musical portraiture, read this as a challenge. The suite opens with a foghorn-like trombone phrase, followed by a dreamy piano depiction of the “quiet and magical” life in Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s aural similes, such as how “the evening crept in as delicately as music” are honoured in the suite. It is in the second movement, ‘Schwiphti’, that the orchestra depicts the cacophony of Cannery Row: the brass section squeals as the “cannery whistles scream”, and the up-tempo discord throughout the movement captures the “rumbles and groans and screams and rattles” of pre-war Cannery Row coming to life each morning. Although the suite does not presuppose knowledge of the source material, the literary aspect of the suite enhances both the texture of the music and diversifies the denotation of Steinbeck’s texts.

Duke Ellington moved in literary circles: he was personal friends with writer and social activist Langston Hughes, and publicly praised his political poem ‘I, Too, Sing America’. Through Hughes, Ellington was introduced to a young Ralph Ellison, whose 1952 novel Invisible Man has gone on to become a seminal work of twentieth-century American literature. According to Ellison, Duke Ellington “influenced even those who had no immediate concern with the art of jazz”. This undoubtedly included a large number of poets and novelists: his presence is evident in works from Boris Vian’s surrealist French novel L’Écume des Jours to Geoff Dyer’s imaginative jazz criticism But Beautiful. As a self-declared forerunner in the “increasing interrelationship between the adherents to art forms in various fields”, Duke Ellington understood the importance of one seemingly simple yet sophisticated principle in both music and literature: “when it sounds good, it is good”.

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