Graham Collier - Big It Up

Composer Graham Collier turns 70 this year. One of the leading UK jazz composers of his generation, his work has recently been rediscovered by younger musicians and audiences with a taste for his sophisticated arrangements. Duncan Heining talks to Collier, now resident in Spain, about his career and plans for his special birthday year. Graham Collier - Big It Up
It was back in 1961 that Graham Collier arrived in Boston with just his double bass and a change or two of clothes in tow. Graham, now one of our foremost jazz composers, was the first British student to win a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee School of Music. He was 24 years old and not long out of the army.

Born in Tyneside but brought up in Luton, Graham joined up as a band boy at 16, “not to get away from home but from Luton, which was a dreadful place,” he explains. He’d travelled with the army to Hong Kong and Germany and was known to have a liking and talent for jazz and dance band music. And so, his colleagues encouraged him to go in for a Downbeat competition for a scholarship to Berklee. 

It was an opportunity that Graham grabbed with both hands. Now, as he turns 70 this month, he looks over a career marked both by achievement and the inevitable struggles of the jazz world. Over those decades that followed, he’s been a musician, a composer, an author and an educator. And it all really began at Berklee.

“So, I entered the competition and got a very small scholarship but because I’d never lived in London, it was a way of going somewhere to learn, rather than go to London to work as a musician and scuffle and starve. So, I went to Boston and starved and scuffled, while I was learning.”

It was a golden age for Berklee. Mike Gibbs, Gary Burton, Sadao Watanabe, Heinz Bigler and Gabor Szabo were all there at that time, as Graham remembers. “We were the cream of it in one sense. We got on the recording band and were recognised as having the skills. We all had to work hard – except Gary Burton. [laughing] Gary was so big-headed then. He was just 17 and already a great vibes player.”

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