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The house of Buddy Bolden

buddy-boldenThe other day I read two stories about famous people’s homes. One was about the house in Austria in which Adolf Hitler was born. Finally the authorities are thinking of razing it to the ground, to prevent its use as a neo-Nazi pilgrimage site (although they’re nervous about it being interpreted as an attempt to erase the country’s dark past). The other was about Buddy Bolden’s house in New Orleans, which is lying derelict in the grounds of a mega-church and could be demolished at any moment to make way for car parking.

A piece by John McCusker in The Lens, a New Orleans news website, depicted the single-storey wooden house at 2309 First Street in Central City, a once poor quarter now in the process of rapid gentrification. It was where the great cornetist lived with his mother and sister until he was taken away to spend the last 25 years of his life in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum, where he died in 1931, aged 54.

Anyone familiar with Michael Ondaatje’s great book Coming Through Slaughter, a wonderfully vivid imagining of Bolden’s life, will feel something stirring while looking at McCusker’s photographs of the house. They might even feel moved to write to Bishop Paul Morton of the Greater St Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, which shows no sign of making good on its promise to restore the building in recognition of its history — or even simply to stop it falling to bits and put up a commemorative plaque.

Gil Evans once told me that Louis Armstrong told him that Miles Davis’s tone reminded him of the way Bolden sounded. Armstrong, of course, had heard Bolden at first hand. You and I have no idea of whether he really was, as his legend suggests, the first jazz musician. But there are enough verifiably true elements of the legend to make him a valuable symbol of America’s great art form. Is there still time for Barack Obama to make some sort of presidential decree?

The People’s Palace

roundhouse-1The last few things I’ve seen at the Roundhouse —  Willie Colón on his farewell tour, Bob Dylan on good form, a wonderful performance on authentic instruments of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the reformed Television, and John Cale — seem pretty typical of the musical variety the circular brick building at Chalk Farm has been offering London since Arnold Wesker had the idea of repurposing the old engine shed as a centre for the arts in 1966. Earlier first-hand memories of the place include Nico’s first London concert, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Ramones, a Company week featuring Derek Bailey with assorted friends, Gil Evans’s British band, and a Fairport Convention night with Fotheringay and Matthews’ Southern Comfort.

Tomorrow night an excellent BBC4 Arena documentary titled The Roundhouse: The People’s Palace tells the building’s story, starting in 1847, when it began 10 years of service to the railway before being sold to Gilbey’s for use as a gin warehouse, a function it maintained for 100 years. Anthony Wall, the programme’s director, assembles some marvellous archive film, both performance and interview, including footage of the Dialectics of Liberation conference in 1967, with a platform featuring Stokely Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg, Emmett Grogan and a sinister-looking R. D. Laing. Others who flash past through the years include Gyorgy Ligeti, James Brown, Peter Brook and the Clash.

The Roundhouse has struggled to survive at various times during its half-century as a home for arts, but the purchase of the building by the toy manufacturer Sir Torquil Norman began a process that led to the reopening in 2006 and seems to have guaranteed it a future. The film’s climax comes with Vanessa Kisuule reading “Identity Jenga”, the stirring poem with which she won first prize at the Roundhouse’s Poetry Slam competition in 2014. Its impact ensures that the programme does not fade away into nostalgia but properly reflects the role the building plays in the cultural life of contemporary London.

Bob Dylan and Barbara Allen


Not surprisingly, I’ve spent more than the usual amount of time over the last two or three days listening to Bob Dylan, although it wasn’t because I needed to persuade myself that he deserved the Nobel committee’s 2016 prize for literature. Funnily enough, the track I’ve ended up playing constantly is one that he didn’t write: the Anglo-Scottish ballad “Barbara Allen”, which dates back to the mid-17th century. It is said to have been a staple of his repertoire in his early days in the Greenwich Village folk clubs, and he has credited it as one of the traditional ballads which taught him that songs could be more than three minutes long. In that sense it played a part in the creation of “Desolation Row”, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, “Tangled up in Blue”, “Isis”, “Brownsville Girl”, “‘Cross the Green Mountain” and his other epics.

A live performance of the song from his apprentice years is included on Live at the Gaslight 1962, taped in the MacDougal Street basement in October that year, while he was in the middle of recording Freewheelin’. There are three things that give it a prominent place in my list of secret Dylan favourites (alongside “House Carpenter”, “Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Going, Going, Gone”, “Changing of the Guard” and the live version of “Queen Jane Approximately” with the Grateful Dead).

The first and most obvious is his tone, for which only the word “tender” will do, and which is perfectly suited to a tale that ends with the entwining of a red rose and a briar growing out of the graves of the two protagonists. As so often from his performances in this period, you can only wonder at the depth of feeling with which the 21-year-old imbues the song. The second is the artful way he handles the song’s cadences, using his voice and guitar to create tension by stretching and releasing the lines in the way that would become an important factor in some of his best songs (e.g. “It’s Alright, Ma”).

The third is tiny but, to me at least, significant. Most people singing this ballad, including Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, begin with the lines “Twas in the merry month of May / When the green buds all were swelling / Sweet William on his death bed lay / For love of Barbara Allen.” Dylan prefers an alternative version, which was also known before the song made its Atlantic crossing, and which usually goes thus: “In Scarlet Town, not far from here, / There was a fair maid dwelling / And her name was known both far and near / And her name was Barbara Allen.” Then he sings the verse with which others open it. I like his way of opening it better: it’s more direct, more compelling.

But he does something else. He changes “Scarlet Town” — which apparently may originally have been a play on the name of the English town of Reading — to “Charlottetown”. It turns out that there are only two places of that name recorded in the Times Atlas of the World. One is in Guyana. The other is on Prince Edward Island in Canada, which turns out to be on the same latitude — just a little above the 46th parallel — as Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace.

They’re 1,350 miles apart, as the black crow flies, but unless somebody can tell me that other singers before Dylan made the same substitution, I’m going to think of it as a conscious choice with an intention behind it. To me, it’s an early example of how he was starting to construct his own songs by reassembling, reshaping and repurposing existing materials, a modus operandi sustained from “Hard Rain” to “Early Roman Kings”. For that reason, I find it unusually moving. And after all, more than 50 years later, on Tempest, his most recent album of his own songs, he included a piece which began “In Scarlet Town, where I was born…”

* The photograph above was taken in 1962 by Joe Alper, whose other images of Dylan can be found at


Katie Melua in Fitzrovia

katie-melua-3To be perfectly frank, I didn’t know much about the life and work of Katie Melua before I was invited to a small showcase concert of the music from her new album, In Winter, in which she is accompanied by the 23-strong Gori Women’s Choir from Georgia, the country in which — as I quickly discovered — she was born 32 years ago. I knew even less about the Fitzroy Chapel, formerly part of the Middlesex Hospital, which was demolished a few years ago to make way for — you guessed it — luxury apartments, with the Grade II*-listed chapel at the core of the new complex.

A small red-brick building, erected in 1891, it was never consecrated but was where the hospital’s patients and staff went when they needed a quiet moment. It is also where the body of Rudyard Kipling lay in state in 1936 before his burial in Westminster Abbey. The interior glows with gold mosaic and stained glass, very Eastern Orthodox in style, and thus perfectly appropriate to Georgian voices.

So I suppose it was the combination of the choir and the chapel, rather than Melua herself, that persuaded me to make my way to the showcase on a busy Thursday evening. But I was pleasantly surprised. Melua lived in Georgia until the age of eight, and at the end of last year she returned to spend time in Gori, working with the singers and building a temporary recording facility in a  cultural centre. According to an interview with the Independent‘s David Lister, she came across the choir on Spotify and was “mesmerised by their tone and sonic richness”.

Last night’s five-song programme began, like the album, with “The Little Swallow”, a traditional New Year’s carol from Ukraine, sung a cappella. Arranged by Bob Chilcott and conducted by Teona Tsiramua, the choir then added a glowing penumbra to Melua’s own songs, on which her finger-picked acoustic guitar was discreetly supported by the keyboards of Mark Edwards and the double bass of Tim Harries. “Dreams on Fire” is the new single, with Don Black’s lyric set to Melua’s melody. The pick of them, however, was the striking “Plane Song”, inspired by Melua’s own memories of playing on an abandoned airfield among the hulks of planes damaged during wartime.

The album also has a version of “River”, Joni Mitchell’s deeply ambivalent Christmas song, a Romanian carol sung in the original language with an intriguing minor-mode melody, and an interesting arrangement of extracts from Rachmaninoff’s liturgy commissioned in 1915 by the Russian Orthodox Church. “Personally, I don’t have very strong religious views,” Melua writes in her sleeve notes, “but I am grateful that an organisation filled with stories, real or mythical, helped to bring such a work into the world” — which seems like a pretty sane attitude.

On the surface, there’s nothing about In Winter to frighten Radio 2 listeners. But while the combination of Melua and the Gori choir doesn’t project the sophistication of Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Singers or the raw emotional impact of Les Voix Bulgares, for a Brit School graduate whose huge early success came under the guidance of Mike Batt it represents an interesting and brave direction — and one that, if she ever feels like heightening the challenge by leading her audience further into Georgian polyphonic choral singing, could be even more rewarding.

‘I Called Him Morgan’

lee-and-helen-morganTwo voices dominate I Called Him Morgan, Kasper Collin’s new documentary about the trumpeter Lee Morgan, which was screened at the weekend as part of the London Film Festival. The first is that of Morgan’s horn, of course. The second is that of Helen Moore, who rescued him from heroin addiction in the late ’60s and then, seemingly driven to distraction by his infidelity, shot him dead in front of his own audience at Slugs’ Saloon on New York’s Lower East Side one midwinter night in 1972.

Morgan’s trumpet voice is familiar to anyone who heard him, live or on record, with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers when he was barely out of his teens, or who is familiar with “The Sidewinder”, the title track from one of the two dozen albums he recorded for the Blue Note label as a leader before his death at the age of 33, a boogaloo composition which provided him with an unexpected hit in 1963 — or with some of the many other Blue Note albums on which he appeared as a sideman, including Blue Train, the classic John Coltrane album from 1957. Inspired by Dizzy Gillespie (his first employer) and Clifford Brown, from the very beginning he was an improviser whose precocious technical fluency enabled him to articulate the seemingly endless string of ideas thrown up by an uncommonly fertile melodic imagination. Very subtly, but to a greater extent than the somewhat deadpan delivery of his contemporaries among hard-bop trumpeters, his sound also provided a reminder of the way early jazz musicians consciously vocalised their instrumental tones.

The voice of Helen Moore — or Helen Morgan as she became known — comes to us only through a cassette tape on which she gave an interview in the month before her own death in 1996. This was long after she had served a short sentence for second-degree manslaughter, left New York, and devoted herself to the affairs of a church in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Moore had originally left North Carolina to go to the city, and the South stayed in her voice, a parched drawl which comes out of the tape machine again and again throughout the film, sometimes leaving phrases and sentences unfinished and hanging in the air but absolutely compelling in its testimony. Without the interview — recorded by a friend of her later years, Larry Reni Thomas, a local radio announcer — Collin’s film would have been very difficult to make as anything other than a standard biographical documentary.

Back in 2006 Collin made My Name is Albert Ayler, a very fine film about another doomed jazz musician. The Swedish director likes to bathe his subjects in atmosphere, and much of the mood of the Morgan film is set by the snow which lay thick on East 3rd Street on the night of the murder. As well as filming interviews in New York, Collin also stuck around to shoot a snowstorm which provides a useful visual accompaniment, both at ground level and from high up (presumably the top of a skyscraper), adding a perspective recalling that of Wim Wenders’ angels in Wings of Desire.

Other interviews are with Morgan’s fellow musicians, including the saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Billy Harper and the drummers Albert “Tootie” Heath and Charli Persip. A few of them took some persuading. At least one, the trombonist Curtis Fuller (who was close to Morgan and played alongside him on Blue Train and on the trumpeter’s own City Lights), retains such strong negative feelings about Helen Morgan that he declined to contribute.

It’s a much less complete portrait of the musician than the one provided in Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture, a mostly excellent biography by the British writer and educator Tom Perchard. The film doesn’t have very much to say about the music itself and other significant dimensions are given scant attention, including the origins of the trumpeter’s heroin addiction during his early days with the Messengers and his later social and political involvement with the Collective Black Artists, the Jazz and People’s Movement, and the Harlem Jazzmobile (his later compositions included “Mr Kenyatta”, a dedication to the first leader of post-colonial Kenya, and “Zambia”, named for the former Northern Rhodesia).

The director knows the story he wants to tell, and it’s basically the Ballad of Lee and Helen. He tells it with sensitivity and a fitting awareness of the poetry of the voices for whom he provides a sympathetic setting.

The photograph of Lee and Helen Morgan, taken by an unknown photographer, is from the poster for I Called Him Morgan. The film will be released in UK cinemas in 2017. Tom Perchard’s Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture was published by Equinox in 2006. Larry Reni Thomas’s The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan was published in 2014 by Pomegranate Books. 

Moses Boyd at Frieze

moses-boyd-at-tt-bwIt’s Frieze week in London, meaning that the streets of the more fashionable quarters of the city are thronged with art people. Last night some of them made their way to a party thrown by the Timothy Taylor Gallery in a Soho basement beneath the Phonica vinyl record shop on Poland Street, where the music was provided by a quartet under the leadership of the drummer Moses Boyd.

I’ve written about Boyd’s much-praised duo with the tenor saxophonist Binker Golding and, more recently, about his contribution to Orphy Robinson’s salute to Bobby Hutcherson, but this was something very different. Completing the quartet were Golding, the guitarist Shirley Tetteh and the keyboardist Niji Adeleye, and they started as they meant to go on: with Moses setting a groove that got the room moving, and the others joining in at full throttle. That’s where they stayed for the best part of an hour of unbroken music, with the groove shifting gears a couple of times but the volume and the intensity staying high.

If you can imagine a cross between the wildly distorted noise of the early Lifetime and the sophisto-funk of those Grant Green albums recorded live in 1970-71 at down-home joints like the Cliché Lounge in Newark, New Jersey and the Club Mozambique in Detroit, you’ll be part of the way to imagining what they sounded like. There were rough edges all over the place, but in a good way. Shirley Tetteh’s playing sound like it might be heading towards an interesting blend of Green’s plain-spoken bluesiness, the fluid rhythmic stutter of Hux Brown from Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One rhythm section, and the floaty lyricism of King Sunny Adé’s guitars. It’ll be interesting to see where she takes it.

Anyway, they blew apart any notion of what a conventional Frieze week social occasion organised by a high-end Mayfair gallery might be. “Party” is what it said on the invitation, and a party is what they made it. If the four of them can get the sense of unstoppable energy on to a record, you’ll be able to have that party in your very own home.

‘Eight Days a Week’

beatles-eight-daysTowards the end of Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s Beatles new documentary, all reason and proportion briefly fled and I was overpowered by a sense of rage. Those bloody Americans: it was all their fault. With their idiotic 50,000-seater stadiums and their imbecilic urge to misconstrue a perfectly innocent remark about Christianity in a John Lennon interview, they ruined the whole thing.

Not entirely true, of course. The dream was always going to end sometime. But you can see very clearly, in a film that purports to concentrate on the group’s touring years, how the pressure exerted by their immoderate success in the US in particular drove them to fall out of love with what life on the road had come to represent, once the novelty faded. After 1963 they were never able to perform live in an environment that allowed them to show how good they were. All four of them felt that frustration. The Plastic Ono Band, Wings and George’s stint with Delaney and Bonnie were among the consequences.

It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had America not taken to them. Beatlemania in the UK and Europe would have died down a little, perhaps enough to allow them to continue touring together in more helpful conditions. Would they have been able to spend so much time in the studio, concocting Sgt Pepper and the White Album? Probably so; that’s the way they were heading anyway.

There are many cherishable moments in the film, not least a version of “I Saw Her Standing There” that shows what a blazing little band they were. The picture above, which I’ve grabbed from the trailer, is from that sequence; it captures the feeling. And the final sequence of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Got a Feeling” from the concert on the roof of No 3, Savile Row on January 30, 1969 — the first time they’d played live together in public not wearing a band uniform since Brian Epstein became their manager, as well as being the last time they played live together in public at all — is, as ever, deeply sad for the same reason. Imagine if they’d had the sort of rock-concert facilities they lay just around the corner.

As for the film itself, it’s a shame Ron Howard hasn’t learnt the lesson of the great documentary director Asif Kapadia’s work on Senna and Amy: at all costs, avoid showing talking heads on the screen. They slow it down and clutter it up. Elvis Costello and Whoopi Goldberg (particularly) are among those who have genuine insights to impart, but we don’t need to see them when there’s such a richness of archive footage available. But, of course, Eight Days a Week is not to be missed.