Courtney Pine is one of the most celebrated UK jazz musicians of all time. His glittering career — which spans three decades — has seen him awarded with both an OBE and CBE for services to music. As of tonight (28 October), Pine will also be joining the likes of Herbie Hancock and Dame Cleo Laine as a recipient of a Jazz FM Gold Award for his profound contributions to the genre.
As a saxophonist, collaborator and all-round innovator, Courtney Pine has become renowned for pushing UK jazz onwards and upwards, helping to pave the way for a new generation of creators.
In the hours leading up to the ceremony, M Magazine spoke to Courtney from his studio and discovered that – while he is indeed an icon of the British jazz scene – he is also incredibly humble about his achievements.
The Gold Award was presented to Courtney Pine on the night by the Jazz FM Awards headline sponsors PRS for Music and PPL.
Jamie MacMillan: Congratulations on winning the prestigious Jazz FM Gold Award! You've obviously got a big couple of days coming up.
Courtney Pine: So, what's the deal with this Gold Award? What happens? Because I've been out of the loop for a while. I've been out of the country, there are no flights and I've just come back and done a couple of gigs…
Jamie: It's for your immense services to music.
Courtney: WHAT? HA!
Jamie: In winning, you’ll be joining the likes of Herbie Hancock, George Benson and Quincy Jones. How does that feel?
Courtney: I'm in that?
Jamie: Yeah, you're in it.
Courtney: Nah, they've must have made a mistake. I feel like I just started, you know, the legacy that we have here is completely different to America. Maybe they couldn't get any Americans on a flight or something (laughs).
Jamie: Can you start by telling me a bit about Jazz Warriors? Promoting young Black artists seems to have been a key aspect of your career.
Courtney: I came up with the idea for the Jazz Warriors back in the ‘80s because there were no bands like that. I kept on meeting musicians who wanted to play but they didn't get the chance to express themselves. There are a lot of guys like George Lee, Harry Beckett, you know, who weren't headlining shows and didn't have any record contracts. Roachford's uncle – Ray Roachford — is a great tenor saxophonist, and I had a lot of guys around me who just weren't being given the opportunity to present their art or music on a large scale, apart from it being in a wine bar. I just decided that I loved this music so much that I was going to lose my money and have a go (laughs). I guess some of the Jazz Warriors guys saw that there was a route in jazz. I didn't play the jazz clubs of the day, because a lot of them wouldn't have me anyway. There are a couple that still to this day wouldn't book me to play in their club in London.
'It's not been easy, and even on the music scene, because I wasn't a part of any of the fraternities, I was kind of seen as the enemy.'
Jamie: What was it like starting out back then as somebody wanting to get into jazz music?
Courtney: It was really interesting for me, because I was lucky enough to... well, I say lucky, I was kicked out of school because the teacher didn't think that Black people should go to university. Then there was the fact that I was playing in bands – they thought that’s what I was going to be doing so I might as well just go on and do that. I was looking for the qualification. My family was looking for the qualification. I ended up going on the road and I was basically playing for a lot of Jamaican artists and this is where I met other musicians that wanted to play jazz. They told me their stories of woe and how impossible it was to break through on the jazz scene here. I actually got a residency in Brixton at a pub called the Atlantic. Loads of people came down to see us and loads of record companies. Next thing you know, I've been asked by these record companies, ‘What record do you want to do?’ And then next thing you know, I've chosen the studios, chosen an American producer and I'm in the studio. I'm in the bog, scratching my head thinking, 'Oh my goodness, is this really happening?'
Even getting into studios in those days was really hard. You didn't see guys like me in studios, unless they were the cleaner. I can just remember those moments in between takes where engineers would be making snide comments and I would just have to go and stand in the studio and take five and then come back and then make a record. Even though I signed to the label that I thought had an affinity with Caribbean culture, we fought tooth and nail about album covers — who you should be having and who you shouldn't be having, and what you should be doing and what you should be wearing. Of course, I ignored it all. I just didn't turn up. But here I am now. It's not been easy, and even on the music scene, because I wasn't a part of any of the fraternities, I was kind of seen as the enemy.
Jamie: What a battle.
Courtney: I had to change my numbers so many times. People would call up and say so many snide things. But you know, when you do get to play that gig with Herbie Hancock in Japan, when you do get to play that gig in New Orleans festival, when you do get to play with Wynton Marsalis, when you do get to play on with Branford Marsalis' album, when you do get to play with Donald Byrd, you know, when you do get to play in Brazil, or South Africa, it just makes the struggle is... oh man, you just forget about all those times, and you just grow.
Jamie: As a white guy, I can't imagine what that sort of struggle would have been like, but was there a point where it started to ease? Or was that just purely because you became more successful?
Courtney: It doesn't become easier, it just becomes more worthwhile. It just gives you more reason to understand that the mission that you set out with is actually worthwhile, because you can see the fruits of your labour coming to bear. I think what my generation tried to do was make sure that never happened again and that there was always some kind of connection to a younger generation. We would always try. I did have some opportunities with some great elders that allowed me to play in their bands, but institutions like the National Jazz Orchestra would never let someone like me in.
Jamie: That's really interesting. It must have felt frustrating up until the point that you could see the work was paying off.
Courtney: Yeah, and not everybody has, because we've all had different missions. But I just looked at the way that Art Blakey and Miles Davis did it. They just reinvested all the time — Betty Carter — they just reinvested and it inspired them. It really does work. It really does inspire you to see young musicians give it a go and perform in an environment which is still not conducive to freedom of expression.
'It's so nice to see that this generation of musicians are willing to share what jazz is with everybody. I put my hands up and say a lot of this generation all doing the right thing.'
Jamie: What advice would you give young jazz musicians starting out today that you wish you'd known at the start?
Courtney: Well, I researched and read and studied as much as possible. A lot of the colleges and universities that set themselves out as educators were only teaching in a certain way, and you really have to look between the pages. I think you have to actually go and seek that knowledge and it is available here.
My advice would be to enjoy it as much as possible. Sometimes youngsters think that, 'Oh, I won't play this because it's old people's music'. But if you do research, which I think is the biggest thing, you'll find out that they were youngsters as well when they started. It's not the rhythm, or the style, or the name, or the keys that you're playing in, or even the tune that you play, it's more than that. It's communicating with your sociality, your community, and understanding that and being able to translate that into sound which is not easy to do, because you have to let go of ego.
Jamie: There's no real frontman…
Courtney: It's a collective. Even though it might be a trumpeter who's standing in front, he's not going to sound good unless the drummer is conversing with him. That's the thing about jazz. It's about that communication, on the bandstand in the spur of that moment. Art Blakey taught me that this is the only music that comes from the creator to the artists to the audience in a split second. There's no other music that does that. You look at DJs in the corner of a room with a laptop, it's all pre-programmed.
'The biggest lesson I've learned is that jazz is a music for everybody because we all improvise in one way or another.'
Jamie: Who are the current acts on the scene that have really caught your eye?
Courtney: All of them. Every single one of them. A lot of the acts that are relevant understand that the music that they're performing is not just to show how fast or high or low they can play on their instrument, or how virtuous they can be on that instrument. It's about how they communicate with their community. A lot of them now have the ability to perform at Glastonbury and have the ability to play at a nightclub or at a wine bar. Whereas before you wouldn't have musicians who could perform in front of 10,000 people. It's so nice to see that this generation of musicians are willing to share what jazz is with everybody. I put my hands up and say a lot of this generation all doing the right thing.
Jamie: It’s fascinating to see some young rock bands also leaning into jazz. It's not traditional jazz by any stretch, but it's really crossing genre boundaries.
Courtney: Yeah, we've had that — Bryan Ferry, David Bowie — there's been musicians that I've had the opportunity to work with who are closet jazz musicians, you know. They always utilise that improvisatory angle in their blend, in their mix. They always try to get musicians of that ilk — musicians who improvise — to come in and give them that little spark. I mean, Charlie Watts was a jazz drummer. You listen to those drum tracks again with the Rolling Stones, and they're so loose and free. Another jazz drummer that I played with was Ginger Baker. He was a jazz drummer who then pushed into the popular music limelight. I keep being told that this is not a music for everybody. But the biggest lesson I've learned is that jazz is a music for everybody because we all improvise in one way or another. You do not know what's going on, so the more that you have jazz music in your repertoire, the more it will help you through life. I truly believe that.
Jamie: That's a really interesting view.
Courtney: It's timeless, isn't it? How could your dad's music inspire you? How can I be inspired by the story of Buddy Bolden. How could a Jamaican alto saxophonist like Joe Harris inspire me? How can that be? When we're not being force fed, like, ‘Oh, you know, you have to listen to it because it's the greatest music in the world,’ you just feel it naturally. You feel a connection to it and not because you have to.
'I think my compositional approach has evolved to incorporate more of who we are as a humanity.'
Jamie: How do you think your writing and performing has changed over the years?
Courtney: I started off trying to stop people yawning at concerts (laughs). And stop myself yawning. It's just like, we did this last night, and they saw it last night, so are we going to do something different? I think I've been able to absorb a lot of flavours from all over the world and find a way to translate it into the music. I personally still enjoy playing standards from the ‘40s or the ‘50s, then putting a drum and bass beat on it, or a grime beat on it. I just love when you mix two elements together and you get a third element. I think compositionally, my music has evolved as I incorporate more styles. I don't really have any boundaries. If I wanted to use Radiohead chords over a Dave Brubeck or a John Patton, you know, I could do that. I'm not limited by the instruments that are out there. The one thing that I personally look for is just something that is in flux and is able to communicate. Sometimes we play a show, and the tune will be 80 beats per minute, then the next night, we will play the same show but to a different audience. You can just tell that this audience needs it at 86 and not 80. They need it at a different tempo, and they need different things. I think my compositional approach has evolved to incorporate more of who we are as a humanity.
Jamie: You said earlier that you feel like you're only just getting started. What's next?
Courtney: We’ve gone through a really interesting time recently. I have to admit that because I see musicians doing interviews and stuff still and it's as if nothing has happened. But this pandemic hit me like, wow, like an asteroid. It was like, 'Well, why? Why are we doing this?' Humanity is more important than practising and playing and getting a budget together for an album. I just didn't prioritise doing music for a couple of months. I didn't really know if we would be getting back to doing concerts.
Jamie: It didn't look like it for a while.
Courtney: Exactly. I'll always practice for seven days for a gig that I'm doing on the eighth day, but there was no gig on the eighth day, so why are you practising? I wouldn't stop practising. I would just question why I'm actually involved in music. It made me think about it really, really hard. It was very depressing. But now we're coming out of it and being put up for something like this, an award of this nature is just inspirational. I didn't think they would consider guys from north London for something like this. I thought it was just for the Americans. And I don't know… I don't feel that old, you know?