1 February 2020

Column: Simon Spillett – Mass Observation

Now here’s a market stall purchase I’m delighted to have made quite by chance earlier today. ‘The Observer’s Book of Jazz’, published in 1978 by Frederick Warne Ltd., was one of the first books I ever read on the music – perhaps even THE first, it’s hard to recall at this distance. Yet I remember exactly where my original copy (long since lost in a flat move somewhere) came from – my father’s library of jazz books large and small, along with his record collection my chief source of musical enlightenment and inspiration in my teen years.

Revisiting it thirty years on (and over forty since it was first published) it makes for rather quaint reading, despite what was at the time, as Humphrey Lyttelton notes in his foreword, a remarkably broad coverage of the idiom – from Buddy Bolden to the Brotherhood of Breath.

Indeed, little time-locked sound bites leap out at you every few pages or so, none more poignant than the book’s suggestion that the reader ‘pay a visit to any flourishing jazz club and see how few bald-headed toothless old buffers in wheelchairs there are present.’

My oh my, forty years ago certainly WAS another age…

Actually despite his occasional subjective misfire Mark White – the books author – was a remarkable figure. In his sixties at the time he wrote it, White had already been something of a British jazz pioneer.
Invalided out of the forces in World War Two, he went into radio, launching and producing the BBC’s legendary show ‘Jazz Club’ in the late 1940s before going on to a stint as a TV producer at ATV and Granada.
In 1970 he became the head of BBC Radio 1, eventually moving over to become controller of Radio 2 between 1972 and 1976.

With the ‘Observer’ book his task was almost impossible: condense the 80 or so year history of a music into under 200 [pocket-sized] pages, complete with a representative discography. However, he did so with noteable success, making the book a handy reference work even to this day.

For me it conjures memories of my first year or so getting in to jazz. In fact, at one point the book came with me virtually everywhere: tucked into my school coat, intensely digested in breaktimes, even read in the intervals at my local Sunday lunchtime jazz club.

Within its pages I discovered so much, a lot of its vivid descriptions of players I hadn’t heard – Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp – making me eager to seek them out. Looked at now, even its truncated discography must have sown a seed, referencing such then rare British jazz albums as Tempo’s Cool Music For Hot Night, the reissue of which I could never have dreamed I’d one day produce, as I did in 2016.

When one considers how popular the ‘Observer’ series of books were back in the Seventies (retailing at £1.50, the range of subjects covered was almost laughably wide ranging from ‘Flags and Heraldry’ to ‘Pond Life’) it prompts the question of just how many people might have found this small but (almost) perfectly formed guide their introduction to the music?

These days, what with Wikipedia, YouTube and the internet in general, such a book is probably redundant, more’s the pity.

Nostalgic as I am, I find that a real shame and, even all these years after first carrying it with me like a totem of my faith in the idiom, I continue to think it was physical things like this – books, albums, tapes, magazines – that truly helped fuel my appetite for jazz. Somehow streaming and downloads seem so, well, intangible and remote in comparison.

One final thing I believe Mark White and the ‘Observer’ team got right back then is the cover image. Who better to figurehead a book on jazz than Louis Armstrong?
If I were to try and write a similar book today I’d still plump for Louis too.

After all, if you had a photo of God you’d stick it on the front of every bible, wouldn’t you?

Simon Spillett

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