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Music Outside: Contemporary Jazz in Britain by Ian Carr

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Ian Carr, who died this February and is best known for biographies of Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, was as good a writer as anyone who has written about jazz. He was also at least as good a musician as any writer with substantial output on the subject. This book, Carr’s first, was first published in 1973 and the use of the word contemporary in the title refers to that time. The subject is the state of jazz in England in the early 1970s and the book is organized around his major topics- Mike Westbrook, Mike Gibbs, Jon Hiseman, Chris MacGregor, Evan Parker, John Stevens ,Trevor Watts, and Carr’s own group at that time, Nucleus. The book concentrates on musicians who chose to center their careers in Britain and therefore touches only briefly on, for example, Dave Holland and John McLaughlin. There is some, but less, information about other British musicians such as John Surman, Kenny Wheeler, Stan Tracey, and Norma Winstone.

Carr claims that jazz in England is for all and intents and purposes no different from jazz in the greater London area and compares audience and institutional support for jazz in Britain to America and to the rest of Europe, and finds it wanting. He cogently discusses why he believes the popularity of jazz and the economic support for its musicians declined in the late 1960s. His writing is as good as in his other works, but his subject here is of much lesser importance, and therefore of much lesser interest.

Baggenaes is a Danish writer whose interviews with seventeen musicians between 1972 and 1987 have now been collected and published in book form. Baggenaes’ questioning is good. Many of Bagganaes’ subjects are European musicians or musicians who spent a substantial amount of time on the continent and many of the musicians’ responses are well worth the reader’s time. The book contains the best interviews with Dexter Gordon and Warne Marsh that I recall and the interviews with Mary Lou Williams, Red Rodney, and Jackie McLean are particularly valuable. The book dates itself by the inclusion of interviews with Howard King, Marie-Ange Martin, and Marc Levin, none of whom would probably be have been chosen as a subject after the late 1970s.

Both of these books barely weigh in at book length and are somewhat European centric. The value of the contribution of Europeans to jazz will probably be debated throughout all of our lives. While these books make a case for the contribution of financing of music on the continent and the quality of some Europeans’ musical output, most of their content will be only of great interest to those with very specialized taste or curiosity. Carr’s book might generate interest in some good musicians of a particular time and place whose work is now not easily heard. The best of Baggenaes’ interviews could interest any jazz fan, but like Carr’s book, much of the content will best function as a reference source in a well stocked university library.

Originally Published