Graham Collier

photographs by Karlijne Pietersma


Interview by Clifford Allen
January 16th 2011


Composer Graham Collier (1937-2011) was one of the principal driving forces behind the evolution of British jazz during the late 1960s and on into the 1970s. Initially also a bassist and bandleader, his Graham Collier Music fostered the talents of such luminaries of creative music as trumpeter Harry Beckett (1923-2010), saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, guitarists Phil Lee and Ed Speight, multi-instrumentalist Karl Jenkins, drummer John Webb and many others. A composer of long-form suites that contain a unique level of openness to the point of cross-oeuvre communication, his rhythmically incisive and tonally broad music was created "on the bandstand," even when in the studio. Collier was a composer, first and foremost, but his ideas of composition were collective and fluid, while remaining extremely rigorous. This interview was conducted via Skype for the New York City Jazz Record in advance of a speaking engagement in New York on his final published book, The Jazz Composer.

One's time on Earth is a curious thing – I hadn't expected Graham Collier to pass on so soon. By all accounts, he was happy with the article culled from this text, but there were still questions to ask that never made their way back to Graham. As this interview is published, it's a bittersweet irony that the music of Miles Davis is now being packaged as "The Miles Davis Experience" by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. A far cry from the inspired impressions of Collier's Blue Suite.

As a critic who speaks with musicians a fair amount, the fluidity of terminology – "composition", "improvisation", "orchestration", "arrangement"... – is something to reckon with. It has taken years for me, as a listener-writer, to begin to understand what's on the page and what's off the page when I experience music, and even now what I think I know may be off the mark. As Collier uses these terms, it's still a challenge not to want to render them somewhat interchangeable, even if dressing up someone else's tune isn't entirely "composition." Good interviews should pose such questions, and in this case they are questions readers will have to answer through their own investigations.-CA


I'd like to start by talking about your work as an author. Has writing been a concern of yours for quite some time?

Yes, I mean I've always been able to write and enjoyed it even when I was sixteen and had to pass the exams (when I couldn't even pass music). I guess I had a knack for it. The idea of all of the books but especially The Jazz Composer (Northway Books, 2009) has been to express what I think jazz composing is really about. I think a lot of people have gotten it wrong; they seem to think that jazz composing is simply a matter of arranging and orchestrating, and there's a vast difference between that and composition. There are people named in the book who are extremely good arrangers, but I don't think they are composers.

One thing I'm curious about as a non-musician, and as a follower of your music who has not yet read your books, is whether these are purely technical manuals or if they are accessible to connoisseurs who don't play music.

Yes, certainly the latest one because it's a philosophical book about jazz composition – the title can be taken as a general survey but it's not. The subtitle of the book, "Moving Music off the Paper," is what jazz composers ought to do. You can look at any standard song and play it straight, it's completely boring. If you get a jazz musician to play it, it means something. I think jazz composers should take this into account. One of the nicest things someone has said about me was used as the title for my latest CD, directing 14 Jackson Pollocks (GCM, 2009) – a friend of a friend said it, but it perfectly explained what I try to do, which is to regard every member of the ensemble as an artist capable of adding to what I'm giving them and therefore, allowing every performance to be different. The music should not try to recreate a perfect performance like some people want. Some people try to write for a band of famous musicians and then take it around to college campuses and it will not be the same music, obviously. It can be different and exciting, and you're not trying to achieve a perfect solution – you're trying to achieve the best solution possible with those musicians and give them the experience of creating something.
If you've written a good composition it allows you to revisit it from time to time, which I have done on the 14 Jackson Pollocks set and elsewhere, the Alternate Mosaics (BGO/Philips, 1971). It's not the same music – it's an entirely different piece of music because of the things that happened at that particular time. My saying is that "jazz happens in real time, once" (I've been chided for saying it too much, perhaps) and that can either be in the studio or on a stage. Sometimes it doesn't happen because musicians are trying to recreate what was done before rather than saying something new and exciting.

Well, composition is often thought of in a purely classical sense and jazz tends to focus wholly on the improvisational aspect. It can be a bit of a challenge to reconcile the two.

I agree, I think one of the problems is that people have taken classical music – because it has such a long history – as the only way to go, and they try to write a lot of notes because they want to dominate as composers and say "this is my piece of music" rather than saying "this is our music." Sure, it's mine and it's also the people involved with creating it. I think that is what jazz is about – it's what people like Miles, Gil Evans, Mingus and many others have shown, that the music is supposed to change. Charles Fox said once in reference to an early recording of mine that "when the musicians got it, it became a different animal but it still has the owner's collar on it." One should have the ability to recognize a Graham Collier piece or a Mingus piece but that still allows you to say "that's Harry Beckett doing a wonderful thing there, and it's unique to this take." There should be the freedom to allow Harry or others to make the piece theirs, and to make it better – that's what they are there for!

Collier with Harry Beckett

I think of it as almost a Jazz Workshop type of environment where the musicians grow with one another; it enables them to go on and do their own things with a bit more conviction.

Yes, I think they did and Harry was kind enough to express his "debt" to me in that sense, as some others have. [Saxophonist] Geoff Warren is another example. It has to be a two-way process as I'm giving music to them and they are giving music back to me. They give me something of themselves and that influences the way I write the next piece, so it's a constant two-way interaction. Of course one of the problems is that one doesn't get the chance to tour and do this work all the time – as with The Third Colour (1999), we did four suites for three nights on the road in 1997. We recorded each night and I may have gotten £12 out of the whole thing but it was worth it because we picked the most solid chunks to put on the record. Now there's another version of it on the 14 Jackson Pollocks CD and even more that I may release someday, and this is what I'm trying to prove.
[Writer] Brian Morton said that I have the ability to make the "alternate" titles different and they mean something more than just another take. This construction principle that's important in my music is that I write it to allow change. A piece I'm working on that's based on Hans Hofmann's paintings in Canada in February, as well as The Blue Suite that I'm working on, are also examples of this. The Blue Suite is based on the five compositions on Miles' Kind of Blue, but they aren't versions of those pieces, rather my impressions of them and the idea is that we can cut between one tune and another tune and the order changes all the time, and you can do a bit of a tune and then cut over to another so the suite gets reconstructed in what I call a structurally improvised way. If you get the opportunity to work regularly with a band, each time it will be different and that's a wonderful experience to have for myself and for the musicians.

It seems like Hofmann's work would really fit with some of your ideas, especially with the push-pull approach that allows different color sections to recede, advance, and balance one another out on the canvas.

Yes, and I think that's probably why I'm sympathetic to him and why I'm doing four pieces related to his work. My partner John [Gill] gave me a Hans Hofmann book several years ago and I thought for a long time that I should do something on him.

How did you become interested in modern painting?

It's difficult to say really – one gets attracted to something or someone and it's difficult to say why. Let's deal with Pollock, who is probably my favorite painter. I've just written six saxophone quartet pieces based on his paintings from 1947 – it's just because I see something in [visual] artists, and in Pollock for me there's a depth and you can go right inside his paintings, and that's what attracts me to him. It also rings a bell with me, and what I try to do musically in any piece. Malcolm Lowry said of the way that you absorb all these things and they come out in different ways, and it's difficult to analyze how they affect you. There's no doubt that knowing paintings and reading a lot about these artists has influenced the way I think about jazz and music and life.

It's interesting to me that so much of your music references people or things outside of the general "jazz language." You don't often hear musicians talking about their work as being inspired by painting or literature.

Yes, because for a start I'm not satisfied with what passes for jazz these days. I've always been interested in looking at the other arts as well as reading Lowry, David Markson, Richard Powers and things like this give you a background hum which you work within. It informs you as an artist to look at other arts.

Could you talk about your musical influences, such as they are, as you started down this path?

The man I would put it down to, although I don't think he actually liked my record when I sent it to him, was [trumpeter and Berklee teacher] Herb Pomeroy. He was a great influence on me, not so much because of the way that he discussed orchestration (how he organized chords, which he got from Ellington and he acknowledged that fact), and he turned me onto a lot of Ellington which, when I went to Berklee in the early 1960s, was viewed as ‘old hat' and all sorts of things. Herb taught me that people are important in music, not so much the notes you give them but using the way they play as individuals. For example, Harry Carney played the baritone in a certain way and Ellington would put him up high in the voicing because he knew the sound he'd get from him between two trombones or whatever. That stuck with me. Once there was a piece that I was doing with three altos – I wanted the lead man to be the soloist, and Herb thought that was wrong. After going through all the soloists he then said, "No, you're right." That to me was a very important lesson – he acknowledged me and I knew enough to fight him as it were. Ever since it's been a matter of, well, if someone can't make the gig should I change things around a bit? It also causes you to sometimes push people into situations where they have to find their own path, as it were.

Were you composing from a point early on in your life?

Well, it was really from the start with Herb, though before that I was writing and I got a scholarship to Berklee and learned my trade there. I had a Tuesday night band that I'd drag [guitarist] John Abercrombie to play in despite his protestations, we rehearsed and I was writing all week, both my own stuff and the work for school. I had gotten through the basic voicings very quickly because I had a chance to hear and try things out with the rehearsal band. That taught me a lot, so by the time I got back to England I'd passed what a lot of people are still trying to figure out, which is that there are certain ways to voice things and you have to learn that before you go on to something else. I think a lot of people are still trying to write music where everyone is going up and down together, and what kind of jazz band is that? I have tried to reflect the tradition of jazz while also trying to do something new.
My website is called Jazz Continuum because I believe that there is a continuum between everything, and the problem is that much of jazz has gotten stuck in bebop or Basie-like writing, and there's a hell of a lot that's gone on since which is ignored in the colleges as well as by many of the critics. There was a lot more happening than people realize in the block of time between the late 1930s and the late 1950s, and collective jazz from the New Orleans period is still an important thing – it's been transposed onto more contemporary music. The collective thing was lost in the Basie band apart from the riffs they made, and even that doesn't happen in current bands. Now they write as many notes as possible and then allow the soloist to do something within those constraints – which I'm a little bit against, as you can probably tell.

But it seems like trying to teach openness, in terms of the ensemble, would itself be a challenge.

I think it allows people to not only play the music that's written but also in some of the backgrounds they're given to create sounds, it alleviates boredom and allows the music to be different every time you do it, and I'm deliberately writing that way now. It's more conscious, and that's the reason I wrote both books – the subtitle of Interaction (Advance Music, 1995) is "Opening Up the Jazz Ensemble," which is more for band directors and showing them what can be done. As I've said, the new one is philosophical and says well look, you've got all these examples from Mingus through Ellington, and what about less talked-about people like Gerry Mulligan? Not many people follow that band, and he has written some wonderful, light pieces without being orchestrated – there is a lot of freedom for people to do things creatively behind the soloist, yet that's not what people are interested in. They would rather deal with the blocks of sound that started with Basie and continued through Jim McNeely and other sorts of things. I don't mind that they do it, but what annoys me is when they're called great jazz composers because in my opinion they are not – they might write interesting things from time to time, but they're orchestrators. I don't think that people understand the potential and that's the reason I wrote these books.
The thing that interests me and, as follows, it's something which you can mull over without coming to an answer to, but the critics who have praised the musicians that I talk about don't mention, when they're talking about my work, the fact that it's anathema to the style of jazz that they support. Perhaps they could give reasons why they find that music interesting and then put their thoughts up against my opinions. I'm pleased that I've gotten good reviews but I'd like it if someone challenged the points that I make. I don't want to believe that critics think that everything I say is right, when in the next column they are praising music that goes against everything I'm talking about. I'm not saying that I'm the only one who's got it right – I do like some orchestration, but there are tendencies that have long passed their day. There are a few guys in Italy and Norway who are mainly orchestrators, putting several bands together in their writing but they do it in a fresh way, and few people are doing that.

It's funny, when I've conversed with musicians who compose for larger ensembles, the idea of orchestration has come up quite a bit though it's pretty clear that they are writing unique settings for improvisers. I always associate the two terms pretty closely when thinking about this music.

They're more or less two different things. A composition can be a tune or a symphony, and within a symphony the composer has orchestrated different sections that do certain things texturally, but if someone orchestrates "Lady Be Good," quite often it's done in a way that's pretty straight Jazz Arranging 101. I think that there's a lot to be learned in texture – talk to classical composers and get some idea of how to arrange from that perspective. Maybe arranging is a better way to put it than orchestration – a composer has a vision of what happens, but when it comes to being a jazz composer you've got to put the book down and understand that jazz happens in performance, both in you as the director and in the musicians. Structural and textural improvising is a bit like what a rhythm section does – they decorate and play around with the tune. You can do that with the whole band and that allows the flexibility for a lot of interesting things to happen within that setting.

I tend to think of a pretty big divide between things like Deep Dark Blue Centre (Deram, 1967) and Down Another Road (Fontana, 1969) and Songs for My Father (Fontana, 1970) – which seemed like quite an organizational leap. Is it easier to work those pieces into other contexts?

The first two records were more, "let's play a tune and improvise on it" and because the tunes were modal, the solos were open and sometimes the backgrounds were made up, but the structural changes happened with Songs for My Father and Mosaics (and The Alternate Mosaics – which happened because I persuaded Philips to record another night). That's the thing about these pieces – I did a recording for Cambridge University Press [to accompany his book Jazz: A Student's and Teacher's Guide] that also had a version of Darius on it, which I've been told is the best one though it took me a long time to find a copy. There is another version of Workpoints (1968) that turned up and I had no idea it existed until recently.

The Collier Septet 1967 - from L to R: Karl Jenkins, John Marshall, Mike Gibbs, GC, Harry Beckett, Phil Lee, Dave Aaron. Photographer unknown

How did your work get the attention of major labels like Deram/London and Fontana/Philips so early on?

In that particular case there was a contract with Philips for three records that lapsed, and all of us – Mike Gibbs, Mike Westbrook, and the others got short-term contracts and tried their hand until the companies realized they couldn't sell this stuff. When BGO wanted to do these reissues, they did it without my knowledge. I had gotten the rights back from Philips in the 1990s for my own music and had a tremendous argument with Universal and got my money, and they did it again with the Gilles Peterson compilation and with the Japanese reissues. My contract has been flouted three times – a lawyer friend of mine in London said that you couldn't find a music lawyer in England who isn't connected to Universal. I started Mosaic Records in the early 1970s to get over the fact that the music was piling up and it was hard to find an interested label – they still didn't sell very well, but the fact that BGO wants to re-release the music and that some people find it pleasurable is quite flattering. The new one I couldn't find any label to put it out, so I did it myself again and it's not easy to sell but it has gotten some good PR from the critics and the radio. Hopefully that will eat up some of the debt – it's a record, it's there, and it's a calling card. I think this is what we have to do in the jazz business such as it is, is to do your own thing and be your own promoter, and I'm lucky that I can do it.

I present a radio show here in Austin and have been thinking about doing a retrospective of some of your work. What would you suggest I include?

In a way you have to decide what picture you want to present of me, I guess – from the early things you could do "The Barley Mow," which is very pastoral, or "Aberdeen Angus," which is fiery, and it's very hard as you're saying. There's a guy in Denmark who did four programs on my music and it sort of summed up the various things I've done – when you think about it, it's gone on a long time and there is a lot, and over 44 years I'm pleased that it's gone on like it has. Harry Beckett said I was the first jazz-rock composer (though I don't know that he's right), but anyway there has been a lot of ground covered. I would also pick a track from 40 Years On [disc one of directing 14 Jackson Pollocks] – I did a piece on my blog about Roger Dean's [piano] playing on "Riyoanji," ( and that's a totally different area. That would show two totally different sides of my work.

How did the bands come together on those early recordings?

The very first one was more arranged, if you like, and had parts for specific people. With Down Another Road I got a little looser and surrounded myself with players who were getting better known in their own right. They were more able to fit in with what I wanted to create, which was something different. We were also on the road a lot, and it was a good period when the colleges were hiring jazz groups to do concerts. Fifteen dates in a month just doesn't happen now. I think it's obviously who's in the band – Deep Dark Blue Centre was my first record, and at that time I may have wanted to play it safer. It was probably after that record that the band changed and we were exploring things all the time, and the recording was slotted in between the gigs – I was able to write for the band and hear it, rehearse and work things out on the gig, and keep going like that. Once the gigs dried up like the weekly one at Ronnie Scott's Old Place, now that situation doesn't happen.
From the mid-1970s I was trying to think more intellectually about the music while still keeping the spirit of jazz composing – which I see as a distinct art form – alive. In pieces like Symphony of Scorpions and New Conditions, these weren't arising from touring opportunities though the Arts Council of Britain did send us on tours to India and Hong Kong and places like that. It started to change – to allow me to articulate what I'd been doing up until then, and The Jazz Composer book is the fruition of that intellectual approach. The music that's come along since – The Third Colour, Charles River Fragments – has all been expressions of what I hope is a mature artist at the top of his profession. It's definitely true that I feel like I know what I am doing and I'm in control. It's my job now – I'm a respected jazz composer and what I do is different than what many musicians are used to, but that's what they have to deal with.

You no longer play the bass at all, is that right?

I haven't played the bass since the mid-1970s – I had a knee operation and couldn't stand up, much less play the instrument, and I decided then that I would really prefer to concentrate on composing. The problem before was that I would rush back from a gig to compose and try and make a living writing jingles while other guys were off on gigs. When we'd get together again I'd have to try and compensate for my chops. It was better to get out while I was reasonably good on the bass – it's also very difficult to conduct from the bass because you need to have two hands free. Something had to go, and the knee operation gave me the opportunity to think about what that was. For a while I played synthesizer with the band, but I was never totally happy playing keyboard so I decided that what I would do is concentrate on writing and conducting, and get the freedom to conduct a band of improvisers where I was also a performer, in a sense, and I was the fifteenth "Pollock" trying to rein it all in.

Was there a structural shift that happened when you stopped playing an instrument?

There is a difference between before and after but what I wanted to do in a way was to write longer form music. The proof is in things like Mosaics and Songs for My Father, which were suites and had their own identity. Once I stopped bothering with the bass, I was freer to think in longer forms and deal with what was in front of me, which was writing for a twelve-piece band that's about to play in a festival. I can choose the musicians to do it, and since that time I've written longer pieces and some tunes are in there that I can extract and put in to other situations, but I want to continue to write pieces that have connections all the way through and that are proper compositions that show the potential of jazz.

How do you go about conducting? What's the language that you use?

There are various gestures – I hate the word "conduction" – and I think there is too much control of the music that the musicians make as a result of Butch Morris' gestures and it's not too terribly musical. It may be a great experience for some people involved, but Derek Bailey said he packed up his guitar within two minutes after getting into one of those situations.

Is there an improvisational sense to the conducting (if that's possible)?

There is an element of that because one has to invent gestures in order to get the band to do certain things, but I haven't trademarked them as such. There are numbered sections that tell the band what's going to come up, and on the downbeat the transition happens. A clenched fist might signal that something new is coming up, and I might do that and hold up my fingers to show what number section they will be playing. The gestures all depend on the piece itself, and the way I write now is not for a particular band. I just found out, for example, the instrumentation of the band in Canada for the Hofmann and Blue pieces, and it's not a traditional orchestra. I don't really like a traditional big band setup, and if I get one to work with I tend to reorganize it, set it up in sections of low, middle, and high and play around with that. A lot of it is constructed during rehearsal, and I can make the music work during extenuating circumstances – if one of the trombonists has to leave because his mother's sick, for example, I can work with that.

Is there an ideal band size for you at this point?

I don't like to work with less than eight musicians – twelve or thirteen is ideal – because otherwise you can't get the right kind of colors and interplay. People have played the tunes in smaller groups and those have been their own arrangements, if you like. But I think for the way I want to work, which is to draw textures out of the band and to use them as soloists and accompanists, I need a larger group.

I suppose it stands to reason from this conversation that some of the biggest challenges seem to be in how the music is taught academically, though the "university of the streets" model isn't exactly possible now either.

Well I'll tell you, Berklee was pretty small at the time – I was 23 and a bit older than the others, but at the time the school took raw beginners. I was a dean's assistant and it was a much looser environment at the time. Herb was teaching and I was allowed to jump ahead some of the classes, but it did give me the basic background and the ability to do the arranging things that I could then move on from. As far as jazz schools in general go, the problems are that they, in a large way, concentrate on earlier forms like bebop and big band music of a certain sort, because that's what they want to teach and it's what the teachers admire. When it gets to bigger classes, they don't even have the time to do what we were able to do at Berklee, which had a lot of individual study where the teachers would come around and work with you on a one-on-one basis. The classes were smaller – about ten people – and when you get up to thirty or forty students, you can't do anything individually. You have to teach by rote and jazz can't be taught that way. When I ran the Royal Academy jazz course in London for ten years, we took between seven and nine students a year and that was fine because you made sure you'd have a rhythm section and a few horns. That allowed you to teach some things of a small group and some of the things required for a larger ensemble. You could take those people as individuals and help them move on in their studies, and a number of my students were very successful. Once you start taking large numbers of students, the whole mentor-student relationship has to go out the window and the examination process requires you to teach them how to play scales a certain way and that's it.
One particular year at the Royal Academy we took a load of beboppers in, and we tried for four years to change them and they didn't change. One of them, the pianist Tom Cawley from Curios, had the grace to apologize to me years later and he told me "you were right, it just took me a long time to realize it." I remember having an argument with [saxophonist] Dave Liebman about a particular player and he wasn't that good a technician but he could really play good jazz. I was backed up in this by some other Europeans who didn't exactly see the music as Dave wanted it. This is the core of the problem – the stress on technique gets in the way of jazz and improvised music. Yes, you do need certain techniques if you want to play fast bebop, but you shouldn't be criticized for not having that if you can play an interesting jazz solo on a mode. You can't compare what Pollock did with what Rembrandt did because they are two different things, and it seems as though jazz education has locked itself into this box of requiring you to have bebop down and certain styles of arrangement down before you can do anything.

Photographs by Karlijne Pietersma and Duncan Heining (homepage).
Selected Discography:
Graham Collier Septet – Deep Dark Blue Centre (Deram/BGO, 1967) / Graham Collier Music – Songs for My Father (Fontana/BGO, 1970) / Graham Collier Music – Mosaics (Philips/BGO, 1971) / Graham Collier Music – Darius (Mosaics/BGO, 1974) / Graham Collier – Day of the Dead (Mosaics, 1978) / Graham Collier – Hoarded Dreams (Cuneiform, 1983/2007) / Graham Collier – Charles River Fragments (Jazzprint, 1997/2003) / Graham Collier – directing 14 Jackson Pollocks (GCM, 2009)
See also other interviews of related interest with Alan Silva and Joëlle Léandre.