Jazz etc. by John Murray is a book that has a special significance, being the first time John’s name became known here. The local library had a copy on its shelves, and this was before it was rebuilt at the end of 2004, and the title was intriguing. It also came with a glowing endorsement from Jonathan Coe who described John as “one of the best comic writers we’ve got, the only natural heir to Flann O’Brien”. Jazz etc. had recently been long-listed for the Booker Prize, along with another favourite here, Shena Mackay’s Heligoland, which appropriately enough (a) John Murray reviewed for the Literary Review.
Ironically that library copy was later sold for 30p on 30 April 2010 when it had been “withdrawn from stock”. Alarmingly or amusingly the bookmark inside, a postcard advertising a couple of titles from the publishers Berg, one of which was Cinema by Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour, was instantly recognisable as one that was in use here for a fair while.
Jazz etc as its title implies is very much a jazz novel. On the epigraph page there is a quote from the jazz guitarist John Abercrombie, saying: “The name of that song was ‘Spring Song’ and it was written for one of my cats”. And the book itself starts with its narrator Enzo Mori, at Solway Grammar School, West Cumbria, joining its jazz club in 1967, after the decade had exploded and was busy dividing. Enzo was perhaps not surprisingly mocked by those prematurely into the new heavier rock sounds, and among the school’s jazz cognoscenti Enzo endures the pain, pleasures and pitfalls of being an enthusiastic if absolute beginner.
There is a lovely passage where the young Enzo hears Miles’ Milestones and understands how “with absolute facility it demonstrated how the depths of tender melancholy offered the infallible emotional foil to the frantic world of raging, ranting improvisation”. Among the artists Enzo discovers through the school’s jazz club are Sonny Stitt, Monk, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie. He realises that jazz is the music for him: “As in real life I was thoroughly fed up with the predictability, hackneyed structures, timeworn routines, laziness of ambition and imagination”
As an “indiscriminate tyro” he proceeds to torture his father with Dave Brubeck recordings, augmented by Bach and Scarlatti ones. His Italian-born father prefers the work of ballad singers like Miki and Griff, Ronnie Carroll, Ronnie Hilton, and Anne Shelton, as well as the music of Acker Bilk and Eddie Calvert (or Eddie Calf-foot as Vince calls him).
In typical John Murray fashion the book takes in a wide range of sounds, and among the music mentioned are George Russell’s At Beethoven Hall, recordings of Ravel string quartets on the Czech Supraphon label, Nikhil Banerjee’s ragas and Ravi Shankar, as well as Bitches Brew about which John says: “Miles Davis’ trumpet scores the depths of haunted sadness in a number like ‘Sanctuary’.”
John McLaughlin’s own Extrapolation plays an important part in the plot, and in particular the track ‘It’s Funny’, which is described as a “limpid gentle little hymn to what the sleeve notes oxymoronically call ‘sadjoy’.” This came out in 1969, when Enzo (and John) was 19. There is a lovely mention of John Surman’s “achingly gently melancholy soprano sax”. John Murray as Enzo confesses: “I found myself wishing to erupt into something potently expressive of both joy and sadness. Such a combination was akin to the burning saudade of Portuguese fado”
Pharoah Sanders’ Tauhid is another record the book dwells upon magnificently, and mention is made of how in ‘Aum’ Henry Grimes “amnesically scratches his bass as if it is an irritant itch. Warren Sharrock’s guitar is all dogged, doleful mangling of an electrified rubber-band. Sanders, like a sagacious Zen master, smirks and pulls his ornamental oriental rug from under your feet.” He goes on: “With ‘Venus’ he is serenading us with the message that out of musical breakdown and an anguished wordless dissolution comes perhaps some tenderness, some mercy, some transfixity of, what shall we call it? Shall we call it love, Enzo? Or shall we call it Love?”
The New John Handy Quartet’s New View, a 1967 live recording, appears in the book as “a uniquely medicinal and consolatory LP” which Enzo falls back on. Jazz etc. itself was directly responsible for introducing New View to this household, for which enormous thanks are due to John Murray who included an anecdotal line about getting it for 60p in the bargain racks of Oxford’s Woolworth’s which has the ring of truth to it, being too precise to be made up entirely, and one cannot help musing on the fact that there really were times when such records were for sale on the high street for next to nothing.
In the later sections of the book there are a number of ECM references, partly with the connection between Cumbria and the Nordic region, and there is specific mention of Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber. A CD reissue of Keith Jarrett’s ECM release Facing You plays a pivotal role in the story, and John as Enzo describes it as “solo piano music from 1972, of an intensely plangent and infinitely poignant kind”.
It is one of a number of Enzo’s records which at one point his dad listens to, with Enzo hoping that they can find some common ground. Enzo’s father Vince in his mangled Neapolitan-Cumbrian dialect proceeds to give his verdict on Chip Curry the penis feller (Chick Corea), Terry Ribble the crazy Norway feller (Terje Rypdal), Chon Summon (John Surman), John Micky Glove Line (John McLaughlin), and Keith Jarrett (Kit Charock), admitting that Facing You actually made him cry, though he pleads he was “blurry pisht”.
Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert gets a mention too, and that is a record which plays a vital part in Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez, which appeared in a UK translation in 2011. Purgatory was Martinez’s final book, an attempt to write a novel about the Argentinean military dictatorship of March 1976 onwards, and in particular the disappearances that happened during that time. The central couple in the story are Emilia Dupuy and Simon Cardoso. They met in a basement where the rock group Almendra were playing their hits. They courted and then married. Simon becomes one of the disappeared, missing presumed dead by pretty much everyone except Emilia who never gives up searching or believing.
Emilia’s quest at one stage takes her to Venezuela: “In Oricao or Osma, I roamed wild untamed paths with the singer Soledad Bravo, who would sing as the sun was sinking into the sea, in a voice as huge and golden as the papayas.” Music plays an important part in Purgatory, particularly with the recurring motif of Keith Jarrett’s improvisations at his Koln concert, which is a record so important to Emilia and Simon’s story. Also Keith’s gorgeous 1999 CD The Melody At Night, With You, mostly truly healing performances of beautiful old standards, appears in the book, alongside mentions of Schubert quartets, Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, and Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You’.