A picture of John Altman and Peter Green

The two are definitely on the same wavelength here. I really like this photo. They had a band then, quite jazzy, Peter getting modal, Bitches Brew, out there, groovy, John on every reed and woodwind he could get his hands on. Hippie brilliance. He was so good, that Peter Green, and the horizon was limitless, such were the times. 1970. Jimi lived, the Beatles still were. Miles was a rock star and blues, rock, jazz and eastern sounds swirled together in a perfect ever changing mix. Musicians siphoned that mix into their own sound, their own bands. This was another of those bands, with Peter Green and John Altman and other outstanding London musicians. I wish I could find the names (although that is English bluesman Duster Bennett on harp, and vocalist Danny Da Costa left his story in the comments below), but there’s nowhere to look that I can find. It was an ephemeral moment, lost but for a photo and memories four decades old. There were so many of those throw together bands then. There’s stories, there’s legends. The ultimate, you’ll remember, was Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis together. That was the ultimate band, the dream band, the jazz rock band of all jazz rock bands. And that band never even existed. Miles sent the music over to Jimi. Jimi couldn’t read music. That ended that. Peter Green’s jazz rock band–the name, if they had one, escapes me–did play one storied gig at a packed London club. This might be a photo of that gig. If not, there’s another I’ve seen, Peter with a soloist’s concentration, John waiting his turn, two or three saxophones and a clarinet hung round his neck. That’s all I know, though, a couple photos, John Altman’s stories and an anecdote or two by audience members who commented on John’s Facebook page.  No audio, no video, just a couple photos and memories. And then Peter met some strange Germans, took a chemical trip to Valhalla, and that was that. 1970 was a rotten year for rock ‘n roll, full of dead and wounded and the missing in action. A rock star Viet Nam.

Look again at the photo. I have no idea who took it, but  it’s one of those perfect shots, so vivid, and with such great composition, that it goes beyond the visual and you can almost hear the music and follow the action and catch the vibe of the moment. That’s a rare thing, those shots. You can look through a mess of  Facebook galleries and a pile of photo albums and not see one. I don’t think a person gets more than a couple of shots like this in a life time. One that people can see generations later and think wow, that’s what it was like. But music fans look at a photo like this and they sigh. They wonder what might have been, and they sigh.

John Altman and Peter Green

Peter Green and John Altman in 1970. Duster Bennett in the background..

Creativity happens only once

A couple decades ago my pal John Altman was doing a session with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. The producer in the booth asked Grappelli to play like he did with Django Reinhardt back in 1936. There must have been an uncomfortable few seconds, perhaps a sigh. “I wouldn’t know how” Grappelli said.

People sometimes ask me to recite passages from something I wrote as if I had it all memorized. This doesn’t happen as much now but when I was writing my jazz column it was a regular occurrence, sometimes two or three times a night. What was that you said about this gig? I almost never had a clue what I’d said about the gig. No idea. Why would I? I’d already written it. It was gone. Tucked into some corner of the memory, probably, filed away, and in all likelihood never to be seen again. I can’t even recognize my own writing lots of times. People have quoted me to me without me knowing it. I ask who wrote that and they stare at me. You did. I apologize. They’d give me a look, like I must be some kind of jazz critic idiot savant. Once I laughed aloud and said what fool wrote that? It was me. I don’t ask that now. But I still find it weird that people assume I can just recite anything I wrote. Because that’s not how it works. You’re writing in the moment. And once done, you put that writing away and think about what you’ll write next. There’s nothing in the creative process that enables you to go back and recite by rote anything you’ve written. Indeed, of the million or so words I’ve written in the last twenty or so years, I can recite but one line: “Broken back mountains, a lizard, a snake, and the meaningless rippling of sand”. And I remember that only because it pops into my head every time we drive that desiccated little stretch of Highway 111 on the way into Palm Springs. That is it, the only line I’ve ever written that I can repeat from memory.

I can’t see how improvising a jazz solo would be any different. It’s purely of the moment. You’ll never create the same solo again. You might re-create it, if you listen to a recording and figure out exactly what it was you did, but next time you’re playing that piece and its your turn, that same solo will not emerge from the bell of your horn. It’s the same with words. The second draft is always a new creation. Jazz soloing is pure creativity. Not painting by the numbers. When the band leader points at you you’re on your own. And when you’re staring at an empty screen, fingers poised, that opening sentence comes to you and you roll with it. You have to. It’ll never come to you again. Not like that. Creativity happens only once.

Stephane Grappelli and Django mid-creation, 1935

Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt mid-creation, 1935.