Goodbye to a star

A personal tribute by Roger Cotterrell.   

Jazz saxophonist Peter King playing at a concertMy favourite jazz blog is JazzWax. Its author Marc Myers, based in New York, is a music columnist for the Wall Street Journal. I like his weekly blog posts because they fit my preferences in jazz, and he has a special sensitivity to European, especially British musicians and their music. He has often happily featured Tubby Hayes, but also many other British jazz names, including those that have never been ‘names’ at all in the States.

Myers often notes the deaths of jazz stars and, after our great British altoist Peter King died in August, I was surprised that there was no mention of this in JazzWax. Surely, many people knowledgeable about modern jazz in Britain would have little hesitation in saying he was one of the finest alto saxophonists this country has produced, and among the best in the world. As I write this, the full obituaries are mainly still to appear but there has been a huge outpouring of appreciation on the Internet of Peter’s work, as well as many reminiscences of him as a person – usually stressing his modesty, gentleness and kindness, alongside his formidable musical talent.

I wrote to Myers in case he had not heard the sad news. ‘Yes, I heard’, he wrote back. ‘Peter was a good guy, but I’m just not intimately knowledgeable about him nor passionate about his playing… Takes nothing away from his gifts, just that I never felt a soulful bond.’ The comment says a lot, not just about jazz experience being a very subjective thing but perhaps also about cultural distance.

Although King travelled a lot, he pursued his career mainly in Britain and made his best recordings here. But he had many firm friends and admirers in the US. Among musicians they included, notably, fellow altoist Phil Woods with whom his style is sometimes compared (although they are easily distinguishable) and Benny Golson who wrote the preface for King’s autobiography. And King played and recorded over the years with a galaxy of US stars: Milt Jackson, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Zoot Sims and Anita O’Day are just a few of many he worked with. In Paris, he played with the legendary Bud Powell. But he didn’t put down roots in US culture. He didn’t try to build a career there. And he rejected an offer to join Ray Charles’ orchestra (a band he loved) permanently, because it would have required relocation to the US.

Peter King in the 1970sPeter emerged as a musician in the era when British modern jazz players looked to the US for their models. But, although he started out as a confirmed bopper in the Charlie Parker mode, there was always something in his musical personality that was going to flower into a distinctiveness pulling him towards European influences. He became better known on the Continent than in the US and, while older Brits like Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott yearned for US recognition measured against the standard of the best American improvisers, Peter began to move in a different direction. Increasingly, from the 1990s, he drew on influences from European 20th century classical music – especially Bartok, his favourite composer – which in no way interfered with the power and conviction of his jazz playing.

He was recognised early as a technically amazing bebop soloist. He kept all that virtuosity but, from the 1990s, added a more reflective side, as well as a greater concern with musical structure and texture learned from Bartok’s compositional techniques. He became a composer himself, not just a creator of good jazz tunes (which he had long been) but someone who wrote an opera, and also a five-part suite, ‘Janus’, which he recorded with his jazz quartet and the Lyric Quartet in 1997. Unlike very many attempts to draw on both jazz and classical idioms, King’s methods did not compromise either. He wrote for the string quartet in a way that made it support, inspire and give freedom to the jazz soloists.

Maybe Marc Myers had only heard King’s pre-1990s albums, where just sometimes he does indeed sound, as Marc suggested to me, ‘a little too rushed’; a bit too frenetic, as though he is trying to put absolutely everything into his solos, often at breakneck speed and using all his dazzling technique. But his 1995 album Tamburello, followed by Lush Life (1999) and, above all, Janus (issued in 2006) showed a striking musical vision that had been latent all along but, enriched by his Bartok studies, had finally found the right means of expression. That confident maturity showed in all his subsequent music.

Peter suffered plenty of ill-health. He was a sensitive man and his personal life, detailed in his autobiography Flying High, was complicated, to say the least. For many years he was a heroin addict, not helped by destructive influences from some other musicians. When my wife and I knew him through the last two decades of his life he often seemed terribly frail, but kept on performing, often when he was in pain, and stayed full of ambition to expand his musical horizons. Northway Publications, run by my wife Ann, published his autobiography in 2011. It is a searingly honest book, which reflects Peter’s strange mix of vulnerability and determination, the intensity with which he approached almost everything in life, his total lack of boastfulness, and perhaps his bewilderment that he somehow survived the dark times in his helter-skelter career. His wife Linda who died in 2007 was an essential support for many years.

It is our great fortune that despite all the ups and downs, Peter King, who lived to the age of 80, managed to leave a wonderful legacy on record that will gradually gain ever wider appreciation in the international jazz world.

Roger Cotterrell


Read more articles about interesting British and international jazz artists.

« Charlie Parker - myth and mayhem

Ronnie's and me »