April 17 to 23, 2000
We spoke Italian at home, so when I went to school at age five I could hardly speak any English (just a little back-yard Glasgow slang) and felt totally lost. My parents had little idea of what the Scottish school system required and I was too shy and linguistically handicapped to assert myself. Consequently, when we had our first music class, which involved spontaneously playing all kinds of small instruments from triangle to xylophone, I was the only one without an instrument. My teacher, the young and resourceful Miss Smith, seeing the situation came to my rescue. She stood me up on a chair, gave me a drum stick and said, "There, you can conduct the band." Slowly, shyly at first, but with growing confidence, I started waving my arms around trying to find a beat in that wonderfully spontaneous, juvenile cacophony. Of course, I instantly fell in love with the thoughtful Miss Smith, and I often wonder what she would say if she could see me now leading the prizewinning 'Jazzmania' big band.(she would probably remark that not much had changed).
A little later I started playing the ukulele and began to sing three chord cowboy songs ("Presenting, the new ukulele sensation Ian Gee, so called because they are the only two chords he knows!") Then at eleven years of age I first heard modern jazz music on the radio and that changed my life. I didn't know what kind of music it was but it instantly bewitched me. I was spellbound and completely bowled over by the sense of adventure and freedom that emanated from the music, and I knew that this was the music I wanted to play.
My father also played the clarinet and I found the instrument one day stored away on top of the wardrobe. I took it out of its case and I remember thinking that the wood had a wonderful smell (perhaps that's one of the reasons why I play a wooden flute today). I put the clarinet together and started experimenting on how to get a sound out of it. The first ear-splitting 'squawk' I produced was pure magic to me. A few weeks later, when he first heard me play a simple tune (the song 'How About You', which contains many repeated notes), my father was touched and had tears in his eyes, but nevertheless he immediately took the clarinet away from me saying that music should only be a hobby, and that I should follow his footsteps in the restaurant business. But I found ways to secretly practice and keep going with my clandestine ambitions. My father is my number one fan today and I know he won't mind me saying that he was always vehemently opposed to me wanting to make music my profession. He now believes I made the right decisions, and is very proud and appreciative of the culturally rich and adventurous life that playing jazz music has given me. But that change of opinion did not happen overnight.
Jazz was an obsession with me, and so was the saxophone. I listened to every jazz radio program I could, including the late night broadcasts of Willis Conover on Voice of America, which I would listen to at one o'clock in the morning with the radio under the bed clothes to dampen the sound. (Many years later I had occasion to meet Willis Conover while I was playing at the Jazz Jamboree Festival in Warsaw, Poland, and I took the opportunity of thanking him for his great broadcasts. A very charming and kind hearted man.) I listened to every sax player I could find recordings of from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, and I wanted a saxophone very badly.
By this time the family had moved from the violent slums of Glasgow to the peaceful tranquillity of Jersey in the Channel Islands. (Yes, the state of New Jersey got its name from a tiny island in the English Channel, 15 miles from the French coast and just 45 sq miles in size.) In Jersey at that time there was only one music store and this store had just one saxophone, but it was the best - a Selmer MK VI. I worked a whole summer holiday in my father's restaurant and by the time my birthday came along in September I had earned enough money to buy it. In fact I'd already been playing it for a year before I bought it. The owner of the store had seen me staring through the window every day on my way to school and asked me what I was looking at. When he discovered I wanted to buy the tenor saxophone he said that I could go into the back of the store whenever I wanted, and play on it as long as I liked. In that cultural desert it was highly unlikely that anybody else would be interested in buying a sax.. So I would go to the store during my school lunch breaks and blow in the back room working out the similarities and differences between a clarinet and a saxophone. By the time I bought it I felt comfortable playing the saxophone.
Once I had my horn I started to play in a blues band, then I joined the brass section of a soul band, and eventually I dared to show up at the jazz jam sessions. Jersey was invaded by tourists every year which meant that each hotel would hire a band for the summer season. Many of these bands contained very good English jazz musicians who did the summer commercial gigs to earn some easy money and take a free holiday at the same time. Consequently the jam sessions were crowded and cooking. By this time I had heard my first jazz flutist, Harold McNair, who died tragically young and is relatively unknown, but who remains my favourite jazz flute player to this day. Inspired by his recordings I decided I had to have a flute. By coincidence, the music store had just acquired a cheap, used Armstrong, so I earned some more money in the family restaurant and bought it.
My first months with the flute were extremely frustrating. As a saxophone player I was doing everything wrong with my embouchure, and with no flute player to guide me I almost gave up. Then one blustery autumn day, while I was sitting on a rock down on the beach trying to get a half decent sound, I rested the flute vertically on my knee and was amazed to hear it play a soft, mournful note. Just for a second a gust of wind had moaned through it. I turned the flute until I found the correct angle again and heard the same ghostly whistle. I was awe-struck, and at eighteen years of age, alone on the beach, with only the wind and the waves for company, I felt sure I had received a sign. It was then that it dawned on me how very close to nature the flute actually is, how immediate and profound the connection is between the flute and the flute player. There is no reed in between the breath and the sound, the breath IS the sound.
Unfortunately, in later years when I was living in Milan, Italy, and struggling to survive as an apprentice jazz musician, I had to sell that flute in a time of financial distress. When things went well I would buy another cheap flute, and whenever a period of financial crisis came along (which happened with unpredictable regularity) I would sell it again. The flute was the only dispensable instrument I owned. It was with the saxophone that I earned my living.
I moved from the tenor to the alto sax and bought myself a soprano sax, all necessary instruments to get good work. But although I was making progress as a player, the continued financial insecurity meant that I would sometimes spend years without playing the flute. It was not until I moved to Amsterdam, Holland, where I settled into a more financially secure and regulated life, that I bought myself a 'permanent' flute. At the age of thirty five I bought a second hand Pearl flute and started all over again. Since then my flutes (wooden C flute plus the alto & bass flutes) have become as important to me as my saxophones, indeed more so.
In some ways I feel a greater sense of freedom playing the flute than the saxes. The flute is a very versatile and expressive jazz instrument which has an important advantage over other horns; there is no preconceived idea about how a jazz flute SHOULD sound. In the development of the flute in jazz there have been important innovators (for a history of the development of the jazz flute follow my home page link below), but there are no predominant schools of playing, no dominating influences, such as saxophonists Charlie Parker or John Coltrane, to impose one particular style of playing as THE style of playing. Consequently, jazz flutists are free to explore the many possibilities of their instrument with less probability of being categorised as following a particular school. In fact, there is no reason why we should be limited by any concepts at all. Personally, I do not think of my instrument as a flute in the conventional sense ('it's a flute, therefore it has to sound like one'). I see it as a powerful vehicle for self expression that just happens to be a flute. I love the feel of a flute, I love the sounds a flute can produce but, in certain circumstances, I have no hesitation in playing a flute solo with the timing and phrasing of a trumpet in mind (not the sound, I hasten to add). Modern techniques such as multiphonics, percussive sounds, vocalising etc. have added to the tremendous versatility of this small instrument in which a myriad sounds are contained.
The flutes have become such a vital part of my music that I have recorded my last two cd's, 'A Weaver of Dreams' and 'Forbidden Flute', exclusively on the flutes. With the flute family I feel I am just at the beginning of an exciting adventure, where much is still to be learned and explored.
Since I moved to Holland teaching has become a very important part of my life. Ten years ago I set up the 'Jazz Workshops' here in Amsterdam, where I try to provide the participants with an opportunity of putting jazz theory into practice. The workshop system consists of five workshops and two big bands where children as young as ten can begin playing jazz in a junior ensemble. They can then progress through the system until they are ready to take their conservatory entrance exam. Every year we have students successfully entering the Dutch jazz conservatories. I was partly inspired to start the workshops by a comment I once heard from veteran comedian George Burns in a televised interview. He was asked why he thought there were so few good stand-up comedians today. He answered that today's young comedians had nowhere to go to get their act together. 'There's nowhere for them to go and be bad," he added. I realized how much that applied to young improvising musicians today who do not have the same opportunities I had of serving my apprenticeship on stage and getting paid while I learned. I like to think I have created an open, enthusiastic, environment where students of all ages can dare to be creative and take risks in the company of like minded people. In the ten years since the workshops began the 'Jazzmania' big band, the highest level workshop, has won no less than ten prizes, and this year the number of students passed the hundred mark for the first time.
On the subject of learning, those of you who will take the time to visit my home page and read my biography will notice that I am a 'self-taught' musician. But I should point out that, although I have had no formal musical education or lessons, my teachers have been many. As well as the great masters on record, I have learned from every single musician I have been fortunate enough to make music with (they are far too numerous to mention). I am still learning today from both my colleagues and my students. I believe you can learn from everyone, even a young beginner in jazz improvisation will play something you would not have thought of yourself.
With regards to improvisation, which is at the very core of jazz music, I would like to end with a quote that describes the feeling of improvising much better than any words of my own. It is an extract from an interview with bassist Charlie Haden which I included in the introduction to volume two of the method I have written entitled 'The Jazz Flute':
'Improvisation and spontaneity are about honesty. It's completely pure
honesty. The musician is baring his soul to the people, and hoping he can touch
their lives, in a humble way. Improvisation teaches you the magic of being in
the moment you're living in. You get a different perspective about life. And you
see yourself in relation to the universe in a completely different way. There's
no such thing as yesterday, there's no such thing as tomorrow. There's only
right now, when you're improvising.'
Amen to that.