Throughout the catalogue of Cream and Jack Bruce’s work the contribution of jazz-poet Pete Brown can be heard. From the early days of Cream Bruce and Brown shared each other’s desire in extending rock music with timeless artistic intentions and skill. In 1970 while Clapton was singing a second hand rendition of ‚After Midnight…I’m going to boogaloo and shout‘ Brown was taking Bruce’s original compositions and lacing them with lyrics absorbing the best impulses that could be gained from British post-war beat poetry, surrealism, progressive cinema as well as the latent pataphysics of English poetry and the blues.
The alchemical spark British musicians and poets found in American blues was well illustrated in a 2009 Television Documentary Blues Brittania (which Brown and Bruce both participated in). In one scene former Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman can be heard quoting samples of the poetry of Elmore James „the sky is crying see the tears rolling down the streets“ followed by a line of Muddy Waters „I’m going down to Louisiana, baby, behind the sun.“ Wyman pausing to reflect the awe and wonder such words first had on his generation he takes a breath and rightfully adds „that’s fantastic… it’s magical stuff.“
A professional poet from the time he was a teenager, lifting word magic in a live musical setting was a job Brown proved himself well suited for at the successful 60s UK jazz-poetry sessions known as New Departures. During his career as a performing poet Brown has shared the stage with Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Robert Graves. Still Brown’s most direct affiliations were documented in 1969s Michael Horovitz Edited collection Children of Albion: poetry of the Underground in Britain.
Today Pete Brown continues his work as screenwriter, poet, producer and songwriter. His next poetry book „Mundane Tuesday and Freudian Saturday“ is scheduled for publication this autumn with Scottish publishers Markings Press. Also this year Brown’s autobiography „White Rooms and Imaginary Westerns“ will appear in a simultaneous publication along with his new CD „Road of Cobra’s“ on U.K.’s Proper records, which will include appearances of Phil Ryan (formerly of Man), Mick Taylor (formerly of Mayall, Rolling Stones and Jack Bruce Band), and a list of other artists including Maggie Bell, Arthur Brown and others.
In the following interview Brown discusses his generations unique relationship to jazz, poetry and blues as well as his groundbreaking work with Jack Bruce.
Darrell Jónsson: How did performing live with jazz musicians change your approach to writing poetry?
Pete Brown: When I was 13 I started listening to jazz and became an absolute fanatic. I could actually tell you [by hearing them] who was playing on every record from 1926 to 1957. I developed those sort of ears, which was very good for me when I started producing records, because I could hear a lot of detail. So jazz was a huge thing, and once again inspired by certain Americans like Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, poets who had all done stuff with jazz. Then we started working with Jazz musicians, who we looked up to anyway. Back then the problem was technology, there were no monitors, and you couldn’t hear yourself and the musicians couldn’t hear you. Creatively Michael Horovitz and I did some interesting stuff and we had a regular spot at the Marquee known as the „New Departures Group“. We had a regular band, with some floating personel, but they knew what we were doing and we all loved it. And through that is how I met Jack and Ginger because they were jazz musicians and I was around the jazz scene.
DJ: Jack Bruce has said in the past he was attempting to musically extend or augment the pop song, much of this apparently was done via his experience with Classical music and jazz. From what literary wellsprings did you draw on when working with Bruce to extend the poetics of rock?
PB: We were always looking for different forms, we were both into that. And luckily I had the chops to run with it. By that time I was a reasonably well known poet and I wrote a great deal and practiced a lot, I was quite flexible in that sense.
Some of the things we had in common is that we loved the blues and we realized the blues was a very interesting language and that the lyrics were very interesting. Obviously Jack was very fascinated by what happened in the blues musically especially with the more sophisticated players, as was Eric.
But Jack and I were also interested in Charles Mingus who had also done experiments with poetry. And we also loved certain humorous things like the goon show, which was very a very popular anarchic [British] radio show, with Spike Milligan. So we had these things in common but we also wanted to do things that weren’t obvious.
I always wanted to get away from the obvious, I wasn’t really interested in writing your obvious pop songs anyway, the only sort of pop song we ever wrote was ‚I Feel Free‘. But if you look at the form of it, it was completely unique. The musical ideal of it for instance — having a very powerful driving beat and rhythm groove and a very legato lyrical vocal on top of it – was and is very unusual. It sounds incredible, but the only artist doing anything like that was Brian Wilson with the Beach Boys. It wasn’t the same thing but the same idea [in using these musical layers].
DJ: How as a Jewish person from London did you synchronize, or identify with the Scottish images and landscape that’s evoked in your work with Jack Bruce?
PB: I absolutely loved Scotland and started going there when I was 17, and I’ve always had strong connections with the place. I’ve always had very good friends up there and spent time there. And all of my main collaborators apart from Jack have always been Scots or Celtic people of one kind or another. My longtime and current musical collaborator is Phil Ryan [formerly of Man] who is Welsh with Irish origins. We’ve worked together since 1978, and we have a new record coming out this year. I’ve always had an affinity with the Celtic peoples and I understood a lot of where Jack was coming from, because I loved Scotland. I spent a lot of time up there both in the country and in the urban parts, I spent a lot of time in Glasgow, and lived in Edinburgh for a while. So I was able to read into that and interpret it in a way, which was cool for him and got to the bottom of it.
DJ: Were there any lyricists in the 60s or 70s that you either feel were doing work that was comparable to yours, or on some level or another you admired?
PB: I always liked what Jimi Hendrix wrote and I liked Mose Allison a lot, Jack liked him a lot too and in fact did a record a live record with him, and later on I was totally in love with Screaming Jay Hawkins and his lyric writing. I wasn’t to terribly keen on Dylan. But I liked the first 3 records the Band did, they came out with some wonderful lyrics. I like Tim Buckley, Dr. John. And my favorite songwriter is Allen Toussaint. Toussaint is the complete man, songwriter, arranger, pianist and singer… for me he is one of main inspirations.
DJ: For most people outside of England hearing musicians, critics and historians talk about „jazz“ in England is very confusing. England is associated with folk and rock music, but not really as a jazz center. Where does all this discussion of jazz come into the picture?
What everybody wanted to do was jazz, people from jack’s generation they wanted to play jazz. But it wasn’t possible to make a living, there were only 20 or so musicians in London (and it had to be London more or less) who were making a living from modern jazz. You couldn’t really do it and it was a very cliquey thing anyway. It was a little establishment that fought tooth and nail to keep everyone out.
And Jack and Ginger were considered a bit as upstarts. And so along came the blues thing with Alexis Corner, and it became a movement. So it became a place where a lot of the jazz musicians could make a living. It was partly a practical thing, but it was a music where the musical respect that Alexis gave to those guys (although it did not extend to financial respect), allowed them to branch out and they could play long solos. They could experiment, they could play things that sounded like Charles Mingus, and they could make enough of a living to not have to do anything else, which was incredibly important. It meant they did 8 or 9 gigs a week sometimes when the demand was there and so that was really good.
For a lot of them especially Graham Bond, Jack and Dick Heckstall-Smith. They liked the blues from the beginning, had an insight into the music, and felt they could do something with it. There is an interview in the recent BBC documentary called ‚Blues Brittania‘ where Jack says ‚blues was a language, it was like a personal language but it was a thing that was very flexible and open to interpretation and you could do your own thing with it‘. It you loved it and realized how it worked then you could actually put your own stuff on it.
Of course British blues was not just blues it was jazz and soul and all sorts of stuff, or at least became so. And it was a real phenomena that people like Graham and Jack and all these people could put their mark on that vernacular.
And it was all done with the greatest respect for black music and black musicians, who we looked up to 100%. None of us wanted to do anything feeble or nasty to it.
So it took off from there and was used as an influence. In the best of what happened, like with the Graham Bond Organization, which for me was the greatest band and some of Zoot Money’s bands. With the John Mayall thing, again to quote Jack ‚Mayall was trying to reproduce Chicago blues‘. And the fact is sometimes Mayall had musicians like Eric and Hughie Flint that took it beyond that in a very interesting way, but that isn’t what he was trying to do. Just like in the early days the British Dixieland revival, trad people were just trying to copy stuff. There was a living to be made with that and it created a club circuit that later on the R&B, and Blues people cashed in on — that was a copy music. But if you listen to the Graham Bond Organization you realize its something totally creative. Even if they are playing ‚What I say‘ by Ray Charles it’s very unique and creative… It’s its own thing as is Cream of course.
And later on if your talking about Jack, Jack was always limited by Cream, he couldn’t do it with Cream, he could a little bit in the studio, but mostly not. So he needed to do all those solo albums and do all those shapes and forms in order to do what he knew he could do. Now Jack’s work is a body of work that’s beginning to be appreciated, it took a long time and he never made any money from it except for his first solo record ‚Songs for a Tailor’…comparitvely the rest of them never did. We don’t work together anymore but it’s a body of work I’m proud to have been a part of and I think we did some good stuff.
We were never cynical about what we did, and because of our backgrounds in poetry and blues were not trying to make throwaways we were trying to make something that really would last…and this was a conscious thing. We were not trying to do ‚pop‘ but we were trying to do music whatever platform it came in.
I’ve never been cynical about music, music was my first love, I’ve been cynical about the business, it’s full of whores you know, but in terms of the music and the creativity I’ve never been cynical about that.