Towards the end of his life, my father developed an allergy for which, sadly, he never found any effective treatment. The symptoms never varied but the manner in which they’d grip him could come quite suddenly and cause a near violent reaction. As far as I’m aware there was no identifiable medical term for the condition from which he suffered, yet I’m certain that is was anything but a phantom affliction. In fact, I know so. Why? Because I fear the allergy is genetic as I too find myself every so often victim of the same triggers. As there is no official term for this blight I’ve given it my own pet name, much like those ancient tribes who’d slap affectionate nicknames on gods they truly feared, as if levity could lessen their effect. I call it ‘talking head syndrome’.
My symptoms are much like those my father suffered with. And they are invariably set off, like many allergies, by a chance encounter with the thing that triggers them. My cue is always the same; I’ll be there on the sofa, idly flicking the TV remote, and quite by accident I’ll chance upon a documentary programme, most often on some aspect of music and then it’ll start. No sooner have I watched for a few minutes then a figure will pop up on screen, framed in head and shoulders, talking about the subject to hand, say a Soul singer outlining the merits of Billie Holiday, or maybe even just some celebrity ‘fan’ flown in to give what was already a very respectable figure the thumbs up for those who need familiar faces present in order to retain their attention. Then it begins – the reaction. The symptoms are consistent; I find myself pointing at the screen and spitting out fragments of speech; ‘who are these people?’, ‘what the hell do they know about it?’ and, in the most extreme cases, simply a repeated ‘who, who, who, WHO?’, these single syllables racking my body like an attack of televisual Tourettes. Afterwards I feel limp, spent, wrung out by the sentiments I’ve spat at the TV but oddly the effect is cathartic too, rather like a dark orgasm of the soul. Involuntarily, I’ve succumbed to external stimulation and surrendered myself to the will of others. Psychologists would have a field day over such a confession but for me the message is this; I’m a sentient being ready to react to anything that can be covered by those two key words ‘unnecessary bullshit’.
Honesty and a fear of hypocrisy require me to confess at this point that I too have latterly become a talking head, although (and I’ll get the ‘I have a face for it’ gag in first) my contribution has been not to a TV documentary but to a radio series, The Definitive History of Jazz in Britain, currently airing on Jazz FM on Sunday nights. Recommended to the show’s producers by a good friend, I was drafted in to be, as he put it, ‘the expert on the 1950s and 1960s’, a tag which, if you think about it for a minute, is a rather large one to live up to. However, over a succession of recorded interviews (via Zoom, no less) I ranged freely on topics from Tubby Hayes (inevitably) to Mike Westbrook (laboriously), covering much else in between. All I can say is that it’s a good job I know my history for this era as the line of questioning (‘can you tell us something about Ronnie’s Old Place?/Kenny Ball/Tony Oxley/Humphrey Lyttelton’) might have foxed someone with a less catholic outlook. That said, I was rather unprepared when the producers persisted in interviewing me for opinions on figures, developments and general trends extending to the present day. And so it was that I was further pressed for my reactions to Courtney Pine, Jamie Cullum, Jools Holland and Soweto Kinch, all of which I think I dispatched with an evenness of hand and a general professional respect, however remote the association. The point of the exercise, I reminded myself, was to be just that: professional, behaving like a sort of animated sleeve note for a contemporary jazz release – playing fact over subjective feeling and admiration over personal reservation. I think it worked, although it’s not really up to me to be the judge of that as, as yet, I've not heard a single episode.
The real issue of such a role wasn’t, as you may expect, dealing with artists whose work I was not that familiar with, but that of discussing those who are no longer here to do it themselves – the Tubby’s, Ronnie’s and Dankworth’s of this world. Not that this was anything really new to me. For close to twenty years I’ve been penning sleeve notes, magazine articles, online pieces and, latterly, blog entries doing just this – talking, if it’s not too macabre a term, for the dead.
Now we all know the old adage about ‘dead men cannot fight back’, something I truly came to appreciate when writing my book on Tubby Hayes a few years back. Hayes, of course, was long gone, but many of his contemporaries then remained and most, I’m happy to report, were happy to tell their side of things. There were one or two exceptions (notably a grumpy bassist who refused to deal with ‘another fucking journalist’). I felt this matter – of getting authentic contemporary voices to say how it was – was not only one of historic accuracy it was one of conscience too; I simply couldn’t countenance putting a ‘spin’ on my subject that would irk those who knew him. It’s a way of thinking that’s more or less governed every piece I’ve since written on Hayes and his era, a dedication to ensuring facts are uppermost, first-hand accounts are recorded and conjecture and personal opinion are kept to a functional minimum. Generally, it’s stood me in good stead and I’m hugely relieved to find that many of Hayes’ fellow players saw that I was sincere and genuinely interested in my subject and not ‘another fucking journalist’ looking for a story. (It's an age old concern: Digby Fairweather remembers veteran pre-war bassist Tiny Winters wearily expressing his dislike of ‘younger generations trying to rewrite our history for us.’)
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve again been engaged in a writing project connected with Tubby Hayes, that of creating a booklet essay for some previously unissued recordings from 1972 due to appear shortly. And, although I lacked nothing in regards to contemporary press cuttings, reviews, diaries and the like referring directly to the time in question, I was keenly aware of the fact that of all seven musicians heard of the tapes, only one (the man, incidentally, who recorded the gig in question) was still with us. Having his voice central to the narrative was therefore a given and, I’m again pleased to reveal, the interview he provided me has given an intimacy to the account of the band, the gig and the period I’d have been hard put to convey otherwise. Once more, it’s a question of respect and, at root, of getting things ‘right’.
Everybody's got one
And that’s why I’m so grouchy about the present trend for TV documentaries to haul in ‘talking heads’ who do little more than fudge the story and offer bland generalisations and who, let’s be honest, are there merely to add to the saleability of the programme itself, tied to the name of their hero or heroine like some cross between a cash cow and a commercially sacrificial lamb. Some of these celebrity contributors are very sincere I’ve no doubt, and some I feel rather sorry for (anyone who’s every watched anything on Channel 5 can almost see the pain of old school stars wheeled out to appraise TV clips from yesteryear), but there is a fine line to be trod between being a famous ‘fan’ and peddling myth. I’ll give you an example; a few years ago BBC Four (who are generally exempt from this sort of thing) produced a wonderful documentary called Queens of Jazz: The Joy and Pain of the Jazz Divas in which the work and life of five such female vocalists – Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone – was examined in very entertaining and occasionally harrowing detail. Most of the talking heads were of genuine quality, divided more or less equally between those who knew the performers themselves (George Avakian, Bucky Pizzarelli, Annie Ross) to current day musicians who were able to provide contextual and practical perspective (Tina May, Claire Martin, Barb Jungr). Likewise, pace the film's title, the joy and pain aspects were, on the whole, thoughtfully balanced.
However, selling such a programme, no matter how saleable its subject already is, was still a concern I imagine, hence the inclusion of a number of performers from outside the jazz arena, brought in, one suspects, to lend the concept its hoped for ratings legs. Nothing wrong with that, you may say. Fundamentally no, but how then does one square the example of one such ‘name’ when discussing Billie Holiday, a figure already more than mired in ‘jazz life’ cliches and attendant romance, telling the nation ‘she was off her tits most of the time.’ What does this add, truly? Is it a reflection that is valid in any way beyond the fact that its being made by a performer who, sadly, more people may now recognise than Holiday herself? Or is it just another instance of the ‘celebrity fan’ showing that, when all is said and done, they’ve made no deeper delve into the truth of their idol than a quick listen to folklore and legend? However you dress it up (or down, actually) it’s a pretty tawdry, vulgar, unnecessary and cheap observation begging the larger question of why we need it present in an otherwise respectful documentary at all? Or if you prefer me to doff the cloak of polite euphemism (and echo my dear old Dad) – who the hell is this person to comment on Holiday’s life and work anyhow?
Opinions, though, are, as a wise man once observed, ‘like ****holes – everybody’s got one’. Still, that doesn’t mean they should be mooned about in public with nary a moment’s thought for the offence they might cause. And that brings me full circle to the opening of this piece, of the disregard such commentators show not only for their person of interest but also for those who might just know the subject matter better or, even if they don’t, still might prefer a level of respect that sees past the pay cheque and the personality endorsement. One day, if luck is kind (and I have the fortune to find a jazz-loving TV producer) I’d dearly love to write my own documentary on the period of British jazz I love. My criteria would be simple; I’d only engage those who know their onions, or, if that proves impossible, source archive material of those who were there. Only this isn’t necessary at all – I could certainly do no better at paying homage to that era than did director Oliver Murray in his much acclaimed 2019 film Ronnie’s, a model of documentary making which, if you’ve not seen it yet, I urge you to do so as soon as possible. It’s a masterly tribute to a wonderful era and, thank God, given that it’s a film of non-stop photos and performance footage, there’s not a celebrity talking head in sight. And I know my Dad would have loved it as much as I did because I didn’t yell at the screen once, my silence a tribute to a job very well done indeed.
Photo: When I want your opinion: Ronnie Scott free from any superfluous commentary (courtesy Graham Attwood)