Courtney Pine, Britain's enigmatic jazz musician, talks to Sarah Probert about legends, critics and taking Stevie Wonder's place at Wembley.
BRITAIN'S most famous saxophonist won’t be pigeon-holed nor does he have much time for jazz critics.
For years he has stood up to the “jazz police” and believes he has been shunned by experts for bringing something fresh and a little more contemporary to a field of music, which he says is constantly being criticised for being “dead”.
Now Courtney Pine is hitting the road to play music from his latest album, a beautiful Caribbean cocktail of ska, calypso, meringue and reggae, with an abundance of screaming soprano saxophone.
He is a regular visitor to Birmingham and will be stepping out on stage at The Drum in Aston on Saturday.
“I have family in Dudley and I am a regular visitor to Birmingham and it is a dream come true to present this particular record at The Drum,” he explains.
“I have done a few shows so far and it has been very interesting seeing the feedback from the audience.’’
Pine’s 15th studio album, released last October, reflects much of his Caribbean roots.
Titled House of Legends, it pays homage to historic figures in Black history – from Jamaican preacher Samuel Sharpe, whose peaceful strike against slavery in 1831 led to a massacre of slaves and then him being executed, to murdered Black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
“I always wanted to reflect my background and with all my albums I have made reference to it. It got to a point where I felt brave enough to present a record of my cultural background and the influences of legends. For instance, there is Claudia Jones, who came up with the idea of conquering or quelling the race riots in London, and created Notting Hill carnival,” he explains.
“I have found the general public really welcoming but the jazz establishment, who think they know everything about jazz, are a bit perplexed.
“The experts just want to belittle it. It has been great for me to see these guys reveal themselves. Colonialism is still in existence in some people’s minds.”
Pine’s album is also made in memory of some of the jazz greats, including Birmingham’s Andy Hamilton, who died last year at the age of 94.
Before recording the album, Pine had expressed a desire for Hamilton to play on it.
“With my trips to Birmingham, Andy would always take time to talk to me. I missed out on playing on his first album and I have regretted that ever since,” the 49-year-old explains.
“The second-to-last time I was in Birmingham, I asked Andy if he would take part with the album.
“He said yes. I had to work out how to get him down to London or how I would come up here to record but, sadly, he passed away. I believe he was a legend.
“Last year at The Drum, the Blue Notes got together and did a show and I drove up and took part in the concert.
“There is a dedication to him on the album. If I was a bit more active I would have got him on the record, and that is a big regret.”
Pine himself is considered by many to be a jazz legend. He has certainly clocked up the accolades, from a CBE to several Mobo awards and a Mercury Prize nomination in 1996 for Modern Day Jazz Stories. His most recent praise came from the critics he often criticises – after House of Legends being Jazzwise Album of the year last year.
But does he consider himself to be a legend?
“Not really,” he says. “Someone asked me how I felt about getting a CBE but when I set out and wanted to play music at the age of 15 that wasn’t the reason why I wanted to play music.
“I want to play music, I don’t want to be a celebrity. I am aware of the awards I have got and, to be honest, I never expected them.
“I never set out to win awards, I just want to get out of bed in a morning and play the saxophone.”
Pine reflects on his proudest moment since launching his career in 1986, and comes up with a definitive answer – playing jazz at Wembley Stadium at a concert which was broadcast to 600 million people around the world.
“It was the Free Nelson Mandela concert. It was really bizarre. We were told we didn’t have room for a sound check and we were ignored the whole day we were there,” he explains.
“There were a lot of stars, including Sting. It got to 6pm, the peak viewing time, and Stevie Wonder was due to go on. But they had left some of his software in a hotel room. So they said ‘you are on’, thinking it would be no big deal. We played Night in Tunisia, it was amazing. We did what they said would never happen in our generation – to play jazz at Wembley Stadium to a live audience.
“I have played the main stage at Glastonbury twice but this was something else. It was such a strong and powerful event. A lot of people criticise us for playing jazz because we are not going to sell records but that moment changed things.”
He adds: “I have many memories of that day, Whoopi Goldberg being pushed over by Whitney Houston’s bodyguards – she was the only person to have bodyguards.
“I was in Cape Town a few years later at a festival and met the promoter of the Free Nelson Mandela concert and he told me about this story when Stevie Wonder was in his dressing room explaining about the software being left in the hotel and he was asking whether there was any chance Whitney Houston could give him a bit more of her time for his set.
“He said ‘Whitney Houston walked along and said ‘Where is this Nelson Mandela – I want to shake his hand’. It was then explained that the reason for the concert was that Nelson Mandela was a prisoner.
“He said she never gave Stevie Wonder any more time.”
Pine’s desire to pick up a clarinet and saxophone came from listening to music played by his parents as a young boy.
“My parents are from Jamaica near the Blue Mountains and my earliest recollection of music was them getting together in a one-bedroom apartment with family and friends in the community in the early 60s with sounds of ska music in the background. I always preferred the B-sides to the singles they played because they were instrumental.
“I realised later that these were jazz musicians, such as Don Drummond.
“This planted a seed in my head as to what you could do with an instrument.”
But he believes his contemporary style, which has seen him mix modern jazz with drum and bass, UK garage, hip-hop, reggae, electronica, funk and soul has not pleased his critics, who he consistently refers to as “the jazz police” or the “establishment”.
“If you go to a wine bar and see a jazz musician they are playing stuff you have cut your teeth on and the audience are yawning because it is the same thing all the time,” he explains.
“Some do actually play the same song all night.
“I think jazz to the elderly die-hard jazz fans, they are into a particular era. Take the 20s and 30s when black people were treated a certain way and some people appreciate the 60s jazz when it was about bringing people together. The great thing for me about jazz is that all of it is relevant, from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Dizzy Gillespie. It is a shame if you only want to take one strand of jazz as there is so many different strands.’’
Pine is excited about his tour but his ambitions also lie in championing young jazz talent.
“I have had a record label since 2004 and there are so many fantastic artists who want to play jazz. It is nice to give them an opportunity to get music out there and develop the label a bit more.
“I have always found new talent but there is not enough finance to make a lot of records. A lot of record labels have retreated. It is tough times in terms of people recording music, it is very hard.”
Pine, who lives in London with his wife and their four children, is a regular visitor to the West Midlands and a big champion of The Drum in Aston.
“Venues like The Drum put on jazz in all of its forms,” he says.
“The Drum is in a notorious area where guys are told not to go down and I have been trying to support The Drum for years. If it is not the Town Hall, I am going to be at The Drum.
“Birmingham is very important to me and I have an uncle in Dudley. I treat it like a home and I have somewhere to get my rice and peas.
“If you go to Dudley and see someone who looks like me wondering around, it probably is me.”
* Courtney Pine plays The Drum on Saturday. Tickets cost £15. Tel: 0121 333 2444 or visit the-drum.org.uk
* Courtney Pine is a multi-instrumentalist, playing clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone, piano and flute.
* He was “kicked out” of school while doing his music A-level and told there was “no point” in him trying to reach university.
* In 1986 Pine’s debut album, Journey to the Urge Within, made the British Top 40 and earned a silver disc (for selling more than 250,000 copies), which was unprecedented at the time for a British jazz recording.
* In 1988 he appeared as himself in a jazz quartet in the Doctor Who serial Silver Nemesis.
* Pine was made and OBE in 2000 and CBE in the 2009 New Year Honours for services to jazz music.
* He is a professor of music at Thames Valley University with honorary doctorates at Westminster and Southampton.