Charles Spencer

Jazz bender

This is the way addiction works

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This is the way addiction works. A nice man offers you a generous taste at a ridiculously low price; you love it, you go back for more but now the price has risen. But still you go on paying because you like it so much. Soon you find you’re not just liking it, but needing it, and, what’s worse, needing it in ever-larger quantities. That’s certainly been my experience with jazz, so many of whose greatest exponents died young and horribly because of their addiction to far more dangerous narcotics than music.

It was back in December 2005 that I wrote here about the amazing offer at the MDC music store on the South Bank. It was offering the Ultimate Jazz Archive at the ridiculous price of £99 for 168 CDs of jazz, ranging from ragtime to bebop and with all the big names present and correct. Indeed, some 250 readers of this column, who know a good thing when they hear of it, bagged the set for themselves, and I’ve certainly had no complaints.

I blithely assumed that 168 CDs of jazz would keep me going for a while, but it doesn’t work like that if you’ve got an addictive personality. You can’t be content with what you’ve got. You always want more, and better. Apart from anything else, addiction is so very exhausting, a little voice constantly nagging in your ear.

But there are genuine drawbacks to the Ultimate Jazz Archive. For a start, all the material on these CDs is out of copyright (that’s one of the reasons it’s so cheap) so there is no music recorded after 1955. That means only the earliest Miles Davis, for instance, and none of the hard bop that made the Blue Note label famous. Also, the selections tend to provide a snapshot of musicians, rather than a full career summary. For all the wealth of music here, you still feel you are only scratching the surface.

Before buying the Ultimate Jazz Archive, I had about 40 jazz albums, including most of the usual suspects. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, anthologies of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and rather a lot of Nina Simone for some reason, whom I’ve never much liked — and still don’t. I hardly ever played any of them. I also had the five-CD set that accompanied the Ken Burns series Jazz on the telly a few years ago, which I bought when I first started this column and the deputy editor wanted me to write about swing, of which I’d only vaguely heard.

Ken Burns’s selection has come in for much flak for being too exclusively American and undervaluing the white man’s contribution to the music — both legitimate criticisms. Nevertheless, this still seems to me to be the best introduction to a genre that can seem exceptionally daunting to the newcomer, ranging in chronological order from the earliest recorded example of the music right up to the 21st century, and offering exceptionally helpful notes in an evocatively illustrated booklet. If you are thinking of dipping a toe into jazz for the first time, Ken Burns Jazz (Verve, B0000 525QL) is the place to start.

I did get into swing, and even took my wife and son along to see the Syd Lawrence Band playing a date at the Guildford Civic Hall. It was an evening of greatest big band hits and proved just how exciting swing can be even when played by a British touring band whose original leader died years ago. Then I worked my way back to Louis Armstrong whose recordings with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are one of the great glories of 20th-century art. Is there a more thrilling sound than the opening of ‘West End Blues’? I’m not sure that there is.

I got badly stuck, however, with the complex angularities of bebop, and took great comfort from the fact that this was the moment (in the 1940s) when jazz began to lose its mass audience and started to become a specialist, elitist music. Better yet, Philip Larkin, one of my great idols, also disapproved of it. Yet I persevered, and somehow bebop is beginning to make sense to me now. It would be a duller world without Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and I think you’ve got to work through them if you are going to ‘get’ Miles Davis’s ‘Birth of the Cool’ and everything that followed, both from him and his contemporaries.

Nevertheless, despite the huge pleasure that jazz has brought me over the past six months or so, I’m mortified to discover that I seem to have acquired some 400 jazz records in that time, not counting the Ultimate Archive. There’s no doubt that for me going into the jazz department at the HMV near Oxford Circus and blowing £200 in about 45 minutes is now my equivalent of an alcoholic bender. What’s wonderful, though, is that the music’s still there when you wake up in the morning and you don’t have a hangover as you play the first track of the day. It’s Stan Getz playing ‘Desafinado’ since you ask. Nice...

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.