BILLY JENKINS Interview by Richard Russell

THERE’s an ancient fable I just made up: two neighbours, they are both builders, one of them piles in all his money on extravagant architecture, works a seventy hour week, handles contracts on a massive scale, some of them fall through, some of them don’t; the other guy, his neighbour, does virtually nothing except that once a day, every day, he lays a single brick with a little mortar, and spends the rest of his time doing what he likes. After many years, when it’s time to retire, both of them look to what they’ve achieved: the first guy, the busy one, still has contracts and insurances hanging over him and can’t even afford to retire; the other guy has an hundred-foot-high brick wall.

Billy Jenkins is the bricklayer of the blues. His latest brick, the album Life, has taken a year to make, and is as down-to-earth and forthright a blues album as you will hear until his next one. It’s also the bluesiest Billy has been to date, following on from the workmanlike ‘’, it uses much the same lineup, somehow augmented in effect, partly due to the addition of a live track, and a chorus of some mates and their kids.

Full-on energetic throughout, from the powerful ‘I Wanna be Connected’ to the full-throated finale, ‘Bye Bye Blues’, Life gives as good as it gets, and it gets pretty good, very blues and still very ‘Billy’, with it’s slightly Luddite recording technique.

Modern record company executives, obsessed with ‘production standards’ and high-fidelity, frown on live tracks on albums. "Some people are moaning about the second track's sound quality," Billy told us, over tea and doughnuts. "If you're in a car, someone said, you don't want to listen to that track. But it was just like that. You couldn't recreate that animalistic baying of an audience in a studio. And the way that exists live, people don't hear that much. Sure it sounds boxy, it's a boxy room."

I asked him if the rest of the album was recorded conventionally, drums first.

"No, I do the whole band at once and then put on the extras. That’s why it took a year. Not with baffle-boards, either, I like movement between the microphones; I like the air to be heard. I've got two drummers on it. Three mikes each, bass drum, snare drum and one overhead, so you can hear their hands. At one stage when we were doing East West, Roy's sticks caught fire, just exploded - the most bizarre thing."

I suggested he might have preferred ‘Life’ to be on vinyl.

"I don't mind. I actually prefer black and white photography. I was thinking about that yesterday because I've got to come up with a cover for the new one ... you can roll joints on album covers, you can't on CD's. The new album's all on digital multi-track, which I've never done before. I've done live recordings on digital. It's fast, speeds it up, you don't have to pay for tape. You've got digital/analogue converters so you keep the sweetness. I'm pretty ethical about recording, I must admit, you don't overdub yourself ."

Unusually there’s a couple of covers.

"Yeah, they fitted in right, particularly finishing with ‘Bye bye blues’. It's just right for that scenario: end of pier, all-singing all-dancing, the whole cast - a curtain call. I love taking songs and making them fresh again. Dave Ramm (org) being on cruise ships all the time - he sounds like what he's doing. And the kids, I think it just works. You could say why don't they sing in tune, but that's just kids, natural kids. I love untutored voices. I've always wanted to do 'Listen to the Music' by the Doobie Brothers sung by profoundly deaf kids. My voice is getting deeper. It's nice to have a new hobby. I did it as a kid and I'm singing more and more"

Most of Billy's jazz-explorational oeuvre has been instrumental music, in strange and wonderful combinations. Despite ‘conventional’ trimmings, the experimental Jenkins is still in operation; the bloke who dreamed up Scratches of Spain; and Uncommerciality might have tried it all already, what with tuba trios and ‘heavy-metal’ trombones; but for Billy it’s more like he knows where he’s going now-

"You say about ‘experimental’ stuff that I've done in the past, I would never consider it personally as experimental. I'd just consider it exploring. To outsiders it comes across as pretty weird, but its totally logical to those that understand it."

Did he still like the earlier stuff?

"It's hard to monitor ‘cause it saddens me because it's so good. I think, I'm not doing anything, I've just got a bunch of people in the studio, they're creating the sound, the moment. Listening to some of these players, it's fantastic."

Indeed. Over time, the players have included Andy Shepherd, Claude Deppa, the super-reedman Dai Pritchard, the tuba player Oren Marshall, Ian Ballamy...a who’s-who of contemporary British virtuosity.

"They all loved it, because they can kick out."

And ‘kick out’ they do, on a daunting array of recordings on vinyl, CD and cassette. Top-drawer horn solos and Billy’s unbound guitaring on every one. All the same, in Billy’s earlier ‘explorational’ jazz-social realism, there’s a definite break from current conventional jazz.

"I'm a musician, but I do play jazz and blues. The whole profession, like many professions, is disappearing, and the last thing you want is some nice jazz quintet playing elevator music, 'cos there ain't gonna be a job for them. Moving more towards the blues is just the way I felt. I can't go home after a gig and think, 'oh well, that's nice.' I'm speechless after a gig. I want an hour to just think about what went on, savour it. You get that with the kids, they watch telly, watch a film, and that's it, phtum, straight out, no discussion, no analysis.

"It's important for people like me to shout about the value of the artist in society. I reckon the future of jazz is in the studio, making aural art. Some of the people who deal in free jazz don't like me because I address issues like rhythm and harmony, melody and all that. I don't like a lot of it because there's no point in twiddling. It's almost fiddling while Rome burns. I think the whole jazz world needs to go back, to distill back to its roots, to rekindle ethics, rekindle feel, sensitivity, timbre ... This goes back to compression, it takes that away."


"I did have hope that digital radio would improve things, but it won't, because they've lost all this money launching BBC 4. I think the original plan was that the reception would improve therefore they could lessen compression, but because they're having to sell so much more space to private concerns to recoup, they're still keeping the stuff squeezed up. That's why I spend time telling people about the dangers of compression. The ear becomes lazy. And everyone thinks DJ's have got sexy voices."

In fact, with the distinctly low-fidelity of the majority of Mp3s, the record company executives are talking out of their arses: they can refuse to release something slightly political, on the grounds that the reverb on one cymbal is a bit naff, while they’re all piling in trying to corner ‘digital’ music on the net which sounds like toilet rolls. Billy’s work, for all it’s low budgetness over the years, is always eminently listenable: everything’s recorded ‘properly’ even on undubbed Jazz Cafe sessions. You can hear the bass, you can hear the drums; and you can hear Billy continuing one of the dying arts of the true musician- reacting and re-reacting with an audience...real ‘live’ music in front of real ‘live’ people.

Are you a reluctant leader. Do you like making decisions, selling yourself, doing interviews?

"Yeah, but...I wrote to a guy today who's putting a tour together for next year. I said, that's where I fall down because you're sitting talking, or creating, then the phone rings and you have to decide at the instant exactly what meal you'll be eating at 8pm in Darlington on the 29th of November, which I find ludicrous. But I find with the Blues I can actually market it better, because it's so malleable I can say what I'm going to do ...

"Everything I’m doing, it's all coming out in the blues. The template is there - the groove and the three chords. When I first started writing blues lyrics, the nearest I got to writing about the English equivalent of floods was an optimistic tune along the lines of I've got to get an Argos catalogue to rebuild my home. It ain't a real big problem, but there are mental problems which afflict us all and there are outside problems which affect us all badly, and if we can rise above 'em, the blues has succeeded. So if you acknowledge a problem, address it and find the cure. Then another problem comes along. It's great.

The guitar playing is particularly strong on ‘Life’. Billy’s own characteristic frenetic-percussive style blends with Richard Bolton’s more conventional ‘lead’, lending a confidence that reminds me of Buddy Guy, and I told him so. He isn’t quite so confident:

"As a unit we're proud of it, but there's a certain inferiority on my part, because I spend so much time administrating, that my facets are not up to scratch, my playing or my singing, so often I just have to wing it. I always like bringing people in. And it's ‘life’ anyway, so it is the kitchen sink, very much like Suburbia really."

Suburbia, the last album but one, continued Billy’s wry observational jazz-blues imput, with tracks like Coke Cans in your Garden and ‘ The Unknown Car across your Drive, and was well received by critics and schoolkids alike. The kids’ reaction is obviously important to Billy and he enjoys communicating the blues to young audiences. While he doesn’t dictate musically to his own daughters in any sense, he seems to instinctively feel an affinity with children: call it ‘naiveté’; call it ‘wonder’; call it an intrinsic sense of fun.

Maybe he’s just given up on grown-ups, but Billy doesn’t really appear to be angry at anything very much. His dislike of beaurocracies and drum machines doesn’t leave any bitterness. It’s more like vive la difference. He revels in the differences between classes, between political opinions; it’s all grist for his mill. He also derives glee from the divide between supposedly sophisticated North London and it’s down-at-heel counterpart in Sarf-East London. Perhaps more than previous British bluesmen he is distinctly British. Jagger has always sounded like Jerry Lee’s granny, and the entire plethora of current soul and ‘r’n’b’ popstars have that same affected transatlantic quality. Perhaps in that sense, Billy Jenkins has shifted from doing jazz-punk to doing punk-blues. I’m fairly sure he’d disagree.

'Punk', after all, started out as a break from the past, ‘today’s kids’ music’, and ended up displaying it’s links with the original rock and roll of Eddie Cochran and Jerry Lee. Billy, on the other hand, takes a classic form, the blues, and embues it with a contemporary quality, both lyrically and musically. Lyrically, he’s singing about traffic lights; while, musically, for all his "mid-life crisis", we still have the freshness of the better forms of British jazz.

To a large degree, the distinction between jazz and blues is nothing more than a piece of pettiness from socially challenged musicologists who have no understanding of ‘popular’ music. Both jazz and blues derived their current forms from the black conciousness of American slaves and slave-workers; gained their verboten popularity through the whore-house and the white-owned fields respectively; and rose to dominance via the scientific revolutions of the phonograph. Then, as is the way with subcultural genius, both were watered down and served up as popular culture: Glenn Miller, then Dave Brubeck watered down the jazz; while Presley and Haley grew fat off Muddy Waters.

The basis of the blues is the three chords, on the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale, usually in the order: one, four, one, five, four, one; spread across twelve bars. This might read as stupidly basic, but I am making a point. The fact is rather a lot of music uses the same three chords, including just about everything Mozart wrote, as well as every church hymn you’ve ever heard. A bluesman might tell you that the blues has a true, almost prehistoric sense of completeness; as if the blues chord sequence was on the other stone tablet: the one Moses didn’t notice, that had the other ten commandments on it.

Lyrically, there are two main sorts of blues: the "my life’s so crap" variety, and the "my partner’s left me" variety. Of course there are blues where she hasn’t left, indeed she’s just come, like ‘Mojo working’; and there are blues about drugs, politics, satanic voodoo rituals. Indeed, part of the attraction of the blues to a musician is it’s indeterminate tonality: in other words, the blues might be in a ‘minor’, or ‘sad’ key; it might be in a ‘major’ or ‘happy’ key; but very often it inhabits a manuscript-defying nether-world which is neither one nor the other.

It is precisely this ‘nether-world’ which makes a lot of schooled jazz musicians turn their nose up at John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf: they can’t pick the tonality so they call it ‘primitive’ and imprecise. Fact is, it is precisely the ambiguity which makes fairly good jazz musicians play fairly crap blues. To play the blues well, you need to know about sharps and flats and all the gaps in between. This, as you can imagine, is beyond many musicians.

Blues is a popular music, a people’s music, and so has two main varieties: the ‘all my troubles’ song and the songs about amorous and sexual relations. Victorian music hall stuff has the same lyrics; the stuff Schubert was copying has the same lyrics. You can go back to Medieval Europe and you’ll find two main forms of popular song being played by the troubadours and trouveres: the ‘chanson de toile’ or ‘work-song’; and the ‘pastourelle’, usually a ballad about the woman the gallant knight fancies but doesn’t fancy him.

The troubadours had skint counterparts, called ‘vagantes’. The vagantes usually played well-known troubadour songs but with obscene lyrics. Their stock-in-trade were parodies. Parodies of anything, even church songs. Consequently, the church, which was pretty powerful in those days, despised them and labelled them diabolical. From them we get the word "vagrant". Since then we’ve had that certain soul to the devil myth, so well capitalised by Paganini, Chopin, Robert Johnson and Keith Richards.

Billy doesn’t sing many love songs. Many of his blues are of a classic work-song variety, in keeping with his reasons for sticking to the blues: he told me he wants to "rekindle a sense of community"; only slightly less ambitiously he wants better street lighting in certain parts of South-East London. Still, his jazz professorship of so many earlier albums lends to Life that jazz quality.

Of course the essence of jazz is improvisation. The improvisation of Jenkins, Bolton and Dylan Bates is top-notch. But good improvisation doesn’t de facto mean ‘jazz’. If we can find the blues in 10th Century Europe, or 10th Century Nigeria, or 10th Century China, we can find improvisation on prehistoric walls. Actually, our culture is one of the worst so far for appreciating the improvised arts. Ancient Greece, ancient Egypt and ancient India all carried improvised music to a distinct high art form, and all in their own distinct high ways. Bach was a great improviser; so was Mozart, so was Hendrix.

Clearly Billy Jenkins hasn’t set his jazz guitar on fire, or trashed his Mingus albums. He’s just decided on the blues as the appropriate paradigm to frame his creative talents, including the arts of improvisation, lyricism, smelting good music. He knows more about the blues than a whole squad of guys who only know the blues. He has travelled, through free jazz, through mainstream jazz, through anything from march forms to impressionist piano music; the blues is where he’s got to. In an era where, for the time being at least, Life competes for your ear with thud-thud four-to-the-bar dance music with the life squeezed out of it, Life has a meatiness and power.

Billy's in his mid-forties now, terribly young for a bluesman, and Life shows him approaching his prime. Of course he is typically self-effacing:-

Q. Are you happy with life? Are you ever really happy with things?

A."No. But that's the way to be, innit. If you were you would be a very selfish, egocentrical person. Melancholia is the best stance to observe - respectful observation of life's foibles."

© Richard Russell 2002

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