When I was in London last weekend I went into Foyles’ bookshop and picked up the last copy remaining on the shelves of of Peter King’s new autobiography Flying High – A Jazz Life and Beyond. Given that Peter King had been giving a talk on it the previous evening, it is perhaps understandable that there were few left. If those who purchased the other copies of the book had high hopes then they can’t have been disappointed.
Peter King has written an excellent autobiography: frank and honest, with considerable self-awareness and insight into what drives him. It describes with great candour the life of a man who left school with few qualifications, yet obvious intelligence, and who rose to the top of his field in only a few short years.
When still an early teenager, Peter found that his parents wouldn’t buy him a clarinet (having seen him abandon his piano and violin lessons). So, being keen modeller, he decided to make himself one, such was his obsession with the instrument. Both that obsessiveness, and rejection of barriers that would see others quit, emerge as strong themes throughout the book, as does his nervousness which he found a debilitating condition in many situations – not least when travelling by air, sea or road.
Once turned on to the recordings of Charlie Parker, King switched to alto and learned it obsessively. In only a few short years he had become such a mature player that he was asked to play at the opening of Ronnie Scott’s new club while still aged only 19! While we see today some great young players one should remember that he was essentially self-taught, with no access to play-along CDs or modern jazz theory books.
From then on Pete became immersed in the British modern jazz world, not only playing with the top UK names of the day but also meeting or playing with the cream of the US musicians. These include Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Phily Joe Jones, Paul Gonsalvez, Stan Getz, Jimmy Witherspoon, Red Rodney many more big names. Pete provides many amusing and original anecdotes about several of them, often from first-hand experience.
While not immediately a drug user he slowly developed a drugs habit which lasted several decades and took a considerable effort to end. His account of this, the debilitating and destructive effect it had on both relationships and work pulls no punches but isn’t used to shock – merely to place events in context and to explain his mental state and motivation which drove him to certain actions.
As the sixties gave way to the seventies the jazz scene really contracted and the ability for a musician to support himself financially through playing the music he loved became much more difficult, resulting in his having to play in pit orchestras, on soundtrack recordings and backing pop musicians. Having considered Peter a star of British jazz, and assumed that such stardom would bring financial rewards, I quite amazed and saddened to learn just how poorly paid he and his colleagues were throughout their careers. On several occasions he draws attention to how poorly the arts are supported in the UK.
The eighties saw something of a resurgence but it appears that only the young black guys were able to get the contracts from the big labels. Peter did get some recognition in wider circles, was able to travel more and ultimately became friends with not only Bird’s widow Chan and her daughter Kim Parker, but also got blow to two of Bird’s horns. The first was the famous Grafton plastic alto that Bird played at Massey Hall concert but also the King Super 20 which Chan kept by her bedside. I knew that Peter played the Grafton when it sold at Christies auction house for £95,000 in 1994 but didn’t know that he was invited to play it again in Kansas City when it was put in the museum there by the mayor who’d bid for it.
Beyond jazz, Peter’s two other passions come through strongly: aero-modelling and classical music. It is clear that his ability to study by himself, rather than through formal education and apply that knowledge has helped him to great achievements in both fields.
There are so many interesting facts and recollections in this book that it really is a ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in learning at first-hand what it meant to be a professional jazz musician in the latter half of the 20th century.
There are few great jazz autobiographies that I can think of. Certainly Charles Mingus’ Beneath The Underdog. Art Pepper’s Straight Life and Anita O’Day’s High Times – Hard Times spring to mind.
This new book stands up there with the best of them!
(c) Ian Watt 2011