Keith

Remembering Keith Tippett

There’s a story Miles Davis tells in his autobiography, about how seeing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie perform in a tiny club was the greatest experience of his life (he adds the caveat “with my clothes on”), and how he spent his career trying to reach that level of musicianship in his own work. For me, it was a concert Keith Tippet played at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay, spring 1998. The first half was just Keith at the piano, and after the interval he performed with his wife, Julie Tippetts singing, and Paul Dunmall on sax. That night changed my life.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the uniquely captivating qualities of Keith’s piano playing. Nonetheless, there was something entirely other-worldly about a Keith Tippett improvisation that on an average day was completely spellbinding, and on a good day was utterly transformational for anyone in attendance. He named one of his bands “Mujician” after his young daughter’s mispronunciation of his job. But Keith really was the most magicianly musician.

That phenomenal performance at the Norwegian Church was on a Thursday. I know that because the next afternoon was the college big band rehearsal, and Keith said to some early arrivals, “well, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who were at last night’s concert, and those who weren’t”. Years later I heard on good authority that even for Keith, with the 1000s of concerts of he’d played over 40 years or more by that point, that night was one of his favourites. I’ll never forget how it made me feel.

For the three years I was at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, I lived for Friday afternoons with Keith. 12-1pm was free improvisation, and 2-5pm was big band. It was magnificent. The first time I went to the free improv class, I thought Keith was bonkers. He asked me to play some bongos along with a flautist. Neither of us had any sheet music, a timeframe, a plan, or a clue what we were doing. Keith said to listen and respond without being selfish. I was wracked with anxiety and I’m sure whatever we did sounded horrendous, but Keith was encouraging enough to this 19-year-old budding classical clarinettist and closet rock drummer that I came back the next week. Keith would put us into duos, trios or sometimes quartets, and everyone was welcome in his class. He curated a beautiful, safe space where we could experiment and offer feedback on each other’s performances. The fragile young musicians in attendance learned to believe in ourselves because of Keith’s unerring belief in us all. I didn’t miss a class till I graduated.

Keith’s big band was like the free improv class on steroids, with sheet music. The pad was all music Keith had written for one of his avant-garde ensembles like Centipede or Tapestry. The melodies were memorable, the chords complex, the structures varied and often baffling, and the tempi ranged from incredibly slow to unplayably fast. All were welcome – we had French horns, violins, flutes, saxes, trumpets, guitars, piano, trombones, cellos, recorders, vibraphone, bass and drums. In addition to “burning” group free improv (I can hear Keith’s devilish Bristol accent now – “burrrrrrn!”), he had us all stroking wine glasses and chanting the names of fallen jazz comrades in whispers; we would collectively improvise freely in “circular time” in the middle of a composition, and play long or short random pitches at Keith’s direction in the middle of these improvisations. Each week a different person was a section’s riff-meister or riff-meistra and led conversational call-and-response during others’ solos. Keith ensured we played every note and every phrase with intent. The energy and focus in the room were intense. The students would all go to the college bar with Keith for a pint after class, or he’d go with us to a pub in town.

Keith rarely spoke to me much individually, beyond direction and feedback as the drummer (or, for two of my three years, one of two drummers) in the big band, but Keith’s influence expanded my listening, broadened my musical horizons exponentially, and made sure I practised my ass off. Keith was a sage – deeply wise and full of unvarnished love. He often spoke with adoration of his wife, Julie, and his children, Luke and Inca. He showed by example how to live life as a musician.

Keith’s sheer generosity as an educator was profoundly impactful during my formative years. A whole generation of musicians passing through the Welsh College before the turn of the millennium owe so much of our confidence and belief in ourselves – as musicians and humans – to Keith. In the spring of 1997, after only 6 months behind the kit in his big band, I was the sole drummer when we closed the opening night of the Bath International Jazz Festival in torrential rain. I played a drum solo that night in front of 10,000 people. That, like every class or rehearsal or performance with Keith, was a masterclass in listening and being fully present in the moment. Keith was relentlessly encouraging. He cared about the musicians and the music. He cared about each of his students, and remembered us all many years later. Keith demonstrated that making good music is inherently worthwhile. (He had left King Crimson in the 1970s after one album with them because their music and ambitions were too commercial!). Keith loved life and he loved music and he loved working with his students.

Keith’s jokes were a rite of passage at the Welsh College. He liked to say “groovy, baby / gravy booby” with a cheeky grin like a 13-year-old, and every now and again when directing us to play a mezzo-forte passage he would say “MF – mother f….” Keith appeared to wear the exact same outfit every day – light blue jeans, white shirt and a tweed waistcoat; judging from publicity photos from the mid-1970s, he’d not changed his look a bit since at least then. He didn’t like or trust acid jazz – he was an acknowledged jazz virtuoso and had certainly dropped acid, he said, so the music, in his opinion, didn’t live up to its name. He had the most preposterous sideburns, which I imitated until I shaved them off for a series of unusually well-paying gigs in the mid-2000s. He preferred the Spice Girls to the Rolling Stones (I’m still trying to get my head around that one, 23 years later). He loved professional football. He felt one should drink a full bottle of wine with dinner.

Keith was fond of saying to an audience or band after a show, “you’ve made an old man very happy, and a happy man very old”. Just last week I wrote the same words in an email to a younger collaborator; it was the first time I’d said it. Keith knew 24 years ago when I first met him that he was responsible for lighting a flame and passing the torch. I guess he’d want to know that even his awful jokes are still alive and well among the next generation.

Keith used to say to students when we graduated, “it’s an honour to have been a link in your chain”. Keith, it was the profoundest privilege that you were a link in mine. Thank you.

Rest in Peace.

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Gareth Dylan Smith is Assistant Professor of Music at Boston University, founding editor of the Journal of Popular Music Education, and a drummer. His research interests include drumming, meaning and value in music making, teaching and learning in popular music, and eudaimonia. Gareth lives online at www.garethdylansmith.com.

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