There is an air of mystery about this much loved man who is one of the British jazz community's most familiar figures. Dave Ilic tries to get to the bottom of the cosmic comic of the free-form fraternity in an interview with Lol Coxhill. This article originally appeared in The Wire 5 (Autumn 1983).
It has just turned noon on a glorious and (untypically) hot summer's day in Welwyn Garden City. One of Britain's new towns, its centre sprawls out into runs of open shops encircling odd patches of greenery. On one such grassy area, saxophonist Lol Coxhill has joined in on an Amnesty International fund-raising exercise. Leaned back against a parked car, soprano in hand, he starts to play; a flowing mixture of Russian folk themes and jazz-style colloquialisms. The reaction from the assembled bodies is immediate. The clothes rummage and tea stalls are suddenly forgotten as some, upset by the intrusion, take their leave. Others stick around to lend an ear, hastening to the available seats and stretches of grass.
By its close, Lol's performance has touched on a vast array of forms, defining (for me at least) the very essence of his worth – the will to explore, and further to brand multifarious musics with his own, highly individual stamp. "Now play some Jam!", screams one parka-clad teenager. Thinking about it, it's not so much of a wild comment, for the territory once inhabited by those such as Paul Weller's gang, is anything but foreign to him.
For Lol, the aforementioned open-air recital is, 'just another gig'. To others, however, it's a curt reminder of those years in which Coxhill was almost synonymous with the street. Between 1969-1972, Lol's busking routines, fuelled as much by economic necessity, as by the drive to play, were to prove a fertile ground for shaping and maturing his now distinctive instrumental prowess.
If the press thought they had him bagged, however, they were wrong. Ear Of Beholder his debut on vinyl, was instrumental in belying their 'bald-headed busker' allegations. Veering from solo street extracts, through collective improvisations with the likes of Burton Greene and Robert Wyatt and parlour-type runs through of songs from the 30s with pianist David Bedford, to a particularly introspective run through of the Brazilian theme "Insensatez" with guitarist Ed Speight, it signified the unfolding of the Coxhill character. Moreover, it confirmed him as a musician quite indisputably wearing musical affections on his sleeve.
Although somewhat tacky in its presentations, the scrapbook approach of Ear Of Beholder did, in many ways, set the tone for several of his successive outings on vinyl. Discounting guest appearances and session work he still boasts a sizeable discography with releases dotted over the globe.
Taken in strict isolation, the impression made by these documents may tend towards the fragmentary; frozen incidents where seemingly dissimilar musical contents bump and grind against each other. Progression, however, has seen Coxhill's sense of focus sharpen. Later albums such as Lid (Solo Ictus) and Chantenay '80 (Nato) are sure sighted in their spotlighting Coxhill as an irrepressible improvisor – one whose singularity of method is far from cramped by particular formalistic contexts.
Pooled together, however, these fragments attain a mosaic-like quality from which several of Coxhill's ongoing musical concerns become clear. Obvious is that of his melodic sense; one perhaps bred from his love of great tunesmiths like Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Additionally, an interest in electronics surfaces; from severely clipped excerpts on Ear Of Beholder ("Feedback") to a lengthy duet with sound processor Simon Emmerson on Digswell Duets (Random Radar) ; the latter something of a milestone in electronic improvisation and notable for its seamless fusion of melodic and tonal developments. Add to these his forays into the world of poetry, performance art and theatre and the net result dubs Coxhill an artist of whom easy classification is impossible.
Not that Coxhill is peerless. More he's part of a rare breed. In the search for kindred spirits, one could easily cite the British jazz pianist Keith Tippett, a musician sharing those characteristics of singularity and diversity. Even Don Cherry, US trumpeter, whose distinctive playing has found its way into many different contexts; all of them without sacrifice. Now with the 'bald-headed busker' allusion having been laid to ground, Coxhill invites two distinct reactions from the press: confusion and silence. For the most part, it's the latter.
If his current attentions have often been shielded by a smoke-screen of paradoxical reaction, then precious little has been gleaned concerning his roots. So what were they?
"My real motivation", Coxhill says, "was to play and sound like Charlie Parker and it was only when I took my saxophone playing seriously, that things presented themselves".
The time was 1949; Bebop was at its height and Coxhill, a die-hard fan of the genre was in the thick of a fantasy-like experience. Coxhill attributes it as being "on a par with what was happening a few years ago. A lot of people were getting hold of instruments that they weren't very good at playing but the whole thing of proficiency didn't really matter. For my part, I had a very nice time. I had a drape suit, goatie-beard and diamond socks at three quid a pair when everyone else's were no more than four shillings."
The transition from fantasy towards a stern musical reality was, however, less than smooth. "It was only after I got sacked from a couple of bands that I consciously wanted to play better. So I got hold of a decent tenor and went off to music college for one and a half years. Although my life's changed, I don't pine for those days. That was then. I like to keep things moving."
What is strange perhaps is Coxhill's modesty in terms of his
achievements. "The fact that I have got to the point of being an
interviewee really surprises me. I could just have easily stayed as
a book-binder. I'd been in the trade for 14 years and was on the
point of being sacked for my playing in bands at night interfering
with the job. In the end, I sacked them!
"I was fed up and had been offered the chance to play with Rufus Thomas (this was during 1964) which I gladly took. The financial change was obviously hard for I had a family to support. Musically, though, it wasn't difficult to adapt, because of my years working semi-pro."
From these beginnings, Coxhill's working territory rapidly expanded. Rhythm and Blues figured heavily with Coxhill holding down positions with Tony Knight's Chessmen and The Gas. Later came a stint with Delivery, a blues-orientated outfit often found as a pick-up backing band for visiting US blues guests such as Lowell Fulson. Still in the 60s Coxhill's solo work (for some still the pinnacle of his achievements) came to the forefront. "I suppose 1969 was the real turning point. I was then working a lot at Ronnie Scott's, initially playing standards, mostly in tempo. It was from that I got interested in spontaneity; chopping and embellishing melodies to the point where I felt no real need to use them."
From an initial interest, the concept of spontaneity was rapidly to become the dominant force behind his playing; and the reason why Coxhill today is cited as an improvisor. Not that this should allow him to be filed away and forgotten, for his acceptance, even within this area of activity, has occasionally been questioned. Some expressed surprise, for instance, at his inclusion in the original roster of Company, guitarist Derek Bailey's international pool of improvisors which, at the time (1977), also included the likes of saxophonist Evan Parker, trumpeter Leo Smith and drummer Han Bennink; musicians already well established within the music's accepted confines.
Reasons for such doubt, perhaps, stem back to his undeniable eclecticism. Yet doesn't Coxhill's very stance pinpoint the nature of improvisation as a process – that very quality of creating spontaneously in whatever circumstances present themselves?
In this sense, his latest vinyl offering Instant Reply – a double album of excerpts from French appearances (1981-1982) – is, in effect, a catalogue of expression, spotlighting both the working areas which improvisation can inhabit and the range of tools which Coxhill readily draws upon. Jazz, chamber music, even performance art, all shine forth from this collection as much within tracks as between them.
Moreover, the clarity of intent that emerges cuts through much of the waffle covering his placement within a specific generation of players.
Misconception of his motives, however, has a constant in his career. "People still think there's something dodgy about what I'm doing. If it's not that, then it's a tendency to make more of a situation than is actually true. My busking is a case in point. If I had never played in the street, I don't think that my work would have received anywhere near the attention that it has had. Yet, in another way, its been a weight around my neck for, in some people's eyes, it took the seriousness away from my developing a way of playing without accompaniment. I suppose it's because only about half a dozen other sax players who are up to much the same thing have taken to the street."
Moreover, Coxhill's seemingly infinite capacity for crossing musical boundaries has, itself, come under fire. One source fairly close to me suggested that it might mark an insecurity – perhaps artistic; perhaps even personal. Lol refutes such a suggestion. "When people ask me why I'm not pursuing one particular thing, I always think of it in the same way that if someone's interested in cricket, it's considered perfectly normal that he might be also interested in rugby or football. If he does all three, no-one suggests he's got a sense of insecurity. Why should that be removed from someone interested in music?
"If you think of all those musicians who do exactly as I do – devoting most of their time to playing their own music, whatever it might be, while also working occasionally in other areas such as sessions, small part acting, poetry, writing for the theatre etc., I'm not doing anything out of the ordinary. I'm an improvisor to whatever extent is possible; in my work and in my approach to living. I have numerous responsibilities to other people, which I gladly accept. Consequently, I don't have the total freedom of movement and activity that I would otherwise want, but I can still put a great deal of effort into contributing something of my own to situations which wouldn't normally involve a musician like myself. My lifestyle is insecure, but doesn't my way of surviving suggest that I'm motivated by something rather stronger than insecurity? To a point, I have created my own insecure way of living because it is the most creative working system possible for me.
"Free saxophone playing is becoming more popular on current rock records, so why am I so different (apart from being better than most of those playing on the records)? I just happened to have started doing it twenty years earlier, though I'm sure I wasn't the first, and it wouldn't matter if I had been."