INSIDE THE MUSICIAN will be a series of articles by music people of all kinds, revealing something about their musical worlds and how they experience them.

To come in from a wide or oblique angle, I need to apologise briefly that my writing is not what it was. There is no excuse, but a reason of sorts. Over the past few years I have lost a son and a sister, the wonderful old Chinese lady upstairs who died and  was replaced by a crazy and nasty woman who fire bombed my flat while I was visiting my daughter in Brisbane. And more, but we’ll leave that. Perhaps this stress and distress is behind my two strokes and a triple A operation (aortic aneurism in the aorta) which comprehensively relieved me of my memory for a while. Concentration is difficult and death seems often to be hovering. Yet strangely I am very fit and can race up very steep hills on my bike or grind up on the seat. It is when I am lying down and for some time afterward that it surrounds me. We’ll leave it at that.

More important than that is how music sounds and what it means in what may well be the end days. Mine anyway.

Like vapour trails soaring straight up at space from the horizon, or so it seems, but finding the curvature of the earth almost directly above. Like cirrus clouds, white as snow, finely combed as old lady’s hair at 15,000 feet in what is known as a King’s Blue sky. In fact they are made of ice crystals and they can make you feel cold as that. And ecstatic. High and pure as Duke Ellington’s high trumpeter, Cat Anderson (known also as William Alonzo Anderson). Is there fear in this? Sort of, and sort of not.

I have read that a number of great musicians – Gil Evans, Stan Tracy to begin with – listened to nothing but Ellington in their last days. I read an article by the late Peter Sculthorpe in which he praised Ellington. Yet when I had interviewed him some years before he had told me he did not like jazz. Ellington himself was known as the phony Duke to many band members. And he knew it. Ellington tolerated a great many human foibles.

Duke Elligton
Duke Ellington

Colours rarely heard in music were in Ellington’s spectrum – sienna, umber, indigo, and various species of this genus. The first Ellington tracks I heard were on 10-inch LPs in the late 1940s and early 1950s when I was in my early teens. Ellington  at this time – in his titles of that period at least – he seemed to anticipate Prince: Lady of the Lavender Mist, Transblucency, Magenta Haze, On a Turquoise Cloud. It was his proto-psychedelic period. But there was also Take the A Train (actually by his protégé Billy Strayhorn), New York City Blues, The Clothed Lady, Stomp Look and Listen, Harlem Airshaft.  A Tone Parallel to Harlem. While he travelled the world he also epitomised New York. I felt him there, as I felt the presence of my uncle Charles Valentine (originally Carlo Valentino) at Queens over the Brooklyn Bridge. The towers of the Trade Center were still there, but the Duke had gone.

A minor classical composer and well known critic whose name I have forgotten interviewed the very real Duke and suggested he had been influenced by various composers, including, oddly enough, Delius. Ellington was ready to accede to anything a fan wanted to hear. I suspect that most of the classical music he heard was on film sound tracks.

But who has made a section of the orchestra run and surge and rise in ocean waves like Ellington’s extraordinary saxophone section? There is a kind of ecstatic pressure behind this. Behind this, and behind climaxes like a blast furnace, Ellington’s unique piano seemed to heighten it yet remain knowingly detached. A classical clarinetist I know was lucky enough to be included in a collaboration between Duke and the L.S.O. He could scarcely believe the power and drive drawn from about 17 players.

The Duke and his band, 1937
The Duke and his band, 1937

These are more musicians I enormously admire and love: Debussy, Bartok, The Beatles, the late period Beach Boys, John Coltrane , Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette…

Oh, there are too many.

Speaking of Miles Davis – whom I spoke with for quite a while, after which he gave me one of his drawings – he was also interviewed by Downbeat Magazine and said, “On a certain day every year all musicians should get down on their knees and thank Duke Ellington”. I heard him three times in Australia, twice in London. The first time in Australia the great orchestra played in the old Sydney Stadium at Rushcutters Bay on a revolving stage under a corrugated iron roof. They sounded majestic everywhere. I have also  heard Klemperer conducting the Missa Solemnis, Messiaen’s wife playing the piano with the SSO (the great man was in the audience). Pianist and accordion player Gary Daly was there too I later discovered. In London I heard Boulez conducting Debussy. Some think his Debussy is too precise. Not me. Nor cellist Nathan Waks who had the good fortune of playing under Boulez.

Bernie McGann turns 75
Bernie McGann turns 75

Well I spent two weeks on Lizard Island. They invited me there to write about the Marine Research Station run by the museum in College Street, Sydney. I dived with different biologists and years later my son camped there on his own and swam two and a half kilometres to a reef out there in the Coral Sea. When I came back from Lizard Island I went to see the late Bernie McGann (also one of my great favourites). Down in the front row were some of the biologists. The coincidence seemed miraculous. What were they doing in Sydney? One turned around and alerted the others. They all turned and waved to me and their faces were beaming and they pointed at the stage and raised their fists in triumph. My son was also a wonderful and original alto saxophonist. I have several CDs of his band.

Duke Ellington died at my age now. 75. Or perhaps just before. A bronze whaler shark swam straight at me in Port Phillip Bay when I was 16.

Well that’s all.

John Clare is a great Australian jazz writer. He was born at Maroubra Bay, Sydney, in 1940. His mother and Aunt Joan were in the papers as the Surfing Sisters. Perhaps the only women who went "out the back" and surfed in those days. He left home and school at 14. He played in a rock and roll band in Melbourne and a dance band with friends but his big love has been jazz. Clare's first job was as a layout artist for the Myer advertising department, Melbourne. He has since illustrated and written for most prestige Australian publications, as well as Town and Queen and other magazines in England, America and Germany. He has published four books and had poetry read on the ABC and BBC.