Tony Oxley sneers commendably at commercialism in music.
Best known as percussionist on McLaughlin's Extrapolation, Tony Oxley talks here to David Peacock about time jazz, current activities and Incus
Tony Oxley has strong opinions about his music, and the problems of playing it in a society geared to commerciality. Strangely it seems that he still has more than a fondness for time jazz. At the time of this interview he was playing with George Coleman at Ronnie Scott's club, and did not think it at all odd to be playing time. He told me that he did it a few times a year at Ronnie's, or perhaps on a tour like Kenny Wheeler's. 'To be honest if you're going to play time, it is only worth playing with people who have good time; George Coleman for instance. I couldn't live from playing time; I don't do enough.'
To some people Tony Oxley is probably a weirdo, who incorporates kitchen utensils into his music. I found out the hows and whys of this. 'I use a variety of percussion, some homemade, which sits on a frame. I also use a homebuilt electronics system, built for me by a friend in Liverpool. The things on the frame are amplified and fed through electronic devices capable of many different sounds, but usually I get sounds by manipulating the existing equipment. I don't believe if you want a bell sound you go out and buy a bell. I think the craft or instrumental ability lies in being able to conceive a way of obtaining a sound on your basic equipment.'
We talked about whether or not an understanding of improvised music in Britain was developing. Tony stressed that people had an opportunity to hear it, but was not sure that the initial exposure to it would be convincing. 'The music changes and whether they keep up with it is another story. It's difficult to be sure, but it seems that whenever I do a concert in London quite a few people come. But then I only do five or six concerts a year in London, and that in itself may be enough to attract them.'
The demand for the man and his music may exist, but he will cater to it only on his own terms, 'under the conditions that help rather than hinder the music, and they're not easily found.' Playing improvised music has its drawbacks, not least financially, and Tony readily admits to having been given aid from the British Arts Council. Wouldn't it seem that if they were prepared to give grants, the Arts Council were prepared to accept improvised music? 'I don't think it's that accepted. I think it's very unfortunate, just in terms of activities in improvised music and the people I work with, that the Arts Council don't see what a wealth of ability, imagination and creativity is right under their noses. They just throw out scraps relative to what's given away in other circles. I don't think it's their job to make us comfortable, but it is their job to recognise something that exists and is unique to Britain, and do something about it, as well as maintaining a status quo. If they do see the talent then they're responding in a way comparable to the "composer in the garret" mentality'.
Earlier Tony had referred to a first and second generation of improvising players, giving the impression that maybe he was just a little sceptical of the somewhat younger players. He felt that the original Musicians' Co-op, and newer London Musicians' Collective, defined the musical differences between the two generations. 'The musicians from the Sixties are still working, and base their musical language on instrumental ability, which is perhaps a little different to the presumed second generation'. I pointed out that some players from the sixties were now involving themselves with more commercial bands, for example John Stevens and Away. 'John Stevens, he's always verged on doing what he fancies at the time, which is OK, but you have to be judged by what you do; and I don't think he's combined his activities in improvised music with his presumed priorities, in the same way as people such as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Howard Riley, Paul Rutherford and Barry Guy have. John works from a different point of view, one which I don't favour myself. I haven't heard his band Away, only about it. He gets into what could be termed from my point of view, rather dubious company and playing rather dubious music, considering his claims. I have heard he sees himself as some kind of innovator on the improvised music scene; I haven't seen much evidence of it.' So it seems unlikely that Mr Oxley will appear with any so-called jazz-rock units.
Another facet of Tony Oxley is his involvement with teaching, most notably his work at the Barry Summer School. Last year he was pleased to accept an offer from the Sydney Conservatorium to go over to Australia and teach. 'I was asked to go over there and work for three months, and they gave me composition and electronic music students to work with. My job really was to show them my approach to electronics and to illuminate processes of improvisation to them, which of course aren't usually encouraged in establishments like that. That was what I was there for, so I was there really to do exactly what I do normally.'
Tony explained that he was experiencing some difficulty finding all the capital needed for the Barry School. The Musicians Union and PRS provide substantial aid, but he was concerned that there might not be enough money to maintain the high standard of the courses seen in the previous years. Hopefully this is a problem that will be resolved before the course begins, but is improvised music an important part of the curriculum at Barry? 'This is something that needs some kind of qualification, because some people think improvised music is something I'm always defending. In actual fact I'd rather not have to defend it or anything else. The opportunity at Barry is to play improvised music if you want, and there are four experienced improvisers the students can work with. The jazz course has twelve or maybe thirteen tutors; fifty students will be on the jazz and about twenty on the improvised, so I think there's very little evidence that I'm launching a campaign in favour of improvised music. It's just that I make available both activities, and people come according to their needs'.
Commendable sentiments, but can anyone benefit from the courses? 'Theoretically it's open to anyone but it's neither much use to the student or tutor if a person can't play, because they can't do it in a fortnight. If a person decides to learn to play jazz, time jazz as we know it, a tutor can give that person something that will last three months because the playing will be at such an elementary stage. So that wouldn't be the best advantage to take of it, and it would be a costly and rather time-wasting activity to be down there for a fortnight just to find out something that can be taught in ten minutes and take three months to develop."
The idea of people training to be musicians using prescribed concepts is not one with which Tony wholeheartedly agrees. He would rather see people create something of their own and go to Barry for help to develop it.
February Papers, Tony's latest album, is an Aladdin's Cave of sounds and textures, all free yet controlled. The compositions were credited to Tony Oxley, but doesn't composition imply a preconceived structure? 'It depends. With some of the albums I have done in the past I've just taken a number of people into the studio and we've got on with it, but on this album I had definite ideas of some of the things I wanted, the string quartet and trios and solo percussion were things that were intended before I went into the studio.' Tony recorded February Papers at the studio owned by his friend Vangelis Papathanassiou in an attempt to minimise costs. The album was released on Incus, the record label co-owned by Tony, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, formed in 1970. The idea of having a label had for some time seemed attractive to Tony, as he explained.
'I'd previously been with CBS, and RCA, and whilst it was an opportunity to record in those days, I felt I could do better.' Tony, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker started the company with Mike Walters who handled the financial side of it. Now, eight years later, the three musicians are still part of the label although Mike Walters has dropped out. The direction the company took came from different people at certain points in time, as Tony pointed out. 'In the earlier days I had more of an emphasis, in the middle period Evan and Derek had more effect on its direction. Now it's being used more by Derek for his work with his group Company.'
Incus is self-financing and they release about 1000 copies of each album, waiting until it has sold enough copies before making any more. Derek and Tony intend to make an album as a duo, and there are some tapes from Tony's visit to Australia which could be used when they are sorted out. Recent public outings by Tony included an appearance at London's Camden Festival in March, and with Derek Bailey and Company in May and June. The chances of Tony's music being broadcast on Radio and TV are pretty unlikely, 'I hesitate to use the word discrimination, but it seems we're getting closer to the real meaning of that word with the BBC, I'd like to think that at the BBC there would be a move towards realising that there is some really interesting musical activity going on, and trying to mirror it when they sit down and work out their presentation. There seem to be some very unfortunate people there, who can't tell the difference between what is happening and what isn't. Maybe it's more sinister than I'm making out, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt; thinking that they don't understand what's going on, when possibly they do understand, and are intentionally suppressing it. I can't get any exposure on the BBC for my music — solo, group or any other way.'
Would it be different if he compromised his music? 'Oh yes, I've been told that. I've been told that if I play Afro-American music they'll give me a gig, that was by the producer of the appropriate jazz department. I don't know what American music is, in my view they're talking about a requirement that before the music is valid it has to go to America for a seal of approval. To me jazz is a philosophy, not a finished product. If it becomes a finished product then it's no longer a valid form, because jazz was supposed to be for the development of the individual. If there are going to be specific things that are acceptable and others that aren't then it's defeating its own object. It relates to Afro-American music in this way — improvisation and the conception of improvised music that jazz uses — which is to take some predetermined material, ie a melody and a chord sequence, and work them over in an improvisatory fashion. This was going on as far back as Bach and Beethoven, and a lot of those composers were improvisers. So the philosophy of improvisation in that sense is very, very old, and it probably goes back in other cultures even further than that. What's American about improvisation I've yet to find out, and the idea of it having to go to America for the American time feel to be put behind it seems ludicrous to me. Americans do play their music very well, no doubt about it, but it shouldn't be an exclusive product. I'm a jazz musician and I play in a language compatible with me, and I think that should be valid inside jazz. Why should I wait until my music has the American seal of approval before it's passed fit to be played on the BBC?' Emphasising his convictions, Tony mentioned Europe. 'It seems that the blind hasn't been pulled over their eyes, they seem to know what's happening in Britain.'
Tony Oxley would like to sit around a table with the programme controllers and find out what the job of the Beeb really is. Surely their job is to give reasonable coverage to everything in the whole musical spectrum, as they are in a position not only to cater to people's tastes, but also to create them. It might be reasonable to accuse them of misusing their position.
So how does Tony feel about playing at Ronnie Scott's, an establishment also responsible to the needs of the public? No-one could say Ronnie's promotes minority music. 'Well it's a commercial enterprise in a Western society and it has to pay. One must look at the situation from every side. If people are, as I would like to think, interested in jazz not only for its relation to music generally, but also the philosophy behind it, then anyone listening to, say, John Coltrane, Evan Parker or myself, will see that the philosophy is the same, only the end product is different.'
I wonder if Tony would apply the same sentiments to punk rock? Somehow I don't think so. Lol Coxhill and the Damned, so why not Tony Oxley and the Stranglers, maybe. Who knows?
Interview by David Peacock
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