Interview: Jazzman John Clarke

By SallyB2 Last edited 188 months ago

Last Updated 27 October 2008

Interview: Jazzman John Clarke

Jazz poetry. It seems so cutting edge, so dangerous. Just to use the words together sends a frisson of excitement around the office at Londonist Towers. Syncopated words and music: takes the breath away. ‘Course, there’s a lot of not-very-good-stuff out there. But when it’s good, jazz poetry is really goosebumpy, joyous stuff. And Jazzman John Clarke is one of the best we’ve seen. We caught up with the Lewisham Laureate (or maybe he’s a Bromley Bard – he’s from South London anyway) and asked him a few questions:

Tell us about your poetry and what inspires you…
My poetry amounts to the sum total of my inspiration. I do try to approach what I write, however, from a host of different angles, the way, perhaps, some artists employ certain colours, shapes, textures or spaces. Currently, I draw enormous inspiration from the intimate juxtaposition of the multi-arts approach. Traditional routes tend to bore me rigid - I want to plough my own furrow, take chances, try to be different without being overly contrived, which I know from experience is easier said than done. For me inspiration can drop out of the sky and I find the source is infinite. Jeremy Reed (himself a prolific writer) once said that his source of inspiration was rather like switching on the electric light - it was always there.

Poetry seems to be getting bigger and bigger in the capital, or are we imagining it?
I think the poetry market in London (and elsewhere throughout the British Isles) is definitely expanding, with a real plethora of venues hosting tremendous events almost every night of the week. Many music venues are also widening their scope to incorporate poetry and the spoken word; I like to feel that I've been in the vanguard as I certainly recognised the vast potential around a decade ago. This has been the case from the outset with me - for example our band 'SWING IT' has a dancer Aime, who hails from Estonia and is trained in both contemporary and classical Indian dance. Also, very gratifyingly, there are younger generations coming through eager to be fed a more mixed and diverse diet of live entertainment - so it's no longer a rarity to witness singers, musicians, dancers, poets and comedians rubbing shoulders with burlesque artists at live events. When you think about it Vaudeville and Dadaists were doing it long ago! The proliferation of festivals which include Theatre and Poetry Tents/Spaces and Stages has also increased the activity, so much so, that audiences have come to expect it as the norm.

Is London a good place for the genre?
London (and New York) will probably always be in the forefront due to logistics if nothing else. But, equally, there are great local poetry scenes up and down the country and those centred around Universities. My publisher, Tall Lighthouse based in Lee/Lewisham, for example, run (or take part in) poetry events and book launches all over the place.

What is your favourite poetry night in town at the moment?
That's a difficult one really as there are so many decent ones to choose from. But, if pushed, I think I would have to nominate an intimate, relaxed and friendly (and well-run) poetry night (with some acoustic music thrown in) called: 'Y TUESDAY POETRY CLUB' and is run by lyric poet and musician Steve Burgess (aka 'Burgess The Rhymer') and the delightful Ceri May (originally, Line Thomsen). It is held upstairs (in The Red Room) at a great boozer, The Three Kings, 7, Clerkenwell Close, EC1 (just opposite the church) and happens every 1st and 3rd Tuesday – the next event’s on Tues 4 Nov and Tues 18 Nov (arrive from 7.30pm-8pm to sign up for the floor spot) and usually has 2/3 features - 'FREE ADMISSION' and Charles Mingus on the jukebox! (Farringdon Tube: buses 55, 63 and 243)

So what instrument do you play, Jazzman?
After getting somewhat tired of pointing to my vocal chords I suddenly came across a brilliantly appropriate quote from Beat Writer and Poet, Michael McClure (who was present at The Six Gallery in San Francisco at the first public reading of Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl') which is:

"We are instruments that play ourselves, I look at the music within me and I write it down."

Thereafter I resolved that I would take that, since it so approximated to what I feel I do when I write/concoct my jazz or Beat-style poems. The best quote anyone has given me is by Geoff Parker who co-runs a great features + open-mic poetry event bi-monthly at Diverse Art Gallery on Atlantic Road in the heart of Brixton called: 'BRIXTONGUE' when he said Jazzman John Clarke "does with words what Coltrane did with the horn."

Were you a poet or a jazzman first?
A lifetime writer, so poetry came first.

I remember going to Greenwich library (I lived in Greenwich for 10 years up to 1966) when I was about 13/14 years old and borrowing an 'Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers' Vinyl Album which I simply couldn't get on with! It was like diving in headfirst at the deep end then, for me, as far as jazz was concerned. I finally got to jazz fairly late (in my early 20's) - I was more into Rock, Folk and Pop, until I began to listen to Dixieland Jazz, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and The Count Basie Orchestra and suchlike. I would later come to know and befriend one of the major Basie Band players Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, tenor sax supremo who ran Minton's in New York and went on to run the Basie Band itself for a period - that was in 1976 – and my poems/pieces in my collection 'GHOST ON THE ROAD' refer to that meeting.

What’s your favourite London venue for jazz poetry?
A couple of people (including Scroobius Pip) had recommended I check out a night called: 'TONGUE FU' and I finally got round to visiting it in Summer this year. It takes place Upstairs at The Betsey Trotwood (an all round/well-known music venue) which is at 56 Farringdon, London EC1 (so near to the Y Tuesday Poetry Club previously mentioned). It's run by great guy called Chris Redmond (aka The Ventriloquist) who acts as host and is accompanied by his house jazz trio. Doors 8pm/show 8.30pm, entry £5/£4concs. Tube: Farringdon Bus:55, 63 and 243. Chris also has a 7-piece band and they played stages at this year's Glastonbury Festival.

Who else should be listening too/watching out for?
This list is by no means exhaustive but I would currently recommend the following:

Scroobius Pip (who has teamed up to great critical acclaim/success with Dan le Sac)

Stephen Watts (Poet and Translator)

Aoife Mannix, Graham Buchan, Joe Duggan and Ronnie McGrath (my good poetry buddy who has a great CD of some of his neo-surrealist stream of consciousness poems available) - all published by tall-lighthouse.

Bernadette Cremin (latest Collection 'Speechless') who lives in Brighton and will be appearing at the Peckham Literary Festival

Polar Bear

Chris Redmond aka the Ventriloquist (see above)

Shane Solanki (aka 'LAST MANGO IN PARIS')

Sophia Blackwell

and YOUNG 'UNS Paul Lepper, Jay Bernard and Award-Winning Helen Mort.

And who is your favourite poet?
It's got to be Jazz/Beat/Surrealist Poet Bob Kaufman a black, Jewish American who was born in New Orleans. He was known in France as 'the black Rimbaud' and haunted the North Beach area of San Francisco. An enigmatic poetic phenomenon and the absolute epitome of 'cool'. I included a medley of his jazz poems on my first CD The Way I Like My Jazz, which is still available from me! I had a copy of his first poetry collection "Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness" actually in my hand at Borders in Oxford Street but typically didn't have the money at the time and when I returned there a week or so later it had got lost in the system somehow and I couldn't find another copy anywhere again. Bob composed tremendous jazz poems specifically for jazz musicians to improvise to - his collection 'Golden Sardine’ has some supreme examples:

'Believe, Believe':

”Believe in the swinging sounds of jazz,

tearing the night into intricate shreds,

putting it back together again, in cool logical patterns..."Elsewhere in that collection he provides the killer line:

'I would die for poetry'.

Kaufman adopted and maintained a Buddhist silence for the duration of the Vietnam War and then emerged anew to become one of the driving forces behind the second wave of The Beat Movement.

Finally, I would also give a most honourable mention and big shout out for New York-based Arizona-born poet JAYNE CORTEZ who I would walk over broken glass to see perform live - she has a band who go by the fantastic name of The Firespitters. Lem Sissay and The South Bank/Festival Hall (artist/poet-in-residence) brought her over last July and I was involved in some crap event in Streatham so perversely I missed her - doggone!!!

Have you got a couple of mellow lines for our frazzled readers?
Sure thing. Here's a pair from me and one from another writer:

"Every day you should fondle the sky

as if it were a delicate colourful butterfly"and

"Jazz is the music of poetry,

Poetry is the jazz of life"and novelist V.S.NAIPAUL said:

"Give me your sweat,

and I will pay you with the broken pieces of a dream".

When can we see you next and where?
You’ll have to be quick because first one is a really interesting one tonight: ‘The Star', 47 Chester Road, Archway, London N19 5DF, 'thebobdylanthomasnight' 7.30pm for 8pm admission £5 - a great a night of music, comedy, essays and storytelling inspired by the poems and songs of Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas.

Monday 3rd November,'Boat-ting' brings you the cutting edge of experimental music and poetry in the charming setting of the yacht club (opposite south bank complex) at Temple Pier embankment, opposite Temple underground, between Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges. Doors 7.30pm admission £6/£4concs.

Saturday 8th November appearing again as 'special guest' at Studio Cuts - poetry and comedy a Tall-Lighthouse/Lee Green open studios festival event at the Old Tigers Head, 351 Lee High Road, Lee, SE12 8RY 8pm-10pm £5/£4concs.

What is your London secret?
The surreal and dazzling frescoes of The Crucifixion painted by Jean Cocteau (polymath and yet another 'JC') who remains one of my all-time iconic, artistic and cultural heroes) in the French church just off Leicester Square near the turning that leads into Lisle Street WC2 in Soho. Watch out particularly for the 'black sun' and iconic sexual imagery – a truly astounding and astonishing work of art and so contemporary it seems as if it was only painted yesterday!

Have you ever been sick on the tube?
Not on the tube, but there was one evening some years back at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Frith Street, Soho (I think tenor saxophonist George Coleman was playing as I recall) when I remember spewing all over the gents loo down in the basement - at least I made it as far as the loo! An ill-advised, heavy and lethal mixture of wine and beer was the culprit. Don't go to Ronnies since they spruced it up and hiked the prices way beyond the reach of us ordinary Joes and Joesephines. Anyway, there's much better value and dare I say it, better jazz to be had elsewhere in my humble and candid opinion!

You can also see the Jazzman at the Peckham Literary Festival on Wednesday 19th November. Budding bards take note – it is an open mic evening, so why not go along, meet the man and spin them some lines. After our haiku bonanza a week or so ago, we know you’ve got it in you. Admission is free.