Trombonist Rutherford (29 February 1940 – 5 August 2007) was one of the early innovators on the UK free jazz and improvisation scenes. He played in John Steven’s early groups and was a founder member of the influential Iskra 1909, with Barry Guy and Derek Bailey. Rutherford developed a rigorously abstract solo style but I also heard him playing more conventional jazz solos in the Charlie Watts’s big band and free jazz in The Globe Unity Orchestra. Rutherford’s playing was virtuosic and groundbreaking technically as well as being unusually imaginative in exploring unusual shapes, textures and atmospheres. The interview took place in the Royal Festival Hall coffee bar. He spoke quietly in a soft London accent, with frequent pauses and hesitations.
R.S. Where did the idea of improvising come from for you?
P.R. Well, primarily two sources I think. The first was a natural gravitation towards improvising when I started playing. I was a natural musician, an instinctive musician in that I actually started discovering how to play by myself. The formalising of that came later. Fundamentally I was able to do it anyway… I mean, I’m not saying it made a lot of sense: that came later. The other thing that was very important was that I was fortunate enough to be with other creative musicians. You have to make a distinction between creative musicians and interpretive musicians because the academic side of music is nearly totally comprised of teaching people to learn to read music as opposed to what I think is the natural function of a person claiming to be a musician, which is to be able to play without having to refer to the dictats of other people. I believe that a musician should be able to improvise.
R.S. How old were you when you started?
P.R. 16. I picked up a saxophone but I didn’t get on too well with that and then I acquired a trombone and that was more natural for me. I went to an evening class with some friends who were interested in jazz. We were taught in a sort of brass band situation, which started the formal side of music making, learning to read and play scales and things.
R.S. Did you not mind having to learn those things, after having started by yourself?
P.R. No, because it was making music …playing music. I’m not saying that right from the beginning I was opposed to any kind of musical training, just that I was fortunate in that I could actually operate musically without it. There is nothing at all wrong in learning all that you can about musical theory… err, there are certain people in the free music or improvising areas who seem to have a very dogmatic idea that to learn to read or to get involved in the formal side of music harms their art or whatever they call it and I think its absolute bullshit. I think any musical experience can be used to enhance your own abilities. As I say I was very fortunate, specifically when I joined the Air force: (I’m not saying the air force was a good thing!) I joined up in 58 to 60, this was after National Service. It was there that I met John Stevens and Trevor Watts, Bob Downs, and Chris Payne was there as well. That was a very valuable experience, meeting those musicians. We had a kind of umm… mutual support society within the air force. None of us was interested in the military side of things it was just the fact that we could play. We were in the music services section. For myself it was a kind of misunderstanding, at 18 I decided that I wanted to go to Music College because I wanted to play music. But I had a certain naivety that I couldn’t get into music college because I didn’t have enough money or didn’t have enough qualifications which in retrospect probably wasn’t the case at all and if I’D known differently I could probably have prepared myself somehow. In those days we weren’t dealing with the ridiculous education policies of the regime over there (points over the river to the Houses of Parliament) so it was fairly accessible to people, but I just didn’t know… thinking. Oh, Music College is to do with classical music, which generally relates to wealthy or middle class families. There’s a definite hierarchical strata (assuming that) working class people won’t really understand or appreciate classical music unless it’s the Warsaw concerto or something like that. We were a working class family but I was fortunate that my father did develop a taste for music and art generally. It was a musical family, my father played piano, my grandmother played piano, so we always had music in the house. My father was very supportive; my mother was a bit more worried, because she’s far more practical than my father. But she’s never been obstructive about me being a musician. And my brother and sister like jazz and music generally so I’ve never had any opposition at all from any of my family.
R.S. What were you playing in the air force?
P.R. Just straight military band music, you know parade music. We used to do formal concerts as well where we used to do some fairly interesting music. We used to do rescored Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Beethoven, and Mozart, even Shostakovich. I remember the first Shostakovich I ever heard was a military band arrangement of the final movement of the 5th symphony, which was great… The music officer of that particular band was a very good musician but …erm, he just went a bit crazy in the end I think. He was obviously a musician but he was in the Air force for some strange reason and the loyalties of being a musician and an officer were conflicting. And I don’t think he was able to cope with it so he became very tyrannical which I suppose is quite natural when you’ve got two very basic conflicting interests, like a military life and an artistic life, they’re incompatible.
R.S. You presumably were developing other things ‘out of hours’?
P.R. Yeah, with John and Trevor, Chris Pine. We used to rehearse after hours, we had access to the band room and there were a few small clubs and bars in Cologne where we could play at that time. We had some good opportunities to actually play music.
R.S. Was that bebop?
P.R. Yeah, well clumsy bebop.
R.S. Was that any kind of a response to the other music you had to play?
P.R. Well it was a relief, though I actually did enjoy the orchestral pieces we had to play, but the marches were shit… it was just the military side I couldn’t stand.
R.S. Such as?
P.R. Taking orders from fucking idiots, you know. The military side was just stupid. But we just sort of carried on doing what we wanted to do.
When I came out I worked for a bit in a factory, it was a boring sort of… it wasn’t actually a factory it was a government information service, filing documents, really boring. But I used to practice in the dinner hour in this old warehouse. Then I reexamined the chances of getting into Music College and I was fortunate in that I got a scholarship and studied at the Guildhall school of music for four years. That was basically classical music, but I got involved in the contemporary music society as it was called and we were playing more modern pieces, you know, Stockhausen, Edgar Varese, Stravinsky things like that… various other modern works, chamber music really.
The only thing about it that I didn’t like was the attitude of a lot of the classical musicians and this is where it comes back to the fact that I think musicians should be able to improvise, should be able to play music without ‘music’. I found that the majority of people who were studying music there, although they had qualifications, like grades on the piano, which they’d been taught as children, couldn’t operate musically without the written note and I found that very strange. And they were pretty immature people as well, when I started studying at college I was 24 and I’d been in the Air force for 5 years, I’d been abroad and that and I’d also worked in a couple of offices, where’s most of these kids were 18 year olds straight out of school and into music college, they’d not really experienced anything. And I think that showed in their attitudes. I developed a feeling that I didn’t really want to go into a symphony orchestra, because if an orchestra going to be full of people like that then I’m not really going to enjoy playing music. You’ve got to enjoy music, you’ve got to enjoy any kind of art form otherwise its not going to work. People say to me ‘oh your lucky, you play music and I’ve got to do this job’. But you make your choice and although I’m happy to be a musician and I can’t see myself doing anything else it is frustrating in purely financial terms. Like you get behind in your rent…
R.S. You’re talking about still now?
P.R. Yes, after all this time. Your actually financial viability is very volatile shall we say. You don’t have any financial security. I mean I’m 47 now and I’m starting to worry about what’s going to happen in the next ten years or twenty years, the sort of thing you never think about when you’re a kid and you’ve got all the energy, those anxieties become… because of that you get all this doubt stuff creeping in… This is all in the last 5 years.
The 60s were fantastic, a great blossoming of everything. Politics were interesting, it was a fantastic feeling in Britain, that term ‘The Swinging Sixties’ I don’t think it was exaggerated at all, and it was. London was a great place in the sixties, lots of positive things, it was a nice place to walk round, lots of artistic activities, there was just a good feel about the place and that has gone. Whether it will return to be either like it was or some kind of modified form I’m not too optimistic about, because of that team of gangsters over there (again gestures towards parliament).
R.S. How did you move from using specific musical forms that you knew in advance to more open-ended structures?
P.R. I think basically, and I’ve said this before, that there are a lot of similarities between jazz and communism in that both of them are totally misunderstood. In this particular society, even worse in America, to talk about communism means Russia full stop. There is nothing other than that that is the Reality of Communism, which of course is bullshit, its got nothing to do with the ideals or political principle of communism. Similarly with jazz most people who ask what your doing, I say I’m a jazz musician and they go ‘oh that’s Acker Bilk’ or Dave Brubeck or you know, the lowest common denominator. I think that I’ve understood both things. To me communism is about the movement of ideas, its not about a rigid adherence or application of a cat – iron formula, or doctrine, or dogma. That’s totally not what it is, it’s about the movement of ideas and I see the same thing in jazz. It is a moving music that’s not static. Classical music is static and I think most pop or rock music is static, its reason d’etre is commercialism, to make money. Jazz has never been a great money-spinner.
So for us European players to have got involved in the way we’re playing now is actually a logical progression of thinking and performing music. Jazz is a moving music, a dialectical music. One of the reasons I started to get depressed about jazz was this strict formalising of soloists, solo fashions, like everyone tried to play like Charlie Parker, now the tenor players are all trying to sound like Coltrane, same with other instruments, Miles (Davis, trumpet), J.J. (Johnson, trombone), now their specific greatness was that they didn’t copy anyone, they were obviously influenced by the musical environment but they actually created their own style, their own method of dealing with playing jazz. The formalising came later, for instance in High Society everybody plays that same bloody clarinet solo, or in West End Blues they try to play Louis (Armstrong)’s solos, but the beauty about them was that he played them, he didn’t copy someone else’s solos. That is what jazz is about; it’s about originality, the application of the individual genius… It took me, along with John and Trevor, quite a while to say as much as we admire these people we’re not them. We’re Europeans for a start, which is vastly different, so there’s no point in me trying to sound like a second rate J.J., it’s ridiculous. I tried it, but it became clear in 62, 63 Trevor and me used to play in this big band, The New Jazz Orchestra, and I used to do solos, making a mess of trying to copy someone else. I was hearing other things but I was too timid to actually do what I felt instinctively. I then decided that that isn’t what I should play because that isn’t what I am.
I can understand why people wouldn’t like it. It’s got no particular point of reference to what they consider to be music. But the most interesting reactions have been from people who’ve never heard the music before and come up and said, and a lots of them do, ‘that was fantastic, what is it?’ They say ‘I didn’t actually understand it but I liked it’. I always say ‘well you did understand it then’. I think that’s a triumph of human perception, if you like. Because they haven’t been brought up or educated to listen to it, its got no catchy tunes or rhythms, it doesn’t rest on references. That’s all pop music is, cliché after cliché.
R.S. Can you tell me how you began performing solo.
P.R. Well me and the members of the Musician’s Co-operative used to put on concerts and we would have a group formed from the cooperative, someone from outside plus a solo. And I started doing solos there and I enjoyed it. It is difficult because you’ve got no fall back, nothing to rely on, you really have to be on top of the situation all the time, its a good challenge…
R.S. How is the solo playing organised?
P.R. Well it isn’t, that’s the whole point. I never know what I’m going to do before I go on, the only formalising is maybe I decide whether I use mutes or I don’t use mutes, or if I use electronics… Once the process has started, for me anyway, it just goes. Tts like any other music making, sometimes its a good performance and sometimes its not.
R.S. And what’s the difference?
P.R. I don’t know, you just know. Something in the delivery of the ideas, the delivery of… I can’t put my finger on it, you can feel instinctively that its not working properly. One of the strange things in music is the physical and emotional side of things are not necessarily going to be of any relevance to whether it’s a successful performance or not.
R.S. You are talking as if the performance is independent of you?
P.R. It can be, I can be feeling really bad and play good, or I can be feeling really good and play bad, I can also be feeling really good and play good, and bad and play bad. There’s no guarantee…
R.S. Do you have a specific view about what improvisation is, or ought to be?
P.R. Only that it should keep music moving. In an age that is being standardised down to the lowest common denominator, improvisation, apart from being the most natural way of making music, is keeping musical dialectics going, a movement. It’s always a questionable activity, improvisation, by it’s very …umm, nature, should always be in a no man’s land, should always be uncatagorised. Its one of the areas of music which, because of the fact it should always be in a constant state of flux or movement, is non-controllable by either economics or musical establishment ideas.
I think a lot of people who claim to improvise don’t. There’s a kind of formula. I think with a few exceptions the most successful improvisers for me are British musicians. There is a kind of formula that other people use but I don’t think improvising is about formulas it’s about creating, the nuts and bolts of music… For myself I’ve chosen to do that. I mean I’d like to earn more money, because I would be free of economic anxiety. But I’ve chosen to play this music and I don’t regret playing it and I want to carry on playing it…
Richard Scott. London 8th February 1988