In Memoriam Keith Tippett

I didn’t realise how important Keith was to me, until I found tears rolling down my face this morning at news of his passing

crying with both a deep sense of sadness but also a very real gratitude, realising the enormous impact Keith had on my life

I know it’s such a cliché to say, but I was sure I would see him again and he was simply someone I imagined would be around forever, with his warm smile and unmistakably West country burr, unruly sideburns, rocking his waistcoat and pale jean combo, a reminiscence always in mid-flow and rollie on the go or in the making …

I first met Keith at the age of 14, when I signed up for his jazz course at Dartington Summer School with my brother Daniel, and I continued attending for the next few years. It’s funny to transport myself back to those teenage years, that strange mixture of bolshiness and vulnerability, confidence and anxiety …

but in that bright, musty-smelling assembly hall-ish space of the Hexagon, with Keith holding court (like a Pied Piper, who had corralled this most eclectic and eccentric crew of folk under one roof), I had my most formative musical experiences…

it wasn’t just that Keith was a formidably talented pianist. Or the sort of absolute one-off character who inspired people to be more themselves, more comfortable in their own skin, than they’d ever dared before...

it was his generosity of listening which was inseparable from the generosity of his heart.

one of many memorable and unorthodox approaches he took was to pair, say, an 11 year old who had just picked up the electric bass for the first time that summer with a professional sax player. And before the duet began, Keith would pause and in that silence (where our attention too would converge), mark what was about to happen as something sacred, a ceremonial happening

and when Keith listened, no matter what arose (and to be honest, sometimes the results could be cacophonous and hilarious… all these years later, I’m laughing affectionately thinking about it), he listened with no hint of mirth or judgment but with wide open ears and deep, full concentration.

and more often than not, there were surprising moments of beauty, and in that realisation, our understanding of what music is and could be was suddenly and wonderfully expanded

you know, there was never any doubt that he loved music and music-making in its purest form, the ‘doing’ of it, and he was as fierce and uncompromising as he was humorous and big-hearted

I’m smiling remembering how he actively seemed to relish the inevitable exodus of the unsuspecting, well-heeled Dartington concert-goer who would settle themselves down in the Great Hall for a pleasant jazz concert, only to find themselves regaled for a good hour with torrential thunderous free-wheeling tides of notes, the pizzicato harp of his prepared piano, and his wife Julie’s magical - sometimes guttural, sometimes soaring – but always fully improvised vocals.

he and Julie’s partnership was a true love story, and they obviously had great respect and tenderness for each other, these two very special souls. Keith always loved to tell the story of how he saw Julie performing on a sixties TV show (she was known as Julie Driscoll at the time, mega-babe of psychedelic rock) a little while before they met, and proclaimed with certainty that this woman was going to be his wife! Then he’d look over at her with a delight that I’m sure was no different to the first time he set eyes on her.

and I’ll also never forget his care towards my brother, who he could see was struggling to be in the world, and whom he treated with such kindness and gentle respect and who he never stopped asking after, many years on

I think it’s true to say that Keith felt at times overlooked and upset that he wasn’t more treasured, more recognised, particularly by the UK jazz scene

even the most uncompromising and brave of us of us aren’t necessarily immune to measuring our worth in terms of the narrow definition society has of ‘success’

and of course, I’m not denying it’s bloody hard to be struggling with bills when you’ve been putting your heart and soul daily into what you do for years upon years…

but I’m also struck that over two decades since I first met Keith and a good few years since I last saw him (for a dazzling concert at Café Oto), to feel both such loss and such gratitude makes me realise how the experience of music-making and music-giving plants it's roots very deep and very tenderly…and is the truest expression of its value, that goes so much further than material gain, critical plaudits, prestigious concert halls (which I should add, Keith also experienced throughout his long career and deservedly so).

before any concert we did, Keith would exclaim ‘take no prisoners!’.

I’m going to remember that and try to live by it, one gig at a time. Thank you for everything, Keith.

Pic credit: Tim Dickeson