Rolling Stone Charlie Watts told Jools Holland that although he loves to play with the big jazz band he leads in his spare time, he doesn’t do it very often because it would drive him mad.
The problem is that there is always some hornblower complaining about the hotel, or the catering, or not enough solos. Holland solved the how-to-enjoy-leading-a-big-band dilemma by going in the opposite direction - making it as full time as possible. You can’t have too many people coming and going. Since we play together a lot, sometimes we can afford to try material we are not totally sure of, which can be more exciting than something that is perfectly rehearsed. There’s an edge. That’s the fun of it."
Founded in 1987, Jools Holland & his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, which performs about 100 concerts a year, is embarking on a rare European tour – Paris Mar 16th, Brussels the 17th, Amsterdam the 18th, The Hague the 19th (Derry Jazz Festival, Ireland, April 27th and 28th).
Thirteen years of hosting the popular BBC television variety show “Later With Jools Holland" made him a big name on the small screen in Britain. He has interviewed, and played with many of his heroes - Solomon Burke, Fats Domino, Dr. John. In New York for six months, he co-hosted the NBC popular music TV program “Saturday Night" with David Sanborn. He has a show on BBC radio. He writes songs.
But what he likes most of all is sitting at a grand piano in front of his big band, the spirit of Duke Ellington hanging above him, as they perform material by Count Basie, Avery Parish, Dinah Washington, Bob Dylan, T-Bone Walker, Albert Ammons, and himself. Despite – or maybe because of - all of the energy and the risk required for scheduling, touring, and paying for, 19 musicians, his big band is clearly his passion.
“Television programs come and go," he said. “They want you, they don’t want you. One minute you are up, the next you are down. There are all those production people, all that technology. You can’t control it. But making music is pure joy, and even if there are only ten people listening to it, it’s all mine."
His band’s latest album, “Swinging The Blues, Dancing The Ska" (Warner Brothers) features the iconic ska trombonist Rico Rodriguez, and it has so far sold 150,000 copies (100,000 is gold) in Britain. The band’s nine CDs have shipped a total of two million units.
“By disguising ourselves as something else, we have become extremely popular," he said. “Swing music used to have the same effect as rock music later on. People always want to dance. So it’s interesting to put them together. But if we called it jazz, nobody would buy it. So we call it rhythm and blues."
Holland has obviously devoted a lot of thought to the role of his big band. His conclusions include a certain amount of compromise. The music does not always equal the lucidity of his intentions. You hear British jazz musicians badmouthing him. They consider him to be selling out. But he has paid his dues in the music business.
After playing pianos in pubs in South East London and the East End Docks in his early teens, he met Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford when he was 15, and they formed a band called Squeeze, which had a series of hit singles and a lucrative if relatively short life. Squeeze’s drummer Gilson Lavis plays the drums with Holland to this day. “When he was 14," Holland said, with a smile: “He wanted to be Gene Krupa."
In 2003, the bandleader whose philosophy is, “things tend to sound a bit more interesting if the musicians aren’t exactly sure of what the tune is going to be when it starts" was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List. He’ll start to play an introduction without any explanations; the band tries to figure out what it is – and then, “it’s such a kick when they remember."
“The physical power of a live big band is amazing," he said. “The riffs start to go and you can see how the people are physically affected. Thirteen horn players blowing air into their instruments at the same time is very powerful; almost primeval. The sound is coming directly from their guts.
“The thing about music is that there’s always something else. Something surprising, something that you can’t quite figure out. And just when you think it’s all over, it’ll come back and bite you. It’s like an animal that needs to be fed."