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Jools Holland: An Englishman in New York

Jools Holland made a trip to the States for the first time in 15 years to perform his successful big band sound.
 Jools Holland at the piano. Photo by Mary McCartney, courtesy of publicity.

Jools Holland at the piano. Photo by Mary McCartney, courtesy of publicity.

By Mike Greenblatt

Jools Holland is a totally delightful individual. Distinctly British, like Ray Davies on all those old Kinks records from the ‘60s, Jools came to fame in Squeeze, an endearing ‘80s band who brought back the kind of melodic invention not heard since the heyday of The Beatles. His post-Squeeze career has beensurprising. He stands tall as one of the great boogie-woogie piano players in the universe. His big-band has been wildly successful. He’s reached icon status as the Johnny Carson of Great Britain with his talk-show “Later…With Jools Holland.” We caught up with him on the phone as he walked through Central Park in New York City.

Jools Holland: I’m just taking a walk through the cold and windy New York streets but I find that walking and talking is a fine way to clarify my thoughts.

Goldmine: Why’d you leave Squeeze? They were such a great band! I understand you left them twice!

JH: I left in ’81 to do my own music. Squeeze had a shared musical view of which I was a part of but, really, as cliché as it may sound, I had to do my own thing. I was driven to independence but the band broke up shortly thereafter anyway only to reform in ’85. That didn’t last long. By ’88, I’d left again when I realized I had so much I had yet to do and, unfortunately, Squeeze was, at point, to me, just one thing too many. Since doing that, and it was something I wasn’t exactly expecting, my own kind of music started doing really well in Great Britain. We did a lot of records and a lot of touring all over the country with my big-band. It just grew and evolved.

GM: Didn’t you run off with Gilson Lavis, the drummer of Squeeze, for your big-band?

JH: (laughs nervously) I used to say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present The Jools Holland Big Band, and Gilson would walk out alone. That one man has now evolved into a 20-odd piece orchestra. I say odd because nobody really knows how many people are in this thing! I mean, Simon & Garfunkel, you know there’s two. The Four Tops? There’s probably four of them. In my orchestra, nobody really knows how many there are including me. Maybe 23 at this point. But that would be a rather educated guess.

GM: You’re a funny guy. Is this why your British television program, “Later…With Jools Holland,” has been, for the last 20 years, such a huge success?

JH: 25 years, mate! But it’s little credit to me. The credit really has to go to the mix of guests we’ve had on. From the outset, it was important to us to have new people but we also wanted the very old people. Then there’s the niche people, folks who are big in their own genre ghettos, and, of course, the mainstream people who everybody knows and loves. But from Day one we did not just want huge stars. It’s so important. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has allowed us to do that. Had we been on a strictly commercial channel, some executive in a suit and tie would have said, “Wait a minute! Why are you having The Buena Vista Social Club, a bunch of Cubans, when you could be having Elton John?” The answer is that, in one instance, I can remember, we already had Paul McCartney and didn’t want two superstars on one show. It’s all in the mix, mate. That, right there, is what has kept us on for so long. It really has been an amazing run. You can see musicians close up at the peak of their career instead of just at the beginning and the end of their careers. It truly has been a quite humbling honor to have hosted such an endeavor. I’ve learned so much.

GM: What were some of the highlights and lowlights of the show? Whose star had faded, for instance, by the time they appeared?

JH: When the great singer Eartha Kitt (1927-2008) appeared, she was at the tail end of a wonderful career. I accompanied her on piano and I will never ever forget it. She was wonderful. She was very old. She didn’t have long to go to be with us on this earth. But by having her on, we had presented one of the last people of the jazz age that you could possibly get. One by one, they all die off. Time takes its toll on everyone. With an artist like that, first off, it was a true honor for us. Secondly, there just isn’t a place on television for such an artist. The contemporary talk shows don’t want them. They just want the latest chart-topper to do a quick song at the end. So by having her in juxtaposition with an up’n’coming star, we fulfilled our mission statement. Some unknowns we’ve had on have gone on to be really great stars.

GM: Like who?

JH: Adele, for one. We had her on really early when she was just starting out. Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) for another. No one knew who she was but she was so spectacularly good on our show, we all knew she was destined for greatness. One of the sadder elements is that you can actually chart her disintegration on our show because she came on so often. When she first came on our stage, she was a fresh young face filled with optimism and that to-die-for voice. What an amazing woman she was. Whenever she sang, the studio was buzzed with the kind of electricity reserved for the greats. So it’s all in the mix of artists. I’ve found, though, that the huge stars are often the most gracious. McCartney is a perfect example of that.

GM: Someone must have suggested by now to take some of the show’s greatest moments for stateside syndication. I know, as a fan, I’d love to see some of this stuff.

JH: They did at one time do something like that for the BBC America Channel. We had a big 25th Birthday show filmed live at The Royal Albert Hall with Foo Fighters, Paul Weller (The Jam), Van Morrison and jazz singer Gregory Porter.

GM: How was Van Morrison to work with? I’ve heard he’s totally uncouth and unruly.

JH: No no no, not at all. He was wonderful, in fact. He’s a dear friend. We’ve recorded together. The man is a poet. He understands this business like no one else. We share a love for the same artists who have influenced us.

GM: Like who?

JH: Louis Armstrong (1901-1971). In fact, while I’m here in New York, I really want to go to Armstrong’s house which is a museum now. So a lot of our reference points are similar and I’ve always loved the fact that whenever we get together, I always learn something from him. Plus, he always has something new and refreshing to say. He’s the perfect talk show guest! And, of course, he always graces us with some of his music.

GM: I understand your very first recording session was in 1976 for Jayne County—when she was still Wayne County—on the song “F*ck Off.” You were the piano player!

JH: Dear old Jayne, yes. They didn’t tell me at the time what the lyric would be. It was the time of punk in New York City. I did quite a few sessions after that and became quite the punk piano man. Her manager just rang me up, told me of the session, and asked me if I could do it. I had never done that before in my life. I distinctly remember Jayne sitting right next to me when, in that deep voice of hers, saying “Can you play something really burlesque for this?” I said, “Of course, and I’m really pleased at the cash but since I’ve never actually played on a record before, it would mean so much to me if you could send me the record when it’s done.” So the session finishes, they give me my 18 pounds, and I thought, “Great! I’m finally getting paid for music!” I was so frightened. I needed the money bad but I really wanted proof to show to my family and friends that I had actually done a New York City recording session. She assured me she would. Time passes. Two months later, although it seemed like two years later because I was all of 18, a crude box comes in the post and I’m so excited, I rip it open in front of my mother and her two friends without really looking at the sleeve and beseech them to let me play them my recording debut. So I put it on the record player. By now the rest of the family has gathered like in a 19th Century parlor when the prodigal son comes home from the sea. The first sentence of Jayne’s vocal was quite understandable: “If you don’t want to f*ck me, baby, f*ck off!” There’s a moment of silence after it finishes but in true punk cadence, it’s a false ending and Jayne keeps screaming “f*ck off f*ck off f*ck off.” My mother breaks a second stunned silence and says in her typically British way, “Oh isn’t he clever…well done!” I have very fond memories of Jayne and, yeah, it’s a good punk rock record, no doubt. It even stands up today. You can’t find it on Spotify but I bought a copy and it cost me 60 quid so maybe it’s a collector’s item by now.

GM: You bought a gravestone for the legendary boogie-woogie piano player Jimmy Yancey (1894-1951).

JH: I was very fortunate to even be in a position to do that. I was in Chicago in the ‘90s. I wanted to find the grave site of pianist Albert Ammons (1907-1949) because he was the other guy I totally loved. We went to the cemetery on the south side of Chicago. The very helpful people there were totally mystified by this bloke from London rooting around by the graves. The cemetery office manager gets out a ledger. It was huge, like something out of a mystery film, all written with a big fountain pen with all the dates of the deceased back from the 1940s. Then I saw his name! Albert Ammons! And right next to it, I saw Jimmy Yancey’s name, my other hero! I said, “Hang on, is Yancey here, too?” I must tell you, when I was a kid, Yancy, Ammons and Pete Johnson (1904-1967) were my three piano gods. So we go to the graves and I see a stone for Ammons but not for Yancey. The nice lady explained the family couldn’t afford one. So I gave her the money. I actually want to go back because I think I made a mistake with the engraving on the stone as I didn’t mention his wife Estelle who I believe he’s buried with. You just gave me something else to worry about today.

GM: You are now one of the foremost exponents in the world of boogie-woogie piano playing. Both B.B. King (1925-2015) and Dr. John have gone on record saying such.

JH: I’m very flattered by all that. My mother turned me on to that kind of music and would play it all day in the house. When I was growing up, that boogie-woogie sound excited me so! And still does. I was into that way before The Beatles captured my imagination. Or Motown. It was all the same thing to me. I never geographically segregated the greats. It was all great music, be it from Chicago, Harlem or Liverpool. Plus, the concept of time doesn’t exist for me in music. It’s all one continuum. It’s all NOW. So what if one music was made in the 1930s and another around the corner in my own time? I know for a fact that both Paul and Ringo love the boogie-woogie, too. That music still connects somehow. The Harlem stride style of piano is slightly more challenging than boogie but I have embraced that as well.

GM: You’re here in the states for the first time in 15 years to play The Blue Note without your big-band, only with your piano, drummer and three vocalists. I hope you tour the states with only such but how do you hope to achieve the excitement of big-band charts with such a small unit?

JH: Because the piano is like an orchestra unto itself. The big-band is but an extension of my own feelings on the piano but in much larger form. We do quite a bit of ska stuff in the big-band. We have Jamaicans in the band and it all works beautifully. That’s a bit harder in the scaled-down format, true, but even that comes through and you can get the essence of who I really am with just piano, drums and vocalists. Sure, the big-band makes it explode but the essence remains in the small combo. Plus, I’ve done it this way before at festivals in Europe — because I cannot lug a big-band around with me all the time — and it gives me some space to have a bit more pianistic fun, shall we say. It’s also too damn expensive because we do over 100 shows a year in Europe plus recording plus television plus radio.

GM: Expense is the exact reason that the age of the big-bands here in the States died out.

JH: In my case, there’s just not enough weeks in the year to do all I’d like to do. But I’m so pleased to be in America right now.

GM: Despite how this country is at the present moment? Might you have a comment on that?

JH: It would be impertinent of me to do so as an outsider. Plus, it’s not just America. A lot of the world seems to be going mad, to be honest.

GM: Any plans to record the smaller combo?

JH: No, but that is a good idea. If they have a record button at The Blue Note, I’ll ask them to press it. One of the things I’ve learned from Van Morrison, actually, is to record everything. So you’ve now given me two things to worry about today. Thanks, mate!