Learning about soccer -- from jazz, and from the words of a great poet (Part 1)

This starts way back, way, way back, during the 1940s when I was a teenager in England. The war had just ended, and I had found two boyish interests -- soccer and jazz -- that made me happy. Not least because both of them involved parental disapproval. That was my -- unaware -- contribution to the burgeoning post-war teenage revolution.

Mum and dad, of course, understood nothing in those days. So it seemed to me. They sniffed and sneered a bit, but, bless them, never interfered. For the next 75 years or so soccer has remained a constant in my life. I’ll deal with that shortly.

But my devotion to jazz flowered early, then rather quickly withered. At age 14 I was greatly enthralled by the revivalist movement in jazz, which saw jazz as the black man’s music, the music that had been played in New Orleans around the beginning of the 20th century.

There were revivalist bands all over the place, in the USA and in England. Most of the musicians were white, trying to recreate the sound of that early black jazz. I know something about that because I was the cornet player for just such a band in Wolverhampton in 1948. We called ourselves the Black Country Shit-Heavers. Gawd, we were awful. And, fortunately, short-lived. The real excitement came as some of the original jazzmen -- many of them now in their 70s -- were enticed to take up their instruments again.

Among them was Bunk Johnson, whose name kept cropping up as one of the great trumpet players of the period. In 1942 he was found, still in New Orleans, eking out a living with day jobs. He hadn’t played the trumpet for years. Money was raised to give Bunk a set of dentures and a new trumpet. He, with other old-timers, started recording in 1942.

Bunk told everyone he’d been born in 1869 making him age 73. Which meant that his claim to have played with the legendary Buddy Bolden could be true. But his true birthdate was probably 1879. That was just one of many extravagant lies with which Johnson decorated his former career. He also claimed to have introduced jazz into England, and to have taught Louis Armstrong how to play the trumpet.

None of this colorful embellishment bothered me. Because I had heard some of those 1942 recordings. Nothing since has come close to matching the emotional thrill I got from my first hearing of Bunk Johnson.

By now I was collecting jazz records -- 10-inch 78rpm discs, eminently breakable. I went off to college, taking some 50 records with me (five or six featured Bunk), plus a klunky portable gramophone (phonograph if you like) that I had to constantly wind up. It also featured a brutishly heavy pick-up arm complete with metal needles that slowly ate into the record grooves, making the discs more and more difficult to listen to.

Paul Gardner (center, cornet), with his 1948 band named for the West Midlands industrial region, aiming to emulate Bunk Johnson. 

I became the secretary of the Nottingham University Rhythm Society, started giving talks and lectures about jazz. Which the Society President called erudite -- I had to look that up to discover whether I was being praised or trashed. Hell, I was only 20.

By 1953 I had moved to London to become a journalist. Jazz was now almost a fading memory. Not, I felt, because I had lost interest. Rather because jazz had betrayed me. It had changed, had turned into the despicable be-bop. Dizzy Gillespie was now the trumpeter to be worshiped, and I couldn’t bear to listen to him. The jazz that I had known and loved was being replaced by something I didn’t understand. Be-bop came through to me as an ugly tuneless, rhythm-less -- and soul-less -- racket.

I immigrated to the States in 1959. I knew I was probably saying goodbye to soccer, but I imagined I could rediscover jazz -- that must be possible in New York. I visited some jazz clubs, and found they had now moved on to “modern jazz.” Which I found even more repulsive than be-bop. I mean, have you ever tried to listen to, to enjoy, a solo from saxophonist John Coltrane? Or the endless and meaningless trumpet meanderings of Miles Davis?

Forget it. Whatever these guys were doing, it wasn’t jazz. All the early heroes of jazz, the ones I admired, were now being laughed at. Goodbye jazz. For me, it was dead, stone cold dead.

But ... no jazz? And no soccer? I couldn’t accept so bleak a life. I went nosing around New York, looking for signs of soccer life. I was agreeably surprised. There was plenty of soccer being played. Mostly along ethnic lines, and mostly not particularly good. No matter, this was a world I understood. I spent my weekends criss-crossing New York on the city’s wonderful subway, in search of the obscure little “stadiums” where ethnic soccer flourished.

In 1964 I went off to live in Italy for 18 months where I saw plenty of calcio. I came back to the USA in 1966, just as soccer began to flex its muscles. I was jobless, on the verge of penniless. I was 37, and my options were running out -- when suddenly there was soccer, an old pal, begging me (so I convinced myself) to join in. That’s what I did, and slowly I settled into the life of a soccer journalist.

That other early love, jazz, faded into a distant, nostalgic memory. My pile of 78rpm records had long since disappeared, so little cared for by then, that I can’t recall what happened to them. Farewell Bunk Johnson -- I felt a sweet sadness about that, but I had other things on my mind now.

Then, in 1970, jazz suddenly returned. Bigtime. I learned, by some mysterious route, that the poet Philip Larkin, a huge favorite of mine, had written a book about jazz. The great Larkin, he of  “sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty three ...” and “They fuck you up, your mum and dad . . .” , that Larkin, writing about jazz? An irresistibly unlikely pairing.

I bought the book, and I read it. Larkin was speaking to me -- “Few things have given me more pleasure in life than listening to jazz,” he said. As I read on and all those nearly forgotten names came bounding back, I returned, easily and pleasantly, to the warm glow of my own boyhood love for jazz -- “that unique private excitement that youth seems to demand” said Larkin.

In the 1940s, a couple of years ahead of me, Larkin had been seized by jazz, and then had felt the same sense of betrayal as it faded away into be-bop and worse. He had liked the good old guys (like Bunk), had come to loathe the modern guys. What fun to read his exquisite trashing of Coltrane -- “with the vinegary drizzle of his tone ... Coltrane contributes a solo of characteristic dreariness.” Coltrane also sounds to Larkin as though “he is playing for an audience of cobras.”

It was all rather odd. Larkin’s book surely revived my interest in jazz. It did not make me want to listen to it again. But I repeatedly read -- three or four times -- Larkin’s wonderful Introduction to the book, in which he put down his understanding of what had happened to jazz, and why.

And it was in that Introduction (which, of course, does not even mention soccer) that I learned -- from Larkin’s thoughts and ideas, so beautifully presented in his wonderful prose -- a great deal about the development of soccer in the modern era.

Part 2: Learning about soccer -- from jazz, and from the words of a great poet

8 comments about "Learning about soccer -- from jazz, and from the words of a great poet (Part 1)".
  1. David Garrison, December 8, 2021 at 4:13 p.m.

    Great column on Jazz and Soccer-my two big interests as well. I grew up a little later on a diet of Benny Goodman Stan Getz and the like, although I thought Charlie Parker was pretty special.

  2. Toby Rappolt, December 8, 2021 at 11:32 p.m.

    I have loved jazz since I was a kid but I failed my jazz playing father because I wanted to play soccer instead of jazz.  

    For you jazz listeners out there please listen to and support public jazz streaming radio KCSM-FM. 

    Thanks, Paul. 

  3. frank schoon, December 9, 2021 at 11:09 a.m.

    Thank God! for America. Sometimes, when I'm in my metaphysical moods , I think what the world would be like without American cultural influences, or worse if there was no America.  Can you imagine that...No Roadrunner cartoons or Bugs Bunny, No standup comedy, No Elvis, etc,etc,just to name something so simple.... Imagine HOW BORING this world would be without all those creative types that made America so special.

    When I look at my own country, Holland, and the rest of Europe where everyday they try to copy American nuances and culture. The average American perhaps doesn't realize this how profound this is, but I travel to Europe, Holland, every year, I noticed the various Ameican cultural changes come about just in one year... 9/11 really effected the Europeans, they were shocked to see their leader, their protector being hurt like that. They felt the hurt the Americans felt. It was simply amazing to me.

    Reading about PG's love for jazz , which to this day, I don't care for, or it doesn't do anything for me, although I like Benny Goodman , Gene Krupa's drum solos, their hits "sing ,sing, sing" and the rest of that group my father would listen to everyday at home while I try not to pay attention to this band, for I was more into the Rolling Stones, although not the Beatles . 

    As I was at UT, knoxville at a record store, one day, looking at Stones and  Fresh Cream, Yardbirds,etc albums ,I noticed that many of the songwriting credits were blues artists. And that's when I became a fan of the blues.  As PG was a fan of jazz , I became a blues fan. Interestingly ,though, we are both from Europe and each had a love for American cultural influence, music...

  4. Adam Cohen, December 9, 2021 at 1:27 p.m.

    I haven't clicked on a link to a PG column in years finding the writing insipid but today, teased by "jazz", I did....

    and once again, I regret it

    to call bebop "despicable" is to reveal oneself to be not someone who understands and appreciates jazz, but a boor

    just say you like old tunes from the 40's and leave it at that.  we'll know what you mean.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, December 11, 2021 at 3:14 a.m.

    I ignore labels. Blues based music is easy to distinguish because of the distinctive sound of the 5 note scale vs. the European 8 note scale. You don't need to know anything about music theory to hear the difference. Once I learned a little music theory, I was surprised to find that all of my favorite 70's rock bands were blues based.

    As for the specific comment you noted, I think it is as simple as swing is dance music, bebop is not. 

  6. Kent James, December 9, 2021 at 1:50 p.m.

    So, Paul was a jazz curmudgeon before he was a soccer curmudgeon...always glad to hear from PG, his last column was a while ago.  I know he's well past the age of retirement, but I hope he continues to share his views; I always find them interesting and provocative, even when he's wrong (someday I hope he will recognize that there is skill involved in good defense, and good defense spurs the offense to be better and is therefore an equal part of the game, even if we do all want to see more goals...).  Keep on keeping on PG!

  7. Philip Carragher, December 11, 2021 at 8:45 a.m.

    Years ago I met my very good friend, Eric Offner, who was an avid jazz and soccer fan. He had his own jazz radio show in the NYC area and was the founder of the Sidney Bichet Society. He would travel into Manhattan weekly for live jazz and host jazz artists at his home for improv sessions on Sundays. We spent more time talking about soccer than we did jazz, but his love for both was evident by the way he lived. Once or twice a week we'd talk over the phone about various things soccer and his love for this country was so great he was maybe the USMNT's biggest fan. At one point in his legal career I believe he was counsel or General Counsel for US Soccer. I miss Eric greatly. He passed away several years ago and I'll take this moment to put in a word for Eric. The beautiful game and jazz improvisation travel a similar path.

  8. Ian Plenderleith, December 17, 2021 at 4:36 a.m.

    Paul writes: "I mean, have you ever tried to listen to, to enjoy, a solo from saxophonist John Coltrane? Or the endless and meaningless trumpet meanderings of Miles Davis?"

    Many days, those are just about the only things I listen to. They're the jazz equivalent of Pelé, Messi and Maradona rolled into one.

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