(This is what I hope will be the first of many guest posts from Bruce Coates, a young and upcoming free-form jazz player and composer. The first is a tribute to political radical and pioneer of free-form, Paul Rutherford – VP)
The passing of Paul Rutherford has been admirably marked by the major broadsheet newspapers, something that would have made Paul smile wryly since they almost entirely ignored him when he was alive. He wouldn’t have read them anyway, his paper was the Morning Star. Paul was a good friend and colleague, we shared the bandstand on a number of occasions and I heard him play on numerous others; each was a thrilling for me, his sheer inventiveness left me breathless.
In the realm of free improvisation the word free is often misunderstood to mean that there are no rules or boundaries, perhaps it is better to see it as way of thinking and playing that can lead to magically unexpected outcomes within what is often as stylistically recognisable as any Jazz (or other musical) form. In Paul’s case however, he seemed to be able to come closer to a genuine stylistic freedom, transcending ideas of rules and boundaries almost with every performance, always surprising and delightful. One of his friends and fellow musicians commented to me as we stood at Paul’s wake, that he was only true free improviser.
Perhaps this ability was rooted in his political ideals – a committed communist from teenage he never lost the idea that politics could be genuinely transformative, both personally and to the common good. His musical ideas reflected this; free improvisation was for Paul (and for many of us) an analogue to a society that is genuinely democratic, productive and co-operative. My father, also a friend of Paul’s wrote a very moving appreciation, which he sent to Paul’s family, but it is worth quoting in full here:
“Paul Rutherford’s musicianship is beyond question and is recognised by all who respond to the rigour and complexity of ‘free’ musical expression. Perhaps his humanitarianism is less well known outside his immediate colleagues and those sympathetic to his politics. Paul never allowed himself to be distracted by pragmatism and was unequivocal in his belief in the inherent potential for goodness of human beings and the power of political thinking to improve their lives and engineer social change. Possibly the reality which is an attendant of aging may also give rise to the torment that accompanies the erosion of optimistic idealism” Andrew Coates
Although in recent times bitterness at the lack of appreciation for his music had crept into Paul’s demeanour, coupled with an at times crippling depression and long-standing problems with alcohol, he still maintained an impish sense of humour and was fabulous company. As I stood in a jam packed crematorium in South London last Thursday and listened to the memories of his family and friends, I began to realise what an enormous hole his passing would leave in both the musical world and the personal lives of those of us who knew him. I don’t think it was possible for anybody there assembled to hold back their tears as a quartet of his fellow trombonists played the opening bars of The Red Flag. The wonderful array of recordings he left behind and the huge influence he has had on generations of improvisers from the around the world will ensure, I have no doubt, his rightful place amongst the truly great Jazz musicians. However, I will miss his warmth, generosity, and the long conversations we had late into the night over several pints of Guinness on topics ranging from Stalin to J.J. Johnson, after blowing hearts out to 10 people in the back room of a smoky pub.
Goodbye Comrade Rutherford the world is a poorer place without you.