John Edwards, who has played with many musicians as well as had his own bands and projects, is an extraordinary bass player. He grew up in Hounslow, west London, with an older brother who played drums. John would listen and think: “I’d like to do that.” So he would sit on a chair and just play rhythms.
Later on, he went to gigs and found himself drawn into the music. First, John wanted to be an artist but, by the time he was 11 or 12, the energy and buzz he got from music became central to who he was as a person and he began to realize this, perhaps, was where his heart lay. He listened on headphones to tapes and records. When he was 13, his brother formed a small punk band. The drummer was bad, John had a go and found he had rhythm. He found, he says, he had “keyed into something.”
He began to pick up instruments whenever he could. There was an old ukulele with two strings always knocking around his parents’ home and he would pick it up and play it like a bass guitar, finding rhythms and sounds. He began making recordings with a bass guitar and began experimenting with different sounds — using anything which made a noise, not necessarily instruments. He wrote songs and made recordings at home on a reel-to-reel tape machine. When John was 14, his now-19-year-old brother toured with bands and John would sometimes go along, so music was a big art of John’s teenage years. He realized from early on that he would never “go to work,” as such, but would end up doing something different from the norm. It just was not in him.
Leaving school at 16, John went to art college and got more into playing with friends, using whatever was around, including someone’s granddad’s keyboard. He bought his first electric bass at 19. Messing around, finding new sounds, John says: “I didn’t know what I was doing really, but I did it a lot.” Even as a small boy, John says he always heard the bass in music. He remembers vividly going to see the Walt Disney film, Bambi at the age of 4 and the music having an effect on him; the way it was used to draw out the drama in a scene. He says of the low ends of the music: “even as a child, it killed me.”
His parents supported their sons’ in doing whatever they felt was right for them, encouraging them to “try this, try that” so there was never an issue or pressure to pursue any particular avenue. John left home amicably at 18. He never really thought about money or being successful. He had no real ambitions and for a while lived in various squats, singing on and earning bit pieces here and there. He discovered music libraries and would spend hours looking at the collections. He took out anything and everything and listened to all kinds of music: Asian/folk/African/Indian, classical and jazz, Copeland, Schoenberg — you name it, he listened to it.
At 22, he decided the double bass was his instrument. The bass lines always pulled him and he loved the low shifts, dynamics and textures which could be added using the instrument. He often played his bass guitar unplugged, just finding different rhythms and sounds. Then when, he was 22, his Nan died — leaving him a small sum of money. He bought his first double bass. “That,” he says, “was it.” He began playing, playing and more playing, and soon built up a reputation as a good musician.
One of the problems initially was the fact he had to learn to read music. As a self-taught player, John had never learned to read music, but once he began getting work as a player he found occasionally himself in awkward situations: “There was one time,” he remembers, “when I got a call to do a recording at Abbey Road studios. I went along, but could not read the music. It was a nightmare.” So, he set about learning.
Asked what inspired him, John has an instant reply: “Everything inspires, musically. First it was ’50s and ’60s pop music, then people like Lol Coxhill in the late ’80s and Bruce Turner — 10 years older than Lol, but he had played with many of the great jazz musicians. Now almost everything inspires me.”
Early on, Edwards was a member of several bands including the Pointy Birds, God and B Sharps for the Poor. He has since played with Louis Moholoh Moholo, Peter Brotzmann, Wadada Leo Smith, Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson, Sunny Murray (who played with John Coltrane), Marshall Allen (who now leads the Sun Ra Arkestra), Kenny Wheeler and John Tchicai, to name just a few. Would he classify himself? “No” is the answer. If Edwards was stopped by the police and asked what he did for a living, John says he might say he was a jazz musician. For official documents, he is a bass player and teacher — but he does not classify himself under any one genre.
About playing, John says he loves the effect an instrument has on people. “It is what you can do with it,” he says, “the sounds created. It is a physical thing.” He is very aware of the reaction of an audience when he plays although, sometimes, he becomes so engrossed he forgets they are there and has to bring himself back. “Open your eyes,” he tells himself. Sometimes, he gets annoyed when there is a lot of shuffling, coughing and moving around by the audience but sometimes it is good and he enjoys being in a room with lots of other people.
It is hard to describe how he feels on stage, but “it is good” is how he sums it up. “It is important to just enjoy the music,” he says, “just being here, in this world with people and how we interact is important. Music can change peoples’ moods. You can have 10 rooms in a street with different music in each house — there will be 10 different moods created by the music so each room has a different atmosphere according to what is being played and how. Improvised music at its best, whatever it sounds like, gives the potential for complete equality, where everyone is responsible for what they do and how they interact. We respond to sounds and music because it is a physical thing. Whether you like something or loathe it, there is a reaction to the sound. Maybe we are all hard wired to gather together. I mean, people still go to the cinema in spite of having 70-inch screens at home. It is the group thing. We thrive in groups and nothing can recreate live gigs, where we are all in the same room shuffling, farting, coughing and all of it. Certainly, in our culture, the thing of some people being on stage playing and some listening is all part of the event.”
There is a kind of hierarchy established at live gigs, with people onstage and in the audience and John says he sometimes find this odd, but “in any performance that happens because, at that time, the people who can play, play — and those who don’t, or don’t want to at the time, listen.”
Practice is important and John says he practices whenever he can. Some gigs are rehearsed but some not. John plays regularly with some musicians including Evan Parker and John Russell, and their gigs are unrehearsed but John says they have a long history together and know each other’s playing so well that unrehearsed gigs are probably better. “Onstage,” says John, “I listen and feel. It is similar to having a conversation.”
Of the scene at the moment, Edwards comments: “It is loaded, politically, at the moment. It is about all of us, how we get along. Music has always been the antithesis of political power — jazz maybe more so and free jazz even more. The establishment — by which I mean people in offices, suits and government — maybe want people to do nothing. They want to keep people drugged up with the banal, working, doing the same thing. Maybe free music upsets that.” Of free jazz, John understands that some people have said it is full of wanabees. One musician said to him: “You mean you just rock up and play, so there can be no mistakes? You can’t do wrong?” But John says: “The luxury of doing this kind of music is that you are more or less invisible to major commercial controls, like the record industry. What could be better? I would rather be doing this, not worrying about contracts, etc., and have everybody watching me, telling me how to feel and play.”
For John, life is wonderful and talking to him, you get a sense of a man truly happy in himself and what he does. “I play with many different people. I do sessions, I have played in projects with large and small budgets, I have dealt with agents, no agents, and sometimes I have no idea how everything will go on stage. I still do door money gigs too, which I enjoy.” Edwards has many projects on the go and is into so many things. Achieving fame is not important because, for John, getting to play with so many people and try so many different things is what adds meaning to music. With some projects he can direct things a little more, with others he is simply a part of the project. Both make it worthwhile. Sometimes, the commercial side of things is not so great — because gigs and festivals have to be viable — but Edwards is fine as he is.
When I asked John how he feels he might influence the scene, he thought for a while and then said: “When I play, I recognize some things about myself. I realize I can change things. I have a presence in the music. I can influence dynamics and how the music feels.” Then he laughed and said” “I hope this is not big headed, but I am sure you know what I mean. The bass instrument has a certain power on stage and in music.” With work, John never knows what is coming up. He is busy at the moment, Next up are tours in Switzerland, Germany and dates around Europe. “Europe,” Edwards says, “is still where most of the money is in free music. There is more funding there, and it is better for the music.”
When asked what he would like to leave behind, John again pauses. “I think,” he says, “I would love it to be that some people say: ‘He pushed that bass a little bit further.’” At the moment, John wants to keep expanding, be active enough to hear, discover, listen and learn more. He needs to play every day because playing is such a physical thing and he feels you lose some things if you don’t practice. He practices all the time.
What struck me about John is that he is enthusiastic about everything connected with music and particularly the bass. He is an avid fan of anyone who plays the instrument and has a connection to the music which is tangible. Edwards is also incredibly happy with his current lot and very talkative. A half-hour coffee turned into almost two hours, because we discussed a range of other things like early musicians such as: Lennie Tristano and his influence on the emergence of freer playing; and Brotzmann and the changes he has seen. Our conversation was interrupted with the mundanity of life, such as a call from home when John had to explain where he had put the pasta. John is married to a sax player, and they were playing in Cheltenham together the next evening, so some things had to be arranged.
He has recently started writing music. For 20 years or so Edwards did not write much, but about three years ago he began composing again. Now, he says he leads a charmed life. “What could be better than this?” he asks. John Edwards is a happy man — lively, good natured and with a wicked sense of humor. He wants to make a difference and, from what I have seen and heard, I think he is well on the way to doing just that.
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