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Courtney Pine: A reluctant giant

JAZZ MAN: Courtney Pine

THERE HAVE been many pioneers in the black British community - people who have defined an era, changed societal perceptions and made it easier for those who follow to progress in their field. Saxophonist Courtney Pine is such a trailblazer. With a career spanning almost 30 years, he has revolutionised jazz music in the UK. In fact, the multi-instrumentalist has received an OBE and CBE for his services to jazz, which many people might say qualifies him to be honoured as a pioneer, but Pine does not agree. Describing himself a ‘regular geezer’ during our recent interview, the jazz man went on to explain who he views as pioneers and why he has chosen to celebrate their lives in his recently released and 17th album, House of Legends.

“We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” the 48-year-old said. We have to pay respect to likes of Claudia Jones and Stephen Lawrence because they are people who have inspired musicians.”

The London-born artist has usually made it a point to reflect on his culture and heritage on his albums and House of Legends is no different.

“Representing Claudia Jones is important to me because I grew up in the Ladbroke Grove area. And for as long as I can remember I can remember the carnival, which was created by her, a West Indian woman.”

Like all forms of art, music can be used as a conduit to express the artists’ feelings, emotions and anything else that is on their mind. For Pine it has been his aim to get across his political stance and ideas on society, something the star jokingly thinks may have been what he was born for.

“I went to Wilberforce school on Beethoven Street, so I think I always meant to be a freedom fighting musician,” laughed the multi instrumentalist. But noting the seriousness of his subject, he continued: “But I’m not just writing songs about yesteryear, I’m reflecting the times we are living in as well. I’m paying tribute to the parents of Stephen Lawrence, Doreen and Neville because it has to be done, we are in an age where it is getting very difficult to reflect our culture, but somebody has to do it.”

Pine finds himself in his usual position, he is at once a champion of the black community and as The Telegraph describes him, Britain’s most famous saxophonist, although he has achieved so much, he remains as modest as ever.

Despite reaching number 39 in the UK albums chart and earning a silver disc with his 1986 debut album Journey to Urge Within, (an unprecedented record at the time for a British jazz) Pine believes it is too late in the day to gain international stardom with his music. Instead, he is happy enough to use it as a way of working with his musical heroes.

“When I realised that I was never going to have that platinum selling album, I decided to make my career to my evolution. My first albums I played jazz standards, and now I’m revealing my culture and who I am,” the jazz great explained.

House of Legends was something I had to get out of my system. I hadn’t had the opportunity to work with older musicians like this before because of commercial reasons. But I’m at the point now where it had to be done. I always wanted to record with the trumpeter Harry Beckett, he gave me the opportunity to work with him but he passed away before we had a chance to record, so that’s another reason for producing the album,” he said.

“These musicians are legends and their music is left behind in their musical legacy. When we make music, it’s not just about the now, it’s about reflecting the past and showing the influence it had on us. That’s the only way we can have a continuum in our black music. You can’t erase these guys from history,” he emphasised.

Reflecting on the past has been a consistently recurrent theme in Pine’s own personal journey through music. Whilst looking into the history of jazz the saxophonist found an intricate link between the music he has given so much to and his parental heritage, which changed his outlook on life.

“My parents are from the Blue Mountain in Jamaica and I grew up in a Caribbean environment. I always thought that the African-American experience was different from the African Caribbean experience, but with a little bit of research you see it’s the same thing.”

Courtney Pine launches his new album House of Legends at the Islington Assembly Hall, Upper Street, N1 on October 19. For more information visit

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