Mike Westbrook’s Letter

April 22nd, 2018

On discovering the work of various figures from British Jazz, I quickly came to the Music of Mike Westbrook – albums such as MetropolisMarching Songs Vol. 1 & 2, Love Songs, Release, and Citadel/Room 315 (composed in the old Leeds Polytechnic building; now part of Leeds Metropolitan University), were the ones always leaning against my record player as a student. I couldn’t get enough.

I decided to write to Mike with a view to forming a similar band his ‘Concert Band’ line-up (as on Celebration / Release / Love Songs, et al.), and playing some of that repertoire. Below is the letter I received in reply:

I can remember my initial response as one of disappointment – sad that scores of this material were no longer available. So, I slipped it inside my belovéd copy of Metropolis. I would forget that I had this letter, save for when I took the record from its sleeve whenever I came to play it (I practically wore it out when I first bought it – a story for another time). Every time I have taken the record from its sleeve over the last twenty years(!), the letter presents itself, and I always read it, in full.

It is curious how, through re-reading this letter many, many times, it has revealed certain truths that completely eluded me as a burgeoning student of Jazz in the late 1990s. The following sentences are particularly profound, and continued to reveal new depths, and to resonate with me more deeply with each reading:

 

“I’m not sure that playing by contemporary musicians material that was created by and written for specific people at a particular time, would be a valuable exercise.

Ultimately, however much one learns and absorbs from the past, and from other people’s stuff, the great opportunity, and challenge that Jazz presents is to create one’s own musical language for one’s own time and circumstances. The message I got from the great artists I admire, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton and countless others, is that everything is possible – you just have to find your own way to do it!”

 

That’s absolutely right.

It is perhaps the single most important piece of advice any musician could receive. The letter is like an old friend – reenforcing my own philosophy on music making, and giving me continued encouragement to find my own path, my own voice.

I was prompted to write this little blog on watching a video of Mike’s latest solo piano record, PARIS. Mike’s piano playing has an assured elegance, colour, light, and shade. It is the counterpart to his unique voice as a composer of large-scale works for ensembles, both large and small; and I love how Mike controls and distills his vast musical universe into a singular essence at the keyboard.

Mike Westbrook is an example to anyone embarking on a lifetime of music making: to always keep moving, creating new opportunities, and to look forward to the next musical adventure…

 

Thank you, Mike, for replying to that young, naive student, all those years ago. x