Phil Johnson remembers and celebrates Keith Tippett
There aren’t many geniuses from Bristol. Keith Tippett, born in Southmead in 1947 and who died last Sunday after having been ill for some time, was the real deal. As pianist, composer, improviser, bandleader and educator, he was truly without compare, his gifts so abundant and so particularly expressed, with everything communicated with such generosity of spirit, that it is difficult to think of another figure in European jazz who followed a personal line so faithfully, and to such spectacular effect over what amounted to a continuously creative span from the mid-1960s to last week.
Keith played at St George’s numerous times, both solo, with his stellar quartet Mujician, and in duos with his beloved wife Julie Tippetts. As an influence in the development of jazz in his native city, he was huge, without ever pretending to special significance or guru status. His various local initiatives such as the much-missed Rare Music Club, and the inspirational amateur ensemble, the Seedbed Orchestra, which he led throughout the 1990s, were typically committed interventions, and emblematic of his quest to unite music of all types in a non-elitist, open to all, friendly environment free of establishment restrictions.
It helped that he was not only a genius but a prodigy who started very young, playing trad and modern jazz as a teenager in Bristol before leaving to light up the London scene from 1967, where he brought together the township jazz of South African exiles the Blue Notes, with his friends in prog rock such as King Crimson. Offered riches and a safe berth in rock by Crimson’s Robert Fripp, he turned it down in favour of free jazz and the transfiguring love of Julie and his family back home in the west. He could also be comically combative and irascible, especially to promoters. I remember once in the late 80s when I picked up the phone at home one evening to find an irate Keith berating me for mistakenly giving the main credit for a forthcoming listing in Venue to him, a sideman, rather than Mark Langford, whose gig it properly was. As he ticked me off it amused me to think that he would possibly be able to hear the Tippett recording I was playing at the time. In summary, Keith Tippett was the kind of Bristolian who deserves a commemorative statue. I think I know a plinth that’s available.
The excellent appreciation of Keith Tippett’s career by Richard Willams here gives a fuller picture of his achievements.