Book Review: Peter King’s Flying High

The swing kings Duke Ellington and Count Basie had The Cotton Club, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and the legendary US beboppers had The Five Spot, Birdland and The Three Deuces. But a certain generation of UK jazz greats learnt their chops in the likes of The White Hart in Acton and The Bun Shop in Surbiton!

It takes guts to try and play the alto sax like Charlie Parker, especially if you’re a ‘white boy’ (King’s words) from Kingston in Surrey. He has carved out an illustrious career as one of the UK’s foremost proponents of seat-of-the-pants, exciting bebop-tinged sax playing…at some cost.

‘Flying High’ is a gripping, unflinching account of a jazz life lived at the centre of the UK scene, fraught with uncertainties and but also triumphs. It’s also a brutally honest book about the obsessions and insecurities of a top-draw jazz musician.

King decided to become a jazz musician when he saw ‘The Benny Goodman Story’ in the cinema – a decision which came as quite a shock to his family. As he memorably puts it, ‘I would be a professional jazz clarinet player, shit or bust’!

He studied his favourite records and embarked on a period of intense woodshedding. This was way before there was any formal jazz education as such; players would learn by studying records and teaching themselves how to read music. King got hold of a copy of ‘Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence‘ by Andre Hodier and studied the solos of Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Louis Armstrong.

He met and played with British jazz legends like Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, Joe Harriott, Don Rendell, Gordon Beck and Phil Seaman. Seaman in particular provides some very funny anecdotes, mainly unprintable here. King performed at the Ronnie Scott’s opening night on 30th October 1959 with Jack Parnell on drums and observed the influx of American stars Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Benny Golson and Ben Webster at first hand.

He also worked with the troubled but brilliant bebop pianist Bud Powell, a recollection that makes up the book’s most gripping section, perfectly capturing the terror of sharing a stage with one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time – ‘I was in a state of bliss, but tinged with abject terror.’ King reports that Powell would simply repeat ‘What do you want to play, Pete?’ with a sweet smile. King also became great friends and performed with legendary drummers Elvin Jones and Max Roach.

His writing style is forthright with, at times, a shocking candidness. The accounts of his escalating drug use and various attempts to get off heroin are harrowing. He’s particularly good at characterising the pressures on jazz musicians to improvise from scratch in front of an audience, night after night.

But his sense of humour is never far from the surface, especially when discussing the machinations of the record industry. He struggled through the Fusion era of the early-’70s and Jazz Revival of the mid-1980s, watching on as contemporaries and young bucks cleaned up with the major labels, but survived thanks in no small part to the love of a good woman and a belief that his talent would prevail.

‘Flying High’ is one of the great jazz autobiographies and deserves a space on the shelf alongside Duke Ellington’s ‘Music Is My Mistress’, Art Pepper’s ‘Straight Life‘ and Mingus’s ‘Beneath The Underdog’.

‘Flying High’ is available now from Northway Books.

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