The Remarkable Mr Morrison

A guest post by author Mervyn E Collins

It was a bloody cheek really – I didn’t know the bloke from a bar of soap except I knew he played trumpet better than your average cleaning agent.

Book cover with James Morrison photo
The Remarkable Mr Morrison by Mervyn E Collins. Available at Readings and all good book shops

I’d first heard James Morrison do his multi-instrumental jazz thing a long time before in front of a brass band, of all things, and been mightily impressed. Now, I’d taken a bunch of secondary school music students to a tutorial and heard him play his brass menagerie and tell his yarns. On impulse, I, who’d never met him before, was asking him if I could write it all down – how he never practiced and then opportunity had banged on the door and he’d gone overnight from busking in New York to playing alongside Gillespie at Montreux.

It couldn’t have been true; it couldn’t have happened like that but they were great stories and he told them convincingly; I wanted to get to the bottom of it.

It was impudent. I was a complete stranger. “Talk to my manager”, he said without paying much attention.

I didn’t follow it up then but the dormant idea never died. I approached him again and got the okay to start. In the interim, Morrison had produced his own autobiography. It didn’t obviate the need for the book I planned to write. His book, while undoubtedly a lot of fun, was mainly written about his non-musical pursuits – his manifold cars, love of planes and boats, his triathlons and abseiling.

I wanted to explore where his remarkable musical abilities came from – all those aspects that mystified ordinary musicians, particularly me. To approach Morrison was, as I said, pure bloody effrontery. I wasn’t an established writer. I wasn’t even a jazz player. I came from the English brass band traditions where we can play anything printed on the page but very little that’s not notated.

That may have been what fascinated and baffled me – how could he play without dots on multiple instruments without, or so he claimed, practicing?

I soon worked out that he did practice; he did little else but he never considered it practice because he was enjoying himself so much. He imitated what he heard on records and had so much fun doing it, he never thought he was working hard.

And I learned pretty quickly there were those who thought the precocious Mr Morrison was having too much fun. There’s still a proportion of the jazz population which refuses to treat James as a bona fide exponent of the art, just a good instrumentalist from the cabaret end of the spectrum.

James isn’t bothered. “If I came out and did a Miles Davis impersonation and was very serious, I’d probably get a lot of applause from some of my peers and the serious jazz critics but, in fact, I’d be selling out. For me, the day you see me arriving by helicopter, parachuting out playing a trumpet and landing on the stage with fireworks going off, that’s when, basically, I’m being really true”.

Paul Grabowsky saw more depth in Morrison when they played German festivals together. “We played a more stretching sort of jazz and he would construct his sets as if there was an inner need to be more the entertainer in Australia and in Europe more the musician”.

“I think”, Grabowsky told me on another occasion, “James has had a very clear view of his musical mission. I think he arrived at his musical gestalt early and has been comfortable in that role for a long time. There is a real consistency in all he does but, as I see it, it’s simply the context in which he does it that informs his modus operandi”.

So it’s horses for courses; the right music for the right audience.

Morrison’s mission is twofold: to play accessible jazz to as many people as possible and to pass on the torch of improvised music to the next generation.

Some will say that in doing the former he never became the ground-breaking artist they thought he should but no-one can fault his commitment to the latter. Following up on his numerous high school concerts and workshops and the hugely-successful Generations in Jazz Stage Band competitions which have been running for 20 years, only this month, he announced his new South Australian University jazz course, with government accreditation and backing in the dedicated old Town Hall in Mount Gambier. The course will take in about 50 jazz-playing students next year – auditions are already under way – and rise to over 200 per year by 2015.

Whatever his shortcomings may be seen to be, there is no greater or more effective promoter of jazz among young people in Australia. I would venture to suggest that, amidst all James Morrison’s myriad musical achievements, that might be his greatest legacy.

The Remarkable Mr Morrison by Mervyn E. Collins (Melbourne Books) is available at Dymocks,Readings and other bookstores. Price $29. 95


An ebook edition is available online through Amazon

Melbourne Books