Review: Take Me Higher by John Clare

Reviewed by D. Byrne

Sometimes people, places and deeds are hard to separate. Sometimes impossible. John Clare, jazz musician, critic and music lover, is one such person. His love of writing, jazz, his fellow jazz musicians, as well as the life of a jazz musician are of a piece. These loves are not the kind that set boundaries, but instead, are those that lay foundations for something more. On them are built la dolce vita, the sweet life, that includes, moreover, his enthusiasm for water sports and bike riding. These sentiments, moreover, pulse through the many short and long pieces which comprise this collection.

John Clare’s life as a Sydneysider, born in 1940 at Maroubra Bay, gives his enthusiasm for water sports and bike riding a form and content which only this city can give. While Sydney has many shades of light and form, it is at heart an intensely physical city with its own distinct voice which Peter Carey has so wonderfully re-created, in his book 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC). Its sunny days are deeply dazzling; its rain and wind, utterly penetrating. His essays ‘Bike! Bike!’ and ‘View from the ward’ reveal for example both the physical joys and pitfalls of bike riding around Sydney, as ‘Autumn Water’ and ‘Ad lib: zwischen den Flaggen’ reveal the joys of swimming at its beaches.

While Bodgie Dada and the Birth of the Cool (UNSW Press) reflects the key role jazz plays in the author’s life, Take Me Higher celebrates the no less important role that writing has played. In all pieces, the reader finds a warm sympathy for his subject combined with a keen eye for detail, together with an economy of expression, all hallmarks of fine writing. These are probably best shown in ‘”I cutta the balls off!”: becoming a professional writer’. Acute observation comes to play in the longer ‘Take me Higher’. In this short memoir, a regional plane flight becomes the vehicle for reflections on family life, Sydney’s tribes and neighbourhoods, science and religion, Biggles and economics journalist Ross Gittins, contemporary politics and a very post modern appeal to the future for some answer to some of the intractable issues of the day. Such are these incessant squabblings, as reflected in a newspaper he took on the flight that he cries to himself ‘Pilot, can we have more altitude? Take me higher!’ (p. 153). This piece, Clare says, is ‘about as near as I approach the spiritual’ (p. 107) – and shows that he has been able to transcend the many dualities that so often define a life.

All our parents warned us about the pitfalls of becoming a writer, becoming a musician, and the rest. We are indeed fortunate that a few ignore this well-meant advice.

In his character profiles of Leslie Walford, ‘Pork Pies, kitsch and high society, the Walford Way’, of Jeanne Little in ‘Maaaarvellous’, and Pastor Arthur Neville in ‘The Word of God comes to you in a white Mercedes’, the descriptions of the landscape of Sydney found in some of his other pieces are given some flesh in the interviews and background commentary on these minor Sydney celebrities of an almost bygone era.

With his extended pieces of jazz criticism we move from the rhythms of the exterior world to a more interior set of rhythms. In so doing Clare’s personality changes key. His opinions are more definite notwithstanding the abstraction of the material. His critical and well informed engagement with jazz’s roots and traditions as well as its many later by-ways give backbone to his commentary. The themes of creative excellence in ‘The Lone Trumpeter’ and ‘Ten Part Invention & Andrea Keller’, camaraderie in ‘Ornette Coleman in Sydney’, homage in ‘Sonny Rollins at the Sydney Opera House’, and spontaneity in ‘Meeting Miles and (Gil)’ illuminate just how much the ethos of jazz permeates his soul and his bones. This undoubtedly helped him to capture the lighter, more expansive side of Miles, a rare feat indeed:

I smiled and Miles then began laughing softly rocking from side to side on his leather lounge chair. I watched him draw, wondering whether we ought to sort out that strange run of non sequiturs. I personally didn’t care. I knew exactly what he was talking about through all the changes of direction, yet I would find it hard to explain. At any rate, he just kept talking and drawing. (p. 115).

Few journalists can boast of such an encounter. The interview alone is worth the price of the book, I might add.

Clare’s Sydney Morning Herald ‘Spectrum’ pieces range further than his other essays. The contradictions of everyday life, love, work and culture are reflected upon in the context of celebrity ‘Fame and other bruises’, and religion ‘Religion: stand up if you believe’ and ‘Across the bridge between youth and age’, art and science ‘Art in the time of science’, and the physical and the spiritual ‘God’s dance party remix’. As someone who has lived a full life and more than that, has examined the meaning of his life, the fallacy of many typical dualities is transparent.

All our parents warned us about the pitfalls of becoming a writer, becoming a musician, and the rest. We are indeed fortunate that a few ignore this well-meant advice. We are also fortunate that, moreover, that some of those who do dare to step outside the white picket fenced rat race are able to lift their fellows just that little bit higher, at least for a while. John Clare’s many accomplishments as a jazz musician and critic, as well as author, poet and journalist have greatly enriched this country’s cultural life.


© D. Byrne

D. Byrne is a public servant who enjoys good books and fine music.

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