Courtney Pine on standing in for Stevie Wonder at Wembley and playing with his heroes

courtney pine

courtney pine - Credit: Archant

Three decades after his first album, Courtney Pine is performing his latest record Song (The Ballad Book) with renowned pianist Zoe Rahman.

“There were guys dealing coke and I saw someone get slashed across the face,” says Courtney Pine of the Brixton pub where he had his first residency.

“After performing there for three or four months the clientele changed. Slowly but surely it transformed into a jazz venue.”

From the Atlantic pub to Wembley Stadium, he is credited with transforming jazz in the UK.

Three decades after the release of his first album, Courtney Pine is performing his latest record Song (The Ballad Book) with renowned pianist Zoe Rahman.

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“She’s a great jazz musician. She stepped into that world and it was male-dominated and macho and she held her own.

There are things that Zoe does that inspire me and I’ll change chords because of the way she performs.”

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Courtney has formed musical partnerships with a wealth of other jazz legends, from Herbie Hancock to Ernest Ranglin, the Jamaican guitarist credited with creating ska music and who is one of Courtney’s greatest influences.

“The first sounds I heard as a youngster that I can remember were the sounds of ska. My parents would play it with friends gathered around the ‘gram’ – guys would be drinking rum, taking off their pork pie hats and reminiscing.”

He’s delighted to be accompanying the 84-year-old on his farewell tour: “It’s not often you get to play with the person that first inspired you.”

Courtney played alongside Sting, Whitney Houston and Tracey Chapman at the Free Nelson Mandela Concert in 1988, an event that he marks as a milestone.

“We turned up bright and early and they wouldn’t give us a dressing room, they wouldn’t say hello to us, they treated us as though we weren’t even there. We didn’t get passes or anything.

“Around 6 o’clock – peak time – Stevie Wonder was due to perform, but somebody had left the floppy disk for his synth in the hotel room so they had to go back and get it.

“They turned around and said: ‘You’re on.’ So, we went out and smashed it and played to a worldwide audience. People were buzzing to what we were playing – they didn’t boo!”

Courtney was appointed an OBE and a CBE, receiving the New Year Honours for services to jazz music in 2009.

But the negative attitude he encountered from the organising party at Wembley in the early years was rife, and he often faced racism from prejudiced jazz club owners who didn’t approve of his “style”.

This may be why he speaks so fondly of the early days of jazz as if he wishes he’d been there.

“New Orleans was a place where black people could walk around and talk to white people without fear of being lynched. Communities would get together and talk and live life.

“People talk about jazz as this underground music, but what’s amazing is that in every city there’s a space to play jazz.

“It brings people together.”

Courtney is to perform his latest album at the Bernie Grant Centre.

“We don’t have many places with important black leaders and there aren’t many venues that bear their names so I think it’s really important to support.”

Listening to Courtney’s rendition of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square on the bass clarinet sends real shivers down the spine. His command of the seven octave instrument is astonishing.

“It’s very difficult to play, but for this album I thought it was appropriate. Most of the material isn’t bass clarinet repertoire and it was a lot of hard work interpreting the songs – there aren’t many versions of a Chaka Kahn song!”

Courtney’s ability to play this instrument, while due to his obvious talent, is also owed to his commitment to practising, admitting he sometimes plays eight hours a day.

“If I keep practising this scale, at the end of the day I’ll be able to go to another place,” he says. “I always find when I’ve accomplished a pattern it leads me to another pattern. I’ve never had a dead end.”

As for performing? “I haven’t stopped since 1987,” he laughs. And he probably won’t be stopping any time soon.

Courtney plays with Zoe Rahman on August 19 and 20. Tickets:

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