Feature: Michael Horovitz – face to face, lip to ear, hip to mind

On 12 March 1962, the Live New Departures Jazz Poetry Septet – poets Michael Horovitz and Pete Brown and their jazz-musician collaborators – gave a scintillating performance in the SCR at Southampton University. Thanks to Horovitz’s friend, the distinguished jazz scholar Victor Shonfield, who made a reel-to-reel tape recording on the night, and subsequently Gearbox Records, which has just converted it into glorious vinyl, the evening can be enjoyed once more via a beautifully packaged boxed set Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead (Jazz Poetry Superjam #1), containing a double-LP and fascinating 30-page book. Also released by Gearbox – Horovitz is a dedicated maximalist – are his 2013 collaborations with contemporary musical legends Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon and Paul Weller: the 45, Ballade Of The Nocturnal Commune / Extra Time Meltdown (Superjam #2) and the LP, Bankbusted Nuclear Detergent Blues (Superjam #3).

Laurie Morgan, Pete Brown, Michael Horovitz and Bobby Wellins of the Jazz Poetry troupe rehearsing in Sloane Square for the PBS Poetry Festival at the Royal Court Theatre, London, 1962. Photo: Mike Sanders

Horovitz and his collaborators had been developing and performing jazzpoems for several years prior to the 1962 gig. He had founded the ground-breaking New Departures magazine while still a student at Oxford University, famously publishing Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac and other leading lights of the counter culture. But “even before the first issue appeared,” wrote Victor Schonfield in 1963, “it was evident that [Horovitz’s] ideas were leading him away from the bookshelf towards the platform.”

Live New Departures evolved as an offshoot of the magazine, its focus on modern jazz born both of Horovitz’s love of its freeform spontaneity, and its affinity with the ideas and literature that most interested and excited him. The full effect is felt, he explained in 1963, “when you take in the whole of any of our jazzpoems as we write them – face to face, lip to ear, hip to mind, the instantaneous sounds are for you to receive or modify – always allowing for chance operations, all the voices exploring each new area and movement.” Jazz and poetry were for the body and the brain, experimental, radical and new, and even more so in combination with one another.

Brown, who went on to write lyrics for Cream, was introduced to Horovitz by Schonfield at the 1960 Beaulieu jazz festival. The pair “immediately hitched to serenade Edinburgh” at the Festival Fringe that year, explained Horovitz, with Brown giving his first public performances. Subsequently they toured jazz poetry across the UK, to festivals in Bangor, Aberystwyth and Southampton, and venues including the Cheltenham Jazz Club, Oxford Town Hall, Hornsey Art School and the Ben Uri and ICA galleries in London. Jeff Clyne (double bass), Laurie Morgan (drums) and John Mumford (trombone and tenor horn) had joined LND in 1961, and Stan Tracey (piano) and Bobby Wellins (tenor sax) completed the septet following year.

Erudition and a love of wordplay are in evidence throughout the Southampton recordings. ‘Blues For The Hitchhiking Dead’, written by Brown and Horovitz in alternating improvisations at the typewriter, is an explosive, free-wheeling 40-minute first person narrative in two voices. Described by a contemporary reviewer as “one of the most successful jazzpoem experiments I have heard”, the text is reproduced in the accompanying booklet, alongside Brown’s melancholy ‘Night’ and Horovitz’s “piledriverdrilling” celebration of Lionel Hampton’s ‘Flying Home’. The two remaining tracks, ‘McTaggart’s Blues’ and ‘Afro Charlie’, are purely musicial (and peerlessly executed).

L to r: Paul Weller, Michael Horovitz, Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon in 2013. Photo: Veronique DuBois

Years on, Horovitz remains an unflagging proponent of the chemistry between poetry and music. His 2013 collaboration with Paul Weller, Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon, recorded last year and premiered live at a fundraiser for Teenage Cancer Trust at the Royal Albert Hall last March, developed out of their shared interest in busting boundaries. “I’ve got all kinds of poems, songs and song-poems which lend themselves to accompaniment with different sorts of musicicans. These are three of my very favourite musicians and they wanted to do something with me. Why not?” “Fabulous,” said Paul Weller. “The end results are… some of the best things I’ve ever worked on.”

The boxed set Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead (Jazz Poetry Superjam #1) can be found online. www.gearboxrecords.com

This article by Mike Sims was first published in Poetry News, spring 2014. © The Poetry Society.