Mike Garrick

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Biography of Mike Garrick


Michael Garrick's adolescent love affair with jazz is a tale shared by much of middle class England in the post-war years, when national service was often the only means to have this affair requited. Swing and boogie-woogie held a "magnetic attraction, but I had no means of getting near it," he says; Pine Top Smith and Meade Lux Lewis (he will still rattle off Honky Tonk Train Blues if you let him), Lionel Hampton and Harry James, whose music "thrilled me to death," all crossed his path leaving indelible stains on his youthful psyche. He had fallen for the siren's song, did not know what jazz was, but knew that he wanted to play it. To this day he is rather proud of the fact that he was expelled from Eleanor B. Franklin-Pike's piano lessons for inflicting Glenn Miller's In the Mood upon fellow pupils at a musical soiree; but more seriously his parents disapproved of such high spirits and tried to put him off. In deference to this musical apartheid both at home and within the educational establishment, Garrick was adroit enough to sidestep the issue by not studying music at university, where musical faculties displayed the sign "bebop not spoken here." Yet his ambition to become a dance band pianist, or even better to play jazz, was undiminished, and to this end he practised his arpeggios, put himself through grade eight exams after national service, and embarked on a degree in English literature at University College, London.

While a student Garrick formed his first quartet, in part a carbon copy of the Modern Jazz Quartet, with the novice pianist aping the economy of John Lewis' lines and Peter Shade, "who luckily was a raver," providing the pyrotechnics on vibes. English folk song, Greensleeves, Barbara Allen and Bobby Shaftoe, plus Now's The Time and his own Wedding Hymn (which became part of Jazz Praises), were in the repertoire. Playing opposite Joe Harriott's group at the Marquee in 1958 and 1959 opened his eyes, and his own musical development through the 1960s saw the Walls of Jericho come tumbling down as Garrick raced from one project and one group to another: Poetry and Jazz recitals to his celebrated Jazz Praises, small ensemble compositions to large-scale oratorio projects infused with a jazz passion, and many recordings both as session leader and with the Don Rendell and Ian Carr Quintet.

Yet the foundations upon which Garrick has built his career have remained secure and have changed very little since the late-1950s and early-1960s, for at the heart of Garrick's playing is a wonderful and unique brand of 'Englishness', of democratic invention, boundless adventure and a sense of place. For sure Garrick had the awareness to take on board all that the American jazz heritage could offer, but he did more than just assimilate this culture. These sounds were distilled through his own personal experience, of course; but more importantly through his own cultural experience, and his brand of jazz has always been shaded by the pastoral greens and social mores of his English and urbane upbringing. The younger Garrick's partial ignorance of the jazz greats may have helped him here, for serious listening to the classic recordings of the past was a luxury that fell upon him slower than perhaps most: he did not become awake fully to Parker's gospel until after he had embarked on a professional career, and much of Ellington's oeuvre he did not discover until his late twenties - a source of retrospective relief, as Garrick feels that he may have wilted when faced with the challenge of Ellington's achievements at an earlier stage of his development.

British jazz of the late-1950s, as observed by Ian Carr in his book Music Outside, tended to be drawn to the sounds of America rather like a moth to a flame. Such generalizations, of course, do not always stand up against rigorous discussion; but if prototype Charlie Parkers were only occasionally the order of the day - and photocopies of Parker were not the sole preserve of the English! - an overly-deferential respect was paid to the American jazz dream, and breaths of musical self-worth were not drawn deep in the jazz clubs of Britain at this time (and perhaps still today). In cultural terms Garrick thus stands head and shoulders above many of his peers as a true representative of the diasporic spirit of jazz, that unwieldy cultural monster driven by its own constant and innovative momentum. Garrick's crowning achievement in jazz, distinguished if measured by any criteria, is its impressive and respectful disrespect displayed towards its inherited litany of American musical hierarchy. To him, a jazz musician in England, folk song and church music are as relevant as the blues and tin-pan alley; and his music has always represented the England with which he is familiar, an England with a rural and industrial history, and a fading colonial empire. Thus Garrick's place of birth, Enfield, its fish and chip shop sitting snugly with its Indian take-away, becomes as much a part of jazz history, for him and for us, as Congo Square in New Orleans or The Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago. And this perhaps highlights the problem with much jazz history as perceived and written. Its restless musical etiquette of enriched harmonies - Armstrong's stomping, flattened sevenths, distressed by Parker's bebop, made dissonant and dissolute courtesy of Ornette Coleman, today dewy-eyed and retrospective - has too often been shaped by a chronological narrative, which sidesteps the far more interesting and contentious issue of geography, or roots, that is a sense of place and culture. Michael Garrick alludes to the issue of 'roots' in his brief liner note to the recent Gilles Peterson anthology Impressed, a collection of recordings mined from the British jazz archive of the 1960s, including three tracks by Garrick himself. "'Soul' is a very fluid commodity," he writes, and Garrick's 'soul' swings with a firm and content English accent.

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