Pianist and television presenter Jools Holland loves nothing more than playing good-time music with his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, as he tells Jeff Hemmings
You probably won’t recall this but Holland’s first work as a ‘session’ musician involved working on a track by the legendary Wayne County & The Electric Chairs in 1976 on a track called ‘F*** Off’. Wayne County was a transgender woman who subsequently changed her name to Jayne…
Fast forward to Monday 4 June and there is Julian ‘Jools’ Holland OBE performing the rather more gentle ‘You Are So Beautiful’ with singer Ruby Turner in front of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Jubilee, and broadcast around the world.
It’s been a remarkable journey for this pianist and television presenter. First as founding member of Squeeze with whom he enjoyed many hits such as ‘Cool for Cats’ and ‘Up the Junction’, then as television presenter for the cult Channel 4 programme The Tube, and then founder of his very own Big Band/Orchestra and long time presenter of Later…
Holland is a pianist par excellence – he named his first solo outing, the Boogie Woogie ’78 EP – and has subsequently become the most famous boogie-woogie pianist in the world. But he’s also a superb jazz and blues player, and a combination of his keyboard skills and television work has seen him become royalty amongst musicians, a musician who has played with some of the greatest names on the planet: Sting, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Fats Domino, Eric Clapton, Solomon Burke, Dave Gilmour, Robert Plant, Bono, Smokey Robinson…
Although he enjoyed much commercial success with Squeeze his career – once he left the band in 1981 – could have been that of a session musician/journeyman. But in the early ‘80s he interviewed The Police for a documentary that was made while they were recording in Montserrat with The Beatles’ producer George Martin. He then auditioned to become a presenter (along with Paula Yates) for The Tube, which became an immediate cult success on the fledgling Channel 4, discovering a new generation of musicians from 1981–1986.
But it was when he fronted the Walking to New Orleans documentary in 1985 that he became fully acquainted with his love of American roots music; boogie-woogie, jazz, blues, soul and classic ‘American song’. This inspired him to form The Jools Holland Big Band, with original Squeeze drummer Gilson Lavis, eventually metamorphosing into the current 20-piece Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. “The extraordinary thing – to have a big band for as long as I have had – it’s all the same people. Once in a while a person will have a cold or something or something they can’t get out of, but you always get me, my brother (Chris) on the organ, Gilson Lavis – the drummer with Squeeze – on drums, Rico Rodriguez, the great ska legend, and Michael Rose his friend from Jamaica, and Louis Marshall and Rosie May (the singers) and so on. And we always have a guest singer or two (at Borde Hill, Marc Almond will be a special guest). The point is that we are very unusual or unique to be the only Big Band to be going on this long, I think, to have the same people play and so we are hopefully thinking together as well as playing together; thinking as one, rather than reading the music.”
This sounds like a major headache – aligning all those diaries!? “The only way we can make it work is by being a big family. We have our ups and downs, but we look after one another. Ultimately, what’s most important, is that we have a laugh!”
Concurrently he has been presenting Later…with Jools Holland for the last 20 years, hosting and performing with many stars of rock’n’roll plus a constant stream of newer artists. Later… has proved to be an enduring and much needed bastion of live music on TV, and has enabled Holland to continually meet (and often play) with his idols, forming new musical bonds which have helped him in developing his music over the years. “The key is being able to play together all the time…but it doesn’t matter if I’m at home, on the stage, or on the television, or in the dressing room or wherever I am playing the piano; you are just plugging into the music. By plugging into it all the time you have much more chance of it working.”
“What’s fantastic is when you look out at the people responding in the same way to what you are feeling”
An accomplished player as a child, his enthusiasm remains intact. “What’s fantastic is when you look out at the people responding in the same way to what you are feeling, so that you can communicate your feelings without using words – you can see people physically moving around.
“We have to introduce new material to keep ourselves stimulated and the audience stimulated; we’re always changing things and honing things as we go along. I suppose it’s always in the vein of what we have always done; some of it is songs that I have written, some of it is really ancient songs. One song I wrote I put to the words of a song written in the 17th century.
“George Harrison did this song once, which I played on (you can find a video of this on YouTube): ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, so we did that one. We do a ska song which suits Rico…a lot of them are vehicles for different members of the orchestra to play solos on.”
So how does Holland find new material? Is he an internet convert?
“As Van Morrison once said to me, ‘You are constantly at the song face’, looking through old records to find a song, so I’m constantly looking for something new, constantly trying to write something new, and finding something old that you didn’t know about. The other day I found something on a record that I had forgotten I had that isn’t on the internet or on a CD, so I still use old fashioned ways to find material… I could be flicking through the radio in my car; I just keep my senses alert and aware.”
“The other thing I have learnt is, as the great jazz pianist Mary-Lou Williams once said to me, ‘You got to love the music you play and play what you love, and play what you mean and mean what you play… and love the people you play it to!”
Jools Holland & His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, Borde Hill Gardens, Saturday 30 June, 5pm gates (6.30pm show), £32–15. www.bordehill.co.uk