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Jim Mullen

Technique Should be the Servant, not the Master


Thorbjørn Sjøgren in Denmark shares with us his interview with guitarist Jim Mullen:

On an evening a couple of years back, I was visiting the London pub “The Bull’s Head” in the southwest part of the English capital. They have been presenting jazz for half a century, almost as long as Ronnie Scott’s, actually. Guitarist Jim Mullen was playing, fronting a quartet which included piano player John Critchinson, playing a fine selection of not too overdone standards. Buying his then-recently released CD, we got to talk and he told me that he had a daughter and two grandsons in Copenhagen.

During the following months I bought several of his CD’s, and one night my wife asked me “wouldn’t it be nice to try to set up a few gigs for him here?” Mullen quickly agreed to that, we got Brian Kellock (piano) and Hugo Rasmussen (bass) to go along, and for Jim Mullen 2four days they played their socks off. Fast forward to a year later, and I’m sitting with Jim Mullen at his hotel in Copenhagen. He is 68, white-haired, six feet three, and broad-shouldered…:

“A few months back I started going to a gym and paying more attention to my meals. Now it’s more about vegetables and meat, and less about rice, pasta, and white bread. I simply felt I was in getting into bad shape, which is not too good when you’re at my age.”

For many years Jim Mullen has been living in central London, but he was born and grew up in one of the poor parts of Glasgow…. “I was part of the baby boom, which I’m sure you had in Denmark, too. I was born on November 26th, 1945, just one day before Randy Brecker. Growing up there at that time….well, there was a great austerity. There was rationing, going on until I think, 1953. That’s not what I heard my parents talk about, I remember it well. I went with my mother to the Social Security where we got these big round tins of dried milk, dried eggs, dried orange juice…just add water… and we had something called The Rag Store, almost like a pawnbroker’s thing, where my mother sometimes sold some of our clothes, so we could get food on the table, but we were not allowed to tell my dad, who was a very hard-working man, as he’d have been completely mortified that this should be necessary."

"He was a carpenter, and a very good one. He actually tried to make me a guitar at one point, about that time I had started bugging him. He succeeded in making the body, I remember I found he had a woodworker’s magazine on how to make a guitar, but guitar making takes years to learn….and finally I was allowed to buy a guitar, on payments. I had a newspaper route… Many working-class families had a piano, but the poor, almost ghetto-like part of Glasgow’s east end, where I grew up, we didn’t have pianos there, and a guitar was a cheap replacement. It was a time when families would entertain themselves, I was a teenager before we got a TV. Families were singing together in the evening, and if you didn’t have a piano you could learn a few chords on the guitar pretty quick. Well, this wasn’t the reason I bought it, but I had started listening to skiffle music…Lonnie Donegan…he was also from Glasgow.”

“There was something democratic to music. Everybody contributed what they could. Recently my 95-year old mother told me that when she put me to bed, she offered to read me a story, but I would rather have her sing to me. She was always singing along with the radio, singers like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett doing all the great, classic evergreens. When I got into jazz, I almost felt that these songs had gotten into me by some sort of osmosis. I have a lot to thank my mother for.”

Jim Mullen“When I was around ten I had a slightly older friend, living next door. One day he played me some records by guitar players…Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Barry Galbraith, Jimmy Raney, Mundell Lowe…cats who played in studio bands and were playing jazz for fun. I was like crazy, I knocked his door, “Can I hear some of that music again ?” …”Oh, I’m with my girlfriend, come back next week…”. That was the beginning of the process and that made me fall in love with this strange and crazy music.”

“Music is an abstract art, actually. You rely on your feelings. It’s not like a painting, where you can see the brushstrokes, or a poem. Somebody once described music as ‘the poetry of tonality’ and that is a great expression. I’ve always been fascinated by how a particular configuration of notes can hit you like a ton of bricks. Often music reduces me to tears, it can be incredibly moving, I’m not ashamed to say that. That’s the way I feel about the CD that my girlfriend, Zoë Francis, just recorded. She’s surrounded by a handful of Britain’s best musicians and they really work for her. She really gets into the songs and her singing really gets a boost. I never completely understood why music can hit you this way. But with me it’s not only jazz. I’m a great fan of Verdi and Puccini. Partly, you might say that some music has an almost iconic character, known all over the world and able to pass on moods like loss, homesickness, lost love, etcetera. Take a song like Danny Boy….”

“I guess I’m from the last generation of completely self-taught players. Where I grew up, there were no music teachers who could correct my mistakes. Actually I am left-handed, but I play right-handed now. The plectrum slipped out of my hand so I got used to using my thumb. Gives me a slightly warmer sound, but it also means that I can only do downstrokes. So I tell my students to listen to what I play, but not copy my technique, as it’s not very practical. The only chance at that time to have serious teaching was the Scottish Academy of Music, and to get in there, you’d have to be very talented and have had private lessons. Well, it’s like learning a foreign language: you learn some words, some phrases, and little by little you learn to communicate. But that doesn’t make you a poet. You don’t get to that level until you’ve learned to express your feelings. And of course there has to be a reason that you want this, plus a wish to be able to express your most sincere feelings in this language. As a jazz musician you have an obligation to try to personalize your expression. If you’re honest in what you do, you can have a personal voice even though you’re not an original. Each generation only has a few originals, but lots of fine, personal interpreters. You mentioned  Johnny Griffin a moment ago. He’s a good example: Not a great original, but a wonderful interpreter.”

“Me, I’ve always been attracted by emotional musicians: Miles Davis and Charlie Parker when they were playing ballads, John Coltrane in his early years when he was the most soulful melodist….and I am a huge fan of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Bing Crosby. Also Fred Astaire…he really knew how to sing a song. Later in life I met Tony Bennett. I was playing with Claire Martin and he was standing in the wing of the stage. When we finished he had some very precise and insightful remarks. Most big stars are not at all interested in the local boys, but Bennett was different. And I still play with Claire, with her I got into scatting the lines I was playing at the same time. Like George Benson. But the  audience wanted to hear my singing and not my playing, so I stopped doing that. But  sometimes I use it when I’m doing workshops: Try playingClaire Martin and, at the same time, sing what you play, what you want to express. It’s the same process, and if you have a certain ability on your instrument, you should be able to do it. That will help you focus…”

[Click here for a video of Claire Martin singing Getting High in 1998 at the 606 Club with Jim taking the guitar solo]

Claire Martin
© Brian O'Connor

Rewind….back to Glasgow in the early sixties, when Jim Mullen didn’t have any idea what to do professionally, when school was over….

“My dad tried to get me an apprenticeship as a carpenter, but that didn’t work out, as I couldn’t hammer a nail into a piece of wood without everything being a disaster. So for a couple of years I had a no-future office job. I had started playing the bass, but then I got into journalism. I never thought of music as a profession….and there were many more newspapers then, but I often worked nights, which is not very good for a young man. I taught myself bass playing pretty quick, four beats to the bar, it wasn’t  that difficult. And during these years we saw the release of all the great Blue Note records…Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Grant Green…state of the art music… But I couldn’t find a piano player who was able to accompany me the way Herbie or McCoy did it, so I went back the guitar, left journalism, and moved to London.”

“The musical menu was rock music for a couple of years until I hooked up with Brian Auger, a  really fine pianist and organ player. I was with his band for a couple of years. We played loud, and I developed a tinnitus that is still bugging me. This was the time of fusion music, but basically Brian was playing bebop phrases with a powerful backbeat. After that I hooked up with Dick Morrissey, a fine English saxophone player, and we got in touch with a Scottish band, The Average White Band, which was enormously popular around that time. Their two saxophone players were both crazy about Morrissey, and they wanted to make an album together with us. But Dick was the most un-ambitious musician I ever met. He felt Kokomono need to become famous, and playing little, humble pub-jobs satisfied him perfectly. I got the offer to join in, actually I’d had my share of rock, for me it had been going on for four or five years and it’s not the sort of music you want to play all your life. Dick was getting fed up with it, too, for years he’d been playing with the very successful band IF, and during a New York tour he had heard Phil Woods at the Village Vanguard, and for him this became the turning point. I had had the same sort of experience when, touring with Kokomo. I heard a wonderful trio in a hotel bar. We talked and Dick asked me how I felt about the music of Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, Cornell Dupree, The Jazz Crusaders, etcetera, and I just said “Yeah, I love it.”.


[Click here to listen to Kokomo playing Anytime with a guitar solo in the middle of the track. Kokomo returned to the Half Moon in Putney in 2014. Click here for a video of them singing I Can Understand It. Jim takes a great guitar solo at about 3.50 mins. They are playing the Komedia, Brighton - Wednesday 1st April and at The Band on the Wall - Manchester on Friday 3 April 2015].

“Around that time I owned my guitar and a suitcase. I was sleeping on the floor with a friend who had a house in Wimbledon, ready for demolition. I was thirty years old and I had nothing, and I seriously considered leaving music and going back to journalism. But we went to New York and made the album with The Average White Band for Embryo which was an Atlantic sub-label. The record was released and then withdrawn after six weeks, a few moments after it had gotten favorable reviews. That was a ‘wake up to reality’, yeah, lost in the shuffle. Dick went to Sweden,Jim Mullen Burns where he knew a girl, and I went back to London, but we got together again and formed a small band that kept going successfully through fifteen years. Dick was a very original saxophone player. Sadly, he died in 2000."

"I played sideman gigs until, a couple of years later, I put together a quartet together with Gareth Williams, Mick Hutton, and Gary Husband. We were together for a couple of years, but two years ago I ran into Mick and we agreed upon trying a reunion. You know, sometimes memory can play funny tricks, but in this case it was just like going on from the point where we had left ten years earlier. We got to record a couple of CD’s, of which BURNS sold fairly well…. I’ve received several awards, but most of them are just a diploma or a thing to put on the shelf. Recently I received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Scottish Jazz Federation, but the day they wanted to give it to me, I was scheduled to go into the studio with Incognito, a fusion band I’ve also been playing with, and I couldn’t afford to cancel that date, so I had to get a colleague from Edinburgh to go and accept it on my behalf. And, by the way, Incognito has an offspring, Citrus Sun, led by a very creative producer and guitarist, Jean Paul Mauninck, that plays a sort of smoother, more accessible jazz."

[Click here for a video of Citrus Sun playing Love Has Come Around a tribute to Donald Byrd]

" Since 2000 I also had my organ trio with Mike Gorman and Matt Skelton, and we’ve released half a dozen CD’s. And I play function gigs, where nobody listens, but the money is fine. You have to be pragmatic. You can’t pay many bills with the 50 pounds or so that you are paid for a jazz gig at a small café. But then, it’s often that sort of gig that keeps you alive, artistically. And for the rest of the year, well, my book is not packed, but there are several festival and club gigs ahead, so…it’s OK. And I love accompanying singers. I still play with Claire Martin, and Elaine Delmar Jim Mullen Catch My Driftcalls me whenever she can afford an extra man on a gig….”

We are about to pick up Brian Kellock and head for the first gig, tonight it is Toldkammeret in Helsingør, but before we do that, there is time for the inevitable question: Which guitar players (if any) are regularly in Jim Mullen’s CD player at his London home? “Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, and George Benson. Fantastic musicians, each of them has his own way of doing things. Wes didn’t use a plectrum, either. And among the slightly younger players I really appreciate Peter Bernstein.”

[The Jim Mullen Organ Trio album Catch My Drift was released in March 2014. Click here to sample it]

© Thorbjørn Sjøgren. Thorbjørn Sjøgren is a Danish writer who has worked as a music librarian from 1970 to 2008 and as a reviewer for the Berlingske Tidende (1988-1994) and politics (1994-2002). He has worked for Radio Jazz since its inception in 1987 and the magazine Jazz Special since its inception in 1992. He is a contributor to a number of encyclopedias and reference books. This article was first printed in Jazz Special magazine, issue 138 (April, 2014). Jazz Special has been released bi-monthly since 1992.

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