An Interview with Courtney Pine

No musician more embodies the dramatic transformation in the British jazz scene over the past thirty years than saxophonist Courtney Pine.

A groundbreaking multi-instrumentalist; in the 80’s he was one of the first black British jazz artists to make a serious mark on the jazz scene, with his first album “Journey To The Urge Within” – and some 30 years on (now with an OBE and CBE for services to music), he continues to break new ground with a string of highly-acclaimed recordings and numerous prestigious industry awards. His album “Modern Day Jazz Stories” was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2000 and he was the recipient of the Gold Badge award in 2002.

He has released 16 studio albums to date and continues to tour worldwide with his award-winning band, playing clubs, concert halls and festivals from Glastonbury to Fuji Rock, Montreux to Cape Town.

The team at mjf were privileged to sit down with Pine and learn a little more about his influences, career highlights (of which there are many) and most importantly, what Manchester audiences can expect from his gig with us this year at #mjf2024. 

1.) What we love about your work is that you seamlessly blend reggae & hip-hop with classical jazz. Could you speak a little about what lies behind this and influences you in this musical
choice? Seamlessly blending music from different parts of the world is very difficult but I found that the roots of all these different styles are African. My study of African music made it easier to blend rhythm, harmony and melodies and perform these style in a personally satisfying way.

2.) What can audiences look forward to from your performance at manchester jazz festival (mjf)? Are there any special arrangements, repertoire choices, collaborative teams etc.? And, what can fans expect as part of your 60th celebration release of ‘House of Legends’? I have found Manchester audiences to be very open and understanding of what I have been pursuing musically over the years. Improvisation is core to my performances and this project, ‘House of Legends’, reflects our cultures ever evolving diversity in sound.

3.) As one of the first black British jazz artists to make a serious mark on the genre following the release of your debut album Journey to the Urge Within, how do you feel things have changed for up-and-coming young black artists and musicians within the jazz world and has it changed for the better? I believe that the musical environment has changed and I do remember as a sixteen year old being advised not to pursue and career through the university route as black people like me were wasting time going in this direction. I believe from the evidence of the many positive diverse British jazz musicians that we have now that their experiences in higher learning has helped them, and us, as supporters of UK Jazz Music. 

4.) Reflecting back on your career to date, what have been some of your top highlights? I have far to many highlights and most of them are about achieving more than what was expected of me and my choice to perform improvised music. Meeting my heroes; Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, Ernest Ranglin, Monty Alexander, Grace Jones, Manu Dibango, Donald Byrd and many others has enriched my quest for knowledge. Performing in Jamaica, South Africa, Brazil and Japan. Recording with artists as diverse as Bob Marley, Brian Ferry, Kate Bush, Paul Young, Soul II Soul and Alan Parker – the list can go on, but I do realise that signing to Island Records for 7 years and still making music to date is also a big highlight.

5.) Is it true you practice 8 hours a day, every day? No, the truth is that I don’t practise enough! 8 hours is not enough! Jazz music is such deep water and when I think about the humans that have created this legacy, there’s not enough hours in the day but still I try to research, apply and develop myself as a positive musician. 

6.) Here at mjf, we champion the very best homegrown, up and coming contemporary jazz artists. We’d love to know what you see are the current opportunities and challenges in the music industry for new artists? Do you have any good advice for the younger generation who are pursuing a career as a professional jazz musician?I believe that artists, especially, in the United Kingdom, have in this day and age the opportunity to reflect who we are and make a positive artistic statement without prejudice. Technology, our society blended together under the improvisers muse, can make for a very unique sound. I have found that when music reflects life, then life will reflect music.

Courtney Pine will close the manchester jazz festival, 2024, with a very special concert, marking his 60th birthday with a special edition of his award winning-project ‘House of Legends’. Band on the Wall, main stage, Sunday 26th May, 8PM, £28. Click the link here to purchase tickets.