From blues to funerals to podcasts: SE London jazz legend Billy Jenkins

Billy Jenkins
Billy Jenkins: Not just a mean bowls player

As a Easter special, 853‘s special correspondent and turf investment adviser MERCURY MAN introduces a man who has written a protest album about Bromley, played bowls in Brockley, sent his love to Lewisham and made a jazz piece about the Greenwich one-way system. And now you can hear him in his own podcast…

Mercury Man logoAll/some/a few/one or two of us remember where we were when moments of history poked us in the eye.

I remember being in the playground at Forster Park primary school the morning after the Munich air crash.

I’m a biz hazy on Kennedy, to be honest. Think I must have been in transit and saw it on the telly when I got home to MM Mansions in Catford.

Twenty years from now, I suppose, people will be wondering where they were for President Trump’s first coherent thought.

Assuming it happens, of course.

But one that does stick out for me was 9/11. I was playing a challenge bowls match against the unique Billy Jenkins at the Francis Drake club up on Hilly Fields.

We’d been in touch for some time through the column in the Merc (what’s happened to that, by the way, is it still going?), but it was the first time I met the blues guitarist/singer/songwriter/bandleader correctly hailed by the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD as “a national treasure”.

He’s that all right and more. I went on to get right into his music and right into his bowls team. I had special dispensation to wear the hat and – (This is about Billy, not you! – Ed).

Meridian Estate miscreants

A mate of mine who called himself Flickering Light even made a film – Ain’t Going Yet – for the bowls club’s 100th birthday and Billy provided the music free of charge, including the title song (“I’ve still got my teeth/ grey matter underneath/ so hold that funeral wreath/ ain’t going yet”).

I’ll have to leave it to you to sweep up Billy’s extensive oeuvre (Not bad – Ed), but let me throw out I Am A Man From Lewisham, Suburbia and the wonderful kids-led song, Pointless Adornments.

The very latest on YouTube concerns memories of Greenwich, featuring some miscreants on the Meridian Estate and his time at Wood Wharf, entitled If Only They’d Learned To Play Music.

But what I want to know (Oh, an angle at last – Ed) is why Billy is NOT playing live any more?

A few years back he was simply magnificent at Lewisham People’s Day, where he climbed the king pole rope while playing a majestic solo, and there’s a wonderful DVD from 2003/4, Blues Al Fresco, available no doubt online.

I’ve heard he’s doing something called a podcast, which I took to be something to mend a broken foot, but apparently it’s some form of communication.

So…if I can contact him, I’m handing the rest of this malarkey over to the one and only… Billy, Billy, where are you..?

Billy Jenkins
Billy Jenkins has been featured on BBC Radio 3

Sport and art

Shhh… Mercman. Lovely to hear from you, but keep the noise down!

But to answer your question, I couldn’t keep playing live!

Having always aligned with the Ancient Greek concept of sport and art being two peas in the same pod, the mere challenge of making enough to make ends meet with one’s music is a competitive sport in itself!

Throw in my edict “the true improviser should only perform once” and various minor but chronic physical and mental issues down the decades, it also seems right and proper that musicians should return to silence once they’ve peaked.

You tell me one jazz musician who has continued to advance their creativity into their Third Age!? All return to the past – thus consigning the art of improvisation to that of classical music. I will never sully the art of spontaneity…

So, burnt out (again, again) after a life spent on and off the road, in 2007, I took to creating and conducting bespoke humanist funerals around our beloved SE London patch.

Much like doing a gig, really. I’d begin pontificating out front and everyone would burst into tears.

Word-perfect in Eltham crematorium

Anyway, going one step on from the blues and the challenges and honour of working with bereaved families for seven intense years left me somewhat griefed out.

I had quickly realised I couldn’t be bombing back down the M1 in the early hours having performed such irreverent pieces like I Hate Dogs or Pissed Off Boy, then be word-perfect and emphatically in tune in Eltham crematorium chapel at 9.30am the next morning.

There was a slight financial advantage to juggling the two mediums.

“Do you know,” I said to my producer Charlie Hart. “That 2010 recording Jazz Gives Me the Blues took 26 funerals to pay for?”.

“No, Billy,” responded Mr Hart with impeccable timing, “What you’re really saying is that 26 people had to die just so you could make an album.”.

I decided to stop performing live following a glorious concert on the South Bank in November 2010, fronting the BBC Big Band with my music arranged by one of my wonderful saxophonists, Iain Ballamy, later broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

So there, there I was, with a hypersensitivity to sound, no one paying for recorded music anymore and wondering what the heck to do.

Then the phone rings.

Billy Jenkins and Beowulf Mayfield
Billy Jenkins and Beowulf Mayfield set the world to rights

Painting musicians in light

It was an old music business buddy Beowulf Mayfield – a former jazz reviewer, performance poet, journalist and creative photographer (he even uses a pinhole camera sometimes, Mercman, the sort of gadget you may well be familiar with?).

Beowulf had this idea to ‘paint musicians in light’. So I readily posed for him.

And then he started putting extracts of my recorded oeuvre (oh, that hurts…) into lovely little YouTube films, what he called ‘music snaps’. And then he said: “Have you ever thought about doing a podcast?”

“Don’t be daft,” I thought.

“Look, you’re currently silent, but a podcast will be able to let your loyal listeners hear the contemporary Billy, whilst revisiting some of your critically acclaimed, massive archive of recorded work. And, perhaps, gain some new listeners!”

Modesty eventually saw sense and now, we’ve completed two series of the Billy Jenkins Listening Club, with a third one in the can.

And Beowulf, being the great photographer he is, made sure he captured each episode visually.

It’s become a living aural autobiography – which makes total sense for someone who’s scraped sound out of silence all their life. Presented by Beowulf, some of the episodes feature personal acquaintances and creative collaborators from the last four decades.

Mercury Man logoI do hope, Mercman, as you’re one who truly appreciates people who make music created from hand, heart and mind, that you find The Listening Club episodes just like one of my past live performances – foot-tapping, thought-provoking fun for all the family.

You can reach the Billy Jenkins Listening Club via billyjenkins.com. It’s also available via iTunes. See more on Twitter: @BJListeningClub.

Got a story or a tip for Mercury Man? Drop him a line at mercuryman.853[at]gmail.com or leave a comment below.

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