A date with...Jools Holland
Over the last twenty years, for his BBC show, Jools Holland has met just about every artist that matters. With his own band he only plays the music he is crazy about himself. “When you’re young, you still worry. What if I do this? Or that? Now I just enjoy it.”
On last year’s best-of album, Finding the Keys, Jools Holland (54) looked back at the music he had recorded since 1987 with his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. The guests included Solomon Burke, Eric Clapton, Tom Jones, David Gray, Richard Hawley, and Dr John. But that was just a fraction of the constellation of stars who have linked up with that famous left hand, with which Holland not only embroiders on melodies, but can lay down a rhythm as only very few pianists can do. Everyone seems to want to play with him, just as everyone wants to be on his programme. The keys to his career as a pianist, bandleader, host, and beloved entertainer are to be found in his childhood in Deptford, a working-class suburb of London.
I spotted you for the first time on the sleeve of a vinyl single by Squeeze, the band you helped shape at the age of fifteen. I saw a young guy with his hands in his pockets, his mouth wide open, roaring with laughter – we’re talking 1980. What’s left of that youngster?
Jools Holland: My God, that’s 32 years ago. But I haven’t changed, you know. A friend said to me recently: actually, in your thoughts you’re always that 18-year-old guy. That feeling doesn’t change. He was right. Physically, you get older alright, with all the inconveniences that come with that. But you don’t change mentally. Occasionally I think about what I would say if I had to give advice now to the young Jools, and above all I would advise him not to worry, because that gets you nowhere. What has to happen will happen, after all. Over the years I have also learned to be a bit friendlier and more forgiving.
(Jools Holland and Tom Jones)
These days we mainly see you as the affable host of the BBC music show Later… with Jools Holland, but that high-spirited smile seems to have been replaced by a somewhat sardonic grin, which is seen as characterising you.
Holland: I’m conscious of that and I’m often reminded of it. You can choose your friends, but not your own face. [laughs] But apart from that: humour has always come in useful. I have always been able to come up with something funny, even when I was young. It’s definitely one of my best qualities.
You seem to be able to get on well with everyone, whatever their background, whether they’re used to Buckingham Palace or the gutter.
Holland: Well, that’s a very good way of putting it. The palace, the gutter, and everything in between. I’ve always been good at finding a shared interest. That helps. It could be music, but it could just as easily be good paintings, or architecture, or agriculture. Age and origins don’t matter any more, then.
Did your working-class background influence the way you interact with the artists in your show, with your musicians, and with people in general?
Holland: I think so. You know, my grandmother used to have a fruit and vegetable shop. I can still see the barrow with vegetables, which used to stand before her stall, clearly. The customers used to enjoy that, and they enjoyed my grandmother too, because, whether it was rich old ladies looking for strawberries or poor housewives buying potatoes, she had a friendly word for everyone. I probably picked that up as a little boy, because I could see the results: people took a liking to her, the shop did well, and she had fun.
You spent your youth in a working-class district in a London suburb, but there was a piano in the front room. That indicates a love of the arts.
Holland: Yes, my parents liked visiting museums and they listened to jazz and classical music. But for my grandparents’ generation – I’m talking about London before the War – it wasn’t unusual to have a piano in the front room. There were more pianos than cars in London back then. Besides a display cabinet with a china service, a piano like that was the only “luxury”. Nowadays people buy large flat-screens, but that piano was much more social. On Sunday afternoon or on days off, guests were welcomed in the piano room.
It is becoming clearer and clearer to us why you later excelled as both a pianist and as a host. It was in that room, wasn’t it, that you learned to play the piano, by ear?
Holland: Yes. My uncle, a truck-driver who was also a musician, as a hobby, and my mother used to play boogie-woogie there. They were of the same generation as the British blues bands, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. I was eight, and it was the most exciting thing I had ever heard. When I heard my uncle play those piano songs, the chaos in my head was suddenly given a structure. I immediately saw the rest of my life in front of me: keeping on learning to play the piano better. And I’m still at it. Just before I rang you, as it happens, I was trying out something on the piano.
(© Mary McCartney)
Was that obsession necessary?
Holland: Yes, I think it is important for anyone who plays an instrument, even for anyone who wants to tackle anything successfully. Persevering obsessively in something has taken on a negative connotation, but for me it doesn’t have that, as that obsession arises naturally from a genuine love of my instrument. You have to be crazy about what you play and play what you’re crazy about. Otherwise you can’t expect the audience to be enthusiastic and to listen.
Can you bring that same enthusiasm to the BBC programme that has borne your name for some twenty years now?
Holland: Certainly during the recordings, but Later… is a complicated business. I leave the line-up to the producer. My life is busy enough already, what with running a big band and touring. A show like that has to offer the ideal mix: one famous artist, one newcomer, one legend from the past, and so on – and, as well as pop and rock, some folk too and reggae and world. But you’re always dependent, of course, on who is on tour and is available. I’m amazed myself that it has lasted so long. There are hardly any TV shows that last five years, never mind ten, fifteen, or twenty years. And certainly no music programmes.
Before heading off on a lengthy tour around England, you’re coming to play at the Ancienne Belqique. More than ever, your life is dominated by live performance.
Holland: I’ve got used to it; and the older I get, the more I enjoy it. Eric Clapton, Tom Jones, and other even older musicians all tell me the same thing: the older they get, the hungrier they are for the stage. It’s like I said a little earlier, when you’re young, you still worry. What if I do this? Or that? When you’re a bit older, you just enjoy it.