My best teacher

17th November 2000 at 00:00
The first teacher who made an impression on me was a Chinese woman, Mrs Lin, who taught me to play the recorder. That was at Wilberforce primary in Paddington, west London. She was good at noticing talent at an early age and she got me to read scores when I was very small. She played the piano and was open and warm-spirited in what was a tough inner-city area. It was Mrs Lin who recommended that I take up the clarinet when I went to secondary school.

That was Rutherford school in London's Edgware Road. It was another inner-city school and there weren't many instruments. But I had a good music teacher called Clive Davis who fought hard to get funding. There was a waiting list to play because there were so few instruments. It took me three years to persuade him I was serious about learning, but by then I had lost interest in the clarinet and wanted to play the saxophone. He made me play the clarinet anyway because the school had only two saxophones and both were taken.

Then one day one of the sax players didn't turn up and he let me have a go and I stuck with it. He was very good in that he encouraged us to perform. It was an all-boys' school but he used to invite the girls from the school over the road to perform with us. We did reggae songs with them in assembly. He was very clever in the way he linked what was going on in the community to his teaching. One week they were filming an episode of The Sweeney around the Edgware Road so he got hold of the music and we learned to play the theme.

I was lucky because my family then moved out to Kingsbury in Brent, north London, which was more affluent. Kingsbury school was a musical paradise after being in an inner-city school with little funding.

They had six saxophones, an orchestra and a stage band. We did Gilbert and Sullivan. I played the clarinet, sax, piano, and double bass in the orchestra. It was a real eye opener for me. It can make such a lot of difference if you live in the right place. If I had stayed in inner London I woldn't have had the same opportunities and I'd probably have become a DJ and be playing turntables now instead of the saxophone.

But the person who inspired me most at Kingsbury wasn't a music teacher at all but an English teacher, Clive Anderson. I was a very average student but he was incredibly progressive and he recognised what was going on in the education system over the denial of our Caribbean roots. So he allowed us to read Caribbean poetry in class. One day he brought in Beneath the Underdog, the autobiography of jazz musician Charlie Mingus, and read it to us. I was 15 and it changed my life. Mingus was of mixed race and Clive Anderson connected everything up for me - music and sociology and the world in which we live.

These days I do as many workshops with young people as I can, discussing music and creating it with them. Everybody can make music. I'm doing six workshops as part of the London Jazz Festival at schools in Hackney and south London. It's an attempt to reach out to youth who haven't had much musical opportunity. I'm going back and imparting the knowledge that I've built up over 20 years.

I don't believe in blinding people with science, I try to embrace what's happening on the street and combine that with my training as a jazz musician to create something that's relevant to people.

Musician Courtney Pine was talking to Nigel Williamson


1964 Born London

1986 Forms the Jazz Warriors

1988 Appears at the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday concert seen by a TV audience of millions

1996 Releases Modern Day Jazz Stories, combining modern jazz, rap and hip hop

2000 Presents Bands Apart on BBC2 and gets his own jazz show on Radio 2. Composes the music for the film, It Was An Accident, and releases the album Back In The Day.

The Racing Green London Jazz Festival runs until November 19.Courtney Pine plays London's Festival Hall tonight (November 17). He is the subject of ITV's The South Bank Show on November 19

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