What musicians like me learned from the pandemic

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

My mother died earlier this year aged 85. She left me her old pianola. These were popular in the 1920s and 1930s before people had records and hi-fis. You would put the rolls on the pianolas and they were cut by the great pianists of the day, from the popular players like Charlie Kunz, as well as the star jazz and rhythm pianists like Fats Waller or Jelly Roll Morton, and also the great concert pianists like Rubinstein. You would simply put the piano roll on and then pedal away.

The old war-damaged pianola had been left to her by her mother — and I learnt in my grandmother’s front room — so the old piano has lasted for three generations. Without that pianola, all the extraordinary things in my life would never have been possible. It seemed somehow meaningful that it came back to me when I was making a record of piano music with friends. A piano is one of the few things you can buy which might still be passed down several generations. It used to be in the 1950s that if you spent more on a fridge it would last you longer, or if you bought a Rolls-Royce it would keep going longer than an old Austin, but nowadays that’s no longer the case: everything is disposable, everything has built-in obsolescence and can be chucked away.

I am quite a positive person. The author and guru John Michell once said to me that some people think that if certain events happen then the future will be wonderful. Others will reflect on how there was once a golden age when everything was perfect. However, he advised me that paradise is now, the moment we are in. That’s always stuck with me and been my attitude — though it has been really tested over the past two years.

The pandemic put a pause on Later with Jools Holland, as we couldn’t have all the crew and artists in the same room. Alison Howe, who produces the show, brilliantly came up with the idea of doing a programme with archive footage and getting one guest in at a time. At first they had to appear via a video link, because we couldn’t be in the same room as them. Blur’s Damon Albarn said to me: ‘It’s great you’re celebrating the archive but the only reason you can look at the archive is because you’ve had all these extraordinary people in a room together and that’s what needs to start happening again.’ For the past few months guests have been coming in, which has been great. Now, we’ve got the Hootenanny to look forward to.

I recently went to the Queen’s Gallery to look at the royal collection. There are some lovely Flemish drawings. It isn’t too big a museum, so I could walk around without it feeling like it was a day’s work. I sketch a little bit but not very well. I especially like looking at landscape paintings as they take you to a different world with the transient atmosphere of sky, trees and fields. I look at paintings more than I look at the television.

One of my other pleasures is building model towns in my railway layout. If I’m on tour, I’ll pick up the odd thing for my collection. When we were in Germany, for instance, we went to this wonderful restaurant called ‘Fuck’. It was the most delicious food, we had a really fantastic lunch. Of course, it is very childish to find something like that so amusing, but regardless I took a few of their cards and have made a miniature Restaurant Fuck in my town layout. Creating miniature cityscapes and landscapes gives me the chance to listen to music properly without interruption. It’s my Zen. Some people go to their garages, some people might read a book, and I’ll probably do that sometimes as well, but making little model towns is my favourite different world to escape to where different problems need to be solved.

Because musicians couldn’t tour during the pandemic, it opened one or two doors that wouldn’t have normally been open, and we’ve had some real greats contributing to my latest record from afar. One of the people we approached was the Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang. The worlds we come from are completely different, but the technology meant he could go into his studio in Shanghai, record his part, and send it over. One of the tracks on the record is called ‘Morris Dance’, named after my border terrier, Morris, who dances when I play this boogie piece in the house.

Before Covid, musicians wanted to be in the same room. But the pandemic — awful as it was — made artists also realise that they wanted to work not just for money but because it is our nourishment. When we got the piece back from Lang Lang, I was really moved because I was just so pleased that we managed to make it work. Hearing his touch and my touch together: they are the complete opposites, but they were made for one another.

Last Christmas we couldn’t have anyone over. But I’m looking forward to this year’s, as I welcomed my first grandchild a few months ago. So this Christmas I’ll probably play chequebook grandpa and shower him on the day with lots of posh gifts, like fine cognac, first-growth clarets and Cuban cigars.

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