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(Credit: Bent Rej / Far Out)

Music

Did John Lennon really hate jazz?

John Lennon was known for incendiary remarks. He claimed The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus”; he said The Beatles made George Martin, not the other way around; and he even had the nerve to take aim at jazz, the one form of music that gives pop a run for its money in terms of expression, adoration and dedication. “Jazz,” he said, “is just a lot of old blokes drinking beer at the bar, smoking pipes and not listening to the music.”

Well, that’s a bit much, isn’t it? Yes, and no: Lennon shot from the hip, and regularly said stuff he would contradict within minutes of saying it. Simply look at his interview with Jann Wenner, where he both reviles and adores Paul McCartney‘s work ethic. Or simply take a look at some of the interviews he gave in 1980, both espousing and criticising the virtues of getting older. And there are the remarks Lennon made about The Beatles producer George Martin, which he later retracted.

Guitarist George Harrison remarked that Lennon had a curious way of showing what he wanted a song to sound like. “Basically, most of John’s songs, like Paul’s, were written in the studio,” Harrison explained. “Ringo and me were there all the time. So as the songs were being written, they were being given ideas and structures, particularly by John. As you say, John had a flair for ‘feel.’ But he was very bad at knowing exactly what he wanted to get across.”

The guitarist continued, “He could play a song and say, ‘It goes like this.’ Then he’d play it again and ask, ‘How does that go?’ Then he’d play it again-totally differently! Also his rhythm was very fluid. He’d miss a beat, or maybe jump a beat…” Harrison conceded that Lennon was a bit of an “old blues guy”, which is interesting because it’s only a few shades away from jazz. But despite the above accusations, Lennon was partial to jazz proclivities himself, and regularly infused many of his songs in the field of jazz.

I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ works as a jazz number, laced with a samba beat, as does ‘Well, Well, Well’ heard on his thinly-produced debut album. Many of the tracks heard on Somewhere In New York City are soaked in the form of jazz, and it’s only through the inclusion of other musicians that the former Beatle could distance himself from the influence directly. He was genuinely interested in form, despite his assertions that it was the truth he was always after.

The Imagine album also holds some flavours of jazz. Just take a look ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier Mama’, bolstered by a barrelling drum beat, or simply listen to ‘Crippled Inside’, and tell us that he wasn’t somewhat influenced by the genre itself. Indeed, many of Ringo Starr’s drum patterns on the Plastic Ono Band album are jazz-oriented exhibitions of percussion excellence, so it’s only fair that his style of music soaked into the album as a whole.

The Beatles song written while John Lennon was sleeping

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Lest we forget that Lennon regularly knocked his own work, and came to hold Sgt.Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band with suspicion, especially as his work took on a more autobiographical edge. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, commonly pencilled as his finest work, was one he admitted to Martin that he would record all over again, and he later dismissed ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ as the expression of a man who couldn’t make up his mind about the importance of his work.

‘Eight Days A Week’ was another single he dismissed, feeling that it didn’t represent the integrity of his work, and he was loathed to admire any of the numbers from 1967, barring Harrison’s wistful ‘Within You Without You’.

What we must also remember is that this was a man who died at the heartbreakingly youthful age of 40, leaving a five-year-old son behind him, not forgetting the teenage son he had in Britain. Who knows how much Lennon might have grown, with his son to guide him into the virtues of fatherhood? Perhaps he might have re-appraised The Beatles’ work, as Harrison did when he saw the value of the work through the eyes of his child. And perhaps he might have enjoyed jazz, precisely because it was a very difficult form of music that he could never truly master.

All of which doesn’t bear thinking about. Lennon leaves an impressive body of work behind him, and although his solo work rarely matched the level of The Beatles- McCartney’s solo work was much more inventive – he did make his mark with a strong debut album, and a collection of tidy singles released shortly after. And no matter how he viewed jazz, jazz musicians were happy to reinterpret Lennon’s work as if they were playing it for the first time. ‘Dear Prudence’ lends itself nicely to jazz, as is evident by Al Di Meola’s makeover of the song.

Stream the jazz cover of ‘Dear Prudence’ below.