Blind jazz pianist of real talent
03 May 2002
Pete Jacobsen was "a brilliant and sensitive pianist, his musical powers frightened people", says the saxophonist and composer Tim Whitehead, his regular collaborator "and yet he was one of the most overlooked jazzmen in the country". The jazz writer Alun Morgan described him as "a most elegant soloist whose work has the kind of inner strength to be found in such departed jazz masters as Bill Evans and Al Haig".
Born in Newcastle, he was still a baby when a growth behind
the optic nerve deprived him of his sight. As an infant he began to
dabble with melody and harmony on piano, and a little later he started
seven years of specialist education at Worcester School for the Blind.
At 19 he headed south to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. Whereas hard bop and then "free" style had refreshed the jazz scene in the 1960s, it was the fusion of rock and jazz which was the new feature of the early 1970s. Pete Jacobsen's ears now soaked up everything around him, and he would remain the most open-minded and eclectic of performers. "He could work in any musical environment and knew all the standard songs," remembers the saxophonist Bobby Wellins. Blessed with absolutely perfect pitch and an astonishing memory, Jacobsen found his lack of sight no bar to making connections with other young modern-minded musicians emerging at the time.
He teamed up with Barbara Thompson, and subsequently worked with other leading saxophone exponents such as Don Weller and Chris Biscoe, with whom he recorded the album Chris Biscoe Sextet (1986). It was the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler who recommended Jacobsen for the piano chair with the Bobby Wellins Quartet. Commissioned in the 1970s to lead a big-band tribute to the recently departed Tubby Hayes, Wellins was keen for Jacobsen to be included. He assumed, however, that the complex written arrangements would be an insurmountable obstacle to a blind musician. "But he just went home, listened to the records, memorised them, and played everything perfectly."
The pianist also appeared on the Wellins albums Jubilation (1978), Dreams are Free (1979), and Birds of Brazil (1989). "He was almost too independent," remembers Wellins. "He resisted help, and once had to patiently explain to me that you never take a blind person by the arm, but by the shoulder.''
He moved briefly to the highly successful jazz-funk band led from the late Seventies by Dick Morrissey and Jim Mullen, and there were other varied and challenging collaborations with the likes of the guitarist Gary Boyle, the saxophonists Robin Kenyatta and Alan Skidmore and the bassist Eberhard Weber, as well as a tour with a quirky storyteller of the trombone the ex Charlie Mingus sideman Jimmy Knepper. He would also spend time working in more modest, low-profile venues. Based for many years in Southend, he was, in the bassist Roger Curphey's words, "an institution in Essex and in the East End of London . . . A gig with him was really something to look forward to, always a terrific experience." The singer Rio Roberts, too, talks fondly of:
"a feisty, sometimes prickly guy, who looked like one of the Blues Brothers . . . Despite his blindness he would occasionally travel by train, carting his keyboard and amplifier . . . Once he even fell out of the wrong side of a stationary train, and broke his ankle . . . but he was very stoic".
The bassist Simon Woolf remembers Jacobsen's dictum "I can't understand the meaning of boredom", while Chris Biscoe always admired his willingness to take musical risks.
Through the 1990s he worked with Tim Whitehead's quartet and trio (he's heard on two Whitehead albums, Authentic, 1991, and Silence Between Waves, 1994). He also played piano and synthesisers with the jazz- influenced Celtic band Carmina, and appears on three of their albums. In March this year they completed a two-week tour of Australia, and returned to another recording session over Easter in County Cork. Carmina's Pippa Marland adored Jacobsen's contributions "sensitive, original, and even deeply spiritual".
She was concerned, however, about his health. So was Whitehead, with whom the pianist took off on his final tour just a month ago, playing a series of trio gigs in rural arts centres around the country. His final gig was at Althorpe, Lincolnshire, on Sunday 14 April. Arriving back in London, the leader insisted upon making a doctor's appointment for his ailing pianist.
Whitehead feels anger about the fact that Jacobsen was comparatively overlooked by the jazz press, and sees "his years spent backing so many questionable singers in East End pubs" as a waste of a great talent. But others point out that, if Jacobsen's diary had a space, and he was offered a gig, then he'd take it. He had absorbed so much music from so many sources, and probably enjoyed using his unprecedented eclecticism in public. He was reticent about acknowledging his influences, but, says Tim Whitehead,
"He did like the two Hancocks, one of whom was Herbie. But sometimes, after a gig, he'd head off alone to his bachelor flat saying: I'll probably have a couple of beers and listen to a Tony Hancock tape."
His solo album Ever Onward (1994) is a delightful legacy.
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