Cavities in the teeth occur for good reason, Eigenvalue reflected. But even if there are several per tooth, there’s no conscious organisation there against the life of the pulp, no conspiracy. Yet we have men like Stencil, who must go about grouping the world’s random caries into cabals.
Thomas Pynchon – V
I can’t remember exactly the first time I heard of Black Classical. He’d always been a myth in the shady world of record collectors. However, I do recall a visit to Manchester in late 1992. At that time I was trying to get hold of a copy of Billy Parker’s Fourth World – Freedom of Speech. I had already scoured all the record shops in West Yorkshire, but then a friend in Manchester told me he had spotted a copy in a second-hand record shop, not far from Afflecks’ Palace.
I walked out of Piccadilly Station into one of those drizzling, grey Manchester mornings. The city was full of the usual hustle and bustle. Mostly hustle. I had hardly gone fifty paces before some smack head tried to sell me some MDMA. He was the spitting image of Sean Ryder from the Happy Mondays. I declined and walked down Newton Street with his curses still ringing in my ears. It only occurred to me later that perhaps it really was Sean Ryder.
After wandering down a number of run-down streets, where graffiti covered every available surface and some that weren’t available, I found the pokey looking record shop, nestled between a sex emporium and a kebab house. The front window was a sticky mess of city grime and what looked like yellow curry. Although, it could have just as easily been vomit. The door was open, so I walked in. Immediately my nose was assailed by a smell of mildew, sweat and cigarettes. This is the lot of the obsessive record collector, I thought. But without considering this premise for too long, I got digging into the rows of plastic boxes that lined the walls.
I spent a fruitless two hours scouring through the boxes and found neither the Billy Parker’s Fourth World album, or anything else of note. However, the shop appeared to house a treasure trove of James Last albums. I was tempted by a mint copy of Tricks in Rhythm which was probably worth a bundle, but I would never have forgiven myself if I’d have bought it. Principle, at the end of the day, is worth more than money. I approached the counter where an obese man in a Smiths teeshirt was sitting reading a Spiderman comic. The Reprehensible Riddle of the Sorcerer, if I remember correctly. It took some time for him to raise his eyes off the comic, despite the few subtle coughs I made.
I asked about the Billy Parker’s Fourth World album; whether he still had it. Loathed to engage with me, he shrugged and went back to his comic. I asked again.
Eventually he responded in thick Bolton accent. “Sorry mate, I shifted that and a boatload of seventies jazz shit to a geezer, ’bout half n’ hour ago. He took eight Strata LPs n’all.”
“You mean Strata-East albums?” I asked.
“No these were Strata,” the man said.
“Holy mother of God, those must worth a fortune, they only ever released ten albums!”
“You’re shitting me,” the man said, “he had those off me for thirty squid.”
I felt deflated. If I had taken an earlier train, that might have been me walking out the door with a big smile on my face and some rare vinyl in my hand.
“Was this guy who took the jazz LPs a dealer?” I asked.
“Nah, I don’t reckon he were,” the man said, “he only looked about twenty.”
Fuck, I thought, gazumped by a bloody student or something. Just my luck. I looked at my watch, it was quarter past one. Time to get moving. Grab a bite to eat, then back to Leeds.
As I was about to leave the man spoke again. “He were dressed a bit rum, lad who bought LPs.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It looked like he were wearing one of them monk’s habits.”
“Was he one of those TM blokes?” I asked.
“Nah, the gear were all black.”
“Black you say. Interesting. Anyway, I’ll be off then,” I said, and turned heel.
I was about to leave, but then it occurred to me that the man might have an address for the monk. Perhaps, he was from a charity or Carmelite Brothers or something and didn’t realise the value of what he’d bought. He was just getting stuff for a bring and buy sale. That was probably it. Maybe I could buy the Strata albums back off him for fifty or something. Give him a little bit of a profit.
I turned back to the counter. “Did the monk leave a contact number or anything. Name of monastery perhaps?”
The man shook his head. “No, nothing like that.”
“Did you get a name?”
The man looked amused. “Now here’s a thing,” he said, “he said his name were ‘Black Classical’.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Black Classical?”
The man nodded. “Yup, that’s it.”
“That’s not a proper name.”
The man shrugged. “It’s what he said.”
“What’d he look like?” I asked.
“Hard to say, he were wearing shades under his cowl.”
“Was he actually black then?”
The man shrugged again. “Might have been.”
I shook my head. “You don’t really know much do you.”
“You learn to forget faces quickly in this business,” he said, “if a lad from Moss Side comes with a box of 12” hip-hop singles, you give them the money, no questions asked.”
“Was he from Moss Side then?” I asked.
“I’m not saying he were, I’m not saying he weren’t.”
With that the man looked down at his comic, signalling our conversation was at an end.
A couple of years later, in 1994, I was digging through the albums on a second-hand record stall on Bury Market. In the past I had been to this stall before and found some gems. But today the stall was bereft of any jazz whatsoever. Not even an Acker Bilk: Stranger on the Shore reissue, or a Kenny Ball Best of, for that matter. I asked the guy who ran the stall, Jeff I think his name was, if he had any jazz under the counter.
“Sorry sir,” he said, “I just sold all the jazz LPs as a job lot to another young gentleman.”
Another wasted journey I thought. I scowled at my boots. The man could see I was disappointed. But added to my distress by saying.
“Pity you didn’t come earlier, I had twenty Flying Dutchman albums in pristine condition. Lonnie Liston Smith, Gil Scot-Heron, you name it I had it. Picked them up at a house clearence in Colne. Belonged to a biker lad who crashed his Honda up in Dales. Wife wanted rid.”
If I had been holding a knife at that moment, I would probably have slit both my wrists. The utter devastation I felt must have been written across my face in bold letters.
The man shrugged. “Sorry.”
He looked away in embarrassment and started whistling a Rod Stewart tune. But all of a sudden, stopped and pointed down the aisle.
“Look that’s bloke what bought the albums, down by the black pudding stall.”
I looked toward where he stared and caught a glimpse of a man wearing a black hooded sweatshirt carrying a record case. He’d obviously just bought a black pudding and was now walking off down the aisle. I took off quickly, scattering old ladies behind me, like blades of grass from a mower. By the time I reached the end of the aisle, the man in the hoodie had disappeared out the door. I walked outside onto Minden Parade, but he had vanished into thin air along with a boxful of very desirable vinyl. I walked back into the market and returned to the record stall.
“The guy who bought the albums,” I asked, “was his name Black Classical?”
“I dunno,” the man said, “I think he said his name was Eamon or something. He said it were an Egyptian name. Sounds Irish to me. But he were wearing on of them ankh thingies around his neck.”
There was nothing to gain from staying any longer, so I walked back to my car. As I drove back to Leeds, I Slipped a Stanley Turrentine tape into the cassette player. As Stanley played Flipped Out, I thought about the man in the black hoodie. Probably, home by now, gloating over his spoils. I was sure it was Black Classical again. Once more he’d got the worm, so to speak. As I came of the M62 slip road into Leeds I thought about the name he’d given to the trader on Bury market. Eamon he said, but that is definitely Irish not Egyptian. Then it clicked. He must have said Amun. If I remember rightly, I thought, Amun was the god of mystery, who eventually became Amun-Ra. How appropriate for Black Classical, he’s becoming a mystery wrapped up in a myth.
Gradually as the years passed and my record collecting days slowed down; I completely forgot about my nemesis Black Classical. Over twenty years passed before I heard the name Black Classical again. By that time I had given up being a live DJ and concentrated on making mixtapes for friends and lovers. Then in 2012 I started putting my mixes on line, with no agenda other than to share my love of jazz with the Internet community. Yeah right! Anyway, quite by accident one day, as I was trawling the Internet, I came across a mix by Black Classical. To be honest I was shocked. I had begun to believe that I had imagined him. But here staring me in the face was a fucking 12 hour: Doctrine – History Of Spiritual Jazz 1955-2012.
I looked down the track-list. There were plenty tracks off the albums that were rightly mine. Okay, so I’d managed to get some over the years, but it still hurt. I downloaded the mix and started to listen, but it was just too painful, listening to the music the motherfucker had stolen from me. I thought of him sat in his room, a glass of single malt in his hand, listening to his undoubtedly high-end stereo system, as some obscure private-press album spun a plaintive riff around his head. I stopped listening. For Christ’s sake who creates a 12 hour mix anyway – no one but a obsessive Amun-Ra worshipper. More to the point, who listens to a 12 hour mix? To be honest – no one. You may think my opinion is governed by bitterness. Maybe it is. For God’s sake, the man must have a warehouse full of bloody spiritual jazz. The combined vibe of all that vinyl karma must be enough to levitate the man into another dimension. Therein lays the rub, is Black Classical a real person or a celestial being?
I banished the 12 hour mix, to the farther reaches of my hard disk and forgot about it. But then, several month later, one of my Twitter compatriots sent me a link. Low and behold it was Black Classical’s History of Spiritual Jazz, popping up again like an unwelcome guest. By some extraordinary trick of the mind, a wilful amnesia, I had forgotten I had even downloaded it in the first place. So, I downloaded it a second time, throwing my hard disk into dharma meltdown. I stared at my monitor for some time, the file seemed to be mocking me. But after much soul searching, I decided I would give the mix more of a chance. I would banish bitterness to the back-burner. I clicked on the file and bussed the sound through my monitor speakers. Laying back on my couch, I slowly let the music wash over me. I managed three and a half hours this time, before I cracked. And I grudgingly had to admit that I quite enjoyed what I heard. But as they say, every action has a reaction and in my case an unusual one. I had an overwhelming urge to seek some form of confession; even though I am, to all intents and purposes, an agnostic. With a feverish fervour, I set about looking for solution to my spiritual malaise. After leafing through the Yellow pages for half an hour, I found what I needed, an address for The Unidimensional Holiness Church of Miles Platting. It was a fifty minute drive from Leeds, but all that spiritualness had left me needing an outlet. Why I chose Miles Platting, God only knows!
Miles Platting was nothing like I had imagined. Perhaps it had been nice once, before the bulldozers came and took away the past. Now it seemed like a desolate wasteland; a social housing experiment gone wrong. I drove around for half an hour trying to get my bearings. At one point the car was chased by a pack of feral pitbulls intent on chewing off the door handles. I imagined they were all called Tyson or Razor or Nitro or Bullet or Steel or Cujo or Chaos or Diablo or Anubis or some-such. I rolled up the window, just in case they were unfed. My day out was turning into a bad Steven King novel. Five minutes later, I regretted my decision to come to Miles Platting even more, when a primary school lad bounced a half brick off my windscreen, then ran off laughing. To add to my sense of foreboding, a sudden drizzle set in, reducing the visibility and steaming up the inside windows.
I stopped to consult the map. As my eyes were lowered to the page, there was a huge thump which shook the car. I looked up startled, expecting to see a gang of malevolent five year olds. I checked the rearview and saw nothing. When I stared out the windscreen, I could scarcely believe what I saw. Laid on the bonnet was a frog; a British pool frog to be exact. It was clearly dead. I looked around, I was parked away from buildings and overhanging trees. So there was little chance it had hopped onto my bonnet from a structure of any form. The only explanation was that it had fallen from the sky. It seemed a strange portent.
Ten minutes later, frog removed, I found The Unidimensional Holiness Church of Miles Platting. Or rather the Majestic Theatre. It looked dilapidated. It rose out of the stoney rubbish like a broken tooth. Its distinctive pyramid-like outline oddly of place in the landscape of brutalist modern structures. I parked the car on a side street and walked to the front of the building. The doors handles were locked with a rusting padlock and chain. I began to question the impulse that brought me here in the first place. Was it some temporary insanity brought on by Black Classical’s Spiritual jazz? Did the music contain a back-masked message that led me here? I felt distinctly uncomfortable, as I walked down the side of the building. Towards the back of the theatre I found another door. Above the door in faded art nouveau lettering were the words: Artists Entrance. I tried the door; it was locked. I noticed there was a bell button set into the door frame.
So, without much hope of response, I pressed it. I heard nothing. I put my ear to the door and pressed again. This time I heard a muffled sound like a chime from an underwater cathedral, followed by the distinct sound of footsteps. I stood back and the door was flung open.
A tall black man in a polyester suit stood at the entrance. He looked at me quizzically.
“Yes son, can I help you?” The man asked.
“Is this the Unidimensional Holiness Church?”
“Yes, it is.”
“And you are?”
“I am the Reverend Kwesi Godson,” the man replied.
“I’ve come from Leeds.”
The man shrugged. “Pilgrims come from many places.”
“A frog fell from the sky,” I said.
The man nodded. “And the frogs shall come up both on thee and upon thy people and upon all thy servants. That’s Exodus 8:4.”
“Can you take my confession?” I asked.
“Sure son, come in.”
The Reverend Godson led me down a badly lit corridor and stopped in front of a stained oak panelled door. An etched brass plate on the door indicated that this had once been the theatre green room. He opened the door and walked in. I followed. Inside there were a couple of easy chairs, a formica table and not much else. The man motioned me to sit down. After sitting, I noticed that a large cook pot was steaming away on a camping stove in a corner. From the smell, I guessed Godson was making peanut stew.
“Now son,” Godson said, “as I’m exercising confession, I’m solemnly bound to observe secrecy concerning all thing which is confessed before me.”
I nodded. “That’s reassuring.”
“Do you mind if I put on some music?” he asked.
“I find it relaxes the penitent.”
“Are you doing my confession in here?” I asked
“Yes, you have no objections?”
“No, I just thought we were supposed to be in a box, or something.”
“That’s catholics, we be sort of Baptist.”
“I’m not a Baptist.”
“No problem son, we are always here to help troubled souls.”
Godson walked to the table and opened a battered old Dell laptop. From where I sat I could see he was launching iTunes. A moment later music spilled from the laptop’s tinny speaker. I recognized the tune, but could not place it.
“I hoped you like jazz?” Godson said, as he sat down opposite me.
“Yes, of course. I recognize the tune, what is it?
“It’s called Music is Nothing but a Prayer. Appropriate, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“Would you like to confess now?”
I nodded. “I guess so.”
“Go ahead son.”
“I want to confess to envy and avarice.”
“I have collected vinyl albums for many years and it became something of an obsession. Specifically I collect jazz from the sixties and seventies. A number of years ago I discovered that another collector, who I won’t name, was at work and had similar interests to my own. This collector, on many occasions, managed get to shops and record fairs before me and buy up the best stuff. I felt, in some ways, those albums were rightly mine. Just recently I heard a mix he had compiled and I felt feelings of jealousy re-emerging that I presumed were dead years ago. It sounds mad, but I can’t help thinking of him in some climate-controlled warehouse surrounded by rare and desirable jazz albums. A smug grin on his face.
Although, in my fantasy, he doesn’t really have a face, just a grinning mask. Like bloody Janus, or King Tut, or something. In my mind’s eye, he seems thoughtful as if he’s planning his next foray into the vinyl rainforest. Like some Victorian butterfly collector searching for a Palos Verdes Blue. I believe with all my heart, he’s stealing what’s rightfully mine. He’s like a latter-day Citizen Kane, searching for his missing Rosebud. And I don’t mean the Cannonball Adderley track. He’s probably got that anyway; on a rare signed original pressing. I mean Rosebud in a metaphorical sense; the rare album he craves above all else. But, do you know what? I want to buy his sodding Rosebud before he gets there and turn it into a fucking vinyl ashtray.”
Godson shook his head. “You seem to have a lot of pent-up anger son, don’t be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.”
I nodded. “Rant over, I’m calm now, sort of.”
Godson stared into my eyes. “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourself.”
I nodded. “I understand, I think.”
“If you want absolution son, you must find it yourself. God sent you here for a reason. You are on a pilgrimage to find yourself. I have a suggestion. Find this man whose albums you covert and you will see he is but a man like yourself. At the moment, he is merely a cypher to you. Peace comes of communication. Your mental environment has become compromised by thoughts of greed. You must realize that music is not a commodity to buy and sell. The medium is not the message. So go forth with love in your heart and seek out your rival.”
I sat back in the chair considering his words. Yes he was right, I should seek out Black Classical and perhaps such a pilgrimage would cleanse my soul of its dark passenger. As I sat considering this proposition, I noticed the laptop was now playing Prince of Peace by Pharoah Sanders. Something began to occur to me, all the music seemed familiar to me, very familiar.
“This music mix you are playing,” I asked, “what is it?”
Godson smiled. “All this music is jazz of a spiritual nature.”
I nodded. “Yes I realized that. Do you collect jazz?”
Godson shook his head. “No son, I downloaded this off the internet. It’s a history of spiritual jazz by man called Black Classical.”
I rose from my chair, shook hands with Godson and walked out. As I walked back to the car, I looked up to the grey clouds. If there is a God, I thought, he is surely mocking me.
Text Copyright Tony Todd 2013. Please note that although Black Classical does exist – this is a work of fiction. His 12 hour History Of Spiritual Jazz 1955-2012 can be found at: http://archive.org/details/BlackClassicalSpiritualJazz19552012 amongst other places. I love it and I can only say that the protagonist of my story is undoubtedly a little crazy. Personally I am not jealous of the hoard of rare vinyl in his climate controlled Custerdome. Honest I’m not! I too dabble in the DJ malarky and can be found at:http://www.mixcloud.com/tony-todd/