Nik Turner: Bringing the Music to the People
Nik Turner is perhaps best known as the founding saxophonist and flautist for pioneering "space rock" band Hawkwind. As well as contributing to the profound influence that this band has had on rock and punk with its focus on community and grassroots movementsincluding its many benefit shows and long-standing support of England's free festivals, Turner may also be the first saxophonist to effectively bring free jazz to rock music.
Independent of his work with Hawkwind, Turner has an extensive performance history with his own bands such as Sphynx, Inner City Unit and Space Ritual, and has performed and recorded with such artists as Farflung, the Stranglers, and Sting.
All About Jazz: What influenced you to start playing music?
Nik Turner: I grew up on jazz. Rather, my mother played the piano. She played sort of the stride piano. One of my uncles played clarinet, although I never really heard him very much. One of the first records I bought was "12th Street Rag" by Pee Wee Hunt. I was sort of subjected to a lot of jazzBillie Holiday and stuff like that. My aunt used to sing like Billie Holiday [laughs]. We used to take turns at Christmas. I remember singing some sort of songs when I was about six. I grew up in a jazzy sort of environment. My mother liked jazz. She was a fan of Oscar Peterson and Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, people like that.
For myself, I was very interested in the clarinet at first. There was a guy called Sid Phillips who was a British jazz clarinetist, and I seem to remember hearing him. I really got into traditional jazz, what they call Dixieland jazz. One of my first influences regarding the saxophone was hearing Earl Bostic playing "Flamingo." I heard it in a jukebox. I used to hang out in a sort of juke joint on my way home from school and they used to have all of the latest records in there. This is like in the '50s, probably about 1956 or '55. I thought it was fantastic. It just really made an impression on me.
Around that time, I can't remember exactly when, I got into Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Stan Getz. I got interested then in learning to play, initially, the clarinet. I liked traditional jazz a lot. Friends of mine played in trad jazz bands and I used to listen to it a lot. It was quite popular in Britain at the time. There was a guy living up the street from me who was a band master for the Marine band. He taught woodwind instruments and I got a clarinet and had some lessons from him when I was about 17. I used to go to him every week and I learned a few scales. He showed me how to read music a bit.
Having been influenced as well listening to saxophone a lot, I really wanted to get a saxophone. Initially I bought a tenor sax from him, and he said, "Well, if you learn to play the saxophone you must continue to play your clarinet." I said, "Okay," but of course I didn't [laughter]. As soon as I got the saxophone I sort of abandoned the clarinet and got into listening to Art Blakey. I mean, John Coltrane I listened to then, but he was a bit beyond me, at that point. I listened to Charlie Parker. I learned a few Charlie Parker tunes.
Shortly after that I got an alto saxophone. I traded my tenor in for an alto. There was a local band that played around that played a lot of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, quite a lot of that sort of thinga lot of different bands, MJQ. But I liked them. I listened to Charles Mingus, and I just listened to a lot of that stuff. There were a lot of jazz musicians around at that time. Modern jazz was becoming quite popular in Britain. This was probably in the late '50s.
At the same time I was listening to rock and roll as well. You know, the Coasters and "Yakkety Yak" and old stuff like that, all the sax parts on those records were played by jazz people, even Bill Haley. I bought a Bill Haley record and [tenor saxophonist] Rudy Pompilli is actually a jazz player, I discovered later.
I was interested in Paul Desmond with Dave Brubeck and I listened to Sonny Stitt. I used to see concerts and ended up going to see Miles Davis. I had been going to trad jazz clubs in London seeing Cy Laurie and Ken Collier. I hung out with, like, Bohemian people at the time. I was very young and they were sort of giving me my musical education. Then skiffle hit Britain and I was hanging out in these little skiffle bars in London. And then I got involved and interested in the modern jazz idiom, listening to John Coltrane then and sort of finding it very difficult and thinking, "Wow, I'd really like to play like that but it's quite hard [laughs]. "