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Alan Douglas Neil

March 26/1924 – November 16/2017

An Introduction

Saturday, May 12th, is my 80th birthday, a surprise not only to me. How could I have lived this long considering. My brother with select family members came all the way from Bristol to celebrate my 70th; a garden party or two. When asked by Micky O’Hara why he had come, he replied: We are surprised he is still alive. And the 75th an art event in Toronto, a gallery affair organised by two dear friends. Arthur Bull and John Heward; plus my daughters and their families. A grand evening celebrating with friends, some who had not been seen for decades. Even a phone call from Italy.

After Saying Goodbye

Now the ending surrounds me, death a nearer dance, friends falling by the wayside more regularly now the age of an elder has arrived, the last quarter, perhaps. So many living beyond respectability, some on into a century.

My plan, if there can be such a thing, is to pass on in sleep, unknowing, not a bother to anyone; or sudden like. Lingering, being a nuisance to all about, lingering through uncomfortable affliction, the aches and pains of this ongoing boredom, to the fear the christian world has perpetrated, to another life beyond. Purgatory.

There have been a few departing abruptly, just like that, poof… gone. Just imagine the perfect ending, a writer’s dream, sat there tapping away, like now, and suddenly my existence fluffed out, head falling forward onto the keyboard, one letter constantly displayed on the screen, forever, as rigour mortis sets in, continuously until I’m discovered or there is a convenient power-out. Could even go on, the same letter repeated, until the unpaid hydro account attracts the debt collection agency, or the mailbox, full of unwanted flyers, making the postal delivery woman suspicious.

Just a day past his birthday was when all this started. In he comes, flooding my brain with notions. Lapsed Buddhists us two, friends for such a long time, sharing the magic of improvisation, sound, vision, words… But who knows now he’s passed to the other side what thoughts might be accruing.

There’s music playing, a digitalised copy of Al Neil – Selections – 3 Decades [Nightwood Editions] a wonderful collection assembled by John Oswald, David Lee & Alex Varty.

Back to the beginning I go, living in memories seeming to be my current state, a time past what’s left. Personal like.

Crossing The Bardo

Arriving At Dollarton [1972]

Over the Second Narrows Bridge to the north shore, east along Dollarton Highway paralleling the shallow waters of the Burrard Inlet, past the reservation of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation – as difficult to enunciate as the Welsh language of my ancestors; and then what? There seems no apparent path to the cabin we’re seeking. The elderly Peugeot station wagon, beginning to look beat-up, the rugged terrain taking its toll, wheezes to a stop in the shade of three-hundred year-old giant cedars. There’s nothing visible through their apparently impenetrable denseness. “You looking for Al…?” he asks. Right then I don’t recognise him as Crow Scout the son of Old Lodge Skins from the movie “Little Big Man”, it will be a couple more days before we are formally introduced. …“Down that path”.

ot more than a hundred yards
and there it is, Al’s ramshackle old cabin tucked into a tiny secluded bay on the edge of Cates Park, the site resembling a random-object scrap yard, the dream world of a bricoleur. My daughters are out of the car and into paradise.

There’s a definite feeling of organised chaos in the air. Dinner that night is conjured from wild plants collected from the forest by Lady M; just inside the door there’s an old upright piano that has over a lifetime been allowed to subside into its natural state, from which Al can produce magical music, his personal concept of bebop.

Over the next few days we will be introduced around; invited to a potlatch by members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (Slay-Wah-Tuth) in the nearby park – once again ritual, a feast of salmon grilled over open flames, music and dance, tribal songs, games, spiritual ceremonies with the drum always the heartbeat, and this time war canoe races out on the waters of Indian Arm.

I’ve been pretty cool throughout the trip with alcohol and dope, and the break in driving allowing indulgence; a pause for the cause. It’s welfare Wednesday, the cheque is in the mail, time to scoot off to a nearby wine store and pick up a jug of Calona Red, bargain priced at $3.75 a gallon, consumed by hooking the index finger through the convenient lug and hoisting it up on the forearm.

Friday turns out to be a big day as we’ve all been invited to a party at Lyle Thurston’s; one of the 12 crew-members on the original Greenpeace campaign. It’s not far away, just up into the foothills of Mount Seymour. The Peugeot, lonely I suppose sitting out there unheeded on Dollarton Highway, has responded to our discourtesy with a front passenger-side flat tire, not surprising considering how worn-out they’ve become. Being a little stoned the job of changing it turns into a comedic interlude, safety thrown to the wind, producing, after a couple of bends up the twisty gravel road, a distinct feeling that the steering has become extremely spongy, wobbly. We forgot (what do you mean we?) to tighten up the wheel nuts properly. A message of sorts, not immediately apparent to my sozzled brain, of how the rest of that day would unfold.

What a wonderful dwelling, our introduction to the legendary west coast design, a traditional cedar house with a lofty vaulted beamed ceiling, wall to wall windows leading to a deck overlooking the inlet where the far off tankers and pleasure boats are vaguely distinguishable through the evening’s haze, a sunken living room casually furnished. Deluxe. Just a small intimate group, artists of one kind or another; a famous poet, a political journalist, a painter or two. Good company. Someone has arrived from town with a bag of muvver’s little ‘elpers, something for everybody, the collection of brightly coloured pills displayed in a bowl on a low table, a perfect height for my inquisitive two-year-old. She had barely put them in her mouth when someone, who is not remembered, scooped them out, their decisive action although scaring my little baby half to death saved her from a lifetime of brain damage. Time to move along, go for a ferry ride.

Somewhere Else

The Sacred & Profane [1970]

A conversation with Al at my house in Toronto.
Reprinted in West Coast Lokas (1972)

There was a point about 1947 when some of us got tired and frustrated with not having a place to play. So we got together and formed a little society. In British Columbia you can get a charter that doesn’t necessitate getting things like expensive yellow urinals and commissaries of various descriptions.
You can just set up and go to work. We rented an old piano and for at least ten years I played there. The prime motivating factor in the whole thing was the same for anyone of us who had any kind of experience (Canadian players like P.J. Perry, Glen McDonald, Dale Hillary). There were a lot of Eastern players as well as Westerners. We got people like Herman Green, Richard “Notes” Williams and Freddy Redd, a very good alto saxophonist who played a gig with us.

I acted mostly as a house rhythm section and did at least two or three gigs with Art Pepper. One of these, which was absolutely astonishing, was for ten days. He would be totally out of his mind of course. He’d be standing there, leaning into the microphone, and he’d turn round and go Rrrr and you were supposed to try and decipher what this meant.

In the late Forties, I wrote to Lennie Tristano, among other people, and Lennie said get down here to New York if you want to be a jazz player. I declined and twenty years later I’m purportedly on my way. So in a sense we always thought we were bringing New York to us. We read Down Beat and Coda and couldn’t see that there was anything going on anywhere else that wasn’t going on in Vancouver. For instance, where else could you get a chance to play a ten day gig with Art Pepper, followed three days later by Harold Land with Scott la Faro playing his very first gig, and Elmo Hope on piano – a marvellous little known bebopper like that we just have to go by the history books and say he was almost as good as Bud Powell. I thought he was better than most of Powell’s records but I wouldn’t say he was better than Powell in his prime.

One day I wrote down a list of all these people and it came to something like 75 and only half of them were West Coast stalwarts like Carl Fontana. Even playing with them gave you a chance to get jazz experience.

After about ten years of doing this, I found I was playing with a series of psychopathic horn players, and I suppose it’s a given fact that most horn players worth their salt, including Parker or anybody else are irascible people. They pretty well have to be, but it got to be a drag searching something out within a chord formation, especially after Miles Davis put out that Kind Of Blue album, and everybody got on a modal bag. You’re hearing something and trying to play it and a horn player is going to lean over and say play the changes, Man. So you wait until four in the morning to try and do something like Monk.

I quit. I quit playing about five years ago [Middle Sixties]. I couldn’t stand it any more. For two years I thought about it. I came to a few conclusions, the main one being the reason a lot of people can’t play any new music is that it can be written down and they are using the five bar staff and they know how to read and as long as they can get through those changes – fine. But if you could conceive of a music that could not be written down (that may seem like a truism of a cliché) it seems to be a gigantic mental leap to think of the fact you could play configurations and patterns, let alone get into anything else in any kind of state of being where you might be able to express beyond that.

That, and a series of other things, made me think that there were other musics. It’s not that hard to figure, because when Charles Ives and his Old Man began this whole thing you got a whole series of American composers up through Henry Cowell hitting clusters; right up into John Cage. I can already hear people say that it is no good to us because it doesn’t swing. But in my limited knowledge of jazz history, which pretty well started and ended with Charlie Parker, as far as I can see you have to be influenced by Europeans, or by classical harmony, concepts and forms. Jelly Roll Morton did it, of course.

If you’re suffering under the illusion that you’re playing some kind of avant garde music when playing a far out form of bebop, you’re up a blind alley. Stravinsky wrote The Rite Of Spring before the first world war and what about people like Satie. It’s time, once and for all, to bring all this stuff up to date. And get the same equipment those people are using, one way or another. I haven’t been able to do this by scanning scores, but I have developed my ear to such a pitch I can hear what they’re doing. For instance, Satie/Virgil Thompson/John Cage are the only avant gardists, and they’re that for one reason. They’re objectivists. They’re not trying to put any emotions in or out of their music. It’s on display and you make what you want from it. I struggled with that for a year and decided you can’t do that. I decided that if my heritage goes back to the Thirties trying to play boogie woogie, for better or worse, it is an emotional music. But if it is that, then it is not avant garde music because music (perhaps all Western music) has been trying to do that for a long time. So in a sense the intensity of emotion that we are trying to portray in music, as far out as it might superficially sound, is somewhere between Wagner and Webern.

I hope someone will argue this with me, because once in a while I try to do a Satie thing and you can almost feel he is sitting six feet away from the piano. He is not putting anything into it. But I can’t see, other than that, how anything is going on that is avant garde. This is happening in painting and writing. There’s Duchamp – all the hard edge people. Today it seems art is technology; they’re all trying to erase their finger prints from what they’re doing. Very few people, except Cage, have tried to do this in music, and I don’t think he succeeded. I remember reading somewhere that someone put on a Coltrane record for him. He just walked out – why should I listen to that. Too strong for him!

The compression of some of our pieces go back to Webern, and if you have to go back 25 years that is not avant garde. I’m just trying to discover what classical composers did in the last fifty years and make some use of it. Just like Bix Beiderbecke, he was hung up on Debussy and Ravel. Why not bring it up to date and then we’ve got a clean state and we know where we stand.

I think Coltrane made a mistake taking things out of the Raga and Eastern music. He would not do that today if he were alive. He had already exhausted that line. I think Ravi Shankar should be given back to the gurus. I don’t think this form is an improvised music because it’s been messed up like most music has. If “heads” want to sit around in their pads and get whisked away into the eternal bliss by Ravi Shankar, that’s fine. But I don’t think for a musician there’s much there. Anyway Coltrane did not need it. They take ragas and by one simple transposition they have modes. And as far as I can see they are only superficially the same. The ragas are based on a different intonation in the first place.

Miles Davis led us all down the garden path on modal playing. It’s not any harder or any worse than using chords. They are both dead ends. Coltrane went into, for want of a better word, the atonal system, where all the notes were available to him, and some that weren’t. This does not, of course, make chordal people obsolete, as long as they don’t just rehash all the old things. Lonnie Hillyer, Charles McPherson and Barry Harris, for instance, do great things.

There are some people, though, that can’t confine themselves to those things because of the inventive features in their makeup. I don’t like to even feel like a composer; seems to me I’m much more like an inventor. I can’t stop, once I start going. I put my life into my music. Every time I get up there, I put my life on the box. After 45 years I don’t know how anyone can make a unified statement correlated with their life/art, i.e. jazz, that can express all aspects of their philosophy, especially the way they’re living. It’s been done in the other arts, but not to my knowledge in jazz. That’s what I‘m attempting to do. I expect I’ve alienated a lot of critics with the things I do with electronic tapes. There are, however, lots of states of consciousness that can be laid down in jazz, just as well as in any other art.

I discussed all this with Lennie Tristano twenty years ago. I don’t know what happened to him, he must have fallen by the wayside for he still seems to be working in a vacuum. I feel the feeling you get out of music should be so intense that not even the Pentagon would want to hire you. Dave Brubeck could
play there but Albert Ayler or Cecil Taylor would freak them out just in terms of energy. If we have the time to sit at home and figure out where the next A7th is coming from with wars going on, people firing off napalm at children, it’s time to go over the whole thing again. I’ve tried to compress all the things I’ve done – wars, love affairs, dope busts and the whole shebang. I don’t know if you remember one number we did called The Moneylender? I don’t know if it was successful or not because so far it is too verbal. It starts off with sort of a collage from stock markets and so on. I was really impressed by a book by Abbie Hoffman who was, you may know, one of the very furthest out of the Yippie radicals. Instead of writing a 500 page treatise on economics a la Galbraith, he walked up into the stock exchange and dropped a few dollar bills down into their thing. And he knew he was being an artist too. That’s why it is apropos to bring it up. It’s a statement on the economy – how far we are removed from our environment by a dollar bill. I give you a dollar bill, you gotta go out and buy something with it. Or you don’t have to but that’s what you do with it. It’s that simple. I think Thoreau or somebody pointed out that if you don’t have those dollar bills you’re going to be grubbing around in the dirt. And so, Abbie Hoffman made his comment and like any sane man I’ve got my feelings, which bring me to tears, and I try to come up with something like that with The Moneylender. I don’t think it’s been done before in jazz quite like this. We still improvise – and I know we are because, for the first three years we sounded much more classical. We sounded like Cage or Feldman because we weren’t able to work with the tapes. The closer you work with them, which hinges on how well you’re able to hear, the closer you’re able to jam what you’re doing in among the sounds on the tape. At first it was just a matter of chance because we couldn’t hear too well. We’d make a tape and play alongside it. We had the precedent of Cage working with chance and I Ching and so on. Now, I don’t like to do that. If I use a tape, I want to be able to hear it so I can fit right in there.

That’s one reason I use tape. The other one is I can’t find anybody to play with us. I should explain why. Some people sit in. A couple of times we went down to the functioning jazz club and a lot of people came up, especially string players, and they wanted to play. They think that what we’re doing is just freaking out – play free and all those old clichés. And it isn’t that. And so you can hear by what they do that it isn’t what we’re doing.

There’s a kind of alchemy involved where you get your state of mind together first. Especially the spine. In the old days when you’re sitting on a piano bench, you have your body, your arms, your fingers, your music, your audience and anyone or all of these things could distract you and the other guys you are playing with. Now the ultimate for us is to get into a state of non-ego – which seems very paradoxical because you’ve got to get an ego before you can lose it. When we’re playing at our optimum it gets to the point where none of these things exist and everything is just done by a kind of a gesture, which isn’t really as hip as it sounds because after all Dylan Thomas, in the forward of his poems, said that everything he did was to the glory of God. What I mean is, you don’t have any of these things in between what you’re doing if you’re really playing. Maybe that was true of all jazz, but I never found it in bebop. There was always a sense of looking around if the tempo was dragging to see who was responsible or what you were going to do about it and you were always aware that C7 was coming up.

This is all to do with the way we live. I should tell you that we live in a squatter’s houseboat on the shore, about twenty miles outside of Vancouver. There’s energy out there that’s different than in the city. I’m not trying to proselytise for anything but what little strength I can muster has come from that kind of a place. My wife, for the last two or three years, has been walking out in the bush and finding various things for us to eat. One of our long range goals is to become non-consumers. I only bring this up to show you that the music may sound fragmented, anguished, full of agony. This is just my vision of how I see the world around us. There aren’t too many jazz artists who have other lines going out other than jazz. I think this was a big mistake. Fortunately I got mixed up with a few poets and artists. My interests are parallel so as a result, any success I have at putting out a relevant music is because I’m aware of what the people are doing and not just buried in some back eddy somewhere turning out bebop phrases. That kind of music is not relevant any more. I think there’s a crying need for music, not necessarily as freaky as ours, but there’s a crying need for it. And acid rock didn’t prove anything. You know, I had a couple of years flirtation with rock. I have a very hard job listening to the words so my wife has to get them across to me. Because all my friends were peddling their Eric Dolphy and Coltrane records and starting to listen to the Beatles, I figures I’d better start listening. Now they’re all coming back. I can always listen to Bob Dylan but I’m talking about the run-of-the-mill fried crocodile group. I can get fooled because I don’t have any criteria.

For instance I heard Cheap Thrills by Janis Joplin and I like two or three of the songs she sang there, especially Summertime. And then I read in Coda that she stinks because the people listening to Janis Joplin don’t know about the people who influenced her. But I agree with that.

We borrowed this three record set of Billie Holiday and we had it on day in and day out. My wife pointed out that as emotional as Billie Holiday is, there’s a certain strange remoteness. I don’t mean it as a put down, compared to Janis Joplin having an orgasm on stage. Besides the pain and emotion etched in those phrases Billie had to have a certain bit of attachment. Something like the old poet’s thing of emotion recollected in tranquility, as Coleridge said.

I wrote an article which is facetiously titled “Music Is Not Music”. I meant that very much because most people are incestuous and they take their music from other records. I did that in the ‘50s. I listened to a record and stole either ideas or a whole concept. You’ve got to get yourself to where you’re not even listening to radio so that the kind of music that is going to well up in you is yours.

I’ll give you a very simple example of how you can get something from visual art. Jack Wise is a West Coast painter and he grew up in the mystical tradition that stems from painters like Maurice Graves. His recent work has taken on a Tibetan character with very fine calligraphy coming out from a point. Now, if you stare at them long enough you’ll realise that there is more than one concept of music. I don’t mean that you should run around looking at paintings to figure out how to play music. I’m just saying that there’s an interchange there that will help you get out of the rut of sitting there playing chord changes all the time.

I see in that painting that you could refer back to the centre. It would be a very mystical thing to throw out all your lines and configurations and when the line fades away and peters out then we’re back to that centre point, which may or may not be a pedal point. You see. That’s just one out of a hundred things. You could figure out the same thing from reading Alan Watts, Burroughs, Einstein, Beckett or Joyce. There’s always other ways of organising your form and that’s what art is all about. So why not get into the people who had done it longer and better – the poets and painters. And that’s where I’ve been going in the last ten or fifteen years. I’ve been trying to bring it all together without losing the thrust of jazz – still being an improvising musician. I can’t get away from that.

End Notes:
After Saying Goodbye, Crossing The Bardo, Somewhere Else
Composed, performed and recorded by Colston Willmott in the weeks following Al’s passing.

Photograph of Al Neil by Bill Smith

Al Neil: Rene Dumal [1992], Auto-Bio Series [1993], Untitled [1997] From the author’s collection of invitation cards.

Carole Itter’s Grand Piano Rattle: A Bosendorfer for Al Neil (1984), is included in the permanent collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Both Carole and Al filled the landscape around the Blue Cabin with their found art assemblages. Photograph of author with “Grand Piano Rattle” by Sheila Macpherson

Al Neil Trio, Retrospective 1965-1968
For information or to order the CD:

Al Neil website:

BC Bookworld:

Films and more…
Al Neil – A Portrait by David Rimmer (shot at the Blue Cabin 1979):