Queensway, between the West End and Notting Hill, is a comfortable family area, not the place for superstars to live. Sitting on a plastic sack filled with foam particles in the living room of his maisonette, Alexis Korner looks like he invented the better end of Kings Road. Clothes and furniture are the only flash images Korner allows himself. His two boys, Damien and Nicholas, join in the conversation, very self-possesed and charming. The night before, Alexis had played a solo date at the concert hall in Bristol. “It was the first concert I’ve actually enjoyed playing in England,” he said. “There was practically nobody there, but the audience worked with me. It was the first time in ages that I’d seen an English audience actually understand that you work with a performer to get the best. You don’t sit back and say, I’ve paid my 15 bob, now gas me,’ which has been the British vice for some time.”
From his position at the center of a genealogy of contemporary British music, Korner can look out at a complex universe of musicians and movements which have been influenced by him. On the outer limits are Led Zeppelin and Jesus Christ Superstar. Packed close in orbit are the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards sat in with Korner’s band, Blues Incorporated, when Charlie Watts was the drummer.
And then there’s Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Graham Bond, Lee Jackson of the Nice, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Terry Cox of Pentangle, Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones, Andy Frazier of Free, Victor Brox and Long John Baldry. On the jazz side there are a score of musicians who spent time with Korner but whose names mean little outside the tight British jazz scene, except perhaps for Dave Holland, bass player with Miles Davis, and Alan Skidmore, who have both since achieved recognition in Europe.
They all found in Korner a warm refuge of emotional stability and respectability at a time when the environment wasn’t ready for their music.
Korner is probably as far removed from the classic blues background as is possible. His father was a cavalry officer in the Austrian Army during the First World War. His mother was Greek-Turkish. After being shuttled between relatives in France, Switzerland and North Africa, Korner settled with his parents in France. They left on one of the last refugee ships when France fell to Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.
“War at that age,” Korner remembers, “was pretty marvelous, romantic for an 11-year-old boy. Just super fireworks. And if you see a few dead bodies, they don’t look like bodies. Just one of the images you have of glamor and honor at that age.
“My father was 58 when I was born, and he was already getting tired. I can only remember odd things about him. He used to tell me about the Russian Revolution. He’s been through a great deal of that. And I remember him describing Caucasian yogurt … you grab a knife and cut it up in chucks, that sort of thing.”
His father was of the old Viennese school. He expected to be entertained by the whole family, though he didn’t play an instrument himself. “I had piano lessons from the age of five,” says Korner. “I played OK, but my father really was convinced that I should become a virtuoso violinist, who would never, of course, dream of becoming a professional. A brilliant 19th century dilettante was what he wanted.
“It was in 1940 that I came across a record by Jimmy Yancey. I can’t say how important that record is. From then on all I wanted to do was play the blues. Blues and jazz pulled me away from what was left of my family. I was brought up in the latter part of the war by my mother’s family. They were shipowners, that sort. People I don’t get on with at any level, I don’t like their reasons for living, I don’t like their objectives, I disagree with their means of getting there. The only thing that saved me from becoming like them was this music. And that record gave me a way out of it all.”
* * *
“You start campaigning for things and, you know, you say we’re going to make blues into a big music and this that and the other …”
Korner couldn’t have chosen a worse time to try and sell the gospel. It was just a few years after the war. In Britain, there was still rationing of food. The mood favored the radio big bands, crooners, a little jazz, the pretty gimmick ballad singer.
“You felt OK about that,” said Korner, “because you knew you were right. And all the cats, when we worked together, we always knew we were right.
“At the same time as we felt this almost missionary thing, we were also completely without any sort of esthetic worry about it; we weren’t giving up anything for our kicks and everything else that went with them at the same time. So it wasn’t quite missionary zeal. If you like, you were serving God and man at the same time and enjoying both.