Luther François: Hearing The Music

St. Lucia's Luther François in one of the Caribbean's most versatile musicians and leader of the West Indies Jazz Band

Luther François was one of the stars at this years St Lucian Jazz Festival. Photograph by Chris HuxleyPhotograph by Chris HuxleyPhotograph by Chris HuxleySome of the sessions take place in the sunshine on Pigeon Island. Photograph by Chris Huxley

Jazz is in the hearts of Caribbean musicians. Luther François of the West Indies Jazz Band hears it in the music of violinists and other folk artists in his native St Lucia. “They don’t know it. But any jazz musician would recognise it.”

Jazz has been in the Caribbean pretty much from the time it was born. At the turn of the century François says, ragtime jazz piano was being played in Martinique, at the same time as free-style jazz was emerging in New Orleans, which had strong connection with the French Caribbean. “They were there and part of the whole breeding process, ” he says of his musical predecessors.

But Caribbean musicians bring a different dimension to jazz. You cannot fail to detect François’s Caribbean background in his compositions and arrangements, not least in the calypso phrasing that he can bring to the most familiar jazz classics. “We’ve taken Mood Indigo for example, and transformed it into something that, if it was not known that Duke Ellington wrote it, might have been a Caribbean piece.” Minor adjustments to accent and rhythm make all the difference: “the idea is to possess the music and transform it and make it seem as if it was from here.”

As Musical Director of the 16-piece West Indies Jazz Band, François deploys a broad range of musical styles, in which traditional sounds can blend easily with those of the multi-cultured Caribbean. Elements of western jazz and big band echo with the rhythm of calypso; sometimes you can hear a jubilant Carnival mood. The steel pan takes a prominent role in many of the numbers, handling solos like a piano, interweaving with the traditional jazz instruments, and sometimes having the last word. The band hasn’t forgotten the Caribbean’s Latin influences either. Clear sax and trumpet leads backed by an energetic beat and playful bongos conjure up images of swirling Latin dancers.

Since he was born in 1952, Luther François has been surrounded by music. His parents had a great interest in classical music, his father as a self-taught pianist and his mother as a singer. Most of his four brothers and five sisters also wanted to perform. “My father used to have these instruments around, and we used to go and steal them — guitar, violin and so on.” François learned to read and write music on the violin which, encouraged by his father, he began to study when he was about nine.

During his teens he learned the guitar, piano and acoustic and electric basses. Performing with musicians from several islands — including Martinique, Barbados, St Vincent, Grenada and Trinidad — he soon became known in the eastern Caribbean islands as a useful and versatile musician who could play a wide range of instruments. Before long he was leading a jazz trio as a pianist and a jazz rock trio as a guitarist.

His technical progress was matched by a constantly broadening musical horizon. His compositions in those early years were much influenced by the calypso jazz and Caribbean jazz of Scofield Pilgrim. An eight-month tour of South America with The Platters introduced him to Latin musical styles. While playing at the first Caricom jazz concert he encountered the work of the Trinidadian composer and pianist Clive “Zanda” Alexander and his calypso jazz (he spent two years arranging for calypsonians and dance orchestras and performing with Zanda’s Gayap Workshop).

Throughout his career he has mingled extensively with musicians of all sorts, from folk to pop, gospel to jazz, and drawn influences from them all.

François is mostly self taught (“I’m not much of a school person”), though in his mid-twenties he studied arranging with the American trombonist Melba Liston and arranger/composer Peter Ashbourne at the Jamaica School of Music. In Jamaica, he performed with theatre orchestras, made recordings with several artists including Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, and accompanied the Jamaican folklorist Louise Bennett on a tour of England.

In the mid-1980s François was commissioned by playwright Derek Walcott to write and record music for his play The Haitian Earth. For this he moved to Barbados, gathered a cross-section of the country’s musicians and produced a score that covered a whole range of styles — classical, jazz, gospel, pop, folk.

Soon after that, he moved to Martinique where he stayed till 1991 playing with Caribbean musicians including the Martiniquan pianist Marius Cultier. During this period Fanny Auguiac, director of the Centre Martiniquais d’Action, invited him to form the West Indies Jazz Band, which today includes players from Antigua, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Barbados, St Lucia, Trinidad and Guyana.

François has played music festivals in Germany, France, Colombia and Cuba as well as the eastern Caribbean islands; music tours have taken him to France, South America, Taiwan, Malaysia and Fiji. But while evolving as a jazz musician, he has maintained a strong interest in researching and promoting the folk music of his native St Lucia. He has played his own compositions at St Lucia’s Jazz Festival, to warm applause.

Until recently, playing music for a living was rare in the Caribbean: musicians normally had a day job for survival. Typically, François wanted to break that pattern. “My early reasons were partly defiance and partly the rebel in me.” He managed it, and eventually his music became linked to his personal beliefs, a determination to do things his own way.

In search of inner development he studied yoga and writers of mystical and eastern philosophies. “But in the end I wanted to think these thoughts myself and generate them out of my own being, rather than having to read them.” Likewise he wanted to generate his own unique sound and not just imitate the masters. “Even Coltrane. I sort of idolized him, but I never sounded like him, or tried to sound like him.” So many saxophone players who are music school graduates sound alike, François maintains, because they learned from the same system or formula.

François doesn’t like systems too much, and has none for composition. His music grows and evolves, perhaps out of a scrap of melody, a simple bass line or a series of chords.

He also works from visual cues. To counter the abstract quality of jazz, he tries to translate real life into sound. “Sometimes, just staying with notes, you can get so alienated from what’s going on around you that you try to make some solid connections with things you see.”

His first recording, Mon Du Don, produced in 1990, reflected his memory of what was going on around him in the St Lucian village of Morne du Don, and he structured the music to match the memory. “It’s a piece that goes up and down like the people on the hill.”

François believes his need for structure may be a reaction to the era of “free jazz”, when improvisation sometimes lacked a conceptual design. But maybe it also stems from a need to make sense of the unseen forces he feels in music. “As far as I’m concerned, I, myself, am an instrument, and I’m being played upon. Whatever comes out of me, or through me, is outside my comprehension.”

The instrument must become an extension of the self for this to happen. François believes that young people entering the music field must strive for this fusion with the instrument and prepare themselves accordingly, both in skill and attitude. Cultivating technique and individual sound must be coupled with patience. “Even though you have quite a few sax players these days, who started at 17, 18, 19, they don’t have the depth, quality or grain that you hear from older musicians.”

For François, music is life, and as mysterious in its essence and its sources as life itself. Musicians who want to reach the source of it have to learn to love and respect their music as much as their families and themselves, and keep in mind the mysterious influences that affect Caribbean islands as much as anywhere else.

“Last Monday for example the moon was 17,000 miles nearer the earth and all the seas rose by a foot. There was so much dew on the cars that it looked as if it had rained. You have to understand that these forces act on you and the world around you. And your music is not going to be able to escape that sort of thing.”