Reflections of green pixelled phrases hover in the thick panes
of Malcolm Collier’s spectacles whenever he leans close to his
computer screen. I noticed this when we sat together in the study
of Malcolm’s comfortable home, Fo’c’sle, just outside Letchworth,
one evening earlier this year. Malcolm is a burly man in his late
forties and there is a gap between his two front teeth that suggests
a single ebony semi-tone on a piano keyboard.
Malcolm works for a small consultancy firm in Letchworth itself.
He has been with the company for nearly ten years and he likes
it there; he likes the firm’s "employee-oriented ethos".
Speak to others at the office and one soon gets the impression
of an extremely reliable and hard-working colleague. Malcolm is
said to be "solid as a rock"; he is someone "you’d
trust with your own private accounts". He always wears a
suit on dress-down Fridays.
Few of Malcolm’s fellow consultants, however, know of his other
life. For although Malcolm is committed to his work, his heart’s
energy is directed elsewhere. This ordinary man, no different
from you and me – a tax payer, a husband, a father, a 12 handicap
on a good day, – this man has, for over twenty years, been in
the grip of an extraordinary passion. Malcolm is a jazz ornithologist.
His wife, Ivy, brought us tea on a tray. The teapot was coddled
in a novelty cosy designed to look like a tuxedo with a black
bow tie. Ivy is a petite, compact woman: a sinew of vigour. Her
ginger hair is as keenly-clipped and buoyant as prize topiary.
Her upper lip, even when expressionless, does not quite cover
her teeth, in a way that suggests she had a hare lip when she
was young but has since had it corrected by surgery. Ivy sat with
us in the study while I asked Malcolm to explain just how it had
"I grew up with jazz," he said. "My dad loved jazz
so much. I think he preferred jazz to my mother, actually. When
he came home from work I’d sit with him in the front room where
the coal fire’d be smoking. He’d play Bix Beiderbecke records
over and over again. He had a whole set, all the seventy-eights.
Then the divorce came through and Beiderbecke was my father’s
biggest consolation. We started to call him Bix Bye-bye-derbecke,
that was a joke we had, after my mother left. Soon I was saving
up to buy my own records. All the Dixie bands. Armstrong, Fats,
"I love Jelly-Roll," said Ivy, smiling, revealing even
more of her neat, polished teeth.
"And then of course I’d always been interested in birds,"
Malcolm continued, shifting earnestly in his armchair. "Even
as a really young kid I’d loved hearing the woodpeckers, you know,
that machine-gun ratatatat they make. I waited for the swifts
to arrive at the end of May and all summer I watched them feeding
on the insects in the evenings. It still gives me a bit of a
thrill, the way they screech and swoop and dart into the nests
to feed the chicks. It’s tremendous, really."
Of course, these interests are not in themselves remarkable. Many
young men enjoy Dixieland jazz, and many carry their fathers’
binoculars on long, damp walks around nature reserves. What is
so singular about the case of Malcolm Collier is the intersection,
the inspired splicing, of these commonplace enthusiasms. As Malcolm
spoke, some gladness I cannot quite explain came over his face,
something like the sparkling of late sunlight on the sea. His
eyes loomed brightly behind his thick spectacles. Wrinkles appeared
like the prints of crows’ feet at the corners of his eyes. Laughter
lines curved like parentheses on his broad face.
"It was an August afternoon," Malcolm continued. "I
was sixteen. I’d been listening to Armstrong. But it was such
a lovely day. I decided to walk down to the lake by the quarry
where a couple of times I’d seen a heron at the edge of the water.
There was a game I had, I’d try to get as near it as possible
without it hearing me and flying away. Though at the same time,
I remember this, part of me wanted it to fly. I wanted
to see the slow, grand motion of its wings and its vast grey shadow,
its shadow sliding across the surface of the water."
I noticed that Ivy had closed her eyes. And what Malcolm was describing
did indeed have the vivid glow of a dream.
"Anyway," he went on, "I’d got quite close when
suddenly, it was very distinct, the heron let out a call. Now
herons don’t have a song like smaller birds. They don’t even have
the sort of quack you might associate with waterfowl. The call
of a heron is actually a growl, something a small dog might make,
or like a long, low cough. And right then, I was crouching in
the rushes, I realised something. It had the force of revelation.
You see, I’d heard that sound before, that very day. The heron’s
call was exactly the same sound, and I mean exactly, as
the little growl you can hear Louis Armstrong make just before
the last chorus of Let’s Do It, recorded in 1953."
Without warning, Malcolm leapt out of his chair and bounded over
to the stereo system in the corner of the study. He slipped a
record from a sleeve with the fluency of habit. I could just make
out the title on the sleeve: it was Calls of the Birds of the
British Isles, Volume One.
"This is the heron," said Malcolm, and, right on cue,
a voice from the quadrophonic speakers announced. "Heron.
Male." We were all listening intently. Then, from the speakers
positioned all around the study, came a strange, abrupt growl,
followed by another, longer growl. It was, as Malcolm had said,
a canine sound, a little gruff, though not without resonance.
Malcolm switched records.
"Now here’s Satch," he said. "Listen for the run-in
to the last let’s fall in love."
I listened. We all smiled. The concordance was indeed thrillingly
That adolescent discovery, that the call of the heron was once
precisely replicated by Louis Armstrong, gave Malcolm his
vocation. As his collection of jazz records grew, and his ear
became more finely attuned to the sounds of birdsong, Malcolm
began to discover more and more echoes between the phrases and
notes of jazz and the sounds of our feathered friends. Using state-of-the-art
software, Malcolm has created a complex database on his home computer:
he has cross-referenced species to artist, behaviour to instrument,
habitat to song-title, and so on.
To browse that database is to enter Malcolm’s unique world. In
the short time I spent as the Colliers’ guest at the Fo’c’sle,
I learned that the steady note of the rufous-throated solitaire
is to be found two minutes and twenty-four seconds through Miles
Davis’s Sketches of Spain. I discovered that one of Charlie Parker’s
riffs in a 1958 out-take recording of Autumn Leaves is a perfect
match to the song of the lilac-breasted roller, a lovely bird
indigenous to the further reaches of Borneo. I was delighted to
be informed that a particular variety of toucan shares its two-note
call with a phrase from a scat sung by Ella Fitzgerald during
a live performance of Lemon Drop at the Newport Jazz Festival,
Carnegie Hall, 1973.
Jazz ornithology has, of course, changed Malcolm’s life. Much
of the money he saves is set aside for birding holidays, compact
discs and recording equipment. Ivy is quite at ease with her husband’s
consuming passion, and accompanies him on all his expeditions.
She does, however, refuse to go into jazz clubs. "The smoke
gets at my sinuses," she explains, briskly.
"We had a couple of weeks in the Caribbean last year,"
Malcolm goes on. "I used to look around, and all the other
people, they were happy enough, but it was like they were oblivious
to everything, they just stumbled along."
"You were on cloud nine," said Ivy.
"I was on cloud nine," said Malcolm, as if he hadn’t
heard her. "I matched the repeated trills of a green tody
to the rising motif used by Stan Getz at the end of his recording
of On Green Dolphin Street. Streamertail hummingbirds reminded
me of a particular drum effect Art Blakey used to get with his
brushes. It never stops, you see. Just outside Letchworth I’ve
heard nightingales sing, and their pitch and tone, it’s been just
the pitch and tone you hear from Sonny Rollins’s saxophone at
the end of Loverman, a duet he recorded with Coleman Hawkins for
All the Things You Are, that lovely Bluebird/RCA record he cut
in ’63 or ’64, the young Herbie Hancock on piano. Marvellous."
I asked Malcolm if it was any more than coincidence
that Charlie Parker was nicknamed bird or that the most famous
jazz club of all was called Birdland.
"Well, I think a lot of people had already made the connection,
you know, subconsciously," he replied. "Between the
music and the ornithology. I’m working on a book, it’s going to
have a cassette attached, like those books you can get to teach
you French or something, and I think when the book comes out a
lot of jazz musicians and fans and bird-watchers around the world
will really start looking into the connections more seriously,
because there really is a lot going on out there."
A proud, oddly poignant smile accompanied this last remark, as
a bass note might accompany the piano’s first statement of a theme.
It was getting late and I knew my time at the Fo’c’sle was coming
to an end. And it was only when I was walking away from Malcolm
and Ivy Collier, and closing their ornate iron gate behind me,
and turning left into Raymere close, where my car was parked,
that I realised I’d encountered a man sensitive to the strange
intersections of an otherwise chaotic world, someone alert to
the rhymes with which our lives are unexpectedly scattered, an
artist of a kind.
Copyright © William Fiennes 1999
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