[JPL] Richard Cook obit by Brian Morton

Improvised Communications tracking at improvisedcommunications.com
Tue Sep 11 15:01:08 EDT 2007

The news of Richard Cook's passing has been slow to reach us here in  
the States and I've been asked to help pass the word.

Scott Menhinick
Improvised Communications
(617) 489-6561
scott at improvisedcommunications.com


Richard Cook

Jazz writer and editor

Published: 01 September 2007

Richard David Cook, writer, journalist and record producer: born Kew,  
Surrey 7 February 1957; married 1987 Lee Ellen Newman; died London 25  
August 2007.

R. D. Cook is the kind of name you might have found somewhere in the  
Surrey batting order of the mid-1970s. In figure, though, Richard  
Cook looked more of a fast bowler, tall and rangy, eagle-eyed and  
always in a hurry. Though he had a "proper Englishman's" passion for  
cricket, as well as horse-racing, he didn't, in adult life at least,  
have much enthusiasm for participant sport. He bowled line and length  
in his writing on music instead, in the NME, later in The Wire –  
which he also edited - and more recently in his own Jazz Review, and,  
most extensively, in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD (1972).

Cook wrote with an accuracy and consistency of judgement that made  
him one of the most perceptive and admired commentators, not just on  
his beloved jazz, but on a whole range of other "sonics" (as he liked  
to put it), and not just in Britain but internationally. Though his  
fabled impatience was part of an Englishness cultivated quite without  
irony, it was also a measure of Cook's utter rejection – in life and  
music – of the sub-standard. He had an unerring nose for the ersatz  
and fudged, and though his opinions were strong, sometimes too strong  
for those who prefer a more liberal rhetoric, he was anything but a  
bully. He was very happy to see his few loose deliveries driven into  
the covers, his more controversial assertions batted straight back at  

Richard Cook was born in Kew, London in 1957. His father Ray was a  
teacher. His mother Margot later bred and showed dogs in  
Cambridgeshire. Richard was the third of four children and the Cooks'  
only son. He later said that this had undoubtedly had a bearing on  
his personality but that his father's early death, when Cook was 12,  
leaving him the only male in the immediate family, probably had an  
even greater impact. His father's legacy to his son was a passion for  
music that was lifelong, intense and seemingly without boundary.  
Cook's collection of 78s – music-hall stars and obscure opera singers  
in the main – was a direct connection back to his father. It also  
steered him toward his ultimate career.

When his mother moved to East Anglia, Cook remained in London and  
lived with his older sister while attending Latymer Upper School from  
1968 to 1974. Though his father was a Cambridge graduate and despite  
his own excellent academic record, he opted not to go to university,  
a decision that set him apart, sometimes abrasively, from the mostly  
graduate commentators he encountered in the media. His first job was  
with the Charities Commission, but while there he began moonlighting  
as reviewer and feature writer for NME and other music papers,  
originally as a jazz specialist but with an increasingly eclectic  

Cook joined the NME staff in the early 1980s and immediately stood  
out, not just for a stance that was less anti-intellectual as anti- 
academic, but also because in personal style he could not have been  
less like the hippie-punk coalition that dominated British music  
journalism at the time. Always neatly dressed and businesslike, he  
turned up at the paper's offices each morning in a white mackintosh  
and carrying a briefcase. More importantly, though, Cook stood out  
for the sheer quality of his writing. Here and subsequently his  
approach was to ignore fashion and PR puffery. Instead, he listened,  
and with an attention that took him every time to the heart of  
whatever music he was asked to consider. (It was a quality that later  
made him an extremely effective music producer as well, though  
opportunities in this direction were frustratingly few).

In a decade that elevated style over substance and put old-fashioned  
musicianship at a discount, Cook always looked for substance and  
often found it in unexpected places. He wrote as trenchantly about  
Abba as he did about the improvising ensemble AMM, and his passion  
for singers, female singers in particular, enabled him to write  
perceptively about Nina Simone, Joan Armatrading and the soul diva  
Anita Baker.

The last of these was the subject of an interview in The Wire,  
published in September 1986. By this time Cook had left NME and was  
editing The Wire, which had been founded as an avant-garde jazz  
magazine four years earlier by Anthony Wood, who had sold the title  
to Naim Atallah and Quartet Books. As part of his contract, Cook also  
served as a commissioning editor for Quartet and, more briefly, as  
publisher of another of the company's titles. Auberon Waugh, editor  
of Literary Review, cordially disliked the upstart and insisted on  
printing his name as "Richard Cock" on the magazine's masthead. In  
response to Cook's comment that there was perhaps too great an  
emphasis on the subject in LR's pages, Waugh took to printing "SEX"  
on every cover, whether the contents required it or not.

Under Cook's editorship, The Wire evolved from a small, coterie  
magazine into a more broadly based music journal that covered  
mainstream jazz as well as the avant-garde, but one that also began  
moving into other areas of music: pop, soul, reggae, classical.  
Though he deplored some aspects of the magazine's house style in  
subsequent years – articles peppered with references to Gilles  
Deleuze and Félix Guattari, or Jacques Attali's monograph Noise – he  
did encourage intelligent writing about popular music and jazz.

In 1993, Cook left The Wire for the corporate world, taking up a post  
as head of jazz at Polygram UK. Here he signed trumpeter Guy Barker,  
whose Cook-produced debut record was shortlisted for the Mercury  
Music Prize, and initiated an important reissue programme that made  
available again some long-forgotten masterpieces of modern British  
jazz, work by Joe Harriott, Dick Morrissey and others.

Though he enjoyed his tenure at Polygram, it brought inevitable  
frustrations, not least a certain restriction on opportunities to  
write. In the late 1990s he went freelance. The largest of his  
writing projects was The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, co-authored  
with Brian Morton, now in its eighth edition (and retitled The  
Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings) .Other books followed, including a  
"biography" of the Blue Note label in 2001, and in 2006 a study, It's  
About That Time, of Miles Davis. The year before, Richard Cook's Jazz  
Encyclopedia, its title a reflection of his authority, was published  
by Penguin.

He also wrote a large amount of journalism, as music critic of The  
Sunday Times, but also at various periods for Mojo, Punch and the New  
Statesman. He also made a number of jazz documentaries for BBC Radio  
3, and he had a quirky, deftly opinionated style as a DJ on GLR and  
on Jazz FM. Long-haul flyers could for a time plug into his  
syndicated in-flight jazz programme.

In 1987 Cook married Lee Ellen Newman, a New Yorker living in London  
and working, like himself, in the music business. They settled in  
Chiswick, in a house which groaned with music in every form. He was  
also passionate about horse-racing – his last phone message to a co- 
author before his final illness was a tip for a novice's race at  
Newmarket; it limped in last – fine red wine, Islay malt whisky and,  
despite his late mother's vocation, his cats.

He was endlessly curious, almost hyperactively busy and, for all the  
Eeyorish gloom he affected when talking about the English weather –  
too wet in winter, too hot in summer – the Jockey Club, Surrey's  
batting and bowling statistics, phenomena like Nu-Jazz, he maintained  
an exuberant optimism.

It sustained him through his final illness. In the autumn of 2006 he  
was diagnosed with bowel and liver cancer. It proved to be aggressive  
and despite extensive treatment, which he bore with amazing good  
humour, he succumbed less than a year after diagnosis. "It's cured me  
of being a hypochondriac", he said.

Brian Morton

More information about the jazzproglist mailing list