Musicians Talk about Other Passions
Free Flight: Peter King and Aeromodeling
Now in his mid ‘60s, Peter King has been the UK’s preeminent alto saxophonist for decades, his mastery of the bop lexicon has won him awards and polls since he was a teenage prodigy in the late 1950s. Though he is frequently called upon for Charlie Parker tributes in the US and Europe, often playing in tandem with Phil Woods, Bobby Watson and other keepers of the flame, King has distinctively extended the Parker-Adderley trajectory playing his own compositions at the helm of small groups (documented in recent years by Miles Music), and contributing to numerous Stan Tracey projects. Like many composers, King has integrated jazz and chamber music in works like “Janus,” which paired his working quartet with the Lyric String Quartet; yet, King has gone far beyond this by composing a two-act opera, Zyklon, which was work-shopped in New York in 2004, and a Jazz Mass, to be premiered next year. King is also writing his autobiography.
King, who has yet another passion in Formula 1 racing, was interviewed on May 21st at the Vincenza Jazz Festival, where he was performing with Tracey’s Hexad.
Bill Shoemaker: I’m sure you get this occasionally; but it just seems so unlikely that a jazz musician would be into air modeling, or vice versa for that matter.
Peter King: A lot of air modelers love jazz. I remember reading magazines when I was young where this guy had these plans for planes, and they had jazz names like “Salt Peanuts” and “Lover Man.” He’s about 80 years old now. He used to hang around 52nd Street in the ‘50s. And, a lot of the ones who loved jazz worked for NASA and Lockheed. One day, I’m chatting away on flying my type of air models, and one guy suddenly emailed, “Oh, yeah, I know about that because I was one of the guys who calculated the first lunar landing.” I’ve met so many people like that. There’s a Japanese guy I met in Japan, a top aerodynamicist with Mitsubishi, who’s a complete Coltrane fan. But, when we talk about models, we’re all on the same level.
So, this started out with you building models as a kid?
I started flying models when I was 6. When I was about 12, I met some older modelers who got me into a club where I learned how to build models properly and fly in competitions. This is free flight, not radio controlled. One guy who took me under his wing died recently. He was a top boffin, involved in the early research of high-speed aerodynamics, which was a lot for me to try to understand at 14. I came in second in one of the junior competitions, and then everything changed. I became a jazz musician and left it all behind.
It wasn’t until I was middle age that I bought a magazine and suddenly got interested in it again. The type of model I used to fly, which is a rubber powered model – Wakefields and F-1B they’re called now – are really competitive models. The Wakefield Trophy is the most coveted trophy. It’s the world championship. Originally, it was for all models, but now it’s only for rubber powered models. They’ve changed the rules a lot with the type of models I used to fly – they keep reducing the amount of rubber you can use. In the former USSR, the modelers were like professionals. Their clubs were like their jobs. They used to come and fly at the world championships and they had developed totally new systems. It was fascinating, astonishing. That’s how I got back into it all. This one Russian, Alexanda Andriukov, was world and european champion three times in a row, which had never been done before. He got out of Russia, and now works for Air Environment, the people who made the Gossamer Albatross, the big solar-powered airplane. He’s very happy now. They’re all crazy air modelers in that company, you know. They used to do this on a shoestring, but now they get millions from NASA for working on these spy planes with the cameras.
It took me a while once I got back into to learn how to build models using the new technology, the new trimming techniques. I won the British championship in 1989 and a couple of other major competitions, and I came in second in an international competition in France to Alex, the Russian world champion I mentioned before. Suddenly, I found myself in a fly-off with Alex. I then got more interested in aerodynamics in its own right. Then I met the guy I knew years ago, the boffin. He was getting old, but he remembered me just like it was yesterday. He showed a lot of things. Then I got a computer and learned how to use spread sheets. Now, we’ve got bloody simulation programs that we send all around the world.