Once a jazz fan...
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JBP's jazz story


I was born in 1921.

By the nineteen-thirties, when I was old enough to recognise the music, real jazz was hard to find. The sources of entertainment were radio, cinema, and the gramophone. The air waves in the United Kingdom were laden with the bland and fluting tones of BBC complacency, and a form of musical syrup, the debasement of a vigorous, inspirational idiom into sugary water by dance bands whose members played what was written on the sheet by hack arrangers like clerks adding figures in a bank. Henry Hall in a dress suit made token gestures in front of two ranks of sleek-haired journeymen, announcing the next number in clipped tones to a captive audience. Billy Cotton pumped out cheery, bumpy tunes, occasionally shouting "Wakey, wakey!" in case his customers had dropped off. Jack Payne, Jack Hylton, Ambrose and the rest delivered variations on pop themes of the day at various levels of sophistication. A few bands pretended to be 'hot' - which meant that Harry Roy jigged about and shouted now and then. Nobody played genuine jazz. The nearest thing to it was heard, on those occasions when groups like that of Nat Gonella intruded fleetingly among the uniforms; and he had to clown to get noticed.

As for the cinema, in the few films which contained jazz content, the music was usually at once vulgarised and sanitised by making black performers into comics, so that jazz was seen as a form of jerky posturing. By this time those genuine jazz men, like Louis Armstrong, who survived, had become commercial entertainers, section pooters in big bands, operated in back rooms and obscure clubs, or had gone home to become shop-keepers, field workers, truck drivers, caretakers or odd job men. The financial crash of 1929 had ruined the market for real jazz, and for celebration of any kind.

As soon as big bands of the so-called 'swing era' came in, with their drilled section-playing of strict arrangements, and their boring obsession with repeated riffs, something essential to its spirit was lost from jazz. The big band music was slicker, shallower and less fiery than small group jazz. The power to articulate deep emotion was being squeezed out. Even the best of the big bands - Basie, Lunceford - were of no use to me. I wanted, five, six, seven or eight dedicated jazz men enjoying themselves by blowing together to produce magic.

I don't know when or how it was that I first encountered authentic music on record, since there was no one to point it out to me. I have come to feel, though, that anyone committed to any form of art or music if left to himself or herself will develop the capacity to distinguish the true from the false. It's a case of 'knowing in yourself whether the water is warm or cold.'

I spent much time listening to records in a tiny kiosk at the back of Bush's gramophone shop on the Hinckley Road. I made mistakes, going for approximations because the real thing wasn't there, but gradually learned what to steer clear of and what to risk. The real jazz men in the big bands got together to make records out of hours, and now and again some early stuff was reissued. This must have been due either to the executives not knowing the difference between jazz and big band 'swing music', or to a few knowledgeable under-cover men pushing good food through the bars when no one was looking. These were the records I was looking for, and sometimes found.

Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis seemed to imply that they gravitated towards jazz as a kind of protest against their elders and the society they had produced. If so it didn't do them much good, because they became pillars of the reactionary establishment, and supported Margaret Thatcher, to whom jazz would have been a shocking intrusion into the ordered life of respectable grocers.

The sense of oppression that I felt from the atmosphere of pomposity, complacency, hypocrisy, chicanery, and blindness which produced Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, The Times, Stalinist stooges and the rise of Happy Harry Hitler, together with the Banks which loomed over the terraced, streets of little brick houses behind the record shop hadn't anything to do with my love of jazz. Yes, I was distressed and frightened and angry about all this, but my passion for jazz wasn't a protest against it. Jazz was for its players. I was privileged to listen in.

This was music my parents didn't enjoy. They didn't forbid it, but since they didn't like it I could only play records when they weren't about.

That was embarrassing but it wasn't their fault.

Josef Skvorecky, a Czech writer who should know what he's talking about because he survived both Nazi and Stalinist tyranny, has got it right when he says that all authentic art ends as protest under tyranny because the tyrant bans it, but "the essence of this music (jazz), this 'way of making music', is not simply protest. Its essence is something far more elemental: an élan vitale, a forceful vitality, an explosive creative energy as breathtaking as that of any true art, that may be felt even in the saddest of blues. Its effect is cathartic."

I was groping for the principles on which the music operated. I couldn't have stated them. But I had a dim sense that a group of talented musicians working through individual improvisation to create something new and fresh that became each time a harmonic whole was a kind of miracle, and one fundamental to the nature of human beings. Every player has to be aware of the other players without taking time off to listen so that his own playing won't insult or distract from theirs, and won't sabotage the collective cornucopia. The rules were unspoken. Arrangements were 'head arrangements' worked out on a co-operative basis.

This is what Omer Simeon, Jelly Roll Morton's favourite clarinet player, said about working with him; "I'll tell you how he was in rehearsing a band. He was exact with us. Very jolly, very full of life all the time, but serious. He used to spend, maybe three hours rehearsing four sides and in that time he'd give us the effects he wanted, like the background behind a solo - he would run that over on the piano with one finger and the guys would get together and harmonise it. . . "

"The solos - they were ad. lib. We played according to how we felt. Of course, Jelly had his ideas and sometimes we'd listen to him and sometimes, together with our own, we'd make something better. . ."

And here is Johnny St.Cyr, guitarist with Morton, Armstrong, and Joe Oliver:

"But a working man has the power to play hot - whiskey or no whiskey. You see, the average working man is very musical. Playing for him is just relaxing. He gets as much kick out of playing as the other folks get out of dancing. The more enthusiastic his audience is, why, the more spirit the working man's got to play. And with your natural feelings that way, you never make the same thing twice. Every time you play a tune, new ideas come to mind, and you slip that on in."

Jim Robinson, the trombone player, said this; "If everyone is in a frisky spirit, the spirit gets to me and I can make my trombone sing. I always want people around me. It gives me a warm heart, and gets into my music."

That the unity of the individual with the group in the creative expression of emotion creates community with the audience is emphasised by Ralph Ellison when writing of blues singer Jimmy Rushing: "It was when Jimmy's voice began to soar with the spirit of the blues that the dancers - and the musicians - achieved that feeling of communion which was the true meaning of the public jazz dance. The blues, the singer, the band and the dancers formed the vital whole of jazz as an institutional form, and even today neither part is quite complete without the rest. The thinness of much of the so-called modern jazz is especially reflective of this loss of wholeness, and it is quite possible that Rushing retains his vitality simply because he has kept close to the small Negro public dance."

Jazz isn't big music, it's small music, but that doesn't make make it trivial. The efforts of Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson to compose 'seriously' were their own business, but the results weren't jazz. No doubt they wanted to be respectable, and accepted into musical society, to stand back from the raffish denizens of brothels, speak-easies and rent parties.

Johnson said once, "All this jazz business. I always wanted to be a musician - not a jazz musician. Any son-of-a-bitch can play that" which is extraordinarily obtuse of him. Any son-of-a-bitch who has talent enough and has worked hard enough to read music and master an instrument can play what has been written down for him on paper but to improvise, to compose as he plays, to produce living music in conjunction with his fellows - no, that needs insight, imagination, inspiration, the capacity to transform feeling into organised yet spontaneous sound, and so share in the creation of magic.

Perhaps this sense of organised, co-operative freedom, this vocational energy of purpose, producing a marvellous whole, helped me to identify with the anarchism, of Kropotkin when I discovered it. (I remember underlining the word 'anarchism' in a school history book before I knew precisely what it meant. I have an idea that the school history book didn't know precisely what it meant, either.) Why shouldn't we all live as the music showed us? We each have a given talent if we are encouraged to find and use it, if we used it co-operatively, what could we not achieve? Why does society conspire against this happening?

Is it to ensure that power stays in the fewest possible hands?

Jazz men could be alcoholics, dopers, desperadoes or delinquents, and were certainly competitive, but when they played together and the magic worked, each man was simultaneously liberated and in control pooling individual energies and drawing on communal spirit to celebrate the rhythm of life itself. Real jazz only lasted forty odd years and it can't be resurrected. The records are all we have.

At school I infected some comrades with this passion for jazz, and it must have caused our music teacher, a sensitive soul called Laughlin, to burn with the slow fires of resentment, because one day he strode into class wearing an expression of flushed determination as if about to swim the Rubicon. He waved a sheet of music above his head. It had on the cover a picture of a girl in a flowered dress and a title in fancy lettering like an advertisement for soap.

"I'll show you what jazz is. Just listen to this!" he said. He sat down at the piano and began to play with exaggerated syncopation some Tin Pan Alley tune of the day, as if by doing so he was demolishing an evil empire. "There!" he said when he had finished, and explained with relish the musical emptiness of the piece.

I listened in bewilderment and dismay. I knew he had got the wrong end of a broken stick but wasn't equipped, to expound the subtleties of improvised polyphony, or the basic difference between real jazz and synthetic pop. I couldn't articulate my feelings at all. This inability made me sad, angry, and deeply ashamed. The episode turned me away from the classical music which it had been his intention to promote.

If he was prepared to dismiss what he didn't understand, then so was I!

I came round to classical music, of course, because all authentic music speaks to the mind and the heart as soon as you are prepared to listen. But if I had offered to play him a record by Jelly Roll Morton he would not have stayed to hear it.

At the end of one term, when we were packing our trunks to go home, my records were spread out on the floor of the great draughty shed where this process always took place. Some large-footed youth, blundering innocently towards his own gathered belongings, trod all over the records, reducing them to shards of shellac. They were irreplaceable, and since Humpty Dumpty could not be restored to the wall, I waved the youth away as if it didn't matter. What else could I do?

I was left with about a dozen records. I've still got them.

Oddly enough I was in my seventies before I started collecting again. I don't know why. I still kept the faith. I just didn't see the right stuff anywhere. Some time during the nineteen-sixties I picked up a record of the early jug bands. That was all. I started again by accident. I went to a Book Fair in Dumfries and one stall was selling jazz books. I bought a book and then noticed that the stall-holder had a few records for sale, including three by Sidney Bechet. I bought those. A month later my son pointed out a record store where you could buy Cajun music which interested me at the time. I went in and found a treasure house of jazz. I haven't stopped collecting since.

Sometimes I'm possessed by a profound sadness; all these bringers of life are dead now. If they were alive the jazz of today wouldn't inspire them: it's too cold, too egoistic.

Yet play the records and the world lights up. The sounds are not just history, the magic still works.


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Since that piece was written over twenty years ago I've got to know more about the bands still playing the real stuff all over Britain and Europe and found the quality and variety remarkable. Many of the bands, while staying in the true tradition have jumped beyond the strict orthodoxy of line-up and repertoire and introduced piano, alto or tenor sax or both and play whatever tunes take their fancy.

As Jelly Roll Morton said, 'Jazz isn't what you play, it's how you play it.'

Most of the musicians, it's true, are over sixty, but when I play the CD of a band which blazes away at the real stuff on a Barcelona street with a line-up of British clarinettist in her twenties, a Spanish trumpeter in his fifties, and two Russians on piano and banjo who must be late thirties I know that the music will still be alive and flourishing long after I've left Winamop and the odd, dangerous and wonderful world we inhabit in the place called NOW..



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