What Happened To Jazz? Blog

29 May 2013

CroydonTownHallI was in the Golden City of Croydon yesterday, mainly to visit the model shop they have down there in order to get some extruded plastic rod for the Seaplanes of the Axis Powers Diorama, but also to do a gig. The Jazz scene in Croydon exists in a converted high street branch of Nat West which is now a rather splendid boozer called The Green Dragon. Wisely realising that the target audience for this sort of thing now almost entirely has a free bus pass, they do it on Tuesday lunchtime. This ensures that the target audience can all get home in time for tea, draw the curtains and have a nice settle down. Very wise. I need also to mention that while playing jazz in the Green Dragon is never going to earn a chap enough for the new Jag, they do feed you there, and give you as much access to their magnificent selection of real ale as you can shake a stick at. I must also say that after three pints or so of the Dark Star Brewery’s “Erse of Beelzebubbe” or whatever it was called you’d be hard pressed to shake your head, let alone pick up a stick and discernibly wiggle it around.

This was a return booking for a project of mine which is also partly an experiment. It resulted from a chat with Alex Garnett during an inevitable curry back in January. We were indulging ourselves in an enjoyable moan about why the audience for jazz gigs in theatres and pubs seems to be in sharp decline, and being a bit beery as we were, introduced the strand of “Of course in the good old days, gigs used to be packed- couldn’t get to the bar-air thick with fag smoke-playing jazz for money was a workable career option-Club Eleven- Tubby Hayes etc etc”. Then the penny dropped. One of the reasons, if not the main reason itself is that since the Golden Days of, I suppose, the early 1960’s, Jazz has become progressively less and less easy for the Man In The Street to get hold of, and as he doesn’t have to, he doesn’t bother.

If we look at who was around in those days, Jazz here in the Golden Days was split into two clearly defined camps – the modernists, featuring such luminaries as John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and Stan Tracey, and the traditionalists, most famously Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball, all of whom earned a very decent living from playing the kind of music which they chose to play. As someone who has had to bash together a living playing “The Lady In Red” and “The Lambada” at weddings for the first fifteen years, and still is no stranger to the harmonic structure of “Tequila” when the need arises, I can tell you now that to be able to survive playing music of your own choice as a mainstream option is a luxury afforded to only a tiny minority now’ if at all. Ask any of the notable jazzers down a theatre pit next time you go in! Flautist Gareth Lockrane, one of the most invigorating and astounding jazz soloists this nation has ever produced, pays his way mainly by teaching. The fact that he’s teaching the complexities of contemporary jazz to an endless supply of volunteers who will, in their turn have to survive by either teaching, playing Tequila or roasting away for Sir Cameron is another matter entirely.

Back to the traders and the cool cats of the early ’60s, each camp had a clearly defined image- your modernist was all about the sharp suit, shades and looking cool. Your traddie sported a kind of proto-hippie get-up, built for comfort in order to withstand the long hours of dancing to the band. Either way, it was about a group look, belonging to a new gang, and going out. In Britain, music is fashion, and it was fashionably the thing to be interested in jazz. I’m not so sure if this is the case these days. The thing is though, if you listen to early 1960’s British jazz of any kind, it is immediately apparent why it had a much broader commercial appeal than it does these days. Broadly speaking, the reason is regular rhythm. Tubby’s great drummer Phil Seaman is not mainly remembered for his amazing technical facility on the drums. Ask anyone about Phil who remembers, and they will tell you about the time and the feel, and the fact that when he played, the whole room swung. . It’s the same with the trad bands. Last Friday, BBC4 had on a broadcast from 1965 of Acker Bilk’s band. His drummer, Ron MacKay played bar after bar of glorious swinging drums, and it was instantly obvious why this music had a wide audience. Modern or trad, being strongly rhythmic, it was fun to listen to. Once you’ve got that in place, the fashion can follow. If we look into all the times in history when jazz succeeded commercially, it is generally because the rhythm was regular. Benny Goodman and the swing era was all about that. I guess that you could argue that the only jazz musician today who is anything like a global household name is Diana Krall. Virtually every Krall recording has the lilt of the rhythm guitar gently, and most importantly ,regularly stating the beat. I remember in the late 1980’s there was a brief resurgence of Jazz in the wake of the Absolute Beginners film. Once again, something had happened to make jazz a little bit fashionable. Bands led by drummers Tommy Chase and Clark Tracey were able to go on well-paid national tours. This time the focus was on hard bop, and particularly that of Art Blakey and Horace Silver, but what do we find here? That’s right- a good heavy swinging backbeat. Put on Horace Silver’s record of Sister Sadie and try and keep still. Just try it.

Anyway, back to Croydon, Alex and the inevitable curry griping session. The upshot of it was that we would have an experiment to put some old fashioned 1960’s British jazz out there to see what would happen. I had a Tuesday lunchtime quartet gig in my book for a week later down at the Green Dragon, and reasoning that as the playing fee was bugger all already, and that half of bugger all was still bugger all, why not double the size of the band and have a proper old jam session in the style of the great Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts of the 1950’s? Armed as we were with a selection of hotshots on Saxes and brass, it was an absolute smash hit. A Jazz at the Phil concert is highly structured. For a general music listener, structure and regular rhythm are the things. Despite looking like a collection of soloists taking it in turns to blow over a rhythm section, there are in fact lots of rules. No solo is longer than three choruses. On the third chorus of each solo the other blowers set up a riff. By doing this, the performance has variety, pace, and perhaps the thing which your average chap in the street needs most, but which jazz has least of – hooks. I remember on that first gig whole rows of people in the audience singing along with the riff we’d set up on Lady Be Good as Mark Armstrong took his trumpet into the stratosphere- he was amazing, but our riff made him inclusive. There are no bass solos. Sorry, bass players, but you already know all the gags-“Marriage Counsellors are now employing jazz bass players in their premises as it has been proved scientifically that nothing gets people talking as efficiently as a bass solo”. To be fair, on that gig the bass solo situation was addressed when Paul Morgan got “In a Sentimental Mood” all to himself. With his sound and virtuosity, he brought the house down.

It’s a funny thing with drummers, especially those at college level, in which they will be perfectly content to sit on a rock or funk groove for hours on end, enjoying the accumulation of vibe in the room which ensues. Ask for a jazz groove, and all of a sudden a Need To Be Inventive steps in, and no two successive bars are the same, thus not permitting the accumulation of vibe. Maybe it’s a fear of the jazz turning into Rock and Roll. However, Elliott Henshaw was at the kit that day, and being a massive Buddy Rich head he understood the task immediately. By half time the whole room was shaking and quivering with regular rhythm. The whole room was also packed. Not only was the room packed, but everybody was smiling. Everyone in the place, band, puntes, barstaff and Molly the greyhound was included in the jazz. Ken, who puts the gig together, had never seen anything like it. I had- film of Humphrey Lyttleton’s band in the 100 club in 1952 had audience shots which looked like that.

Now then- please don’t think that I’m on a one-chap crusade here to turn the hands of time back because The Good Old Days were better, or that I’m becoming a rhythmic and harmonic luddite in warning of the perils of contemporary twenty-first century jazz. Oh dear me no! If music is to survive, it has to grow. However, what does seem to be the case is that it was certainly easier to earn a living playing Jazz in the Good Old Days, and I think that making jazz accessible and trying to reach new audiences with it is as crucial to its survival as the efforts of those on its cutting edge. To play it with regular rhythm, structure and hooks is by no means dumbing it down. If anything, it makes its execution rather harder, as a sense of discipline has to be introduced into the mix. A well-rounded jazz musician should be able to work happily in either context, and be able to really enjoy both parts of the spectrum. Having your music connect with a couple of hundred cheering people in a pub is a very different pleasure to really making the changes on “Heyoke” in the reverend hush of a concert hall, but if as a business we aren’t connecting with the public and drumming up interest in jazz, it is possible to imagine a situation in which there won’t be either pubs or concert halls to play in. Big Jazz Festivals now have to import turns from the world of Rock & Roll in order to survive. Montreux this year is boasting an appearance by ZZ Top on its main stage.

Now I’m as big a fan of ZZ Top as the next chap, but headlining a jazz festival? The reason that there’s not a jazz big hitter of the magnitude of Louis Armstrong, Errol Garner or Duke Ellington these days is that as a breed, we as jazz musicians have largely shut the pub door on our potential audience in the interests of driving the outer limits of our craft to new and unimaginable heights. It is well documented that Einstein would run courses in classical music appreciation, and the first item on the listening list would be a spot of Mantovani. He, with his atom-splitting intellect, that you can’t serve people heavy-duty contemporary music without getting their ears and minds accustomed to the sounds it makes. Recently there has been a campaign “Creating Opportunities For UK Jazz Musicians”. I think we need to re-jig it and bring out “Creating Opportunities For UK Jazz Audiences”.
What do you think?

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