the Minstrel's Tale down along the Costa Blanca
The events portrayed in this series are not necessarily in chronological order
can a piece of music still surprise the ear which it has struck
before? It must be something immediate, contained within the fabric of sound,
not contrived ahead of time according to an ulterior motive. When
you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air, you can
never capture it again. Eric Dolphy
My wife Conny went to visit a friend in England recently. Took the plane from Alicante to Gatwick and was chauffeur-driven to Southampton, all part of the service. She had a great time with her friend and the occasion was also a sad one because the girl was just about to move to Australia. Maybe the last time they'd see one another.
Just before she came back my wife went in to the local Marks & Spencer store and bought a few things. When she came to the cash desk to pay she didn't have enough small change so she gave the girl a fifty-pound note.
The girl looked at it in dismay. "What's this?" she asked.
"It's a fifty-pound note," said Conny.
The girl held it up to the light and examined it from all angles. Then she laid it on the counter, took a piece of paper and began to rub the note vigorously.
"What are you doing?" inquired Conny, politely. By now a queue had formed behind her at the cash desk.
"You can never be sure," replied the girl, rubbing away.
Conny was outraged. Born and raised in Holland, she had been offering notes of much larger value all of her life in the currencies of very many countries of the world as legal tender, and having them accepted without question. Where she came from a fifty-pound note wasn't worth a whole lot any more. It was Oh, to be in England! all over again.
"How dare you insult me like this, in front of all these people?" she demanded. The girl ignored her and continued to rub the note, pausing now and then to closely examine the bit of paper to see if any of the ink on the note was coming off. Finally satisfied, she rang up the amount due and gave Conny her change. In the change was a ten-pound note.
At once Conny seized another piece of paper from the desk, laid the ten-pound note on the counter and began rubbing away at it furiously.
"What are you doing?" demanded the girl.
"You can never be sure," replied Conny, rubbing away. Behind her the twenty or so people awaiting their turn to pay exploded into laughter. Suddenly it was party time. I wish I'd been there to see it.
I've been listening to a lot of modern big band music lately. People are sending me new CDs from all over the world and I've been playing them almost non-stop. I mean really playing themeach one several times. I like to find out what a piece of music, a solo, a score, is all about.
Some of the music has been just incredible, like the Carl Saunders CD, Be Bop Big Band; the two Pete Cater recordings, Playing with Fire and Upswing; Jon Faddis and The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band; the Rob McConnell, Bob Florence and Tom Kubis recordings.. Really great big band music that you can enjoy listening to, time and time again. I could go on, but you've got the idea. If you haven'tI'm referring to the fact that, modern or not, you can still make sense of what they are playing. There's a melody, with variations, that you can actually hear, and enjoy. The music surges forward, has purpose, swings and makes sense.
Many modern writers now like to show us just how damn clever they are. Listen to this, listen to that, isn't it lovely and complicated? If you don't like it you are waaay behind, man. Clever scoringscored right out of reality. Thousands of notes, complex harmonies, it would probably make about as much sense if you played it backwards.
Remember those beautiful Woody Herman bands: Four Brothers, Third Herd, The Thundering Herd? The Kentons, Sauter- Finegan, Basie...shall I go on?
The New Woody Herman band played a concert in Javea on the Costa Blanca, near where I live a couple of years ago. I went along. Didn't know any of them. Woody was long gone, of course, and so was Bill Byrne. I'd really gone along to see Bill. The band was now led by Frank Tiberi. Sorry Frank, not your fault, but thundering it was not.
They played quite a few of the old charts, and they weren't the same without Woody standing out front, however much Frank tried. The brass phrasing was, to put it kindly, peculiar. In the interval I grabbed one of the trumpet players. "Why the hell are you playing like that?" I snarled.
"Don't ask me" he said. "I'm not on lead." Later on they played some number that required every man in the brass section to come down front and play a solo. First trumpet came down, screamed about, played thousands of notes. Second, third and fourth trumpets came down, one after the other, screamed about, played thousands of notes. Technically brilliant, no doubt about that, but it wasn't jazz.
I thought back fondly of my old section colleagues in the Herbolzheimer band: Ack van Rooyen, Palle Mikkelborg, Art Farmer, sometimes Allan Botschinsky, Dusko Goykovic or Benny Bailey. Every one of them played jazz with soul. Every night they would come out with the most heart-rending, soul-stirring solos, quite often putting all of their magic into only very few notes. When they, on rare occasions, went into the upper register, or produced a short burst of technical wizardry, delighting us with a dazzling shower of sparkling and intricate sixteenth-note runs, it always added up to something.
My trumpet-playing colleagues in the old days in Britain: Henry Shaw, Jimmy Deuchar, Jo Hunter, Duncan Campbell, Bert Courtley, Ian Hamer, Ronnie Hughes, Jimmy Watson, Tom McQuater, Eddie Blair, Freddy Clayton, Kenny Wheeler, Leon Calvert, Kenny Bakerall played jazz as we know it. With soul. Woody's band, that night, was now playing jazz as I'm sure many of us will never, ever, want to know it.
When the trumpets in Woody's band had finished their display that night the trombones came down front and carried on where the trumpets had left off. Thousands of notes, slides whizzing in and out, every man the same, as if they were all connected to some blasted electronic jazz machine that had been left on fast forward. What's the point, I meanwhat's the bloody point? Woody wouldn't have liked it and neither did I.
Lots of applause, of course. If it's on stage and it movesclap it.
I watched a repeat of the film White Mischief on television the other evening and was once again filled with wonder at the music. George Fenton wrote it for a line-up of solo violin and viola, solo clarinet, four saxophones, trumpet, trombone, ukulele, guitar, accordion, piano, two percussion (including lujon, ye stones) bass harmonica, double bass and a violin sextet. There is some really beautiful writing for the accordionfor everyone in there.
The clarinet player on the soundtrack is so sensational, mixing classical and jazz with such ease that I scoured the cast and crew titles at the end to find out who he is. No luck there, but I found him on the Internet and he turned out to be none other than my old colleague, Henry Mackenzie. Now Henry and I spent many happy years together, first with the Tommy Sampson band and later on with Ted Heath.
Well, Henry, I always knew you were good, but I didn't know you were that good. Beautiful, beautiful playing.
Friday, 13th August, 2004
Copyright © 2004, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved