Dance versus Straight


  Jazz Development in Britain

Those readers who have had reasonably lengthy experience in the music profession will recollect very clearly that until around twenty years ago there was a traditional "dance" versus "straight" musicians attitude prevailing among the music makers. Those described as "dance" musicians included all those playing in ballrooms, clubs, hotels and restaurants, whilst the "straight" men consisted of the members of symphony, opera, ballet, theatre or light music orchestras and, of course, those playing in chamber groups.

There was considerable prejudice displayed on both sides and those of us who had, as it were, a foot in each camp often found ourselves in bitter argument. The "dance" players usually referred to the others as the "long hairs" (a description derived from the impression created by some symphonic conductors because few of the "straight" players in fact had long hair) whilst "straight' men usually tried to ignore the existence of their brothers from the spheres of music where almost everything was played in strict or almost strict tempo! Musicians from both sides frequently crossed the line and it was not uncommon when playing in a dance band to hear a "straight" musician, brought in for the occasion as a deputy, having taken the "A", make a crack about its being "good enough for jazz"! Whilst the "dance" musician, no matter how versatile he was, when playing in a straight orchestra frequently found himself ostracised.

There was also a story put around among the "dance" players about a trombone player, normally employed in a symphony orchestra, who wanted to put in a deputy on New Year's Eve. Being unable to find one at any price he set about persuading his butcher to deputise for him! The unfortunate purveyor of best English and Canterbury protested that he could not even play the trombone but was finally persuaded to borrow his customer's spare trombone, tail suit and Union card for the night, ' having been assured that all he had to do was watch the other two trombone players and copy their "slide" action without attempting to blow! The first work in the programme was something by Schubert, who loved writing for the trombone, which demanded some strident opening bars from the three slide pushers but, unfortunately, when the conductor brought his baton down to commence the proceedings, nothing happened- because all three were deputies!

Drummers especially used to come in for a great deal of wise- cracking with remarks such as the reference to the band consisting of "ten musicians and a drummer", but today my heart is warmed by the sight of our contemporary percussionists dominating the scene in just about every kind of work in which their efforts are called for. The change that has come over the scene is both healthy and amazing. Today one in fact finds more "long- haired" musicians among the dance and jazz players than in the symphony orchestras, although many of those in the latter seem to be doing their best to conform to current fashion. No longer can the term "long hair" be applied to any particular field of music. Whilst one so often finds musicians from all fields of music playing quite happily together any prejudice that is left must be among a few remaing die- hards.

On two occasions, in 1970 and 1971, when running May Day Concerts at the Royal Festival Hall for the Musicians' Union and the Labour Party, I was able to introduce into the programme works that required the mixing of musicians from the field of symphonic and jazz music. The first of these was "Improvisations For Jazz Band And Symphony Orchestra" by John Dankworth and Matyas Seiber, and the second, a specially commissioned work by Robert Farnon, was "Saxophone Triparti". The Dankworth/ Seiber work called for John's full band in addition to the New Philharmonic Orchestra, whilst the Farnon work, a showcase for Bob Burns, required the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to be augmented by sundry additional instruments including six other saxophones as well as Stan Roderick, Don Lusher, Arthur Watts and Bobby Orr. Being at attendance at rehearsals as well as performances, I had ample opportunity for observing the mutual respect that obviously existed between the musicians from both "sides"— it was indeed so apparent as to establish once and for all that the "sides" no longer existed.

At the recent Biennial Delegate Conference of the Musicians' Union I was further reminded of this important change when attending the social event that is always held on the evening of the second day. In the past the music has come mainly from the fields of dance and jazz, but this year there was, in addition to the excellent jazz played by the driving band of Dennis Mann and various Conference delegates, who mucked in in great style, a chamber music interlude that had the audience raving! A group of London musicians had got together a more or less impromptu wind sextet which consisted of Basil Tschaikov, Bernard Parris and Gordon Lewin (clarinets), Maurice Jennings (flute), Alan Cave (bassoon), and Frank Hawkins (horn) who, as would be expected from musicians of this calibre, gave excellent renderings of four works by Haydn, Lully, Gastold and Bach respectively. There was then extracted from the sextet a quartet consisting of Tschaikov, Parris, Lewin, this time playing bass clarinet, and Jennings, who had changed over to clarinet, which played works by Corelli, Khachaturyan, Towerdell and Hruby.

It was the work of the last-named composer, a jazz-orientated suite entitled "For The Birds", that won for the musicians a standing ovation and demonstrated very clearly the point that I have here been endeavouring to make—that the barriers have long been down—underlined perhaps by the excellent tenor saxophone work by Maurice Jennings in the jazz sessions that came later. It was also very good, incidentally, to hear the former Bill Thomas, having recovered from recent health problems, playing some really great jazz, also on tenor saxophone, which as he was originally trained as a Royal Marine bandsman, provided further evidence in support.