Jazz Professional               


The Music Boss

by Ron Simmonds

Once upon a time there was a big band working in a small European radio station. The station had a music department, and the boss of the department, name of Siebenpfennig, hated that band with all his heart.

‘Why should we have to pay a band all that money?’ he complained to his secretary every day, ‘when the record companies are sending us all the music we can use for nothing.?’

The trouble was that the musicians in the big band all had contracts for life, were members of a pension scheme, and couldn’t be shifted. The musicians’ union of that country was run by lawyers, and no musician could ever be fired.

What could Siebenpfennig do? His predecessor had been a big band jazz fan. He had done everything for the band, and everyone loved him madly. He was not a well man, though, and was obliged to retire for health reasons.

The day he left the station he took the bandleader to one side. A scrupulously fair, highly sensitive man, he seemed to be struggling for words. ‘The man replacing me—is—not  a col­league,’ he said, finally.

The day he arrived Siebenpfennig called the band to a meeting. He was a large, floppy, loose-limbed man, and he was colour–blind. Siebenpfennig turned up wearing bright blue trousers and a green jacket several sizes too large for him. He wore these same clothes all the time he worked at the radio station, and no one ever saw him wearing anything else. He launched now into a monologue, droning on for an hour or so about all the cuts and changes he was going to make. No one listened to him because they still hadn’t got over the sight of the weird clothes.

Siebenpfennig was the ideal choice for running a radio station's music department because he knew nothing about music, and very little about putting together radio programmes. All of his ideas on how to do things revolved around money. He didn’t mind too much having hundreds of secretaries and typists sitting around most of the time doing nothing, but he was incensed at having to pay for the people who did the actual broadcasting. The band became his pet hobby-horse, and he determined to try and get rid of it. If he couldn’t legally get shot of the band at least he should be able to find some reason to stop it from recording, and save an enormous amount of money that way. He set out to discredit them.

"The quality of this band does not match up to that of the other big radio bands", he said. The bandleader wrote a big band arrangement that was both musically and technically demanding and sent the identical score to all the other big radio bands in the country. Later that year, in the country’s capital, a blindfold test was carried out to decide upon the best big band recording of the year, judged upon the quality of writing, performance and engineering. The representative of each of the stations proudly turned up with his own recording of that very same arrangement. When it was discovered that they’d all chosen an identical piece for the contest there was much merriment, but it was too late to change things, and the test continued. The band that Siebenpfennig hated the most won the contest..

He hit upon a scheme to disgrace them. The band was commissioned to play folk music, religious music, pop, reggae, funk, Dixieland, New Orleans, gut–bucket, Creole and strict tempo music for ballroom dancing. Various exotic combinations of instruments were demanded, not all of them logical. The musicians played everything faultlessly and sat back asking for more. Siebenpfennig was beside himself. His wife, wearing a mustard–yellow pants suit, sequinned purple jacket, gold shoes, blue socks and bright green hair appeared at the concerts complaining about the way the musicians were dressed. The band bought new uniforms.

The bandleader was sent for by the programme director, who was second in command of the whole radio station. ‘Is it true,’ he asked, ‘that the band cannot perform without a guitar?’ Someone had told him this. The regular guitar player had contracted rigor mortis in his wrist, and was retiring soon. He was left–handed and played on a specially constructed left–handed guitar, which used to freak out visiting rock bands when they tried to play on it.

The band made a set of recordings with, and without, the guitar and the director was asked whether he could tell the difference. He could not, and neither, to his discomfiture, could Siebenpfennig.

One day, a young man appeared in the studio carrying every score the bandleader had ever written for the radio band, and sat there all the time they were playing leafing through them and making notes. He had been charged with the task, he said, of going through all of the arrangements and noting down the key signatures. These would then be entered into a data file in the office computer and analysed statistically. He said this in the manner of a tax official who had arrived to go over the books. When pressed to explain the point of it all, he gave an enigmatic smile and went about his task without answering.

The musicians named him secretly J. Edgar and left him to it. As the bandleader had written hundreds of arrangements for the radio station over the years, ranging from full concert orchestra down to the various small groups, the young man was with them for several weeks. One day the musicians arrived in the studio to find that J. Edgar had disappeared. No one ever saw him again.

That morning the bandleader was called in to see Siebenpfennig. The boss threw a thick computer printout at him. ‘There you are. What do you think of that?’

According to the sheet the bandleader had used one key this number of times, and another that number of times, and so on, with a marked preponderance of the less remote keys, all savagely underlined several times in red crayon. Everything was neatly laid out in computerised tabular and graphic form. The bandleader stared at it without knowing what it all meant.

‘It means that you’ve been found out, exposed,’ said Siebenpfennig, silkily. ‘For years we’ve been paying you top money, and all the time you have been using only easy key signatures, sometimes even only one key per arrangement!  Where are all the key changes? Music must have key changes! ’ The bandleader thought back with amusement to a recording he had made earlier on in another radio station. The band there had made a really great jazz LP but after hearing the playbacks the producer had walked around shaking his head in despair. ‘No shakes,’ he kept muttering, wringing his hands. ‘You can’t have a jazz record without shakes.’ The band went back into the studio and recorded all of the titles again, with the trumpets doing long wide shakes on every note possible. It had sounded utterly ridiculous.

‘That’s it!’ cried the producer, tears of joy in his eyes. ‘That’s jazz!’

There was no way of answering Siebenpfennig so the bandleader left him with his computer sheets and walked out. A few days later he was summoned to the programme director’s office. When he got inside Siebenpfennig was there, together with the head of personnel, the finance director, head of engineering, chief editor, the station doctor, whose presence at all gatherings of more than six persons was mandatory, the eminent conductor of the symphony orchestra, who was a greatly famous, prestige–loaded black American on a six month cultural exchange, and the programme director’s new secretary, of whom he was absurdly proud, and who now sat on the edge of his desk wearing a gymslip belonging to her fourteen–year–old daughter, swinging her legs and ready to take notes. The director had engaged her after watching Young Mr. Grace in Are You Being Served.

It took a little while for them all to settle down, what with the secretary and all. The bandleader was now accused of walking out while being admonished by his departmental chief, misinterpretation of his contract, wilful negligence, and fraud. The data sheet was produced.

‘How do you explain this?’ asked the programme director, wearily. Apart from his collection of mandolin recitals and one or two L.P.’s he had of a South American nose flute player that he always put on at parties when he was drunk he knew nothing about music, and was clearly embarrassed about the whole affair.

 ‘May I?’ The eminent conductor picked up the sheet of damning evidence and stared at it in disbelief. After a few seconds his eyes swivelled around furtively to meet those of the bandleader. He pursed his lips, frowned and shook his head slightly

The music boss began his case for the prosecution, banging several times on the table for added emphasis. The finance director looked at the programme director and raised his eyebrows. The chief editor seemed to be asleep. The doctor had fallen deeply in love with the secretary as soon as he entered the room, and was not about to take his eyes off her even in the event of an earthquake.

‘Gentlemen,’ said the bandleader, when his turn came, ‘The music I write—that anyone writes—should be judged solely on its merits. However, if it helps you to understand what this is all about, I can explain why I use certain keys often, and others not at all.’

‘Well!’ barked Siebenpfennig. ‘I’d certainly like to hear that.’ He had wrapped his arms tightly around himself in a body language that was impossible to misinterpret. With the wide sleeves of his weird coat he now seemed to be enclosed in a tight green straightjacket.

‘First of all I would like to say that as far as the listener is concerned it matters very little in which key a piece of music has been written.’ There was a loud snort of derision from Siebenpfennig, who looked around with a sarcastic smile for confirmation from the others. But they were all staring glumly at the ceiling, at the floor, or out the window, with the exception of the doctor, of course, and also the chief editor, who now let out a piggish snore.

The bandleader continued. ‘Although much has been said about the spiritual qualities of some keys—sharp keys are bright and cheerful, while the flats are supposed to be heavy and mysterious, with further qualifications if the keys are in the minor mode—it is the substance of the music, rather than the key signature, which generally gives the required mood.’ He could see by the look of painful concentration on his face that he had, by now, completely lost the programme director, and it gave him strength for the next bit.

‘When composing for the orchestra the writer must not only consider the range, or compass, of the notes of the melody being arranged, but also that of the instruments that will play it. If it is to sound at its best these must also be written in their most grateful ranges and keys. There is no point in writing music which is difficult to perform per se.  If I may quote Forsyth—it is easier for (an) ... instrument to play in a key somewhere near its natural scale, whatever that may be... Of course if one’s favourite orchestral key is F# major one deserves to suffer...’

‘Hear, hear,’ muttered the conductor, who, together with the symphony orchestra, had been engaged in a losing encounter with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Nr. 5 Zeitmasse  ever since he arrived, and wished dearly to be back home in Indiana. It was quite close in the room, and he closed his eyes for a moment.

‘Make a note of that, would you, Miss Lollipop?’ said the programme director, keenly. A great admirer of Frederick Forsyth, he had read The Fourth Protocol  twice and was now halfway through The Day of the Jackal.  The girl slipped from the desk and tottered over to the other side of the room on her ridiculously high heels in search of her pad. Dr. Spick uttered a low moan as he watched her. ‘Pull yourself together, man!’ hissed the engineer.

‘As the jazz ensemble consists of many transposing instruments, the task of writing each instrument within these limitations often takes several hours of consideration before beginning with the actual work.’

The chief editor suddenly screamed  ‘GET AWAY FROM ME!’,  awoke with a start and stared wildly around before dropping off again.

The bandleader went on. ‘Sometimes these bad keys cannot be avoided, but I see no reason for inserting them deliberately, merely to satisfy the whim of a non-musician, just because he happens to be my immediate superior.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ bristled Siebenpfennig. ‘I used to play the saxophone.’ The chief editor was sobbing now, ‘Somebody stop them! Oh—somebody stop them!’  The head of engineering looked at him doubtfully. ‘Shouldn’t we wake him up?’

The eminent conductor opened his eyes, checked his watch, stood, and cleared his throat. He was dying to get away from all this. ‘I assume that I have been asked here today in a professional capacity?’

‘Of course.’

He picked up the computer printout and studied it for a moment. Then he tore it right across the middle with a flourish and threw it back on the table. ‘There you are. That’s my professional opinion.’ He walked over to the door, opened it, and stalked out, humming a snatch of the Scherzando  in Maderna’s Serenata No.2.

The finance director studied his nails for a moment. Then he said, ‘How much did it cost the radio station to do this—survey? ’

There was a deathly silence, then, while Siebenpfennig was still thinking it over, the bandleader said that the guy from the FBI had been at it all day, every day, for three or four weeks, plus computer time—perhaps some two hundred working hours.

The programme director raised his head and stared long and hard at the music boss. The bandleader got out of the room quickly. The conductor was waiting for him just outside the door. They raced one another along the corridor, jostling and using their elbows, seeing who could get out of the building the quicker. Hot on their heels came the secretary, pursued by Dr. Spick. The doctor had his stethoscope out and was closing on her rapidly.

  Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved