The Jazz Festival
By Ron Simmonds
It was four in the morning and pitch black when the phone went. I picked it up and heard a giggle. I recognised the giggle. It was Chow Min.
‘Hello, hello! I velly solly wake you.’
‘Hey! That’s a very good connection! Where are you? You sound as if you’re just down the road.’
‘I am just down road.’
‘No kidding! Then why are you phoning at four in the morning?’
‘Ah! So Solly! I forget change watch from Tokyo time. I velly busy man, need talk to you. You awake? Good! I now hear on glapevine you not only velly good tlumpet prayer, with good memoly, you also good allanger, write many big band charts. You come play big jazz festival in Japan, pliz, bling charts. We play Shlorty Logers, Bluddy Lich, Duke Errington and Nerson Liddle allangements as well. Festival on Saturday. Bling gleen shirt.’
‘Why should I? I hate green shirts.’
‘New band uniform.’
‘But I liked those kimonos last time!’
‘Kimonos good, but bass player have girl with him under kimono all time. Not good for jazz. Don’t argue. Lots of money. Come to Heathlow eight o’clock.’
Remembering my last concert with Xiao Min I wasn’t too keen to go, but he’d stuffed a wad of notes as thick as the Tokyo telephone book into my hand after it, and I’ll go anywhere for that kind of money. I was on the plane first thing in the morning.
This time there were four Geisha girls looking after us on the trip, two each. There were no other passengers. We spent the polar flight looking through my scores, all of which he discarded contemptuously.
‘These no good. For jazz festival tlumpets must have many high shakes and—how you say—sclee...shree..?’
‘Hai! Scleemers.’ He nodded, saying scleemers under his breath a few times.
‘I learn from you,’ he said.
We landed in Tokyo to pick up the music, took the Osaka Express to the north of the island and boarded the boat to Sendai. I freshened up a bit and went to meet Chow in the restaurant for breakfast. The place was crowded. As I went through the door the ship left harbour for the open sea and hit an enormous wave. There was a lurch, and every single breakfast tray in the room shot off the table. Within the space of a second everyone in the room was covered in breakfast.
I made my way over to Chow, slipping and sliding through the slimy debris as the ship pitched and rolled all over the place. Chow sat there, dead–pan, his tray miraculously undisturbed before him.
‘You want bleakfast?’
‘Not any more.’
My last visit to Sendai had been with the Swedish trombone player Åke Persson, God rest his soul, and we’d torn the place up a bit, but jazz–wise it had been pretty barren. The concert hall there was enormous, and was already packed to bursting. In Japan everyone seems to wear the same clothes, and the audiences are superb, very patient, very polite, and very, very appreciative.
‘We have two Amelicans in the band tonight,’ said Chow. ‘One play saxophone, other sing like Flank Sinatra. Saxophone velly good, but have bruddy big head.’ He suddenly seemed to see me for the first time, and sucked in his breath sharply.
‘Where your gleen shirt?’ he demanded, angrily.
‘I don’t have one.’
‘Take off white shirt at once.’ He snapped some orders to his assistant, who was always one step behind him, and slightly to the right. The lackey took my shirt, produced a metal spray canister from a secret pocket, and quickly sprayed the shirt with a 39 Green. For those of you not versed in theatre lore: a 39 Green is a gel filter which can be placed over the lens of a spotlight. It turns whoever is bathed in the light a bilious green, like the devil himself, and is used by theatre managers the world over for artists on stage who are less than entertaining—rather like a substitute for the hook used to drag off rotten acts in the old days.
Chow handed me back the shirt. ‘Let dry half, then wear.’ When it was half dry the shirt stood up briefly all by itself for a moment, then collapsed soggily like a large green frog. It hissed and spat at me as I struggled into it, giving myself green fingers. A man stood at my elbow. He was tall, dark, handsome and introduced himself as the singer.
‘Maybe you can help me,’ he drawled. ‘I can’t get these goddam Nips to understand what I... Hey! Nice shirt!’ He was going to sing some Sinatra number, but couldn’t quite pick up the key from the intro. I promised to play him his starting note in a cup mute just before he began to sing. He thanked me gravely and walked over to the wings. Three hundred Japanese bobbysoxers waiting there leapt on him at once, bringing him to the ground. Chow looked at the writhing heap affectionately. ‘He good singer, velly popular, but have tin ear.’
We went on stage. I already knew the trumpet section from my previous visit. ‘Stuff it,’ they said in unison, smiling, bowing deeply, and hissing through their teeth. I taught them that one the last time over. Just above my head was a thirty foot cloth banner, bright shiny yellow, and reading, in enormous red letters: JAZZ VESTIBULE.
Chow saw my face change. ‘What long now?’ he said, sharply.
‘You can’t say that!’ I gasped.
‘Why not? It kollect. We get from dictionary. Why you always make plobrems? Don’t lock boat, okay?’
A man dashed up, wild–eyed and sweating. ‘Where’s my music? I can’t find my music!’
‘Music all–leddy on music stand.’
‘Where on my music stand? Man, don’t you realise? I’m losing valuable drinking time!’ He rushed off.
‘He famous VIP Amelican sax player from the cool school,’ said Chow, dryly. ‘Every time he pray wrong note he pretend instrument broken. Velly funny guy.’
We started to play and the band was a lot better than last time. The only fault I could find with the trumpet section was that now and again, whenever he felt like it, one or the other of them would take his part up an octave. Whenever they did that the second alto player, who was thin and evil, and looked like a terrorist, tried to squeak out a harmonic above whatever notes they managed to achieve, and they vied with one another on that for a while, regardless of what the rest of us were doing. On all last chords, of course, it was every man for himself, with each trumpet player straining and cracking away up there fit to bust. The alto player usually won. When that happened I just stopped playing and stood there.
‘Why you no play last notes?’ said Chow, when he’d finished bowing to the thunderous applause that greeted every number.
‘Does it matter, with that sod’s opera going on?’
‘Sod’s oppela?’ he said, wonderingly.
‘That’s right. Useful phrase invented by bandleader Ken Mackintosh, good for all occasions.’
‘Sod’s oppela!’ he said to himself, and giggled. Then he spun around and shouted angrily at the trumpet section, ‘I not want any more sod’s oppela! Understand?’ They nodded, without the slightest idea of what he was talking about. I explained to them that Our Ken had conjured up the phrase many years ago after hearing someone in his band play an added sixth in God Save the Queen.
We played about six titles, and they came off quite well, with the saxes only getting lost about twenty–five times, a definite improvement on my last visit, when the police had to be called in to restore order. Then came Kenton’s Peanut Vendor, and things took a sharp turn for the worse. Up on the high unisons the trumpets sounded like a bugle band of the Boys’ Brigade. The tuning was so atrocious that all the semitone dissonances up there came over as a perfect unison. The enormous resonance caused something above us to give way with a sharp crack, and we were suddenly enveloped in the huge yellow satin banner, which billowed gently around us with its incoherent message. As we fought to extricate ourselves the famous twiddley bit near the end of Peanut Vendor with the double octave A’s became an uproar, like a bag filled with hundreds of muffled, snarling, fighting cats. Under the circumstances everyone missed the final high F, all except the second alto, who managed to get out a triple octave F#, give or take a quarter tone or two, that made everyone in the first ten rows clap their hands over their ears in shock.
The applause was deafening, with the whole audience on its feet, some of them trying to scramble on to the stage, the edges of which had been previously greased to prevent such demonstrations. Meanwhile, the drying process of the green paint on my shirt had caused that garment to tighten painfully all over my manly torso. It now began to split.
‘Peanut Bender always velly popular here,’ beamed Chow. ‘That good trick with banner. Must lemember that for next time. What wrong with your damn shirt?’ Over the raging tumult he beat in the next number, shouting ‘Hitotsu, futatsu, mitsu, yotsu!’ As this was quite a mouthful the band came in at crawling pace. The Sinatra clone was standing over at the mike looking at me. Just before he began to sing I gave him his starting note, as agreed. He came in beautifully, bang on in the key of Gb. The rest of us were in Db, but that didn’t worry him, or anyone else. The band was now getting into its stride, and by the time we reached the middle of the chorus we’d found the right tempo. The gradual speed–up sounded like someone winding up one of those old portable 78 gramophones. The brass came in on the second chorus with a bang, high, loud, and still in Db. The singer turned admiringly. ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ he drawled. He let us blast away for a while, then came back in again, right on the nose, singing this time almost, but not quite, in G, while we plodded away grimly in the background almost, but not quite, a diminished fifth lower. As Japanese music only has five notes to the octave maybe this was acceptable. I realised why he was keeping his talents well away from the western world.
In the interval we drank tea together. He thanked me warmly for helping him with the intro. I looked at him sharply to see whether he was being sarcastic, but he had tears of gratitude in his eyes. He added that he just loved that change of key in the middle, where the brass came in. He admired my shirt once more and walked away to the wings, where the waiting bobbysoxers floored him at once.
In the second half we played another couple of numbers, and then it was time for the VIP saxophonist to make his appearance. Chow enthusiastically announced him as a greatly exalted Amelican leed prayer and the rhythm began to play. The VIP was now, presumably, supposed to do a cool slouch up to the mike, finger poppin’, milking the applause, but during the announcement I had caught sight of him in the wings, fresh in from the pub and a good three sheets to the wind. He was now engaged in rushing backwards and forwards, appearing briefly first on one side of the stage, then the other, then back again in rapid order, like Sylvester the cat. He paused to scream at me from behind the proscenium, ‘IT’S DISAPPEARED AGAIN! WHERE’S MY MUSIC?’ as if it was all my fault.
‘On your music stand,’ I said, cruelly.
‘WHERE’S THE MUSIC STAND?’
He came on finally, carrying his music stand, which had been there in its rightful place all the time, and shedding bits of music as he lugged it along. He looked angrily at the band.
‘Sabotage!’ he snarled, but they were ready for him.
‘Stuff it,’ they said. I felt a tingling all over, and, even in all the uproar, I could hear a soft crackle as the acid in the green paint ate slowly into the delicate fibres of my shirt.
The VIP had studied jazz composition and improvisation at the Tetrachordal and Harmonically Innovative Extemporisation Forum of Cadillac, Michigan. Students graduating from this chicken farm are taught how to count up to at least 14½ bars at a time, and are arrogant with it. He was no exception. Eschewing the penultimate one and a half bars of each chorus he forged on sublimely, playing the most astounding collection of non–chordal harmonies with the absolute blinding conviction that is handed out with every THIEF diploma. As he had mixed up the music on his stand in the rush he was now playing the second number first, while the rhythm section stuck doggedly to the planned order. After a minute or so it was clear that everyone was hopelessly stuck in the mire. The VIP took time off to turn and scream ‘WHERE THE HELL ARE WE?’ at the baritone player, who was nearest to him. The baritone player, an elderly Japanese who did not speak English, but who was an immensely polite man, rose at once from his seat and approached the VIP, bowing gracefully as he shuffled over, carrying his baritone. The VIP at once mistook this for a takeover bid. ‘GET AWAY FROM ME!!’ he bawled, hogging the mike and trying to fend the guy off with his foot.
Meanwhile the other members of the band had all been counting religiously. As the ad lib chorus was divided into logical sixteen bar sequences they had reached yatsu, kokonotsu, and so forth many times by now, but were all now completely thrown when the VIP suddenly stopped playing, whipped around halfway through the fourteenth bar and screamed ‘TOP!!’ with all the power of his lungs at the drummer, who thought he’d yelled STOP and ceased playing at once. ‘No! No! No!—DA CAPO!!’ roared the VIP.
‘Dakkar Po?’ said Chow to me, wonderingly. ‘Useful phrase...?’ I shook my head. ‘He means TOP. Go to the top.’ He shrugged, looking up at the ceiling in puzzlement. I felt my shirt give a crack and shudder and the collar fell off.
Meanwhile the VIP, seizing his chance in the silence, began to play a cappella at breakneck speed. He must have gone over the top on the rev counter because all at once a vital spring on his saxophone broke. He looked around wildly. The band grinned back at him. They’d seen the trick before, but this time it was really broken. The VIP rushed over to the sax section, grabbed hold of the tenor player’s instrument, and tried to wrest it from his grasp. The Jap was having none of that, and a free–for–all began which culminated in the Jap rushing off the stage, with the VIP close on his heels. The second alto player sprang at once into the breach and treated the awed listeners to a dazzling display of non–harmonically evolved ear–shattering pyrotechnics until the VIP took him unawares from behind, snatched the sax out of his hands and finished his solo on the borrowed instrument, while fending off the outraged alto player with some natty Kung Foo elbow work. It was marvellous show business.
I buttonholed the VIP afterwards and asked him why he’d brought the band in spare like that. ‘No I didn’t. It’s called timing,’ he said loftily. ‘You wouldn’t know anything about that.’ He turned condescendingly away from me, walked out the door, and fell flat on his face in a patch of wet mud outside.
‘You can’t win them all,’ I called down, but he was already snoring. Just then my new SuperDuper HiTech Special green shirt gave one final twang and a little screech, before falling completely to the ground in little pieces. I spread the gooey bits of 39 Green over him with my shoe. It seemed symbolic, somehow.Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved