It started as a way to memorise jazz standards when I was studying jazz. Taking a different route through them helped me fix the territory in my mind. Mash-ups, new connections, helping root things.
Then I started picking up some low-key jazz gigs – playing background music in hotels, running singers nights and jams in pubs and clubs. Weddings.
It was great meeting and playing with musicians and participating, in a very humble and tiny way, with an art form I’ve always loved, but playing to a general audience made me realise that we were meant as a kind of trope, an idea of jazz, not something people really related to.
I didn’t feel like that on my previous gig, playing in a cheesy holiday camp ballroom house band every night. We played fox-trots and waltzes and medleys of war time nostalgia for the old people, backed line-dances with Radio 2 pop songs for the families along with revues of musicals like the Blues Brothers and Mary Poppins, discos and party games. We were like a vast juke-box firing off cultural memories. I started thinking, music is made up of tunes, not notes. The connection was direct and authentic.
But there was another wall – not a wall of specialised, elitist distance, but a wall of speakers, monitors, amplifiers. This battery of ammo lined up against the audience, against the band so the sound saturated you.
Lets get real – it’s people manipulating little toys of string and wood which affect the air around everyone and casts a spell of meaning and understanding. And it happens in a unique setting: in a room, with these people, in a city, on a night.
So when I started to put on my own gigs, I knew what tunes the musicians knew and in what keys and styles they were used to, and I could rearrange them on the gig to incorporate the material people generally know so people could see what we were talking about and improvising about with each other, even if they didn’t know anything about jazz. TV themes, ring-tones, film music, 90s hip-hop and rock would spring out of bossa nova and be bop standards. Other times we’d play well-known standards with a feel from something that got stuck in my head, like a reggae tune or a different jazz track.
No-one plays the music everyone knows! Whilst the various forms of folk and jazz are embedded in social practices, aural transmission, practice, jamming etc, the culture to which we are indigenous – consumer culture – is in peril. We’re not encouraged to participate and take ownership of this music.
But this is what jazz used to do before hip-hop. The old musical numbers and vintage pop songs which make up the vast body of jazz standards was the main-stream pop-culture of the time. Hip-hop took over when jazz became more about itself and bands like Negativland fought to re-appropriate pop. Then the internet washed over everything, leaving only the unique live experience on the shore-line to salvage.
And I want to use that live experience to talk about every-day life, improvise with whatever piece of driftwood is to hand and play really old fashioned jazz.
[First published on Posterous.com July 18, 2011]
now the lit poop version
Gigging is all we really want to do. To make a living playing music seems, if not the noblest of ambitions, then something pretty close. To gig night after night had an honourable and romantic tradition, at least it appeared so to us. If you can play well and are versatile enough, you might be able to join that illustrious brotherhood, that select band of musicians, who provide the backing behind crooners, jugglers, strippers, magicians, and singing comedians.
In her justly famous book, The Art of Memory, Frances Yates describes the mnemonic technique utilized by the classical orators of Greece and Rome to remember their long speeches (a technique regularly practised by rhetoricians up until the spread of typographic texts during the late Renaissance).
Almost everyone in the band is at least a generation older than me and had been playing many of the tunes for years. I set up my equipment at the back of the room, where shortly a pile of charts are thrown in my direction. They are covered in beer stains and crossings out, where codas have been moved, whole sections transposed or quite simply missing. I manage to look confidant despite my apprehension as the band swings into a Woody Herman tune called ‘Woody’s Whistle’.
The birth of jazz: musicians made new use of what was available – marching-band instruments from the Spanish-American War. Jazz also made use of different forms of music, from ragtime to blues and impressionistic classical music.
The orator would imagine an elaborate palace, filled with diverse halls and rooms and intricate structural details. He would then envision himself walking through this palace, and would deposit at various places within the rooms a sequence of imagined objects associated with the different parts of his planned speech.
I believe, by the end of the tune, that I managed quite well, although there were vaguely disgruntled noises emanating from the trumpet section when what I had obviously improvised did not exactly tally with the notes that had been written. I also manage to busk Ellington’s ‘Take the “A” Train’ without being derailed, although I can now see a few unconvinced and shaking heads in the saxophone section.
Thereafter, to recall the entire speech in its correct sequence and detail, the orator had only to envision himself once again walking the same route through the halls and rooms of the memory palace: each locus encountered on his walk would remind him of the specific phrase to be spoken or the particular topic to be addressed at that point within the discourse.
Later, jazz ran improvisatory riffs on show-tune standards. Or think of a cover version: a composition that already exists is revisioned by another artist. The original composition still exists, and the new one dances on top of the old one, like an editor writing notes in the margins. Hip-hop and dance DJs take snatches of different songs that already exist in the culture and stitch them together to suit their own needs and moods. The folk tradition in action: finding new uses for things by selecting the parts that move you and discarding the rest.
Disaster, though, is just around the next bend. I don’t yet know this tune, and what is more, it is played at such a lick, in double 6/8 time, that I simply can’t keep up. Within sixteen bars it is apparent to everyone , including myself, that I am no Charles Mingus, or anything even close. I abandon even attempting to read the chart and while ‘The “A” Train’ may have safely reached its destination we are now in the wreckage of a full-fledged, high-speed rail crash. The band collapses in a disheartening heap of broken saxophone runs, comical trombone glissandos, and the tragedy of soaring trumpet lines brought disastrously to earth.
[Paragraphs 2, 5 and 7 from The Spell Of Sensuous by David Abram, 4 and 8 from Reality Hunger by David Shields and the rest from Broken Music by Sting]