Advice For Jazz Students

How many of you are still reading?

I have noticed a kind of sinking, end of days feeling around music recently (maybe it’s just me, I haven’t been out a lot). As if Johnson was controlling (or not) that as well.

Anyway, as someone who scratches half of their living through this privileged profession of jazz teaching, I thought I would offer some advice.

This morning, I listened to “Cookin'” with the Miles Davis Quintet whilst walking to the college I teach at. There are several reasons why I should listen to this album, and several why I shouldn’t. They are all bogus.

We have lists of classic albums we give out. You have to do something. You have to start somewhere. You have to assume people will respond with that strange inner joy that makes not outwardly responding acceptable in the jazz world. An interior life. But you might not. Your inner life might be somewhere else. That might be problematic if you are studying on a crushingly expensive (and remember, you are only paying half of the real cost, approximately) course.

So that’s the first thing. Do a quick spot check on whether your “interior life” is functioning, and what stimulates it….you will need that more than anything, more than the notes, more than the theory and more than the technique. These are simply landmarks in that life. When you walk around in it, they will make themselves known to you. Education can broaden the range of triggers. I am posting twenty albums that changed my life on Facebook, and not even half are jazz). If asked in a weeks time, maybe they all would be. There are no facts, no musts…..follow your nose.

Transcription. This is a big part of jazz education, and people argue the toss over its worth perpetually. My advice about transcription is this: find something that gives you real goosebumps. What you are transcribing are the goosebumps. You are finding the method of creating them. When you take down the notes, from memory, on paper, whatever your method, what is absorbed are the goosebumps. Remember that all those notes without goosebumps, badly placed, half heartedly conceived, will be flat as a Brexit growth chart, as a Tory pulse, as a….well, you get the idea.

Music is magical, like all the other arts or anything where something is created or experienced that was not there before. Notes contain or don’t contain this magic, but all the stuff that can seem dry, academic, soulless (that’s one I hear a lot, and see even more) is designed to be helpful in achieving that magic….magic that is in the using of them. They won’t, like Picasso’s easel or Stravinsky’s manuscript book, give you anything unless you activate them.

Oh and the last piece of advice is, of course, to be wary and questioning of such things at all times.

Good luck, young musicians from all walks of life….we need you.


For Dave Wickins

“What would Dave do?”

It’s August 14th, Tuesday. It’s two days since the funeral of Dave Wickins, a day filled with moving testimonies, eloquent speeches and uplifting music.

I’ve been thinking, in these two days that have passed, about our musical time together.

Most of that was spent as members of the Bobby Wellins quartet, a band that played one Saturday month at the 606, rarely anywhere else, for fifteen years. Always the same tunes, more or less. I learnt to love standards on that gig, to dig deep enough to get to the gold. Dave’s blend of old and new, Of orthodox and progressive, refused to walk an easy path, and you had to have something to contribute in order to stay with it. It wasn’t so much holding on as swimming alongside with equal vigour, sometimes challenging, often blending, or simply engaging in a to and fro conversation. His playing was superbly unfashionable, avoiding number crunching and complexity of structure in favour of layers of sound, from which his bouncing cymbal time would emerge like dolphins from a turbulent sea.

We didn’t play enough for my liking…I found myself wondering about a host of other musical projects, wondering “what would Dave do?”

In 2002, I set some Japanese Death Poetry for an ensemble of electronics, voices and alto clarinet and drums. It was as far away from jazz as I’ve ever been, but Dave relished the challenge, grooving and clattering all over it with impeccable taste and humour to match the finely honed poems. One reviewer (the only reviewer) deemed it “a worthy if unsuccessful experiment”. I was overjoyed. We never did it again.

In 2009 we released “Brubeck”, an album that courted the punters a little more, and explored the music of one of my heroes. I wanted to find a subject close to my heart that would be popular with audiences (if not, on the whole, with musicians). The balance in this band was more in favour of orthodox structures, but as usual with Dave, his warm subversions and earthy swing carried us into some uncharted waters.

In 2013 I wrote music for that same trio (with Dave Whitford) and added Chris Batchelor and Shabaka Hutchings. I had voices of Ornette, Harry Beckett, Bill Frisell and others bouncing around my head, and wanted to hear these musicians flesh it out into their own, our own, music. (“You’re Doing That Thing Again” has a drum intro that, like his answerphone messages, gets back to the subject at hand against all odds.) Dave was the master of the “drop out”, where the swing was at full pelt….suddenly the drums would vanish, only to re emerge with a new energy. It was a proper rip in the canvas of the music.

That was always what I craved from musicians. Don’t ask me what I want, tell me what you think. Give me stuff. Dave always did that, and he inspired me to do the same. His paradoxical drumming kept me alert, awake, never just playing a style. If anyone could paint a penis on a Caravaggio and make it look like the painter had missed an opportunity, it was Dave. It sometimes felt uncomfortable and contrary, but the tapes never lied…he swung like the clappers.

He was in the tradition of Andrew Cyrille, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Oxley and others, channeling the innovations of previous generations into a maelstrom of unpredictability. It pointed towards so many forms of music and yet was a perfect fit for none. The flaws were delightful.

It’s easy to see the local appeal of musicians like Dave Wickins, we “treasure” them, they are a “well kept secret”. But I think he was a world class musician, and the fact that he was criminally under-employed worked in my favour.

This secrecy angered me, and angers me still, but it’s part of the deal. The deal we make with ourselves as musicians, to honour the art and forget about the trappings. it’s not always easy to live with that, but we were mostly happy playing with and for each other, and for whatever audience was in the room. That was what our friendship was based around (as well as some gloriously inappropriate rants on car journeys). I will miss it all, and I miss him very much.

For other musicians, I hope the question is now passed on. What would you do?

Breakfast Means Breakfast.

I see them in the food shops. The eyes, dazed, directed inward, seemingly vacant. In one hand a bag, decorated with photographs of nuts, fruit, seeds, shots of young people being happy with no digestive complaints whatsoever. The other hand clutches the back of the head as if trying to soothe the mind that is dying within. These people have a weird way of standing still, like a clockwork toy that wound out. Their full shopping trolley speaks of successful shopping trip now cut cruelly short. They are people f****d up over granola.

There used to be something on the telly called “Supermarket Challenge”. People had one minute to rush around a supermarket with a trolley and grab everything in sight. A shelf full of granola would have stopped them in their tracks, like tacks on the road in the Tour De France.

Because it’s mental treacle. There are too many varieties to chose from and there is no real structure. Ingredients are replicated, but prices are all over the place. It’s very confusing, and I find at least one person on every shopping trip who agrees with me. Double speak. Must be the Russians interfering in our breakfast.

The Aisle Of The Dead.

If muesli is a kind of grown up cousin, a double espresso, granola is the babyccino, a thumb sucky sugar hit masquerading as superfood. Whether low fat, high protein, peppered with little chocolate bits among the worthy fruits, or littered with spelt, it’s a mixed bag. It ranges from a basic packet of sugary crap to a top-end sachet that often contains what are called “ancient grains”.

Seek ye out the oldest grain, the one true grain, and through partaking of that will ye gain salvation.

One of my favourite brands has figs in it. One can have too much of a good thing though, and when one tires of figs , it seems reasonable to expect the packet next to it in the same series to be similarly healthy. In fact, it’s a “triple chocolate” variety.

Triple. Chocolate.

Start your day with a breakfast of champions, you can have it all, the virtue-signalling of granola combined with the sheer sugary gut brakes of Triple Chocolate.

When startled by a fellow granola seaker, I will usually replace the chocolate packet, rolling my eyes theatrically as if I nearly got fooled into getting the unhealthy one by mistake. It’s easily done, all that glitters is not gold and all that rustles when you shake it is not necessarily good for you.

So here is my pitch to Netflix for a new series. The affluent middle classes wiped out by a mental condition originating in paralysing indecision around breakfast. The slow creep of inertia. Not the cereal, but the idea of cereal, this will be our downfall. Health fanatics in lightweight trainers and breathable t-shirts, dead-eyed statues with nowhere to go and no way of getting there.

God forbid one should leave with the wrong bag, and so we don’t. We don’t leave at all. We stay. Forever in the aisle of the dead.

Escape comes in the final episode as some young, feisty heroine, accompanied by suitably uplifting teenage sidekick, realises the only way out.

It’s back to bran flakes and milk.

Toast and marmalade.

Or fruit and fibre if you want the extra roughage.

Of course, toast should be of the sourdough variety.

On another note, let’s welcome out new Prime Minister. He can sort this mess out.

I Have Trouble With History

“I didn’t really buy any of Sun Ra’s records because I could just go and hang out when they were performing, or go to one of their rehearsals, so I didn’t need the record!

Lonnie Liston Smith interviewed by Anton Spice .

Well, that’s cool Lonnie. The thing is, I’ve got everything in my little sardine box music screen machine here, so I don’t need to go out. Musically, I am staring blankly at the pasta section in a supermarket that stretches as far as the eye can see, marvelling at what I could eat. I’m not eating it, but I’m marvelling at my marvellous “eating future”. I’m going to check that out. The trolley’s still empty but think of what could fill it. No-Wave, post-punk, fettuccini, stuff my kids listen to, all things I’m going to check out. Really soon. It’s a really exciting time. Or it will be. The future’s bright.

Not all music, however, is designed for solitary listening, and we know that because people keep going out for it. It’s so cheap to have it sent straight into your ears, yet people spend a lot of money to be around other people listening to live music in a field where the wind may all but blow the sound out of earshot, and most of what you can hear is other people singing along to each other as the band do something somewhere out of sight. People do listen, even if it’s often with their eyes. Social media has propped up a kind of military takeover of the other four senses by the one that now reigns unchallenged; seeing. Seeing is believing.

As you get away from the festival experience, an event defined by numbers in many ways, immersion in music is more an act of will. Sometimes you have to do that yourself, make a conscious decision, lower yourself into the bath of it rather than wait for an attendant with a big bucket to pour it over you. Jazz has always been like that for me; and this goes for its history too.

My knowledge of jazz came from record covers laid out on the floor like a soap opera storyboard, this follows that, swing-bebop-cool-hardbop etc etc. I knew the accepted story, but my knowledge was not a bodily thing, it wasn’t in me, wasn’t backed up by any kind of experience. Jazz history played out like the Battle Of Waterloo with toy soldiers, and you just kind of put them in whatever position you felt most likely. The music’s past, and the past I would like to have experienced but didn’t, was for me a construct, pieced together from the musical fragments available at the time.

It all started around 1983, or thereabouts, The Churchill Library, Bromley, an exploded sonic star where the slowly falling fragments were catalogued alphabetically. Records I took home because they were there. Sun Ra’s “Mystery Of The Two”. Stravinsky’s “Requiem Canticles”. One casualty of the move from analogue to digital was the Duke Ellington with Jimmy Blanton album, which now sounds wrong because the scratch that made it jump a beat in 1984 is missing. Nothing was in any kind of order. Earl Hines, for example, he was an early favourite, but nobody had informed me that learning to play jazz required starting with later players, where it’s less about playing the piano and more about “information”, “content”. It was too late for me. Hines, Stravinsky, Ellington, Cecil Taylor – I started a file under “piano sonorities” and staggered on. For me they were connected by sound, as if the sounds themselves lived, went to school, met other sounds and reproduced.

But if I’d seen Hines bump into a young Cecil Taylor at the florist, I might have made that other connection, might have seen those worlds joined for myself. A kind of social bond that ensures the passage of the tradition, where it finds its own winding path, through accident and circumstance, seemingly disparate worlds coming together in a shared taste for daffodils. I had no history, no tradition, no reason to be doing what I did aside from a general dissatisfaction with life as it was presented to me and so, lacking a social connection, I made my history up, a fake news repository of unchecked facts and suppositions, and I surveyed it as I imagine the owner of a train set would, congratulating myself on the detail whilst knowing real engines don’t run on tables.

History was never my subject, I just couldn’t hold facts or remember names, couldn’t visualise the things happening. I never understood how, considering our impressive roster of cruel mistakes when we get together in big groups, we never learnt from them. It’s unlikely that lessons in jazz history would have helped me, but I would have liked to have seen where Duke Ellington bought his vegetables, I think I’d have learnt a lot from that.

“The word is a virus”

The word is now a virus. The flu virus may have once been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence.Try halting sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.

William Burroughs “The Ticket That Exploded”

God, the blueprint for the modern day “influencer”, said In the beginning was the word…”. Ah no wait a minute, he didn’t say it, someone said he said it. They said it, wrote it down and then they said he said it. Then….

“…and the word was with God, and the word was God”.

“He” is now saying it’s so true that He owns it and He is it. A confused rant of a sentence, like a cast off from Trump’s Twitter feed. High order narrative, some real (Holy) Ghost writing.

I must say though, it’s nice to have a break from all that questioning, to just relax and be able to accept the truth. We like that. It’s reasonable to want that in life.

I used to read “The Guardian” a lot, and whenever there was an article on something I had knowledge of (rare, mostly in the Saturday review and mostly about music), the fact that it was on that elevated platform, that someone was paid to write about it, made it fair game for criticism. It was an opinion of a different kind, perhaps more qualified, but also sporting a sign that said come and have a pop at me. It’s presence in print made it somehow solid, an object of tangible sides, a verbal statue worshipped by scholars and shat on by passing pigeons. But the shit didn’t stick like it does now, in full view of the great unwashed. Now we have Twitter, which is like a huge guestbook in the foyer of the bed and breakfast of the universe, but without that kind of tact and goodwill. For “The room was cosy”, read “You boxed me in and now I will tell the world”.

Our communications are now in the font of our choice, not in face-to-face exchanges, as if every passing thought had the “Penguin Modern Classics” logo emblazoned on its spine. Print is not the same as talk. Generation X-ers like me don’t hear your voice when we read, we hear that mysterious voice, transparent, murky, the voice of the book. Formless, God-like. So it isn’t about the validity of the statements themselves, but the way they are received.

If trust in the written word is wearing thin, spare a thought for the camera. “My camera never lies anymore” warbled Eurovision titans Bucks Fizz”. These days, it lies through its teeth for money and a handful of upturned thumbs. Thank you Instagram Influencers (it’s hard not to think of influenza when I hear that word). An influencer implies an implement, like a razor, a mixer, a machine that does the job of a human. Advertise your detox teas here, show off your outfit (soon to be returned to the shop at no cost to you). There’s money in this fluff.

A virus replicates itself exactly, the word is passed on verbatim, viewed over and over, a 3D printed aphorism. I think Burroughs was right. The word is a virus. The air is toxic with half-truths. It’s a shame he never lived to see the “gone viral” phenomenon, he would have loved it, another one of his riffs on modern culture that eventually became embedded within it.

Perhaps in the future, irresponsible use of “the word” will be punishable by some kind of community service (“you realise, madam, that those words you are using are designated fictional , descriptive use has been illegal since the recent quarantine was declared…”). Billboard posters with photographs of people with hands over their ears “Use your words responsibly – lest we forget”, this kind of thing.

Words are powerful, you can’t just let anyone use them. Maybe they will become the sole preserve of the creative pursuit, jokes, poems, novels….fiction. Fiction packaged as fiction. Emoticons seems to be on the rise, perhaps they will soon be the prime currency of factual language. All powerful “in the beginning”, maybe words as we know them will simply fade out at the end, into the pictograms from whence they came …………..🦉🦄🈴😎😀🤖

Small things

“The guy who lived downstairs didn’t have a nasty bone in his body. This made getting around difficult.”

(Unpublished, unfinished short story).

I’ve been reading “Sing To It“, a new collection of short stories by Amy Hempel, her first in over a decade. She doesn’t write many, but when she does they are extremely good. They don’t take long. There is no time for an arc as such, not easy to say for sure what happens to her characters either side of the text. If there’s a moral to these stories, it’s ambiguous. Some stories are only a page long (and the font is obligingly large).

Chuck Palahaniuk, who, if I knew him, would presumably hate me to refer to him as the author of “Fight Club”, said this about her:

“Every sentence isn’t just crafted, it’s tortured over.”

So I got into Amy Hempel simply because someone who I think is a great writer recommended her, and sometimes you want a doctor’s opinion about who should take your kidneys out.

I also like that quote about torture, I can believe it.

Short stories are the shrugged shoulder to the raised pointy finger of the giant literary work of genius. There is not much to look at except the sentences, their melody, little observations shaped into something more than simply what is being said. More than the person saying it and more than what they stand for. Something outside the visible, something you could look at and not see the writer.

I wish performing was a bit more like that but it isn’t always, and it especially isn’t always now. We all want to know who made everything and how, and why, perhaps so we are tempted to think we could do it ourselves. We want to see the evidence, check with our eyes that what we are experiencing is authentic, that we are justified in feeling something.

My opening sentence remains, the vertical blinking cursor daring me to add to it. Perhaps I won’t. This blog is already too long, and by the time you read it I probably will have shortened it still further.

One thing shorter than an Amy Hempel short story is a tweet, originally the sole preserve of anthropomorphised songbirds, now a popular vessel of communication amongst humans that customarily lacks the musical quality of the feathered variety.

Reading short stories helps me recover from time spent on Twitter. So it’s not just the brevity then.

(Sorry that was a bit of a moralising ending. Writing well is hard. Baby steps……)

“Retail doesn’t have the suction”

Specsavers.  Look around, its all eyes, a feast for the peepers, look and look again, shiny reflections advertising the very notion of clear sight. It’s what they are known for, the glamour of well dressed eyes.  But what of ears? The website tucks ears in a small corner, in plain type. Blink with your relatively precious eyes and you’d miss it. For a small fee, it turns out, Specsavers remove “compacted wax”.

“No wax, no fee” it says.

They must be doing this for love then.

I am here for ears. I am hardcore. I am being led around the back. These are evidently unglamorous repairs and the assistant, like a fearful guide in the Amazon rainforest, leaves me just short of my destination.

“It’s through there.” I turn to thank him, he is already gone.

The paint is pale green, so close to a calm jade, but really it’s like white stricken by melancholy. The young technician (I don’t know if he’s a doctor) offers an outstretched hand. His hand says hello but his face says sorry. It turns out he knows what is ahead for us both.

“Let’s have a look” he says, wedging a plastic funnel into my ear and strapping on cyberpunk headgear with binoculars and a light, “yes, it’s all softened up nicely, shouldn’t be too difficult to get that out…”

It is difficult to get that out.

It takes an hour and ten minutes to get that out, during which time my head is subjected to various low level assaults and investigations. The sound of wax being sucked out of the ear has the intensely warm crackle of a needle dropped on vinyl that’s  too loud, combined with the feeling of having the lining of your head pinched like a balloon from the inside. Sometimes he reaches for tweezers, and this feels like he’s picking the nose of my brain and I’m hearing the screams of the bogeys in real time.

(Apparently I have very thin passageways with tricky twists and turns. It’s a fact that sound travels at 343 metres per second. But to get to my brain, it has to do the equivalent of the 110 metre hurdles through the maze at Hampton Court, which I reckon knocks the speed down a bit.)

Exasperated sighs, which are now getting louder as my ear gradually clears, add to the cocktail of sonic assault. About halfway through the operation he starts to speak of a “break”, not the kind where you stretch your legs, more of a gap year, for him possibly a career change.

Afterwards, slamming the tools down on his desk with a kind of joyful and final wheeze, he says “That was a tough ear”.

The toughest ear, in my long and varied career, I have had to clear.

Like the deck of a ship after a fishing expedition, the haul lies on a sheet of kitchen roll. Two black clumps of stuff, dark and shiny. They remind me of sad photos of seabirds pulled from an oil spill.

“Of course” he goes on “hospitals have more powerful equipment and so it’s easier, but it can be dangerous. In retail we just don’t have the suction.”

I pay him cash, it’s like no one knows he is here and transactions can’t be linked to the store outside, in all its glowing loveliness. It’s off the record, cash in hand. We shake hands and I wander off, it seems somehow not enough to leave like this, not after the intensity of our shared experience. There’s probably someone right after me, it’s just a job for him I think wistfully as I stagger out, slightly dizzy from the change in pressure, hearing the world anew through a room full of spectacles.