Victorian Jukebox

There’s a pub in Soho where they still have a piano player.  This guy is not there to colour the silence and chit chat in the way a pianist does in a restaurant.  He plays Beatles songs, and show tunes, and things even people under thirty might recognise.  And people listen and sing along.  When his list runs out, there’s no music, but it never runs out.  And most of it is stored in his head.  He has fingers that play a real instrument, and every song he plays has to work on a piano or it doesn’t work at all.   And he has a head for a hard drive.

There was a time when all music in the home was like this.  If you were lucky enough to be in the rising middle class of Victorian England, you might have had a piano in the house.  And that was the source of all music.  A Victorian Jukebox.  All music was live.  And if no one played the piano, there was no music.

Just silence and conversation.

And we all know how awkward that can be.

Having no pianist would be like having no wifi, or 3G, or 4G, E4 or Dave.  People inevitably understood something of how music was made, because everyone who had a piano knew a pianist, and saw at close hand what was involved.

I remember a few years ago, I went into my son’s pre-school to play for their Christmas sing song.  They had no piano, so I brought a keyboard.  Children gathered around as I hauled the case down flat on the floor, flipping the catches as an assassin might before removing and demonically cleaning his weaponry du jour.  As I prized open the lid the kids, far from experiencing some kind of recognition, “oh he’s a musician, cool, music, wow it must be great to just sit down and play an instrument” kind of reaction, they were perplexed.  And it was tinged with that slight anger of not understanding, of feeling stupid, left out. They had no idea what this object was.  As I set it up, plugged in and sat behind the keys, they looked on in wonder.  It wasn’t the kind of wonder that Spielberg might have filmed, that kind of bathed angelic luminosity kind of light with its warmth and its fuzziness.  It was more like, I wonder why the hell we are here light.  It was more like Dogme-style, natural light, cold stares.  “Festen” for juniors.  Icy silence and tumbleweed in one uncomfortable mixed metaphor.  I was not at that point believing, contrary to the opinion of George Benson, that the children were our future.

So I played my first chord.  Resisting the jazz urge to hit them with all my musical neurosis of chromaticism and darkness, I went for C major.   A safe option, I thought, the universal language of music I thought, a vibration that reaches out to all without discrimination.  Almost instantaneously the entire group burst into uncontrollable laughter.  That weird, nervous laughter like when you and your mates got caught stealing useless crap from a supermarket.  An entire social history of music making, from the royal courts to the Victorian sitting room and the East End pub, friends who could sing and play, daughters who were encouraged to play the piano because their legs were tucked safely away from prying eyes, it all ended here.  It all ended on a cheap carpet with the worst audience I have ever had.

Well they were only four years old but, you know, once they’re over five there’s no changing them.

I’m quite fond of the piano as a music making machine, as an instrument of reproduction, reduction, representation.  Music used to work on the piano, most things were reducible to two hands, ten fingers and some sleight of hand stuff…aided, of course, by the imagination of the audience.  Pianos were often required to conjure the sound of an orchestra at full tilt, much as Turner’s paintings of water might almost make you feel the shock of the spray against your face.

So how would a piano cope with the incredible breadth of musical styles, genres as sounds today?  There is nothing to be gained by an accurate reproduction, but the sound of the attempt is what interests me.  Jazz for me sometimes involves hearing something you like, whether it’s more jazz or a Ugandan singer with a balaphon, and trying to use it for the purposes of improvisation.  Using a piano to do this is like playing playstation with a real tennis racket.  In other words, it’s perversely enjoyable.  It’s the best kind of enjoyable there is.  When I hear Bud Powell, or Duke Ellington, or Monk, or John Taylor, it’s partly a fight to prize something out of that instrument that was once a symbol of polite, middle class society.  It’s such a forgiving instrument, sometimes you have to really give it something to get upset about.  It’s that or it’s back to the kindergarten.

How To Learn A Tune

Method 1

Some time ago, it may have been five years ago, for the purposes of this story it really doesn’t matter, all that matters is that it was back beyond measurable time.  I was staying at my friend Trevor’s house in Birmingham whilst teaching there, and we were listening to Blossom Dearie’s album of songs by lyricists Comden and Green.  The tune that stuck in my mind at the time was “Lucky To Be Me”, Ray Brown’s bass quietly singing through the 5 foot speakers, Ed Thigpen’s delicate whispering brushes, Blossom Dearie just singing the tune, almost as if she’s known it all her life and is recounting it to herself,  absent-mindedly  tracing the chords.(1)   I remember just sitting, both of us just letting the music wash over us, which is what it does, still, today.  But I’m jumping ahead now; back to my first time.

The last track on the album…no, not a track, it’s a song…the last song on the record is a Bernstein tune called “Lonely Town”.  I’m not sure if I even heard it properly that night, beer and sound fused in an impressionistic haze as the night went on; maybe I just remember seeing the title and wondering how it might sound.  I went straight out and bought the cd and played it on my own (much smaller) speakers whilst washing up; sometimes listening to music like this merely jogs the memory to a time when you were really listening to it.  I have never been able to recreate the sound of that music that evening, speakers almost as tall as Ray Brown’s bass like your head was in it, hearing all those little things bass players can do in between the essential big notes that are almost inaudible until you get that close, hearing the ends of the notes on the piano as well as their gentle beginnings, the soft hiss of a brush moved off the skin of a drum.  And that voice, that is somehow even closer than life, impossibly close.

At this point, I still haven’t investigated the mysterious “Lonely Town”, not properly.  But I have a vague impression of it; a series of disembodied, yearning phrases set against familiar chords arranged, somehow, in a new order, there is obviously some “classical composer” cleverness going on here but it has such a mood about it.  The melody seems to want to form itself into something longer, finally rising in the bridge, the lyrics speaking of the redemptive power of love “shining like a harbour light”, the voice seeming to brighten in sympathy before sinking again.  The underlying rhumba seems to hint, however,  at a world weary acceptance, intoxicating and urbane.

A few months ago, I was teaching a composition class and we were talking about songwriting.  I have an idea that being able to write, and to recognise, good melodic lines is a good foundation for any music, as far out or straight ahead as you want to go.  So, I recommend this album to the students, partly because I think they might be lured in by the more obvious jazz credentials of the rhythm section, but also hopeful that they will experience something in this music, that it will work its strange magic on them.  Anyway, now I really want to learn the tune.  I know what it means to me, essentially I know it, but I don’t know what it is.  It resides in that part of my imagination that goes with Miles Davis’s L’ascenseur, Paul Bley’s Open, To Love, a kind of melancholic, blues infused solitariness that can be hard to find in jazz these days but used to be one of its strongest, most accessible emotions.

 So, last week, I put the record on and transcribed it.  I also bought some sheet music, the original show version with piano accompaniment.  I put the cd on my iPhone, and on the whim of the machine that is the iTunes shuffle function, it appeared unannounced, trudging home from the pub in the dark, wet landscape of Camden chucking out time, or amid the endless chatter of the Monday morning tube.  I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, the strange and abrupt twists and turns of the song’s middle section repeating endlessly in my head, not torturing me but just there.  I decided I needed to find a reason to play this tune.

Three days ago, I did a solo improvised set at Café Oto.  The only way to do these gigs is just to start playing and see where it takes you, to listen to what’s in your head and try not to get in its way before it gets to your fingers.  So, when, a few minutes in, the first couple of bars of “Lonely Town” emerged, that was where I went.  I tried not to think too hard about it, I had obsessed about this tune for days, months, years even, it was in my body, wired into my whole musical psyche, just a case of letting it out and not getting in the way.  It’s all about intention, there are no mistakes, it’s the flow, the flow will take care of everything.

Anyway, somehow I fucked the bridge up.

It seems I don’t know this tune yet, but there’s no rush, it will happen.

Method 2

1          (optional)



You can always disprove almost any theory in the arts.  The guitarist Eugene Chadbourne recorded another great old tune, Stars Fell On Alabama, in the eighties.  It seems more appropriate, somehow, for me to put the link up here

It’s one of my favourite recordings, which I come back to year after year.   When I saw him live and requested the tune, he said he didn’t know it because he’d recorded it “reading off a Broadway Songbook score”.  Important not to get too attached to one way of working, I think…

(1)  (at this point, I would normally put a link in to the album, but I’m not going to for reasons that will become apparent)