Like Spiders

What’s the biggest an animal has to be before you can’t bring yourself to kill it?  For me, it’s a spider.  Mosquitoes?  No problem, I actually get a buzz out of putting a stop to theirs.  Every smear in the wall is a badge of honour – I am keeping my children safe from predators, indulging in one of the last bastions of “them or me” violence.  Spiders are different.  Especially the big ones.  I recently had to remove one from beneath the piano in order that my daughter could stop screaming and come down off the chair.  On this occasion, a regular paper and glass approach didn’t cut it.  Undeterred, I prodded it out into the open floor and placed a salad bowl over the hapless, huge arachnid.  It was, up close, very big indeed.  It looked right into my eyes, all two of them.  I was right where the action was, and we both knew it.

This is what I’ve been thinking about with music.  Getting up close to where the action is.  Some people find jazz boring, or alienating, and who can blame them?  They are too far away from the action, or looking in the wrong place.  As a musician, I frequently indulge in the traditional sport of critically destroying the latest gurning fool who has convinced the “mainstream audience” that jazz is exciting, writhing around like a maggot on a fishhook, the shooting pains of genius seeming to mould the very sounds of their instruments, the swoop of their lines equalled only by the saccharine and shameless inanity of their note choices.  But why do people like this?  It’s because there is action!  It is being made apparent that something is happening up there on stage and, like the synthetic lift of a pair of silicon breasts, some people are all too willing to accept the illusion for the momentary pleasure it might provide.  (Not me, that goes without saying).

Don’t get me wrong.  A pianist like Keith Jarrett, who squirms and grunts with the best of them, has had moments of genius that are almost intensified by their real physicality (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt here).  I can even his vocalising, which one could argue echoes the way some instruments in African music attach rattles in order to blur the purity of the note (hmmm, pushing it a bit here perhaps), to make it a distinct line rather than part of a homogenous texture.  But bloody hell, he hasn’t half ruined it for the rest of us.  Him and YouTube.

“Hello, my name is Arnold Schoenberg, I’m a composer and I’d like to be a composer-in-residence at your festival this year.”

“Ok that’s great.  I need YouTube clips, maybe something showing you writing things down.  People like to make that connection, you know, see how you do it…our audience loves that, makes it more….human, somehow…”

We all have to do it now, we need to think about the visuals.    Personally, I don’t even smile when I’m playing.  I am thinking about the notes, and sometimes this is not pretty to look at.  I was once approached, very nervously, after a gig by a woman and her young son.  She looked almost proud, as if she’d exposed my guilty secret, when she said : “He really liked the music but was scared of you because you looked angry.”  It was a lovely occasion, I felt I had somehow reached out to this child with, you know, music, and left him with a vague feeling of unease for his trip home.  But I was concentrating and was unable to oblige him with the cheerful and non-discriminating openness that facilitates learning.

It’s where the notes are, that’s where the action takes place.  An improviser, whether playing a tricky chord sequence or working in an unstructured context, works at speed in real time.  Inside the head of a jazz musician, music looks like a formula one racetrack.  Not from a safe distance, but from the camera on the front of the car, where everything shudders in the wind generated by impossible speeds, where big things get bigger and closer at an alarming rate.  If people could see that, they would be not only impressed, but terrified.  Of course, like playing video games, you have to be coerced into thinking the missiles are real, you have to feel for a moment that your actual life is at risk.  For a musician, when a gig is going well, this is not a great leap of imagination.  Music is life or death when you are playing it – of course you get another bonus life for every mortal injury, it’s an illusion like any other, but the feeling is real.  Close up is best.  Maybe a camera attached to the instrument, where the action is immediate, or fixed on a pianist’s forehead.  I honestly think that is where things look most interesting, vivid and realistic .  Maybe seeing what a musician can see, an audience might experience some of that exhilaration, that need for speed that links James Hunt and Oscar Peterson.  And playing fast is not the only way to excite an audience.  Watch Monk hovering motionless over the notes as the music, the possible choices, fly by and then suddenly, rapidly, he will find the chord he wants and jab at it, like a heron standing over the calm surface of a lake in search of prey.   This can be almost more exciting; the waiting, the stillness, the sudden and unpredictable movement.

The way a spider can look dead and then…

Who Do I Listen To?

“Nature then, is just nature. I admit I am very impressed with it. The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can do for is to put some order in ourselves.”

Willem de Kooning


The cloud comes down, but too fast and too heavy, more like a blanket, or like jelly just before it sets. It always happens like this. I’m in a room with someone, and I’m teaching them. And they say something, and the room fills slowly up with an imaginary, cloying, sticky liquid. This person is aged between 18 and 21. They say :

“Who should I be listening to?”

I have been trying to think of what to say in reply to this for as many years as I’ve been teaching. It’s the key to everything. When a person says this, and eagerly awaits an answer, they are unwittingly telling you that they think they will never be a jazz musician, pure and simple. They have made this choice. Obviously I can’t tell them that. They want answers. Their parents have just forked out twenty seven grand in used notes in exchange for little nuggets of information such as the one I am about to impart. The great spirit of rebellion that spawned this music, the anger and joy coexisting in Bud Powell’s recordings, the machismo and feminine battling it out in the mind of Miles Davis, the sheer don’t-give-a-fuck fire running through Sonny Rollins’s titanic improvisations, Geri Allen’s fragile spider-like lines underpinned with the swagger of a New Orleans marching band, has it all ended up here in this room? I am starting to feel a bit claustrophobic.

Look, I’m no writer. The opening paragraph of this blog has, compared to my others, a lot of short sentences. This is because I’ve just finished James Ellroy’s brilliantly nasty, disparaging and fictionalised account of the years leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, “American Tabloid”. The anger and disgust of the unseen narrator jumps off the page at every turn. And it has lots of short sentences in it. My ear started to like the sound of them. And how they look. And that reminded me of the anger in Bud Powell’s music, anger that in his case was transformed into a kind of ecstatic energy. I imagine a lot of jazz musicians had this experience; there was plenty to be angry about, and in some kind of chicken and egg coincidence the way music was made was undergoing an explosive revolution.

With this in mind, I get on the tube; Jesus everyone looks fucking angry. Bill Evans comes on my headphones, even he sounds angry today, a taunted bull rampaging through a room full of rose petals. Ellroy, Powell, Evans, their energy is being let out in order that they can get up in the morning, write a new book, make a new record, they are making things ok.

Then something else happens; I go and see some very close friends of mine for a couple of days. The anger, the idea of anger, drifts away. The energy of friendship, of common ground both musical and personal, the way time passes and we are still here years later, the same and different. Bill Evans sounds different today, like he’s reading me a bedtime story. Monk’s angles are child-like, sincere, playful, but not quite as belligerent.

At a band reunion, a band in which I played an instrument I no longer even have, there are faces from even further back, the same but different. I remember sitting in the third clarinets playing Vaughan Williams’s “Folk Song Suite”, medleys of Broadway shows, newly commissioned overtures, “The Rockford Files”. From my vantage point, along with five other clarinets playing the same line, I could feel the air move, we were all somehow engulfed in it, embraced by the sound, so different to sitting at a piano, where one somehow hovers above it. (Watching Bill Evans play is, to me, watching someone trying to actually “climb inside” the chords, ear cocked to the keyboard with bird-like attentiveness, anxious to catch anything that passes.)

I remember the impossibility of looking demure whilst playing the bassoon, the irresistible urge to show off that frequently befell the lead trumpet or the percussionists, the way the conductor would lean inexplicably back in his seat for the “jazzy” numbers and then tense up like a cat eying its prey for the Gordon Jacob suite. I remember how, when we played “What I Did For Love” in the Marvin Hamlisch medley, I would feel waves of emotion that were almost physical and in the room, coupled with a teenage, slightly manufactured distaste for such sentimentality (anyone who’s ever listened to Keith Jarrett will know what I’m talking about). In particular, I learnt how to play with other people, and from that how to be with other people. I discovered that I wasn’t the only freak in Bromley in the 1980s. This is all valuable information that I still think about; well, maybe not the bassoon bit.

Look, I’m no psychologist. But when someone who wants to be a jazz musician asks me what to listen to, I imagine them asking me how to choose their friends. They are almost asking me how and what to feel. And it’s not entirely their fault. They are the customers now, and like all customers they are always right. Time is money, they don’t have a limitless apprenticeship to figure this out at their leisure, there’s no time for accidents, wrong turnings, red herrings. And the amount of energy needed to resist the increasingly conformist, consensual nature of modern culture is enormous. Jazz musicians are not, on the whole, still being beaten up by the police and given electric shock therapy in hospitals. But we are in a bit of a state over this whole role of music in contemporary life thing. Maybe this could, in some way, be our source of anger, our disgust, the unseen enemy that we kick against whilst all the time only putting “some order in ourselves”?