by Lou Glandfield
The Albion is vintage Hove. Dark and heavy on brass, flock and brown varnish, the pub can’t have changed much at all in the past fifty years. This extends to the afternoon drinkers, few of whom look as if they’re under seventy-five. They include a man who walks with difficulty and who once backed Billie Holiday on trumpet. He didn’t think much of her then and still doesn’t. They are here this afternoon to listen to the superb swing guitarist Piers Clark. For the past thirty years, Piers has scraped a living largely by playing gigs much like the one today in the Albion.
Over coffee, we ruefully note that it’s been a while since either of us has made three figures from a gig. He is a living archive of jazz standards, carrying upwards of 500 tunes, with complex harmonic variants, entirely in his head. An experienced band leader and arranger, he frequently hands me the charts for at least half a dozen new tunes immediately before the gig. I don’t read music well and tend to rely on following the chord progressions until I get the hang of things. Over time, a musician becomes familiar with certain patterns, but the unexpected and the non-intuitive elements form a large part of what gives a song its identity. Piers is merciless. Sixteen bars in, he nods. This is the signal for me to take a piano solo for the next thirty-two bars. The important thing now is to do something interesting with the material to hand, finding alternative ways to play chords and inventing rhythmic foils and counter-melodies as you go. There was a time when I found this terrifying but, like abseiling, once you’ve landed bruised but exultant the first few times, you can’t wait to do it again. Besides, as I often remind pupils, the best way to learn to do anything new is to just keep doing it badly until it starts to sound good.
Not many people have got rich playing jazz, and those who did often spent it on the wrong thing. The general rule is this: the more you insist on only playing the music you like, the less money you’ll make. Bands which specialize in expertly rendered cover versions of hit songs – they can’t possibly like them all – for weddings and the like, make serious money. But this is an afternoon pub gig in Hove. Today we are a trio with Brian, who plays the clarinet. He is in his late seventies, thin and elegantly frayed. He looks like Fred Astaire and has played with New Orleans’s finest. He enjoys transcribing solos from old 78s and is a formidable exponent of a style known as “gaspipe” clarinet, in which the range of the instrument is extended to include swoops, catcalls and chattering slides evocative of bird calls, the farmyard and laughter.
A couple of days later, I have to switch genres for a rhythm and blues gig with a different band. Despite the common rootstock, jazz and blues are effectively different languages. There are phrases and chords in jazz which would risk stopping a blues band in its tracks. I am used to playing on my own, whether in a club or busking in the street, so not only do I have to learn to listen to what everyone else is doing, but I have to get used to doing less myself, which I find surprisingly hard. Playing in a band, be it jazz or blues, there’s always a lot more to learn, both on and off the instrument. As to the money, I’ve noticed that the often more visceral
http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/reviews/arts_and_commentary/article1625190.ece 16/12/2015, 10:17 PM Page 1 of 2
sound of a blues band seems to command a slightly higher fee than a jazz outfit. Tonight’s fee is still shy of that symbolic three figures, but it’s an improvement on the Albion. We’re playing at a BMW owners’ convention and, despite the autumnal damp and chill, it’s been decided that we should set up outside. This is news to Simon, the drummer, who arrives late only to be told that he can’t bring his car into the car park in order to unload because it isn’t a BMW and will spoil the look of things. In any case, he is understandably reluctant to risk his expensive kit in the dank atmosphere on hummocky wet grass. Simon stays just long enough to deliver a comprehensive curse on the whole occasion before driving home. We start playing without him. Almost straight away it’s clear that no one is listening; rather, they appear to be affecting not to have noticed that we are here. This is less unusual than one would wish and seems to be a peculiarly English trait. There is, however, one dissenter. Drawn, no doubt, by the keen scent of free electricity, a prosperous-looking young man ambles over in the middle of a song and, uninvited, plugs his laptop into my extension lead. Halfway through the second set he returns to retrieve it, again in the middle of a song, unplugging my keyboard as he does so. He finds this more amusing than I do.
On Saturday, Piers and I are back playing jazz standards at a private party. We are joined by a tenor sax player whose approach to music, even in a field distinguished by a flair for improvisation, is uncannily instinctive. Roy is a puzzle. He eschews theoretical knowledge to the point where he doesn’t read music at all and declares that even having the chords indicated “doesn’t really help much”. Yet not only have I never known him to play a sour note, but he can launch with fluent grace into a tune that he has never heard before. Tonight I’m late after getting lost on the wrong housing estate. My playing feels clumsy, partly because I’m flustered over my late arrival and partly because of the hostess’s idea that it would be nice to have us playing outside as the guests arrive. As it happens, most of the guests have turned up early and we are left sitting outside on a chilly evening while inside they complain that they can’t hear us. After an hour or so, they ask us to come and play indoors. The room in which we are instructed to set up houses a flat-screen television, about the size of a piano, on which a crucial Rugby World Cup match is showing. From the sofa, several large reddish men frown briefly in our direction. Their folded arms render them all the more menacing.
The room still has a few people left in it as we begin the second set, and the music has some memorable moments. From time to time, there is even a bit of warm applause. We finish and go to grab a quick bite from the buffet. It is put to us that we probably want to get going. Later, under a streetlight in the car, we count the cash. It’s a hundred over what we had expected, which brings it up to just over three figures each. We embrace, slightly awkwardly. The next morning Piers phones. The hostess has just emailed him to say that she’s sorry but she accidentally included in our envelope the money for the cleaners and the waitresses. They evidently didn’t do that well out of it either. “Oh well”, I say to Piers. “We briefly held it in our hands.” Piers says nothing. “That’s jazz”, I say.