A fine romance

I came late to jazz but when I listen to it now, I can travel to another dimension.

Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Photo: Getty Images

I was slow on the uptake where jazz was concerned. There must have been jazz played at school – what else was the Jazz Cellar for? – but somehow I never encountered it. I knew boys with the magical and enviable ability to play music by ear; favouring, when they sat down at some stolid upright on which the accompaniments to hymns were more normally bashed out, a genteel form of stride. If not quite jazz, that was something. But did any of these players develop beyond a serviceable pub-and-party pianism? If so, I haven’t heard.

A more serious proposition was Bill Bruford, already a locally famed percussionist. He had all the equipment, including what was especially fascinating to me, a vibraphone, which at most times you could find parked in the concert room of the music school: a big, complicated, gleaming machine that seemed as adult a thing to own as a motorbike. We all know what Bill went on to achieve but I don’t remember hearing him play. What could I have been doing?

Actually, I was listening to another kind of music altogether and not the prevailing pop of the time but 20th-century orchestral and chamber works. My first LP purchase, The Rite of Spring, which I’d bought simply because I knew the name, had set me off on this course, one ironical consequence of which was that I was listening to such pieces as Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale and Milhaud’s La création du monde long before I had any sense of the jazz that had inspired their composers. And been misunderstood by them, I remember Miles Kington arguing in a review. When I met Kington years later, at a party, I tried to stick up for Stravinsky. Kington was essentially right, but there is such a thing as creative misunderstanding and this collision of the European avant-garde with jazz, or what was taken to be jazz, produced some of the freshest music of the age, however mangled or mongrel it may sound to the purist.

Even so, it wasn’t the real thing, which I continued to manage not to hear throughout my time at Oxford. How this happened, in a city so lively with music of all kinds, is beyond my ability to explain. I remember that Roland Kirk, that one-man band of reed instruments, came, with much heralding, to play at the town hall and I thought of going to hear him but something squeamish or stingy in me scotched the impulse. Possibly, this was a piece of luck: Kirk’s hectic, self-absorbed squawking has never won me over and I might have been put off jazz for life. I couldn’t have known that then, though, and I fear my motive had probably more to do with priggish calculation. Was this truly serious music? Would Boulez have approved?

Out in the real world, I continued on my path of partial deafness. When a colleague at work offered me a set of early Louis Armstrong recordings – the sublime period of the Hot Five and Hot Seven – at some giveaway price, I turned the offer down, not from an intuition that LPs would soon be consigned to the junk heap with all the clutter of a redundant technology, but because – oh, I can’t think why. That moment really shames me. If only I could wind the years back and give myself a sharp kick!

What saved me was marrying a woman whose musical outlook was far broader than my own. Lucinda, who had left South Africa for Rada and a career in the theatre, brought with her a capacious recall of the popular songs of the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and Fifties. She knew not just the tunes but all the words as well. Whenever we could get at a piano, I would be recruited as her accompanist. Could I make that instrument swing? Not one bit; but I fumbled at the keyboard with increasing fascination. The joyous, quick-witted, impudent inventiveness of Gershwin, Porter, Weill and others was a revelation to me. Among the songs I could get through with least damage done was “The Man I Love” and I would return again and again to the sly harmonic shifts, around descending semi-tones, by which George Gershwin deepens the poignancy of Ira’s lyrics, never failing to marvel at their combined ingenuity and emotional power.

Now, I suppose, I was beginning to understand something: the pleasure a musician gets from a chord progression that pleases him or her and calls forth an answering impulse to please. Improvisation was beyond me, and will be for all time, but I could appreciate the skill in others. Whether by accident or instinct, Lucinda and I next discovered Radio 3’s Saturday-evening perennial, Jazz Record Requests. It wasn’t just the musical riches that hooked us and made us weekly devotees; the late Peter Clayton’s affable manner and way with words – I remember him describing a particularly smoochy Ben Webster solo as “like breathing on the bathroom mirror” – were an important stimulus to my belated education. Radio 3 has been blessed in its jazz presenters and interviewers: Alyn Shipton, Julian Joseph, Geoffrey Smith and Russell Davies, among others. Knowledgeable but non-nerdy, they have been, and continue to be, indispensable guides to a world I still feel I’m only beginning to know and shall never know fully.

My main limitation is that I go out to hear jazz live far too infrequently. The argument that because I missed the greats in their heyday, there’s no point in trying to catch up now, obviously won’t hold water; but something like that seems to constrain me. Useless to regret that I wasn’t in New York at the right time to hear Thelonious Monk, and see him doing the abstracted war dance around his piano that an older and more fortunate friend was able to mimic for me. In earlier days, I suppose, I could have been at club engagements or concerts by Earl Hines, Betty Carter or any number of gifted blowers on their visits to London but somehow I let such opportunities pass.

Ronnie Scott’s, I regret to say, I’ve visited only twice: on the first occasion – early or mid-Eighties – Joe Pass sat alone with his guitar and helped us forget the dingy surroundings with his inexhaustibly nimble introspections; on the second, Stacey Kent sassily entertained an audience of dinner tables. It was the first of these performances that accorded with my preferred listening arrangements. Jazz and fancy food really don’t, to my mind, need each other – a belief that Ronnie Scott himself famously lived by. More than that, I think with dismay of those recordings that should have captured the thrill of jazz history being made on the spot but instead show the player in question losing the battle against his own audience as it gabbles away and clatters the house cutlery without appearing to notice him. Stacey’s audience was impeccably attentive, and she sang with verve and charm, but the starched-linen atmosphere did seem to encourage a lot of brittle and unnecessary patter.

For this sort of reason, I listen to most of my jazz at home, still a student at the university of Radio 3 but with a growing library of CDs that sends out now one shoot, now another, often to rather lopsided effect, as I explore the field in my unmethodical fashion. A welcome supplement to this comes via YouTube, where a freemasonry of busy bees keeps up, heaven knows how, an endless supply of filmed performances, both mainstream and off-beat. One recent find that has given me especial pleasure has Betty Carter at the Carnegie Hall belting out “How High the Moon”, with Hank Jones on piano and Roy Hargrove – chastised at one point for some misdemeanour by an “off with his head!” glare from the singer – on trumpet. It’s obvious how seeing the by-play and not merely registering the notes enhances the experience, and it makes me question my own stay-at-home habit.

Nonetheless, to stay at home and watch, courtesy of YouTube, Billie Holiday, backed by a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of jazz’s finest that included Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge, performing that quintessential blues, “Fine and Mellow”, is to travel in another dimension. Leaving aside Lady Day’s singing, her face, as she attends to each soloist in turn, is extraordinary: appreciative, wise, alert to every nuance, and somehow both rueful and uplifted at the same time. The Prez shows himself to be a spent force as he takes the second solo, but her melancholy recognition of this seems qualified by sweeter memories as she nods and smiles. To observe such listening is a musical experience in itself.

Christopher Reid is a poet. His “Selected Poems” were published by Faber in 2011.