Jazz singers, the The’s “Uncertain Smile” and a night on the lash with an old pal

"This, I thought, is the kind of jazz I can live with."

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Last night I went to see a jazz band. “A JAZZ band?” Say it in the tones of a scandalised Lady Bracknell saying “a HANDbag?” Yes, I know, I know. All sorts of civilised people love jazz but until last night I was not one of them. The venue was a pub in Brighton (well, Hove, actually) that has Frenchified itself and is called the Paris Rooms, or something, but it has retained its structural integrity and atmosphere. As I walked in, I glanced uneasily at the double bass lurking in the corner. Why am I doing this? I wondered. Well, to see an Old Colleague, a new friend, and someone else I hadn’t met before. She looked familiar.

“I’m sorry,” I said a few minutes after introductions had been made. “I’m the kind of person who has to be told someone’s name twice.”

“She’s a famous actress,” said the Old Colleague, scandalised by my idiocy. The name was resupplied, and I may as well name her as Julie Graham, whose list of credits on Wikipedia, I have just discovered, is as long as your arm, and contains some good work, not one minute of which I have seen, not even her first credit in 1986, for an episode of Taggart. This is hardly her fault, especially as she is still working. I think not having a functioning TV for ten years might have something to do with my ignorance.

We were sitting at the back of the pub when the band started up. It was a three-piece: singer, double bass, and the singer’s boyfriend on an ancient Gibson semi-acoustic.

“This is rather good,” I said, and we all agreed. So much so that we moved to a table about three feet away from them. There was a man eating a pie at the table but we all sat in front of him, spoiling his view. If you’re eating a pie, can you be said to be fully committed to the spectacle? But my Old Colleague, who cares little for polite convention, made us all sit down.

Close up, the effect was even better than it had been at the back. The singer, one Sam Carelse, was extraordinary. I don’t know much about jazz singers but let me go out on a limb and say that I’ve never heard anyone who was white sound so much like Billie Holiday.

This, I thought, is the kind of jazz I can live with. (Jazz fans can be tricky. I once went out with a singer-songwriter so musically gifted I once saw her pick up a saxophone for the first time – this was a very long time ago, we were young – and play it convincingly, even movingly. Not long after this I played her the The’s “Uncertain Smile”, asking her to pay particular attention to Jools Holland’s piano break and she said: “I’ve never been so musically insulted in my life.”)

I was enjoying myself considerably more than I thought I was going to, but after a short while the OC said we now had to go somewhere else. I was nursing the second half of a large Malbec but realised I was either going to have to leave it there or drink it up faster than I have ever drunk a glass of wine in my life.

I drank it up, like one of the more alcoholic warlords in Game of Thrones. (When in New York, my host made me watch two entire series of this show, so I am au fait with its tropes now, but at a fatal cost to my long-standing policy of Never Watching Game of Thrones. Well, I was being put up for free, so what could I do?) Reader, let me say that drinking a quarter of a pint of Malbec in one go is not something I want to do again in a hurry.

We moved a few doors down the road to an almost completely empty and atmosphere-free bar, and continued to drink. I started telling a story which was vaguely relevant to something that had just been said and the OC said “I don’t want to listen to your story”, so that was that.

As the evening progressed it became clear that I was probably the drunkest of the group, and the other three were women. These people were professionals. I pride myself for having been able to match Hunter Thompson and Christopher Hitchens drink for drink but this was one of those rare occasions when I felt out of my league.

We got up to go for a meal but I was feeling as if my drink had been spiked so I made my excuses and left, pausing only to nip back to the Paris Rooms and pay my respects to Ms Carelse. I have, mercifully, little memory of what I said, but have since found a piece of paper with details of her website on it, in her handwriting, so it can’t have been all bad.

This morning I woke early without any hangover, miraculously, and reflected on my alcoholic weakness, and the way I and everyone else did what the Old Colleague asked without demur. But then I suppose that’s what happens when you go out on the lash with Julie Burchill. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 29 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out