In the very first entry here, I dealt with my reasons for venturing forth into the world of blogging, some of which were tied in with finding the format of social media rather too invasive, others more personal, exorcising the demon of self-doubt over whether it’s possible to be a musician and a writer and not feel compromised by either role. In some senses, the past eighteen or so months, marooned minus the lifeblood of live performance this crisis of identity was rendered academic (actually I’m not sure it wasn’t a bit of an indulgence all along); teaching online and writing sleeve notes, record reviews, magazine articles and such was about all I could do, and in lieu of gigs I was certainly mightily appreciative of the work, whatever it was. Whether it’s cured me permanently of worry about whether skill set A is ‘better’ than skill set B remains doubtful. Ask me later...
That said, over the past few days I’ve experienced a sensation I’ve not felt in the best part of two years, once more heading out on the road to play the kind of gigs that were the core of my existence seemingly forever before Covid-19 struck. First there was a theatre concert with my quartet in sunny (one might say sunburnt) Dorset before a shoot northward to play a jazz festival in Birmingham. Usually, such things would be considered hardly worth shouting about – certainly not by me – and would soon pass as way-stations on the road ahead to further live appearances. Yet so profoundly did I feel the jarring contrast between the static, lock-down life I’ve led since March 2020 and that I experienced the moment I stepped onstage in lovely Lyme Regis on Thursday night that I feel there’s at least some merit in discussing it here.
Before I go any further, however, I’d like to address the Elephant in the Room. Some of you may be so polite as to not mention his presence; me – I’m on more than nodding acquaintance, let’s just put it that way. The few bits of online commentary about this blog that I’ve seen (I’m not much of a vanity Googler) have naturally mentioned the preponderance of pieces on Tubby Hayes, the ‘Golden’ age of British modern jazz and the historical highways and backwaters that comprise the vast bulk of what I’ve shared here. I’ve only been giving people what they want; that is writing about subjects which are actually worth writing about. For that reason, I’ve deliberately dialled back discussion of my own work as a musician, the superfluous relevance of any such pieces confirmed by weak visitor statistics once shared. That I don’t mind one bit – this is a blog after all, not a diary – and I’ve learned the hard way that people who like the music of Tubby Hayes don’t automatically take interest in mine, which is, I readily admit, inspired by Hayes but which I know is in all honesty never going to be anything but a well-meaning if rather crushingly pallid tribute.
In fact, before I get to the meat of this piece I’ll give you an example; in October of this year I’ll be fronting an all-star big band of British jazzmen at a well-known UK festival presenting an evening of Hayes’ music, almost all of which hasn’t be heard in public since the 1960s. Without hubris, I think that’s something of note, simply because it’s helping share music I love. Breaking news of this, a Facebook group which specialises in the very same subject I do, reacted in much the same way you might when a friend makes an embarrassing comment at a dinner party – general silence then a quick mood-breaking change of subject. (For the record, I am good friends with the man who runs that particular group and he’s a good egg, with a yolk brimming with the best of intentions; like those who chair all such public groups, though, he’s at the mercy of the opinions of many, some better informed than others).
In moments like that you realise that however sincere your efforts in the direction of repertoire you love – in this case that of Tubby Hayes – there’ll always be someone who thinks you’re not worth bothering with. In this regard I’m well aware that there are those who think I am to Hayes what Syd Lawrence was to Glenn Miller; offering opportunistic, ham-fisted pastiches that miss the meaning entirely. But that’s their lookout. At least I’ve tried.
I got wind of a bit of this on Thursday night when quite by chance I overheard two men sat a few rows back from the front of the theatre after our first set. One had looked reasonably cheerful throughout, the other had spent most to his time, arms folded, eyeing me as if I were some contemptible object. ‘Well, all he’s got is chops, isn’t it?’ he said to his pal. Now I care not whether this individual rates me or not; he has his opinion and he’s welcome to it. And he’ll have been tucked up with his wife, his pension and his paid-for house hours before I got home at 3 o’clock in the morning (sixteen hour round trip; I left home at 11am) after the first real earner of a gig I’ve played in months. But that’s what I love about certain audience members – their sense of the paradoxical; they have lightning quick trigger fingers of aesthetic judgement but have absolutely no idea what goes in to the making of the gig they’ve summarily dismissed in an instant. Of course, that’s just one example. The rest of the crowd at Lyme Regis were a joy to play for, all of them enduring what was an almost intolerably hot evening to come and show cheering support for live music. We even got a standing ovation, which I must admit meant an awful lot.
None of the above irritants can take the shine from the sheer feeling of bliss to be back out there ‘doing it’ again. And that sensation isn’t just musical, it’s inter-personal, felt in the laughter, the camaraderie, the shared-stories and the spontaneity of ‘the hang’ that can only really happen when like-minded thinkers (read musicians) get together. That is something you DON’T get on a livestream, believe me. And to play for people again – sat together rather than sectioned off by perspex like so many lab rats – creates an atmosphere that cannot be duplicated by virtual means. You felt that in Lyme Regis on Thursday night and you felt it even more in Birmingham the following day, where I played two gigs with a pick-up quartet with pianist Craig Milverton, bassist Bill Coleman and drummer Mal Garrett, at which (please note) we played not a single piece of Hayes’ canon, just standards.
Again, there was the social aspect, that of catching up not just with musicians you’d not seen in an age but with jazz fans you were used to meeting on a regular basis on various Midlands gigs. Hands were shaken, rounds were bought, laughs were had, normality was reinstated. And in the reaction to the music – the real human reaction not the score card, emotionally absent appraisal of the armchair critic – you sensed what live music really does mean to people; audiences too had felt the lack of contact, greeting what they heard as if reunited with a long-lost friend. Looking back over these three performances – which I can’t argue will ever go down as me at my best (whatever that is) - it’s this feeling which I’ll hold on to; the connective power of music, with all its time-eroding, healing capacity.
And at Birmingham it made us new friends too, like the couple I spoke to who’d driven from Scotland to catch the gigs, and the jazz fans who’d come southward from Manchester and Liverpool to show their support; like the young guitarist studying at the Birmingham Conservatoire who offered the very acme of millennial praise (‘that’s some really wicked shit you’ve got down’) and the several Facebook friends who put faces to names, accents to disembodied commentary and real emotion in place of emoticons. It all combined to remind me of real life and in an odd sort of way made me question whether or not the previous year and a half had merely been some sort of parallel reality. Indeed, so real was the reaction at Lyme Regis and Birmingham that you could be forgiven for thinking you’d imagined it all – the lock-down and the livestreams, the pandemic and the panic. Live jazz felt as if it were back, with how much permanency we can’t yet say, but for the time being that restoration is more than enough to feed a soul starved of purpose.
And maybe that’s it, the nub of the thing; that, when all is said and done, it matters not what we’ve been doing since that fateful day in March 2020 when the creative clock stopped dead, but what we’re doing now. On the stand, surrounded by friends, it felt as if I’d never been away, never doubted. It felt as is all the vain and unproductive public self-doubt had been some sort of psychosis, the result of nothing but inactivity. Mind, fingers and heart were alive again, as was my faith in music, myself and the path ahead. All that from a few simple hours playing songs, trying to swing, seeking to reconnect, reaching out. It made me realise one fundamental thing; if you’re a performing musician you cannot exist in a vacuum. And if that oxygen is denied you your mind will play the same tricks as if were starved of oxygen for real– you’ll misjudge things, be unable to focus, experience bizarre hallucinations, not be you. That’s why the online self of 2020/21 will one day be a thing to study, as if we were victims of some dystopian programme to assess human behaviour when in isolation (I’m NOT a conspiracy theorist, by the way). Musicians reacted in all sorts of ways not all of them worthy of close scrutiny but now, back out there again, we can do what we do, forget, be us, play again, continue. Of course, such profundity will soon be regarded as nothing exceptional, as indeed it was before the pandemic gripped, and we’ll all be again at the mercy of the petty-minded, arms crossed, scowler in the third row who grades music like some poncey amateur wine-buff. But for the moment, let’s just take what we have and not let anyone belittle it. Music is back. And so are we, audiences and performers alike. Restored, connected, conjoined and communing, sensing the sweetest of all things; the endurance of the human spirit.
Photo: Sax at the Brasshouse, Birmingham by Jane Harper-Otney