Yesterday evening, after a ridiculously protracted journey, I played a very pleasant gig at Taunton’s CICC Arts Centre with drummer Ronnie Jones’ trio.
Following five and a half hours non-stop driving, by the time I alighted in the town I felt long overdue for refreshment and, stretching my stiffened legs, a quick stroll thereabouts. Almost inevitably this lead me to do a spot of charity shop browsing, the hobby I’ve taken to lately in order to ferret out discarded second-hand jazz CD’s and at which, I’m pleased to say, I’ve had some incredible luck. A friend of mine has even coined a word to describe such an act – Spilletting he calls it, and I’m both amused and flattered to be its inspiration.
By the time I got to Oxfam it was around half past four, some thirty or so minutes from closing time, and I entered a shop otherwise deserted save for one man, intensely browsing the same double-decked row of CDs at which I had positioned myself. Around seventy years of age, burly and bearded, he was dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, a grubby pair of sports socks and training shoes, but it wasn’t his ‘straight from the garden’ appearance that disarmed me; it was the fact that arrayed before him was a pile of a half a dozen CDs he fished from the rack – Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Lester Young.
‘Ah, you’ve found all the things I’d have looked at’, I remarked. He turned to me, looking a little shocked to be jolted from his intense reverie.
‘Oh,’ he replied in an accent thick with regional burr, ‘you like your jazz do you?’
‘Yes’, I said. ‘You’ve got some good things there.’
‘Yeah, Wayne Shorter – I like ‘im. Coleman ‘awkins – he’s good too.’
‘You like tenor saxophones then, I see.’
‘I do. You a jazz fan then?’
‘Yes. In fact, I’m a professional musician.’
‘Right. What do you play?’
‘Ah, you’ll be wanting to look at these then’, he responded, flicking his short stack of discs like a deck of cards. In the blur I saw ‘Sonny Rollins + 3’, ‘The Genius of Coleman Hawkins’ and a Wayne Shorter compilation whizz before me.
‘There’s a Coltrane there you’ve missed’, I added.
‘Yes, it’s a live one with Eric Dolphy.’
‘So who’s you’re favourite then?’
‘Coleman Hawkins is one. But I really love Coltrane.’
‘Me too’, he shot back. ‘There’s just something special in 'im, I can’t say what it is.’
I paused for a minute, thinking whether I should mention I was playing a gig a quarter of a mile away. Then, almost involuntarily, I found myself saying just that.
‘You play jazz then, do you?’
‘Yes. We’re at the Arts Centre tonight. A quartet.’
‘What sort of stuff do you play then, modern or someat?’
‘Well – Rollins, Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Bebop...perhaps you might like to come along?’
At this point I noticed he was jamming the covers of the CDs back into the jewel case sleeves as if hastily shoving a greetings card into an envelope, slamming them shut and making the little plastic retaining lugs indent and tear the contents, a minor blemish all told but one which for some reason I find especially irritating (perhaps I have CD OCD?).
‘So where do you play then?’
‘Well, I’m not from round here. I live outside London and I’m only down for one night, but I play all over.’
‘You ever played at Ronnie Scott’s?’
‘Lots of times, yes.’
‘I went there once. Back in the Seventies it was. And there’s another place isn’t there, a thing called the Jazz Cafe is it?’
‘And what’s that other one – the Pizzeria or someat?’
‘The Pizza Express in Dean Street?’
‘Thasit. Never been there neither.’
‘Well,’ I said, hoping to steer a potential audience member towards the gig, ‘maybe you’d like to hear the band tonight here?’
He didn’t appear to hear the question.
‘I suppose you make a little bit of money then, just enough to cover things?’
‘Er...sometimes we earn very good money actually.’
‘I mean, it’s jazz and all that and nobody can make any money can they?’, he continued, trying to close a double-CD case between two weighty palms.
I stopped again and considered my response. Should I tell him he was a victim of the old notion that all travelling jazz musicians are just this side of the breadline or not? Should I say outright that should he care to venture a five minute walk he could hear an evening of jazz saxophone in person? Should I grab him by the throat, pin him against the wall and say ‘listen! Stop squeezing the CD covers into the cases like that – it’s REALLY annoying!’
In the end, I drew my breath, returned my glasses to my face, smiled politely and said ‘I’ll leave you to your browsing – I really ought to get back to do a soundcheck.’
‘I suppose you was looking to buy these was you?’ he came back, trying to juggle the six or so CDs in his hand.
‘No, you go ahead. I’ve got far too many CDs as it is.’
‘Yeah. I love me jazz. Absolutely love it. ‘specially the tenor sax. Love it.’
And with that, I bid him farewell and left the shop.
I’ve recorded this little tale for no other reason than to highlight that in these days of dwindling jazz audiences and lack of venue support there still exists the jazz fan who’d far rather sit at home and listen to their records than hear the music live. Of course, I’m not in any way aligning what I do with the work of giants like Coltrane, Rollins and Hawkins, but it makes you think – are we wasting our time trying to play the ‘classic’ style when it’s already been done and set down on disc by those who are truly its masters? And, after the week I’d had, one full of cancelled gigs, press apathy, my name being incorrect on posters and some outright frostiness to my forthcoming big band gigs, the above exchange makes me wonder why I bother. In fact, I’m close to throwing in the towel on the big band, turning the whole thing over to one of my well-known and, more importantly, well-loved colleagues and retreating to my laptop, where I’m at least partially shielded from the depressing reality that what I’m doing is about as popular as a dose of Covid. Whatever else the past eighteen months may have been, they’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m on the downhill side of a small hillock of jazz achievement. Maybe it really is time to stop throwing shit out there in the hope it sticks? I’m tired. And that’s not just the driving...
Photo: Ronnie Jones (drums), Jim Rintoul (bass), Joss Kidd (drums) and some bloke on saxophone.