How jazz shaped my philosophy of life

I’m not alone am I? I mean, most guys in their thirties … with a waistline you don’t want to be reminded of, and a knee-jerk cynicism about the world … most guys are wondering what happened to that little boy they once were: his focus, his energy, his passion, his fundamental optimism … his innocence?

A mid-life crisis? It’s basically a second adolescence where the question has changed from ‘who do I want to be?’ to ‘who have I become?’

There are a few things that make me feel sixteen. One of them is swimming in open water, another is listening to jazz, old jazz, New Orleans jazz from the early 20th century. That’s essentially the sound-track of my teens.

How do you rebel in a world of non-conformists?

It’s a strange choice, but honestly, it was about the only avenue left open to express my rebellion, while I was trying to be a non-conformist like everyone else. My peers were listening to Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, House of Pain, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses. My family (and music teachers) listened to baroque and classical music. Even the more progressive teachers listened to New Model Army and The Levellers. I got captivated by the energy and optimism of jazz, and later found in it a voice for the melancholia and rebellion I treasured in my adolescent heart.

I started out taping jazz radio programs on BBC Radio 3. I ended up collecting photos of jazz musicians, reading every scrap of jazz history I could find, and spending every break time on a piano in the music school. This music became one of my earliest mentors and I’m only discovering now how much it set my expectations and shaped my outlook. That boy I once was is still fundamentally running the show from a speakeasy in the back of my mind.

Freelancing is the highest form of employment

For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever questioned my assumption that freelancing is the highest form of employment. I learned this from my trumpet-blowing heroes. At the end of the day, they had themselves, they had soul and a horn to blow it out from. They pitched up, they did their thing, then they disappeared back into the night, beholden to nobody. If they were good, they got booked; if they weren’t hot enough, they got cut. If they got into self-destructive habits, they burned their career, because they were inseparable from it.

Gentlemen prefer banjos
Gentlemen prefer banjos

That’s it, you know, these musicians stood or fell on the basis of something that it was quite impossible to fake. You can paint jazz by numbers, and I’ve heard plenty of these guys who have emerged from conservatories who can run up and down scales very prettily — but the elusive elements of soul, swing and hotness … sticks out a mile.

Of course, I’m romanticising it – but it’s the myth that wired me to be a freelancer.

I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it

Then there’s my almost-pathological preference for spontaneity. My heroes were (and still are) improvisers. None of them would pitch up to a jam session and ask to see the score or dream of showing up with a bunch of pre-rehearsed licks. They’d internalised the outer forms and the inner core of their art a long time before they stepped up to the mic.

I can’t see the problem with going by the seat of your pants as long as, you know, you made those pants yourself, you know they are up to the job, and you carry a sewing kit in case they get torn

I still believe that you’ve gotta be a sponge and soak in stuff, so when you get poked that’s what comes out. If it’s not in you already, it’s too darn late to start preparing now. Being an improviser isn’t about not being prepared, it’s about the preparation happening over years in the past.

Individualism can coexist with collectivism

Then take the matter of ‘teamwork’, ‘leadership’ and all those buzz words you’ll never find on the sleeve notes of a hot record. My take on these things is still cast acccording to the loose categories of ‘ensemble’, ‘soloist’ and ‘bandleader’.

The feature that makes early New-Orleanian jazz so special compared to what followed is the ‘ensemble’. Everyone plays together – everyone improvises together. It’s not about the solos like it is today. You might not hear any solos; sometimes the most a single instrumentalist gets to play in the limelight is a four-bar break to key the ensemble back in.

The phenomenon of a bandleader is an interesting one in this egalitarian context. From my reading of early jazz history the bandleader is:

  •  needed by the entertainment industry so they have a name they can use to sell records and attract the punters (‘Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers’ is going to sell better than ‘some guys with horns and stuff who happened to be available on Friday afternoon’)
  • the one with the personal influence, the network and the contacts (in modern business terms) to convene an assortment of seasoned musicians who are going to sound good together (the cats dig him/her enough to pitch up)
  • someone who has to take care of that client-facing stuff, you know, and make sure everyone gets paid if they’ve been sober

None of that means the band leader is any kind of big-shot when it comes to the team performing (or the band playing).

Classic New-Orleans jazz is a shining example of how both individualism and collectivism can play loud and strong together in society. I guess I’m holding out for that.

That’s almost enough said … yup, enough. I’ll just let the music speak for itself. This is Black Bottom Stomp (it still raises the hairs on my neck):

The Wisdom of Things Found 3: The Clarinet Reed

March 2012, at the back of a cupboard

Finding this reed brought back a whole load of memories. There was a time in my life when I suppose all my dreams were in the 26 inches of black resonite that made up my clarinet – I wanted to play like Artie Shaw so very badly that I used to dream in swing. One evening, in a dream, I took to the stage with Louis Armstrong and we swapped riffs all night. It was amazing.

But this reed stands for everything that stood between me and jamming with Satchmo because the reality is, however much we picture that perfect sound, liquid phrasing and pure tone, it all has to come through this rough piece of wood. Every musician, no matter what their instrument, has had to overcome the brutish and mundane aspects of making a sweet sound.

As much as I would like to romanticise my affair with the clarinet, the battle with reeds and mouthpieces in particular put a dampner on things. A perfect reed would go limp in the days leading up to a performance. My unsatisfactory backup reeds would have to be broken in or painstakingly sanded and trimmed, often to the point of being unusable. A wayward reed would deliver a squeek at the wrong moment and ruin everything. To overcome these trials takes a special sort of perseverance that I am not sure I ever had. It was always easier to transfer my allegiance to another instrument until its particular  technical challenges would hold me back. As a result I play a range of instruments to a mediocre standard.

One evening, I took a flute down to the river Thames which flowed about 200 yards from the bottom of our garden. I thought it would be swell to stand in the reeds and play as the sun was going down. But my mouth and fingers were so cold I could barely get a tune and I returned home quite discouraged.

Now I am a bit older I have a better grasp of the fact that the beauty we can imagine in our heads will never be achieved without a lot of perseverance, application, discouragement and messiness along the way. It’s a hard lesson but, once we have learned it, I think we can find that the difficulty has its own sort of beauty.

Click here for more “Things Found” posts or listen to the Story of  “The Wisdom of Things Found” at Stories from the Borders of Sleep.

Creative Patronage: how a bit of encouragement changed my life.

Inner TroubadourI was infected with a musical bug around the age of 12, having shown no precocious aptitude for making music. In fact, I recall being sent out of a recorder group for blowing the instrument through my nose when I was about 7 and, although I took violin lessons for a few weeks, nothing really hooked me. However, I have never looked back since a friend of my parents introduced me to the Ukulele and a whole world opened up to me. In small ways, this person’s generosity and encouragement had a disproportionately powerful influence on how I have spent the rest of my life (particularly the hours I have racked up in musical endeavour). It makes me wonder how I might be able to creatively and quietly mentor others.

Some of the things I note about this friend:

  • He treated me as an adult, in spite of my tender age. As far as I can remember, he gave me my first ukulele but as soon as I outgrew it we made an adult arrangement by which I was to pay for a better instrument. The deal was not done through my parents but was contracted between us. He referred to it as doing business, and we even shook hands on it.
  • He took a wider interest in my life. It wasn’t just all about the ukulele, but also about flying kites and climbing trees.
  • He let me teach him. Quite early on I tried finger-picking on the uke. When I showed this to him he showed enthusiasm and let me teach him what I had figured out. He let me know when things I was into (like Jelly Roll Morton’s music) had fired his interest, too. He didn’t have to be the expert on things, just a fellow explorer.
  • He let me initiate. He had an openness that made me feel comfortable about initiating. We corresponded; I didn’t get letters asking “how’s the playing coming on”, but when I wrote asking for more chords or advice, he took the trouble to write back. I had to ask. Often in a teacher-pupil or mentoring relationship, the teacher is expected to be proactive and dictate what the student needs. In this relationship, I had to want the learning enough to ask for it.
  • He made music fun. When I saw him playing the recorder, for instance, I started to change my mind about the bad impression I had of the instrument from an earlier age.

Without being the recipient of this kind of openhanded willingness to encourage a young person, I doubt that music would have taken up such an important place in my life.

I progressed from the ukulele to the Tenor Banjo, I became obsessed with Jazz, I took clarinet lessons when I went to senior school and spent most of my break-times teaching myself the piano. At this stage, I was very much alone, trying to work stuff out by ear and reading all the books I could. However, I am quite convinced that if someone else had come into my life at that point, to act as a mentor in the same way and take me forward as a Jazz musician, life would have been very different once again. I can’t indulge in regrets, but I do often wonder what would have happened with a little more relational encouragement at this point.

Is there someone you know who needs a little bit of your unobtrusive and generous encouragement at a key moment in their creative growth?

Back to School: I’m learning the recorder …

Three or four times a year I have a lengthy dilemma over which musical instrument to specialise in, and this has gone on for the last 20 years. I am one of those people who is simply not content to listen to music, I always want to play it myself – whatever I am into at the time. As a result hundreds of hours of my life have been spent trying to improve on the the clarinet, saxophone, banjo, mandolin, accordion, ukulele, piano and harmonica. This variety attests to two things:

  1. I do not have much stickability and patience and I get bored and frustrated when I get to the point where real concentration on technique is required in order to progress.
  2. I am constantly in search of that transcendently versatile single instrument that will enable me to play all the stuff I love. My taste is suspended between the poles of Jazz and Folk music although my LastFM stats reveal that I pretty much listen to more Bach than everything else put together.
Move over Mister Tumnus!

By default, the instrument that I am putting my time into is usually governed by the opportunities I am getting to play with others. So I have banjoed from the orchestra pit in musicals, contributed piano and harmonica to a soul/country band, clarinetted in amateur recitals, keyboarded at Church, doumbeked in drum circles, and lately I have been concentrating on harmonica and whistles in my Ceillidh band (The Scrumpy Badgers). However,  I have just plunged through my instrumental crisis again in search of the right instrument to accompany me on my journey as a “storyteller”.

To help me, I made up a matrix of all the instruments I play and scored them out of ten for: robustness/portability, ease of maintenance, running cost, playability, current standard of my ability, expressiveness, chromaticism, versatility of styles. The humble recorder came up trumps and offered some additional pros:

  1. Technique is readily adaptable to other woodwind instruments.
  2. I have a thing about the spiritual significance of breath, breathing and wind.
  3. It capitulates to the fact that a preponderance of Renaissance and Baroque music has been appearing in my playlists recently.
  4. Recorders are reasonably cheap although I’m already coveting an expensive model.
  5. Although most of us are familiar with the descant recorders we learned to play in school, there are a range of other, bigger, instruments to choose from.
  6. I managed to pick up a tenor recorder in a local charity shop for £15 when they usually cost about £50.
  7. It has an appropriately evocative, mysterious, ethereal sound that goes well with my “Borders of Sleep” storytelling persona.
  8. There is something I love about taking a simple and humble, often despised instrument and making something out of it.
  9. There is plenty of fun potential for ensemble playing.
  10. Masters like Frans Brüggen prove just what wonders can be achieved:

So … move over, Mister Tumnus, there’s a new kid in Narnia!

Learning in a Drum Circle

(c) 2010, Seymour Jacklin

Growing up in Africa, I have very early memories of drums going all night in the village half a mile away. I think this left a lasting impression on me. In spite of my African roots, my favourite drum to play is a goblet drum called the “Doumbek” or “Darbuka” which is of middle eastern/eurasian origin.

Doumbek Player
A Small Doumbek is my weapon of choice.

This week, I’m facilitating a drum circle/workshop at Harvest – a Christian Youth Festival in the northeast of England. It’s something I have just tumbled into that is getting a life of its own. I’m not a percussionist of any great ability or experience but I have found communal drumming to have very little to do with technique and everything to do with an openness to participate.

I have been asked on several occasions to facilitate communal drumming and I guess I am developing an understanding of why this can be such a powerful experience for people. Drumming together teaches people without needing a didactic approach and I find that people take to it with very little instruction – the less the better.

The concept is incredibly simple. I usually gather people in a circle and encourage them to choose from a selection of percussion instruments, finding something they feel comfortable with. Right from the outset, it is always noticeable how people’s choice reflects their personality and this is always an opportunity for me to get a feel for the make-up of the group; from the confident men who choose the biggest drum they can find to the more diminutive people who choose an egg shaker and hope they won’t be heard.

There is always going to be at least one person in the group who is a far more accomplished drummer than me. This is always a relief because I know they will be able to carry things a bit. Facilitating the group is about letting the more confident individuals define the groove and make space for others to contribute around that.

Drumming together is about listening to each other. The most exciting thing is to listen as the rhythm shifts organically as new strains arise and catch on. The group is self-regulating as it is simply not possible for one individual to show off and take over. Experienced beat technicians have to take their place alongside the noobs who are just trying to keep up and everyone is making a contribution.

For me, a drumming group is like a microcosm of a community as it should be. Drumming together is a perfect way to have a conversation where everyone speaks at the same time, simultaneously listening and contributing. It is exhilirating and draws strangers together in a common experience.

During the course of an hour session I tend to aim for about three episodes of drumming lasting up to about ten minutes each but letting it flow for as long as it needs to. Between each episode there is time to feedback, swap instruments, and encourage people. I use slower beats to get people listening to each other and growing in confidence and faster ones to create energy. I use hand signals during the session to do a little bit of direction, like getting sections to play more quietly or drop out and back in again but prefer to keep this to a minimum because the joy of a drum circle is the way that it feeds and directs itself through consensus.

I always felt the drummers were having more fun than us; now I know why.


The Psalm Drummers – a heart to drum.

My Doumbek Playlist on YouTube.

Jazz and Light: Two Things I Love

Jazz Musician: Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington was a Swinging Cat

I do love Jazz. My taste sails into many waters but always seems to come home to this music. I love the sense of balance it somehow seems to make from chaos. I love the spaces between the notes where there is anticipation and elasticity, an endless cycle of unresolving cadences going somewhere but giving the impression of going nowhere. Jazz is a dynamic system of sound that is a bit like creation itself. You analyse it but you never distil that elusive “quality” of its soul. You can’t really write it down and you can’t make it in a test tube. Like most of creation, it looks both chaotic and ordered depending on where you are standing. Up close there is apparent confusion, step back and the satisfying sense of order reasserts itself, step back one more time and there you have the chaos again.

Jazz is redemptive. It takes what are technically and mathematically dischords and turns them into beauty and harmony.

black and white picture of some cool lampshades
Lamps in Leonard's Coffee House

Photography blows my mind because it has forced me to become aware of the sublime properties of light. Taking photographs has attuned my senses to those of a light-chaser. I see light in simple things, anticipate its next move and change position to enhance the way it falls to me. I am in love with light, it fascinates me. I get up early for it and sit up late for it. I go out looking for light and sometimes I sit very still and wait for it.

One of my Jazz Heroes is Jelly Roll Morton who, like many musical geniuses, ended his life in unmerited obscurity.

More of my philosophy of photography can be found on my Flickr profile.