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):

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?

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.