The Jazz (w)Age

For me, in many ways, last weekend both started and ended with sax.  That is not a typo, I was fully intending to reference Adolphe Sax’s invention for use in military bands as my weekend was bracketed by jazz gigs.  While thinking of M. Sax, I find myself wondering whatever happened to the ophicleide?  I feel it is time for it to make a comeback!

This seemed a good opportunity to fritter away some words on the subject of jazz (and me, obvs) as this marks the first anniversary of my regular going to jazz gigs.  Before January last year, I had occasionally been to jazz gigs both in London when I first lived there in the early 90s and at the Preservation Jazz Hall in New Orleans when I briefly visited that city back in 1990: an encounter which brought an end to my exploration of the Vieux Carré as I lost the desire to move on (I also had a frozen daiquiri, which may have contributed).  However, since that time I had largely ignored – and at times actively avoided – jazz.

An attempt to diversify my musical experience had tempted me to a few Nordic jazz gigs at Turner Sims in 2016.  However, it was on the evening of a dismal Sunday in January 2017 (not unlike today) that I decided I fancied some live music.  A quick search revealed that the Southampton Modern Jazz Club (SMJC) had a free entry gig on at the Talking Heads and as it was both close and free, I figured “what’s the worst that can happen?”.  As Dr Pepper (a self-claimed title rather than a formal qualification, I think) has been trying to warn me in a series of harrowing public information films since the late 2000s, there can be serious consequences from apparently harmless, trivial even, choices.

Since that fateful day, I have (on average) consumed more than one jazz gig a week and I have even indulged my filthy habit while away from home in both Cambridge and Edinburgh.  Indeed, I visited Edinburgh with the express purpose of attending its Jazz and Blues Festival.  It has gone even further and I have started indulging in jazz chords at home, using my piano and only my lack of skill has spared the guitar and clarinet.

At the start of last weekend, I went to see Binker and Moses (and friends) at Turner Sims.  After a while, I was able to stop speculating as to whether Binker’s mother was a big fan of the poetry of A A Milne (does he have a sibling roughly six years his senior?) and really enjoy the music.  I was sufficiently close to the stage and at a suitable angle to see some of how the sax is played and it looks tractable at some level as it seems to share basic fingering with one of the descant or treble recorders (both of which I played back in the 70s).  This gig also highlighted what a great jazz instrument the tabla is (are?).

At the weekend’s close on Sunday night, the SMJC gig was billed as Ted Carrasco and Friends, though as it transpired it was very much Gilad Atzmon‘s show.  As so often with the SMJC, it was a truly incredible gig with some amazing jazz music and Gilad’s entertaining patter between.  On more than one occasion, he paid two saxes at the same time – which smacks of showing off!  Young Marius Neset is going to have to bring his A game when I see him in a couple of weeks in London: though, I’m quietly confident he is up to the challenge…

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Double the fun!  Two reeds and no sign of Victoria Coren-Mitchell!

The very high standard of (often international) jazz musicians which Southampton manages to attract is a source of constant amazement to me.  Turner Sims stages formal gigs with tickets priced at around £20 and can seat a few hundred punters and has support from the Arts Council (among others).  The SMJC on the other hand relies on donations from at most a 30 or 40 attendees to pay the artists with bar receipts paying for the space and (perhaps) topping up the donations.

I will admit that I am scarred by my time as the treasurer of a musical festival in Cambridge and still count empty seats at paid gigs and worry about how the economics of the event are stacking-up.  My experience of gigs funded by donation was that the contribution averages £2-£3 which, given the modest size of the Maple Leaf Lounge, wouldn’t cover petrol money let alone a fee for the musicians. The creative world does seem to be afflicted by those who believe that exposure has a much higher value than can conceivably be justified.  I think the level of over-valuation can perhaps be illustrated by how rarely one sees an accountant, lawyer or CEO working solely for the exposure.

I hope that Southampton jazz patrons are more generous than classical music aficionados in Cambridge and I always try and pay as I would for a normal gig at the Heads (and often buy a CD – yes, I am very old).  Ted is the force behind the SMJC and I must assume that he must be very persuasive – or has a very impressive collection of blackmail material.  He is not from around these parts – or spent way too much time in front of US TV at a formative time – but he adds immeasurably to the richness of Southampton music by staging such great gigs every week of the year.  He is one of several folk this city would do well to appreciate and support.

During the week, I was in Belfast and looking for something to do on Wednesday evening.  The city has almost three times the population of Southampton (based on official stats), but it is often a struggle to find a gig to attend.  This may reflect my lack of knowledge of the local scene, but I compile a local Gig Guide, which graces this blog, using the same tricks with which I research Belfast.  The guide shows that most nights Southampton can offer multiple gigs within walking distance of my home.  There is rarely nothing to do, more often than not there are far too many options: some nights we are into double figures (more if you go deeper into the suburbs).  I’m not sure that the city recognises its great good fortune and I’m sure it makes far too little of its riches when selling itself to the wider world.

So, if any readers find themselves at a loose end in Southampton on a Sunday night – and feel they will be able to cope with an escalating jazz habit – they should hie themselves to the Talking Heads and support the SMJC!

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