A trip down memory lane. I grew up in ‘70s London (well, to reference the old gag, I grew up as much as a musician ever can). I learned the piano from the age of about five, and it was classical tuition, which was the way it was for kids in those days. No problem, loved it, still do and don’t regret it. But at some point in my early teens I also fell in love with jazz, and I desperately wanted to play it.
So I enthusiastically threw myself in, worked at it hard and got … absolutely bloody nowhere. Wow, it was frustrating.
Anyway, you can probably guess from the picture which way this is going…
Now I’m not exactly faded and drooling yet, but we are talking about a very different era. No internet. Very little radio or TV coverage of jazz. The only books you could get were dusty academic lists of scales and exercises or collections of anecdotes about the good old days of trad jazz . Even the Aebersold series wouldn’t cross the Atlantic for another ten years.
If you asked a piano teacher about jazz, they’d put you on a diet of Scott Joplin, or maybe they’d be able to dig out some old stride or fingerbuster transcriptions – all of which you were taught note-for-note, with no thought for harmony, let alone improvisation. You certainly couldn’t do night classes in jazz, let alone a degree.
So I gamely plugged on and still got nowhere (although I became a fair ragtime player). I carried on haunting the bookshops and eventually started sneaking my underage self into a few gigs, and some good stuff eventually started to drip drip drip through. Then one day I learned the most valuable lesson of my musical life. And it was, like most important lessons, a statement of the damned obvious.
THE PENNY DROPS
I realised that I was trying to play a style of music that I’d barely ever heard. My parents weren’t big music fans, but they had a few LPs. The sum total of the jazz section of our record collection amounted to one Oscar Peterson, one Basie and an Art Pepper. That was it.
So what exactly had captured my imagination? I think from the little exposure I’d had that I loved the dazzling to mellow sound world of it, and I think I’d also picked up on the sense of free personal expression. But I reckon the young me was drawn as much to the attitude, the iconography of jazz. The cool sharp-suited cats and soignée dames in late night bars, the sheer sleek Americana of it. I’d hardly heard any of the actual music.
I was a bit like a kid who had seen an artist’s studio, become enchanted by the creative mess, the half-squeezed tubes oozing colours, the pervasive odour of turps, and decided he wanted to be a painter.
So I started buying albums, and that was the breakthrough. With hindsight, I was lucky because I couldn’t afford too many at a time, so I took advice, chose carefully and really listened to them. Over and over again, driving everyone mad in the process. It was also immensely liberating to me to realise that you could actually be a jazz pianist without having the overt staggering chops of a Peterson or a Tatum.
So my first jazz teachers were the old dudes who used to work in Ray’s Jazz Shop (way back in the days when it was a going concern on Shaftesbury Avenue – it’s now amalgamated into Foyle’s round the corner, and I hope they still employ some dudes, old or young). They used to take time to chat to me and recommend classic albums every couple of weeks. I suppose one of them must have been the late Ray Smith himself, but he wasn’t one for airs and graces. Other browsers would join in the chat.
It’s a different world now, and you can find and listen online to just about anything in ten seconds flat without leaving home. But funnily enough, I did get a young lad at the jam session the other week come up and ask for tips, the right kind of books and courses, that sort of thing. Turned out that he only owned four recordings…
Of course, ultimately the teachers are the players themselves, and there are something like 80 years’ worth of lessons available on recordings. But I’d never have known where to begin if it hadn’t been for the “kindly old archivists”. I hope there’s still some kind of role for them in the digital age.
It’s interesting really, that the more we have access to stuff, the more we feel content just knowing that we have access to it – rather than actually, um, accessing it. Plus ça change, maybe. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, someone who doesn’t read has no advantage over someone who can’t read.
To wind up, here’s a plug for a really good online radio station I’ve been listening to a lot recently: