The Jazz Waltzer

You okay, Doris? You look a bit unwell...

“You okay, Doris? You look a bit unwell…”

Nope. It’s not about the age-old argument about swing feel in 3/4 or 6/8. (Incidentally, Oscar Peterson once said he didn’t care about the distinction – he reckoned jazz musicians interweave the two all the time.)

It’s a reference to a childhood memory. In my youth, long before the multi-million Disney extravaganzas, there used to be these fairground rides called Waltzers. Maybe they’re still going here and there.

An undulating rotating platform, with spinning carriages (that reminded me a little at the time of cut-down municipal rubbish bins with upholstery added) mounted on them. You’d pay, sit down and pull the bar over. Then off you went…

There were guys hired to walk round the platform, grab the carriages and spin them. They did this all day, every day and developed a knack for the rhythms of the machine. They’d also read the punters – if someone was looking a bit green, they’d lay off (well, they’d be the ones that had to clean the puke up), otherwise they’d give you a good spin.

If you got a good rapport with them (or bunged them a few bob) they’d give you a really, really good spin. And without a good twirler, it could be a dull ride…

I’ve always thought that the job of an entertainer, which includes us jazz musicians, is a bit like that. Read your audience and vary the pace, the volume, the short, the long, the romantic, the furious, the serious, the comic, in short – give them a good ride. Lull them for a little while, then give them a giddy rush. Make them think, cry, laugh. Hopefully not puke (unless you’re making some postmodern statement or something like that).

Give them a good whirl. They’ve put themselves in your hands to be manipulated for their pleasure. Give them what they want, delight them, tease and surprise them.

That applies on every level from booking the band, writing the arrangements, programming the whole evening and setting up down to how you approach an individual arrangement or solo.


Music’s a fairground ride, not a tube journey. Be like the guys spinning the waltzers. And one more thing, while I remember… It’s what I refer to as the Butlin’s Curse (named after the UK holiday camps of the postwar years).

It is actually a job, and an often punishingly hard one, to entertain people, but doing it properly is all about making it look like you’re just having fun. In fact, if it looks like effort or stress, you’re doing it wrong. And of course, ideally, you are actually having fun.

The better you are at the job, the easier it seems. And gets. Don’t expect plaudits though. They’ll come, but rarely – it takes a discerning eye to appreciate just why you might look dead on your feet after three sets. But it’s not their problem – you’re the one who chose this life, right?

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings
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