Beginning of my Jazz Education
Being a jazz fan during World War II wasn't exactly easy. Yet on reflection, considering that the future of the free world was at stake (and with it, according to the philosophies of the Hitler regime, the future of jazz as well), the music was surprisingly easy to obtain. True, the new jazz releases amounted to just two or three double-sided 78 rpm records a month (just, say, half a dozen three-minute morsels of jazz), but since we were living on an island under siege and fighting for its very existence that tiny ration of jazz (by today's standards) didn't seem too bad, especially as the sum total monthly issue of discs of all types of music amounted to only twenty or so. Looking back, it was a very fair percentage for a musical style that had already outlived its 'popular' period and was fast becoming considered an 'art' music. It nevertheless amounted to precious little evidence of what was happening at that time in the birthplace of jazz across the submarine infested Atlantic. In those circumstances every bar, every note, every nuance became the object of close scrutiny and endless discussion. Access to our music might have been severely limited, but it was certainly an assurance that what we did get was studied - and then studied, and then studied over and over again.
The result was a collection of records bearing the scars and scratches of continual replay, with numerous grey areas, caused by overplaying of a special passage in an effort to dislodge its secrets, and plenty of craters which created the illusion of unscheduled drumbeats. Even the use of needles made from thorns to minimise wear didn't help much - they required such frequent sharpening that the puny sound they made wasn't worth the effort. Steel needles at sixpence a box were still the only real choice, in spite of their lethal effect on the discs.
And the wind-up portable gramophone which activated my pitiful assembly of scratchy sound-bytes was primitive, even for those days. It frequently needed a boost to its clockwork mechanism from the handle on the side to make it last the whole record, otherwise Ella Fitzgerald would in mid-phrase start a gradual but inevitable sliding metamorphosis into Paul Robeson. And, as it had no volume control, the only way to avoid waking up the whole household and incurring parental wrath was to stuff a rolled-up pair of football socks in the mouth of the speaker horn! By using this admittedly unscientific but vaguely effective bit of 'noise reduction' I was able to extend my hours of jazz study well into the time when all decent God-fearing people were asleep - or in the air-raid shelters.
Thus began my jazz education. Although it wasn't quite as simple as that. I had, after all, been brought up in a classically inclined household, where all other kinds of music were regarded with an air of benign superiority. There was no real embargo on any specific style of music, but the general parental message was that the only 'quality' music was of the classical variety. This was the edict tacitly understood and until now rigidly observed by all.
Except for my Aunt Nell, an independent-minded schoolteacher who lived with us for a while during the war. She was a very active lady in the local music world. She played the viola in an amateur orchestra, but, much more surprisingly, also at times performed on the french horn, the trumpet and the cornet, the last in an otherwise entirely male marching band. It was to Aunt Nell that I initially confided my interest in jazz-the true jazz, that is, not the dance music which generally had the label 'jazz' attached to it at that time. I had of course discovered this music for myself, as young people do, but I had no idea of how to get more deeply involved in the study- and perhaps eventually the performance - of this exciting music. Neither had I heard from other lips any encouraging or supportive words to lead me to believe that my quest was worth while. and not just a teenage phase which I would pass through and eventually abandon. And even as I told Aunt Nell of my jazz interest I felt sure that she would disapprove, and so started to refer to it in a slightly deprecating way.
When we were chatting together one afternoon at home, something must have caused her to detect my insecurity. 'Well', she said, 'there's certainly such a thing as good jazz, but it's often confused with dance music and the Tin Pan Alley stuff you hear such a lot of on the radio.' I felt I had already realised this, but to hear Aunt Nell's endorsement was music to my ears. 'Louis Armstrong, for instance', she went on, 'he's wonderful.' Her eyes twinkled. 'He's got lips like leather, y' know', she added with the air of someone who recognised that quality from personal experience. 'Benny Goodman, too', she went on, 'he's a virtuoso in any sense of the word - plays classical music as well!'
This was enough for me. My plan was formed then and there. If I took up an instrument that was used classically too, I just might get my mother on my side - and thus the wherewithal to get a clarinet.
I left my aunt sitting by the fireside looking slightly astonished at my sudden movement for the door, perhaps wondering what she had said to occasion this flurry of activity from Number One Nephew. I rushed through the kitchen, causing my mother, who had just removed a tray of newly baked cup-cakes from the oven, to side-step with the adroitness of a skilful matador. I ran through the lean-to garage at the side of our semi-detached abode, grabbed my bike, and hurtled down Hollywood Way to Hale End Road and on to the radio and record shop near the station. I dashed into the shop, straight to a rack containing dozens of jazz records (probably some job-lot of old stock that the current owner had inherited from a previous one), and grabbed hold of a disc I had often seen while browsing in this little store but had never before had the motivation to buy - Tea for Two, by the Benny Goodman Quartet!
In no time I had persuaded the startled salesman to defer payment till the next day and was back home again playing my prize on the Columbia portable. My mother was too dazed to react, but Aunt Nell beamed approvingly and even tapped her feet to the warm, beguiling Goodman sound. And I had made my big lifetime decision.
I was going to be a jazz clarinet player. Yet my decisive choice of an instrument had done nothing to finance my habit and, like any other addicted person, I felt I could stop at practically nothing to procure what financial assistance I needed. Money, even though I was still a schoolboy, became a pressing problem in my life as a jazz junkie. I knew of only one way to solve it.
Getting up in the wee small blacked-out hours of the morning in wartime London to do my newspaper round was not something I relished in the slightest, let alone enjoyed. Neither did my mother enjoy getting up at that time to stir her heavy-sleeping son for his task. I was amazed that she did so at all, since she had thoroughly disapproved of my taking the job in the first place.
But for me a paper round had one overriding advantage. It provided extra money for gramophone records, still virtually the only means at my disposal for hearing jazz at the time. And as a result I now found myself trudging through rain, hail and snow in order to raise the funds for an additional six or seven minutes of the music which had captured my life. There was one other by-product of my employment. A paper round was a good opportunity to whistle.
I had already started thinking like a jazz performer rather than a jazz fan, even though I was still the latter rather than the former. Jazz tunes were already presenting themselves to me as opportunities for improvisation. As I still had no instrument to improvise on, the answer was - whistling! I whistled my way round the streets - softly to myself, of course, since the town was still sleeping - and imagined myself as one of my new-found idols. Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke and Johnny Hodges all unknowingly helped me get through my task on those dark mornings in the war-torn city.
Despite my income from the noble task of paper delivery the exchequer still didn't run to an instrument. I had, during my stay in Leominster, acquired a penny-whistle and managed to get some sounds vaguely like jazz out of it. But by now I was becoming ever keener to get myself something more acceptable in jazz circles. My mother's antennae seemed to pick this up, and within weeks her Townswomen's Guild bush telegraph had located a clarinet, for sale by the friend of a friend. This was a breakthrough indeed, and we lost no time in making a pilgrimage to view the merchandise.
The history of this particular instrument was vague, and since neither Mother nor I knew the first thing about clarinets we relied heavily on the vendor, who knew precious little about them either. The only thing about it that we knew was exactly right for us was the price. It was to cost just 3 5 shillings - in today's parlance just under two pounds (or five dollars)! We didn't bother to bargain - in those circles it was hardly the right thing to do anyway.
The instrument was brought home in triumph, viewed with circumspection by my father, and at the insistence of my mother, passed over the garden fence for a close inspection by our neighbour Mrs Turner. 'Ooh, it's a really nice one!' she cooed, fingering the instrument nervously. 'Is it a trombone?' she added. She must have found it hard to know exactly what to say.
Next day, with the help of a friend, I found a local musician and persuaded him to pop round and view my treasure. He eyed it with the air of an expert. 'Very nice. And what sort of lamp did you say it was going to be?'
'Lamp? What do you mean?'
'Oh, I thought you were going to make it into the base for a reading lamp-you know, run the wire up through the middle with a bulb and a shade on top. People often do that with these old things. They look very classy, too.'
I told him that my needs for it were musical and not electrical. With eyes glazed from the sheer boredom being inflicted on him by this clarinet ignoramus, he patiently enlightened me. Not only was the system of key layout an obsolete one, but the pitch of the instrument would not be compatible with anything else in any band - or even with our beloved domestic piano! I thanked him warmly for this blissfully welcome bit of enlightenment and retired hurt.
Before he departed, leaving this endless trail of bad news, the man had nevertheless (out of pity I suppose) got the instrument into a state of playability, with a reed in place on the mouthpiece, ready to blow. The thing still looked wonderful to my eyes - just like Benny Goodman's. Too bad it had turned out to be a sort of woodwind leper, from a practical point of view.
Not to be completely defeated I got out the tutor book which I'd bought for this very moment. I placed my fingers gingerly over the holes as instructed, wrapped my hands round the beautiful African blackwood body, drew the slender instrument to my lips, and breathed gently into the mouthpiece. Nothing.
I tried blowing a little harder. Still nothing.
I unlearned the advice of the manual and reverted to brute force. A stark, searing squawk escaped from the reluctant instrument, provoking a chorus of barking from the neighbours' dogs and rattling the crystal glassware on the sideboard.
Frustrated, depressed and angry I was about to hurl the thing across the room when somehow I managed to persuade myself to have one more try. I forgot all the book's advice, and blew. This time a sound emerged, a luscious low murmur in the chalumeau register. Within seconds I was finding the other three notes needed to satisfy my immediate desires. Ten minutes later I was beside the Columbia wind-up portable fulfilling my dream.
My career had begun at the top: I was playing Tea for Two with the Benny Goodman Quartet, and from that moment on I was unstoppable by the proverbial wild horses - or anything else - in my intention to become a jazz musician.