The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
Alternate Wednesday in term time, the likes of Gilad Atzmon, John Etheridge, Alan Barnes, Tim Whitehead and Chris Garrick play here. The shop space is quite a groovy atmosphere, lights turned low, blinds drawn, reminiscent of America’s prohibition years – expect a police raid at any moment. Novices, parvenus, non-groovers and the constabulary need to master the jazz etiquette, and here is a brief explanation.
During performance, if you wish to irritate those who share your row or table, please feel free to click your fingers, stomp your feet or squeal with delight. To applaud any soloist of whom you approve is enshrined in bookselling law. During the interval, do not feed the musicians: they prefer to starve, which is why they play jazz. However, do feel free to talk to them for they are very enthusiastic about what they do. Please do not ask if jazz musicians can read music (they do it wonderfully well). And, yes, they can play back by ear any notes you care to whistle at them, so behave.
Jazz has often attracted a bad press. In the 1930s, when the BBC learned of the origination of “Jelly Roll” Morton’s nickname, it declared that if his records had to be played, he should be introduced as J.R. Morton, as though he were a middle-order Surrey batsman! He was, in fact, at various times, a pimp, gambler, pool shark and hustler as well as a composer and pianist and one of the early jazz greats. Morton claimed to have invented jazz, but its true origins are more than hazy, built on myth as well as each storyteller’s self-interest. The band on any night here at the Beatnik don’t give too many hoots about such questions; their pre-occupations may range from “do we have to play it in this key?” to “is this all we are being paid for the gig?”, but they have a steely determination to play the music as though it should be enjoyed – because they enjoy it! Jazz is a vibrant, life-giving music, to be, in fact, enjoyed.
In jazz, of course, there is no such thing as a wrong note, only a wrong feeling. When you arrive, please forget any footnoted prejudice and savour the music for what it is: each night’s performance will consist of real jazz, described by the critic Whitney Balliett as the “sound of surprise.” This sound is not harmful.
So to run through the jazz hardcore arsenal:
The SAXOPHONE, invented around 1840 by Adolphe Sax, is a metal, single-reed instrument; it has between 18 and 21 tone-holes controlled by keys, and two small “octave” keys; the larger saxophones have a U-bend and can resemble municipal plumbing. With its many mouthpiece and ligature materials and designs (and the loose embouchure they require), the sax permits a flexibility of timbre, intonation and vibrato not found elsewhere in the reed family. Each player can shape a thoroughly unique sound: if individuality and personality are the vital statistics of jazz, the saxophone is its page three pin-up.
The soprano sax is stick-insect-like and willowy, flighty and Nicole Kidmanesque (cor!). Both alto and tenor are the fodder of tabloid exploitation, but when tamed become doting and even matrimonial – the first melodic, flirty and acrobatic, the second frenetic, urgent and demanding. The tenor and alto are representative also of the two most feted socio-economic groups in jazz: the higher management administrative staffing level and the supervisory and junior clerical management level, in other words those who can get up on time and organise a scratch band with no more than two hours’ notice and those who can’t. The baritone sax has the stature of Diana Dors, exhibits warmth, vibrancy and resonance, is stately but with a wicked smile and a hint of suspender belt and rouge.
If one instrument could sum up the history of jazz, it is the TRUMPET. A succession of players from Buddy Bolden onwards have stretched the imagination of what is possible, and challenged both the dramatic manner and technique (especially in extending its tonal range) of standard classical performance: ‘multiphonics’, the ‘growl’, the ‘half-valve’, the ‘smear’ (which are not only geriatric complaints but musical effects) are now commonplace. Trumpeters have always been brash and brazen (“I have the loudest instrument and I intend to use it, and I will squeak a lot while I hit those high notes”) and like to stand at the front of the stage. They are, however, sensitive beings – if their lips get tired (poor loves) they sulk. But they are famously romantic, and, thanks to their adroit musical technique, are outrageously good kissers; most trumpeters offer master classes at reasonable rates (and teach the trumpet too).
The TROMBONE is for failed trumpeters also with a personality disorder.
The history of jazz PIANO is littered with tales of pomposity and skulduggery: mothers teach daughters never to trust a pianist for they talk endlessly about fingering, can read both treble and bass clefs, always ask in a loud voice “what key are we in?”, and insist on playing all the way through each song. They are seen to carry manuscript paper in an earnest fashion, and tend to get credited for writing tunes a lot – even if they don’t, but the royalties are seen as a pianist’s perk (which is what they understand pp to mean in their score, for when did you last hear a jazz pianist play quietly?). But in fact a good jazz pianist sets the tone for the group, and can be inventive, melodic, cascading, by turns reflective and bombastic, but never, madam, inappropriate.
The DOUBLE BASS usually needs a big car to be transported ipso facto double bassists are able to offer lifts to fellow band members ipso facto double bassists often forego exacting a fare in exchange for playing sometimes tedious and lengthy solos rather like this sentence which goes on and on.
Oh dear! DRUMMERS can rarely count much beyond “1, 2,” which is why band leaders ruthlessly short-change them with their fees. But top flight jazz drummers seemingly rarely need to count: they seem to possess endless instinct and always know where they are.
Occasionally in jazz we talk of the GUITAR, though in dulcet tones. Its practitioners have scant sartorial standard, and often have a burger from the previous month’s tour in their guitar case, but never, it seems, deodorant. They are the boffins of the jazz world, are always in search of the national grid and like fast solos. They fret a lot and are often sedated (they talk endlessly of tabs). Mention the words capo or Allan Holdsworth… well they get emotional, and an emotional guitarist is bad news. However an unemotional guitarist is even worse news and apt to be an unsatisfactory lover: they may not possess a capo (it’s only useful purpose, everybody knows, is for sex kink) and they tend to play only in the key of E (so a bit dull with their kit off: traditionally in classical music the key of E has been associated with mowing lawns or soldering in the garden shed, and used by Tchaikovsky in The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies). One can never speak too lowly of guitarists.
ACCORDIONS and BANJOS are derided, and theses instruments, at least in this bookshop, generally are confiscated and their practitioners burnt at the stake.
VIOLINISTS are usually ex-convicts, have done time, are on the run, or are dealing in rosin – the amber or molten heroin-like substance that they use, purportedly to keep their bows supple (yeh, sure). Note that there are few violinists in jazz; they are not welcome for jazzers are generally a moral, clean-living bunch of folk who grow their own vegetables.
SINGERS are always welcome, especially if they are pretty, especially if they don’t know the words to How High the Moon; if they have beards or leave the toilet seat up, forget it.
So what jazz is and isn’t, make your own choice from below:
“Wow! What funky music!” – Kenny G on entering an elevator
“By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.” – Duke Ellington
“Jazz washes away the dust of every day life.” – Art Blakey
“…it bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.” – Bill Evans
“I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.” – Billie Holiday
“What’s interesting about a person without problems?” – Carla Bley
“Jazz isn’t dead. It just smells funny.” – Frank Zappa