My jazz challenge

A few weeks ago Madame showed me the brochure for the Howden Centre in Livingston and what caught my eye was a jazz jam session, with bass, drums and piano, beginners welcome, free. Since my Monday martial arts class has hit a temporary hiatus due the venue closing, I thought I’d try the jazz session. I’d see whether the months I’ve spent learning scales and trying to get all my left hand fingers making a contribution to music had been productive.

By evil coincidence, the open mic run by my friends Polly and Rosie in Portobello fell on the same night. As the day approached I felt torn. Why start something new when I have a history of unfinished projects – lessons, sightreading, recording, writing?  Best not to dabble any more. I decided to apply the impersonal method of decision-making recommended by Susan Blackmore: don’t try to make a decision, just see what happens. So until an hour before I left I had the choice of (a) a welcoming environment with good friends, where I could sing whatever I wanted, with a reasonable chance of a good audience reception or (b) a complete unknown situation where I’d probably be out of my depth, playing unfamiliar material with people I don’t know. I found myself asking for directions to the Howden Centre.

I got there just on time; the band was setting up – drums, string bass, piano and sax. I thought I was the only new player, but a teenage couple turned up, he with a bass guitar, she with a flute. I plugged in and the band started up. Instantly I knew (and confirmed later) these were professionals! This was take-no-prisoners jazz improvisation – furious pace, tumbling chord sequences, inventive melodies and telepathic communication. I didn’t realise (because they didn’t say) that you’re not supposed to join in on the first number, so I did, discovering too late that my amp had been bumped in the car to Autowah! I kept to the odd chord jab where I could recognise a chord.  After this they involved the three of us novices. We each had something to carry us along – the flute girl could read music, her friend had attended a few jazz courses and played in a big band, and I could improvise reasonably well by ear where the chord sequences were simple, which meant about half of each song. But their way of involving us was to ask us if there was anything we had brought to play or any jazz standards we knew, so I just had to shrug. I was shown a chord sheet for one song, but didn’t recognise most of the chords! They did altogether about six or seven numbers, in most of which I was called to play a short solo (short because I quickly ‘handed back’); the number I most wanted to solo on, a lovely slow ballad I’d never heard before, was the one on which I wasn’t called, as the sax player was involved in trying to help the flute player. Most of the time I just enjoyed the inventive musicianship of all four of them, particularly the pianist.

Will I go back?  I might, but it’s another language altogether, a difficult one, but one which is exciting when spoken well. Trouble is the gulf between aimless noodling and fluent, inventive soloing is where most people, particularly rock players, abandon any interest in jazz. Like classical, it’s hard to enjoy when it’s not done very well indeed. And that takes years. But I did it. Next week, the Centre has an open acoustic session. Now that I can handle!

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