Back in the early seventies when I was at university and trying, with limited success, to learn the bass guitar I was introduced to another student who was a drummer. I’ll call him John, not because I want to protect his anonymity, simply because I’ve long since forgotten his real name.
At that first short meeting we exchanged a few pleasantries and then went our separate ways. We bumped into each other again the following term and John told me he was organising a Jazz and Poetry evening at the local teacher training college. That sounded like a great idea to me and I must have said so.
John then asked if I’d like to be in the band. Now, that was a daft idea. I wasn’t much of a rock bassist and I’d never played any jazz in my life. “I’d like to help”, I said, “but I can’t play jazz”. “Oh, that’s no problem”, John replied, “you’ll be just fine”. He seemed to have pencilled me in already. I must admit I liked the idea of visiting the teacher training college and perhaps meeting some of the young, intelligent and no doubt attractive women studying there but, no, jazz was beyond my capabilities.
Looking for a way out I asked who else was in the band. “I don’t know, yet”, John said. “I’m just putting it together. I’ll be in touch when I’ve spoken to some other musicians.” Clearly, I wasn’t going to be let off the hook that easily. “When is it?”, I asked. John gave me a date that was some weeks ahead. At least there would be time to meet the other members of the band, learn one or two pieces and have a few rehearsals.
Nearly three weeks later our paths crossed again and I asked John if he had completed the lineup for the jazz band. He hadn’t. In fact, he hadn’t actually recruited anyone else at all. I pointed out that there wasn’t much time left to get some material together and he assured me he would get onto it right away.
Another week or more went past and I was beginning to panic.
It dawned on me that I didn’t have any way of contacting John. I knew his college but I’d never asked him his surname. In those days, before mobile phones and long before the Internet, the university operated a pigeon post system. In the entrance of every college there was a porter’s lodge where racks of pigeonholes were provided, one slot for each student. Letters and hastily scribbled notes could be left in your pigeonhole and you would collect them on your way into college. It worked very well but to use it you had to know the recipient’s surname. There was no pigeonhole for “John, the drummer”.
The day of the gig was rapidly approaching and there was still no sign of John or the slightest hint of a band forming. It was going to be a disaster – if it happened at all.
More time passed and then, at lunchtime, on the day of the gig, I was approached by a stranger as I was leaving Keble college. “Are you Phil?”, he asked. He was a friend of John’s and he was looking for the bass player for the Jazz and Poetry evening. The gig, it seemed, was still on. There was no band, no suggested material, not even any sheet music (which I wouldn’t have been able to read anyway), but the gig was on.
I can be very cool in a crisis. It’s easy to make decisions when you have no choice. But this was utterly terrifying. In trepidation we loaded my gear into the stranger’s car and took it west through the centre of Oxford, up to Harcourt Hill and into the grounds of Westminster College. A rehearsal room was available and I started to set up there. The stranger with the transport told me he was going to grab a guitarist out of the university’s Big Band, which would be rehearsing elsewhere, and left me alone in the room.
As I was plugging in another lost soul came in carrying a saxophone case. “Jazz band?”, he asked. “That’s right”, I replied glumly. He unpacked his sax and we looked at each other blankly. For a moment I was staring into the eyes of a condemned man. Then he pulled himself together and asked if I knew any suitable pieces – something simple, something we could learn in half an hour. Not knowing any jazz I was unable to help.
Mr. Saxophone suggested something and played the tune for me; I asked what key it was in; he told me the chord sequence; I invented an utterly uninspiring bass part and tried to commit it all to memory. That was one piece for the show. We’d need more. And so we repeated the process.
After a while a guitarist turned up. He wasn’t exactly pleased to have been hoiked out of the Big Band rehearsal but he, too, gritted his teeth and joined us in putting together a set. Mr. Transport informed us that there would be a pianist along later and disappeared again. The three of us muddled through some more material. By early evening we had four or five tunes we could get through without too many mistakes. “Don’t worry about wrong notes”, someone said, “if you play it with enough conviction no-one will notice – it is jazz, after all”. That was a mildly comforting thought. The pianist, however, never did turn up.
We took a break for a bite to eat and moved our gear onto the floor of the performance room (there was no stage as such). A tall, bearded man was there. He pushed an upright piano to the edge of the stage area, sat down and played a few bars of jazz/cabaret music. Apparently, this was our pianist. It was too late for any more practicing so we just waited nervously backstage for the entertainment to begin.
After about an hour of poetry recitals (which, unfortunately, we couldn’t hear) it was our turn. The first tune went OK. We started and finished together, in the same key and with no glaring mistakes. The audience seemed satisfied if not over excited. The next piece wasn’t too bad, either. By the third tune I was struggling to remember the notes and you’d have thought the bass had been turned down at the mixing desk – if we had such a thing.
At this point Mr. Piano leant across to Mr. Guitar. They were the far side of the stage and I didn’t hear the conversation but they seemed to have agreed on something. Then the pianist launched into a piece we hadn’t prepared. The guitarist joined in confidently. Mr. Bass listened hard for a few bars, fumbled for a root note and followed along as best he could. A sax break came in hesitantly at first and then with more gusto. This was improvisation at the scary edge of chaos and humiliation.
And here my memory fails me. I think we played another pianist-led piece or two – material that must have been familiar to the man at the ivory keys and sufficiently mainstream for other jazz musicians to blow along with but well outside my own comfort zone. It was one of the most nerve wracking experiences I have ever had. Perhaps my memories were erased by the trauma.
After the jazz filling in the poetry sandwich the band members gathered and took stock. I thought we, probably, just about got away with it. The others, though, were much more positive. They thought it went really well. There were even suggestions we should keep the band going, but that just wasn’t practical. One of the band was leaving Oxford in the summer to start a new job, another had finals coming up and had lots of revision to do. And Mr. Bass just didn’t have the confidence. Or the talent.
It was a great learning experience for me, though. It brought home to me that music is a common language for musicians of all genres, styles and cultures. There are thousands of spoken languages, each one unintelligible to speakers of another. In music, though, devotees of folk, rock, pop, jazz and classical understand each others styles and, at a pinch, can even participate in each other’s performances. There may be many dialects but there is just one shared language of music.