Tuesday, 1 March 2011

A Jazz Standard

Ladybarn, a suburb of Manchester, is a classic example of Victorian urban planning situated five miles from the city centre and bang on the railway line built to ferry people to and from work. “So what?” you may say; but, for me, the place brings memories of a personal crisis I experienced when I used to live there back in the early 80’s. It wasn’t an acute crisis, but important nevertheless to my personal development. At or around that time my musical palate was beginning to dull. The thrill of rock guitar solos was wearing thin, my attempts to dance convincingly to reggae were looking desperate and even ‘the blues’ could only hold my attention for about 10 minutes at a time. I began to seek alternative stimulation and excitement in classical concerts, but found myself distracted by watching the musicians instead of listening to the performance. I went to the opera but found that I was similarly distracted and, in any case, just could not do that ‘suspension of disbelief’ thing.

And so it was that I decided to try jazz. This had much to do with ease of access to Ladybarn’s main attraction, The White Swan, a.k.a. The Mucky Duck, a pub which hosted jazz sessions in the club room upstairs every Friday night. There, for a modest, single-figure entrance fee (and with even more modest numbers in attendance), I was initiated into the world of the mainstream jazz quartet. The style and repertoire that night and subsequently was not adventurous, but it was the skills and sensitivities of the musicians that impressed and set me off on an exploration of the myriad forms of jazz, liberating me, at last, from the tyranny of the music ‘industry’ and providing me with an endless seam of musical pleasures.

Friends of mine still live in that same part of town. They have seen the local cinema close, the shops turn into food take-aways, the estate agents scramble to squeeze every last penny of profit from each square foot of property and, now, the pubs starting to be boarded-up. But The White Swan is fighting back with its secret weapon. Not good beer, not smart new furnishings or a welcoming, jovial atmosphere; not a well-priced food menu of classics-with-a-modern-twist, but with jazz! The same jazz that wasn’t popular before. The same jazz that had to be hidden, upstairs in the club room, lest anyone should hear it. I went to meet my friends there last Friday evening. “We must help them out!” they pleaded. The entrance fee was even less than it had been in 1982 - and it included a raffle ticket. The prize was a bottle of wine and, for a while, it looked as if I had a 100% chance of winning it. Then the other bloke turned up. My friends then arrived, further diluting my chances. Not only had I become lonely by then, but had recklessly ignored their advice not to buy the draught beer, so they took pity and bought me something potable.

We really enjoyed the music. The standard of playing was high and the individual skills of the musicians well-balanced. They played many of the comforting, familiar old standards and introduced them with one or two of the familiar old jokes. (Pedants of punctuation are particularly fond of Cole Porter’s song being introduced thus: What is this thing called, love?).

There is no denying, however, that ambience suffers when the audience is thin so, musing on how numbers might be boosted, we came up with a few marketing suggestions.
For the lads in the band: 1) Remember that audiences deserve respect too, so do try to dress for the occasion. 2) Remember that audiences like to have a good time, so do try to look as though you enjoy performing.
And for the leader: 1) Communication with your audience is about more than playing your instrument well, so do try to make eye contact while mumbling at them in between numbers. 2) Learn some new jokes.
And for the publican: 1) Secrecy is rarely an effective marketing tool. 2) Neither is watery ale.

When all these suggestions have been considered and acted upon, I hope and expect there will be a revival in fortunes for both the local pub and its worthy bands of jazz musicians.

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