I’ve been watching a TV series called Fargo without realising – until episode four, last Monday – that the plot is different from the Fargo series I watched last year; and that the plot of that series is different from the one on which both series are based – the Coen brothers’ film, released in 1996. I should add that I've been watching alone and it wasn’t until I expressed my perplexity to someone else that I was advised to “look it up” on the internet. There I discovered that all the Fargos are indeed different, although they share a common theme - and the Coen brothers’ involvement. But since each and every episode begins with the declaration “This is a true story” I feel justified in claiming to have been misled – my trusting, gullible nature notwithstanding.
It goes to show that knowledge of context is useful when it comes to understanding what’s going on in cultural entertainment and that group participation has an advantage over solitary enjoyment; and explains, in part, why I am an enthusiastic member of the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society, a group which takes its subject matter seriously while managing to take itself less so. (Perhaps we all recognise the ridiculous irony in a dozen or so white, middle-class men in their 60s and 70s congregating in the comfortable living rooms of a leafy suburb of a northern English city to celebrate the music of poor, black, people from the desperate, dissolute centre of a southern American city).
Our meetings have a set format: members volunteer, by loose rota, to host a themed presentation of their choosing. They talk on their subject and play recordings to illustrate it. Strong drink is taken and there is an interval for a buffet (pork pies are always the centrepiece). Mastery of modern technology – MP3 files, Youtube clips etc. – can be patchy, but no one complains: our generation is short of experts. In this week’s session our host, well-known for his “roots” preference and having declared that modern jazz had dominated the sessions too much of late, chose to illuminate an era with which I am unfamiliar – New Orleans at the close of the 19th century. Now I’m no fan of this period but it is clear from the earliest recorded examples that powerful, formative music was made there and then. Louis Armstrong, for example, who may be remembered mainly for his showmanship, distinctive voice and the popular hits of his later years, made a spectacular and distinctive early contribution.
Since those days jazz has evolved, developed, migrated, mutated and insinuated itself into our consciousness in ways we may not even be aware of. Without the collective knowledge and experience of HMJAS I would be hard-pressed to find a way through all the myriad paths of jazz: which is why when someone says to me I don’t like jazz, what I actually hear is “I haven’t listened to much of it”. There is no doubting that the very word “jazz” is not up to the task of defining all the various strands and if it puts you in mind of New Orleans circa 1905, marching bands, striped waistcoats and bowler hats, remember that’s only the beginning of the story.
This year I’m organising the society’s Christmas lunch. It will be an all-male affair – again. I’m not sure why we don’t have any women members - I have at least one female friend who is an aficionado - but the combination of pork pies and older gentlemen might be a deterring factor. Hopes rose when a member's wife once attended a meeting, but it transpired that her book club had been cancelled just minutes beforehand. Perhaps we should set up an outreach programme.