JAZZ DIARY / Nights at the circus: Django Bates tells Phil Johnson about his escape from cabaret hell; plus the return of the big bands

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A revolving mirrored globe lighting up once-white band-jackets now stained brown with beer; a brilliantined conductor who leers at the audience through smoke-fogged contact lenses; a music-book of cheesy pop tunes that include 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep' played in bossa nova time . . . It's the cabaret group from hell, and it's playing somewhere near you tonight.

Like many jazz musicians, the bandleader and composer Django Bates began his professional career in such a group, and the experience has left an indelible stain on his subsequent work. Though the material on his latest album could be placed in a tradition of the carnivalesque in modern jazz, with, like Charles Mingus and Carla Bley, a strong feeling for burlesque and genre parody unsettling the authority of the musical texts, it's more likely that it derives from endless nights playing function music in dodgy clubs to patrons for whom the band is, at best, a pretext for feverish groping on the dance-floor.

'My first gig was at the White Elephant on the River,' Bates says, 'a big, posh club in Pimlico. Ray Ellington was running one band, which was actually quite good, and I was in the other, which did pop covers. It was such a laugh because you could do anything. You'd arrive there some nights and the whole band were deps (substitutes), and because I'd been there more times than the others I suddenly became the band-leader. We had two girl singers who were absolutely crazed; one had decided to get the sack and went on stage one night with a huge dildo strapped to her nose. She did the whole set like that. It was a place where politicians and the very rich would hang out and the band were in tears trying to keep playing through all this drama.'

Experience on the function circuit can become, like a brief period in the French Foreign Legion for a mercenary soldier, a badge of honour for the seasoned musician. 'Most of the musicians I work with in jazz, and many of those I don't work with, like even the free jazz guitarist Derek Bailey, have been through the bloody function mill at one time or another, whether they loved it or hated it,' Bates says. 'Actually, I don't find many who hated it. I certainly took some grotesque enjoyment in it and I found it quite hard to give up.'

He graduated to playing piano with Dudu Pukwana's Afro-Jazz band in the early 1980s, slogging up and down the motorways playing a different type of function for a different audience before founding the big band Loose Tubas in 1983. His new big band, heard on the album and about to embark on a Contemporary Music Network tour this month, is the emphatically carnivalesque Delightful Precipice, who performed as part of a circus last year before the circus expired because of lack of funding.

'The circus was always on the edge of collapse,' he says, 'but the experience of playing to a tentful of adults and children all entranced by the acts and the music was wonderful.

'Both circus and music are about magic; music is just sounds floating in the air but it affects people's moods and is capable of changing them deeply. The way that circus people live on the road is also similar to the life of a jazz musician.'

The music on the new album includes a number of pieces written originally for the circus, and the late Angela Carter gets a dedication for the composition 'Nights at the Circus', furthering the carnivalesque parallels. The rest of the album is typically eclectic, mixing Steve Reich-ish minimalism with waltz-time themes and parodies of a number of styles, including an amusing take-off of Heavy Metal, subtitled 'What Lies Behind the Black Leather Trousers and the Blonde Wigs?' Bates, who has come near to playing heavy metal with the rock drummer Bill Bruford's Earthworks, has an enduring affection for the mutant form. 'I find that it's very amusing,' he says. 'It's so very American and so pompous, but I'm sure that those people have a laugh themselves when they get back-stage.'

As a serious composer, Bates admits to feeling a pressure about taking his music more seriously than he does. 'I guess I'm being a little more subtle now, but I wouldn't want to lose that grossness and that naivety. There's quite a lot of pressure for you to feel ashamed of having fun with different genres of music but, as far as I'm concerned, if it's enjoyable to play then people are going to want to hear you. I think that forms that have strongly affected you just have to come out, but now I've been through most of the styles that I wanted to comment on.'

He looks back with nostalgia to the days when a big band composer such as Duke Ellington could have a big band on permanent hold, ready to rehearse the next day what was written last night. 'It must have been incredible and I'm overawed by that idea. I don't see why it's not economically viable, either, because there's no less money about now than there was then. It could almost be possible, but I could take two months off to write then find there were only five gigs at the end of it.'

THE ERA of the big bands may not, despite a plethora of Glenn Miller soundalikes, be about to come back, but there are at least two performances this month that signal a revival. On Wednesday 6 October, the quite outstanding Mike Westbrook Orchestra regroups at the 100 Club, Oxford Street, London, and on 13 October the Spirits Rejoice Dedication Orchestra plays the same venue. Formed as a tribute to the South African Blue Notes group, all of whose members except drummer Louis Moholo died in exile, the Dedication Orchestra is a charitable venture formed to raise funds for a music education project in Cape Town. A 24-piece band of thrilling pan-cultural musicality, with arrangements of Blue Notes themes by Keith Tippett, Kenny Wheeler, Westbrook and others, and including Django Bates in the line-up, they should not be missed.

'Summer Fruits (and unrest)' by Django Bates is available on JMT (Polygram).

Delightful Precipice play Gardner Centre, Brighton (0273 685861) on 17 Oct, and then continue touring until 30 Oct

(Photograph omitted)

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