Talking Jazz

There's a parlour game, invented, I believe, by George Shearing, in which the word "love" is replaced in song titles by "lunch". Much innocent hilarity can be provided by coming up with variations such as "My Endless Lunch", "When Lunch Comes to Town" and "My Lunch Is like a Red Red Rose". The first one I always think of is "What Is This Thing Called Lunch?" Substitute "jazz" for "lunch" in this last one and you have one of those questions to which there are plenty of answers but none that fully satisfies. A formal dictionary definition can no more explain the music's mystery to a newcomer than a talk about the square on the hypotenuse can enlighten a three-year-old about the special properties of right-angled triangles.

The neo-conservative lobby would have us believe that swing, in its literal, rhythmic sense, is a prerequisite. But to most of us that sounds no more convincing than the Mouldie Fygge's contention that the addition of a saxophone to a New Orleans line-up was a sacrilege deserving excommunication. The music moves on, and such Spanish Inquisitors are left to the history books.

I was pondering the challenge of describing jazz recently while reading John Murray's new novel, Jazz, etc. This in itself was something of a challenge, as the Egyptian hotel in which I was staying at the time seemed to have acquired a job lot of Hank Marvin solo guitar sessions, which they played constantly. After hearing it 50 times in a week, I have reached the firm conclusion that "We've Got a Groovy Kind of Love" is not improved by the subtraction of the vocal line.

Murray, considered by some to be West Cumbria's leading comic writer, has an ear for the sound of speech approaching that possessed by Kingsley Amis. (Once read, his account in Lucky Jim of an aphasic singer's delivery of the Hokey Cokey - "Ya parp the Hawky-Cawky and ya tarn parp-parp, Parp what it's parp parp-parp" - is not readily forgotten.) In Murray's case, the subject is Vincenzo Mori, an Italian Cumbrian who leads a trad jazz band called The Chompin Stompers. Mori's unusual enunciation turns John McLaughlin into "John Micky Gloveline", garbage into "cabbage" and his friend Dave Shimmins into "Deaf Chummins".

Such wordplay makes the book a breezy read. More to the point of our question, though, the range of its characters, who include a guitarist called Fanny Golightly and a violinist named Toto Cebola as well as The Chompin Stompers, cover pretty much the whole of jazz history from Buddy Bolden to the present day. By means of anecdote and meandering asides, they describe the music's progression and the minuscule divisions that turn into razor-edged ramparts for the unwitting to impale themselves upon.

The process of improvisation is near-impossible to explain to those bewildered by even something as straightforward as Bobby Timmons' "Moanin' ". One analogy I've used is of a man looking through a window high above a trampoline. All he sees is a group of people bobbing up and down, seemingly at random. If he could see the trampoline, he would understand their movements, just as the listener needs to understand the chordal basis of a jazz improvisation to comprehend how the performer is using it.

Murray takes his lesson into more open planes, demonstrating how a character's development of a theme - say, his own personal history - his variations, embellishments and recapitulation of it, can be his jazz. As a guide to the perplexed, to those who may be under the impression that Earl Hines was a long-lost member of the British aristocracy, that Herbie is a small car and that Jackie McLean used to play in defence for Celtic, Murray's Jazz, etc serves better than any musicological treatise.

Now, perhaps, he can turn his hand to the question of lunch.