RADIO / Lenny plays the blues

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JUST ONCE in a while you hear something on the radio you know you'll never forget. Sometimes it's harrowing, sometimes beautiful, but this week's was just plain brilliant and it was 40 years old. Radio 3 broadcast Leonard Bernstein's illustrated talk What Jazz?

Jazz, said Bernstein, is never wholly sad nor wholly happy: the gayest, wildest trumpet solo carries a hint of pain, and there is a robustness in the lost, mournful blues that snatches it from the edge of sentimentality. Can something with such plebeian origins be art? Well, yes. Mozart's scherzos were first danced at village weddings and Verdi's loveliest arias sung by a Neapolitan fisherman. Having established that jazz is worth taking seriously, Bernstein went on to analyse the blues.

He played a straightforward major scale and then, against it, one with flattened 'blue' notes; he played a blues tune with regular rhythm and followed it with the syncopated beat that comes from stressing the fifth or seventh notes in a bar; he ordered a saxophone to demonstrate its blues vibrato, a trumpet its wah-wah mute and a trombone its plunger. Finally, he announced that the classic blues form is no less than iambic pentameter and sang us a short snatch of Macbeth. It sounded wonderful - and it would certainly murder sleep.

For a while, it seemed that every network had gone for a Bernstein, or rather a Humphrey Burton. Bernstein's new biographer cropped up all over the place. He was interviewed for Kaleidoscope (R4) and he pottered among the archives in New York Looking for Lenny (R3). That is a disingenuous title if ever there was one: there can be little he hadn't already found out about Lenny, but, for the rest of us, the archives threw up a gem of a recording. It was Bernstein's children singing their birthday present to him, a song called 'Midnight Anxieties'. Relentlessly disrespectful, it was refreshing as iced water after treacle pudding. One of them, Alexander, was on Classic FM's Life of Leonard Bernstein (with Burton again), reading some letters his father had written as a young man.

Burton is totting up a huge mileage in this series, but he still sounds uneasy when he earnestly enjoins us to stay tuned, despite the approach of an intolerable Multiyork advert. Not surprising really: those other unlikely presenters, John Julius Norwich and Tom Conti, have been saying it for some months and sound even less comfortable.

There was nothing classic about Let It Be - Please (R2). Within seven years of the Beatles recording 'Yesterday', 1,186 other versions of the song had appeared. For an hour we were treated to some of them, and to other astonishing things done to the Beatles canon. There was Mae West announcing that she was a big teaser, Maurice Chevalier in a green submarine and Joan Collins reciting 'Imagine' breathily against a full string orchestra. Dogs howled along to one song, Derek Enright MP sang another in Latin, and Brazilians, Japanese and Malaysians had a go, all of them celebrating what that delightful Professor Stanley Unwin defined as 'the profundilio of the Beatlyricism'. It was quite dotty.

A man called Hitchcock used to think licensed radio hams were a bit mad, so he played 'The Laughing Policeman' to them. For this sacrilege - 'unfit behaviour' - he was fined pounds 3,500 after a raid by heavies from the DTI. They take it very seriously, these radio amateurs, as we heard in Fishing in the Ether (R4). The classical scholars of the airways, they have to pass exams in how to bounce off the ionosphere and suppress their harmonics. They view CB cowboys with withering contempt. In a fascinating account of their arcane practices, Bernadette McConnell translated the verbal hieroglyphics of their coded language: 73 is goodbye, 68 is love and kisses, XYL is wife ('ex-young lady') and, most alarmingly, QRM is I'm being interfered with. I shouldn't think they use that one much.

On Wednesday there was not much news, so Today (R4) presented an in-depth study of the sad decline of lunch. Mike Thomson asked an expert, Jeffrey Bernard, all about it. Bernard was of the opinion that people still long to get drunk but are prevented by the sad decline in bar staff. With infinite gloom he recalled lunches that had gone on until midnight, back in the days when you could still get served. Such early-morning despair made it seem scarcely worth getting out of bed. Pass the vodka, Jeff.