Compere and contrast: me and the band
Thursday 12 December 1996
Introducing a jazz concert is not exactly climbing Everest, but it is still one of the most thankless tasks in the world. The people who have turned up to listen to any jazz concert are generally knowledgeable and sensible, so when someone who is clearly not one of the musicians comes through the curtain or shuffles on stage and approaches the mike, the general feeling among the audience is: "Whoever he is, why doesn't he get off and let the musicians on?"
I have had to do this from time to time over the years and, however nice it is to be asked, it is never much fun to do. Someone has got to do it, however, because very few jazz musicians enjoy talking to an audience, and it helps if someone tries to establish a rapport. I had a conversation once with Chris Pyne, the jazz trombonist, who told me about the time he was asked to join a group called Coe Wheeler & Co.
"They didn't really need a trombonist," he said. "The line-up was fine as it was - trumpet, tenor, rhythm section. So why me? Well, it gradually dawned on me that everyone in the band was very shy. Kenny Wheeler on trumpet. Shy. Tony Coe. Hardly says anything. I think the pianist was John Taylor. Not very forthcoming. Whereas I am quite happy chatting. And it suddenly dawned on me one day that the only real reason I had been asked to join the group was to make the announcements ..."
Even when you aren't on stage, you can be in trouble. I was once asked to write the programme notes for a Lol Coxhill concert. Lol Coxhill, if you don't know, is a soprano saxophonist who not only likes to play completely unaccompanied (I once came out of a Count Basie concert at the Odeon, Hammersmith, and found Coxhill busking, beautifully, on the pavement outside) but has a caustic attitude to any more conventional approaches. Anyway, I attended the concert for which I had written the appreciative notes and was somewhat puzzled when, before he even started playing, Lol pulled a programme out of his pocket and proceeded to read out to the audience every word I had written in a pretend Pseud's Corner kind of voice, making it plain he didn't think as much of it as I did. I didn't think the scorn was deserved, but then I would say that, wouldn't I?
It isn't much better backstage, because the so-called compere is with musicians with whom he has no artistic right to be mingling. I once got involved in introducing a jazz concert at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival which featured the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and American trumpeter Red Rodney in a tribute to Woody Herman, and I can remember wandering round backstage occasionally trying to talk to the star musicians I was rubbing shoulders with, and finding it difficult because they hadn't the faintest idea who I was. The one moment I remember with great clarity was when the veteran Red Rodney found himself on stage playing against the young British trumpeter in the band, Gerard Presencer, and finding it extremely hard to make any headway against the brilliant youngster.
"My God!" exclaimed Rodney when he came off stage. "Why isn't that young kid out getting girls in trouble, instead of showing me up like that?"
So why did I agree to go and say a few words at Stan Tracey's 70th birthday concert? To get a chance to hear Stan for free, of course. Or rather, to blackmail myself into going. When you live near Bristol, you tend not to go to London for an evening out unless you force yourself to, and although Stan Tracey's piano is still one of the joys of British music, I haven't heard him live for years - or hadn't till last Sunday, when he happened to be in Bristol playing with his Quartet at the Albert, Bristol's great jazz pub. And with him on trumpet he had the very same Gerard Presencer I heard in Edinburgh some 10 years ago, still boyish-looking but a wonderfully mature player now.
The Bristol pub gig was being filmed for HTV. I don't think the BBC or anyone else has any plans to record the QEH concert tomorrow. Maybe London folk are slower off the mark than down here in the West Country. Anyway, if London folk knew their business they should have given him a knighthood by now.
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