Yesterday I mentioned with some surprise the fact that the legendary American cartoonist and artist Robert Crumb has turned up on Radio 3 every Saturday playing a selection of his own 78s. I suppose that I should not have been surprised at all, because although there is no obvious link between cartooning and jazz, it does pop up all over the place.
Humphrey Lyttelton, one of the finest men ever to refuse a knighthood, comes to mind immediately. He writes humorously and plays good trumpet but has also been an effective cartoonist in his day. Not half as effective, though, as his erstwhile clarinettist Wally Fawkes, not only one of the best jazz clarinet players to come out of Britain but – under the sobriquet of Trog – probably the best British caricaturist of the last century.
The comic film animator Richard Williams is also an accomplished jazz trumpeter. Then again there's Barry Fantoni, who is not only an artist and cartoonist but who used to lead a band called Heavy Sausage in which I was the bass player for a while. (I can remember playing one evening at the Chelsea Arts Club with Barney Bates on piano in the band, when Reginald Bosanquet, not entirely sober, knocked over a whole bottle of claret into the open top of the upright piano, without realising he had done so. The middle octave of the piano immediately seized up, and the affliction gradually spread sideways in both directions, until Barney was playing very low with his left hand and very high with his right. I tell you, these classical guys have got it easy...)
Where was I? Oh yes, Robert Crumb and cartoons and jazz. Now, Robert Crumb, I would guess, has done very little radio and has none of the ingratiating suaveness of the professional broadcaster, but there's an affable keenness about him that gets to you. He really loves these dreadfully wonderful old dance band records. He loves the colours on the labels. He loves their design. He loves the names of the record companies, the names of the bands, the places they played in. He knows so much about them – the other day he was even telling us that HMV in London used to mix cotton fibres in with its shellac mix which produced a slightly scratchy tone even on mint records. He didn't know why HMV put cotton in its shellac mix. It seems a crazy thing to do. He was just telling us.
And the other day he did a brilliant thing. He was devoting a half hour to English dance bands of the 1920s and saying that not every good band played somewhere posh and central, like the Savoy Orpheans; in the suburbs there were equally good bands at suburban halls. And to bring it to life he got someone to read out extracts from an account written at the time by HV Morton of a visit to one of these long vanished palais de danse, where the girls were prettier than any you saw at the Ritz, and everyone danced as if they never had to go to work the next morning...
I guess the reason that Crumb can slide into a series on ancient hot music without sounding odd is that there has never been an accepted style for jazz presenters on radio, no preconception of what they should sound like. And so on the BBC alone you get everything from the hip Courtney Pine and the brisk Branford Marsalis to the appealingly chatty women on Jazz Line-Up (Clare Martin and Stacey Kent – both singers and therefore easy with the mike). From the American Geoffrey Smith on Jazz Record Requests – the only man in 40 years of radio to work out a new way of saying "Goodbye", even though it strangles him to say it – to the oddly stilted Julian Joseph, who always sounds like a prefect who has just mugged up some facts about Dizzy Gillespie and is trying to kid the school Jazz Appreciation Society that he really knows all about it...
But above all there is Humph. His Monday show on Radio 2, The Best of Jazz, brims over with good music, old and new, but the Humph persona is what makes it the great programme it is – keen, acerbic, knowledgeable, twinkly, occasionally furious and given to so many human errors that it fair warms the cockles of your heart.
Still, both he and Robert Crumb have been very wise in one respect. They have realised that before you can safely present jazz programmes, you must first be famous at something else. The carpets of the BBC are strewn with the corpses of presenters and directors who were jazz communicators first and foremost and paid for their nuisance value with their career.Reuse content