Old sailors make the best jazz musicians

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The Independent Online

I have recently had the great good fortune to drift into a local Somerset-based jazz group composed almost entirely of ex-naval personnel, all doughty sailors who have left the navy behind them but refuse to give up the jazz group they formed in their younger days, and bully for them.

They seemed to be short of a bass player when I met one of them (an ex- rear-admiral who plays a nifty banjo), and they have asked me aboard on an ad hoc basis. I didn't like to ask what had happened to the previous bass player (lost at sea? marooned for mutiny? scrapped and sold to the Argentine Navy?) but just said that I would enjoy getting my jazz fingers back in shape; and so I have, by golly.

The band is the kind of trad/mainstream group which more hip jazz fans either ignore or sneer at, and I have been guilty of both attitudes in my time. But those who knock it forget that it's wonderful fun to play in such a band, like being in the scrum on the winning side in a rugby match.

You wouldn't, on the whole, know that these musicians were naval chaps. They don't drink rum, or grow whiskers to while away the tedium. The only time they reveal their background is during the intervals, which is a time when all band members tend to talk shop. The last time I played with these naval types they spent the interval discussing the disaster that had befallen Pete Goss's Team Philips catamaran on its maiden voyage. They all agreed that a) they had known it was going to happen and b) they had all known exactly why it was going to happen.

This was partly why I found myself chatting a lot to the drummer, Dave. Dave was not, thankfully, a naval man. He was a retired musician who lived only a few doors from the venue for the gig, the village hall in the lovely Somerset village of Norton St Philip, and had been seized on with profuse relief by the banjo player when he couldn't locate another drummer.

As it turned out, Dave could have told them some salty yarns of the sea as well. He confided to me, in what turned out to be a tragic tale, that for a long while he was in a band on the cruise ship Canberra. In his semi-professional days he had taken part in a session for a Hawaiian music LP in a group named, just for the event, the Waikiki Beach Boys. The record, much to everyone's amazement, did fantastically well, so the band were reunited and sent out to play all over the world, or at least as far as the Canberra took them.

"You can get very sick of wearing flower garlands and grass skirts if you're not a native of Hawaii," Dave sighed to me, which is not an insight I ever expected to hear from the lips of a rear-admiral. But now Dave had retired in Norton St Philip, far from his native Surbiton, and united by our non-naval background we got on much better than bass players and drummers normally do.

Of one thing we were sure. Neither of us had ever seen a noise limiter before. This was an electronic device which hung on the wall of the village hall and which had apparently been installed following previous noisy village events such as discos and rock concerts. When we were playing mildly, the green squares lit up. When the music got louder the red squares lit up. If the red squares stayed alight for a full five seconds, we were told the electricity to the stage would be cut off.

"Shouldn't be too much bother, lads, as long as Dave sticks to playing with brushes," said our leader as we all stomped off into the evening. But when we came to play an old New Orleans military rag, "Gettysburg March", Dave felt the moment was right to play with sticks. Indeed he was playing so well with sticks that halfway through the number we hit the red square barrier and the cry went up: "Electricity's gone off!" It was true: the microphones used by the clarinet, trumpet and trombone had cut out, and so had my amplifier. And do you know what? It didn't make a blind bit of difference.

The one great thing about a trad jazz band, unlike almost any other kind of dance or jazz group, is that it's genuinely acoustic and, when the power fails, it sounds just the same as it did before. Is trad jazz behind the times? Well yes, way behind. But it's way, way ahead at the same timed. It's already in the post-electronic era. Roll on the next gig.