29 Aug 2023, 6:07pm

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He’s famous, isn’t he?

This is the latest chapter in my on-line autobiography. You can read the whole story clicking on the link above on the left.

He’s famous, isn’t he?

The context for the above question was a conversation during which someone was telling me about the various jazz artists playing at a nearby festival, and upon naming a local pianist he posed this question, to which I replied;
“If he were, you wouldn’t need to ask me.”
The idea being that if someone is famous then by definition, we know about it. But perhaps, to be fair, the questioner was really asking, whether this pianist was well known on his circuit – which is perhaps not quite the same as being “famous”.
It could be argued that the aim of all musicians is to become famous. At least I have yet to meet one who has clearly stated he wasn’t at all interest in achieving notoriety.
When I was young, I had the idea that every little thing I did was contributing to what we would call today a “profile” and gradually this would grow and grow until I was obviously noticeable, and therefore “famous”.
As the years passed, I came to realize it was not that simple. You are basically famous when someone says you are famous, and you are famous for them even if they don’t know much about you.
For example, I remember flying to Norway to do a workshop at the festival of the Norwegian Flute Society. This was just my second visit to Norway; I was met at Oslo airport by a lady from the organization, and on the drive to the festival she told me that I was the first of the “stars” to arrive. So here I was in a country where practically nobody knew me, and where I had never performed a concert, but I was a “star”. Very nice, I thought, but maybe the term “guest artist” might have been more appropriate, Still here I was, a star in Norway, whereas back home: “Oh, it’s him again…”
Then there’s the game with the size of lettering they use for your name on the flyer or poster. There is a sort of rule (that’s not written anywhere) that says the more famous you are the bigger the lettering has to be. But actually it’s the more famous they want to make out you are, or the more powerful your agent is, the bigger the lettering. The reader understands that the names written large are the better-known artists, even if he doesn’t know any of them.
Think of any big artistic event. Are the artists there because they are famous, or famous because they are there?
I am reminded a of a time in the early ‘nineties when promoters would sometimes bring over to Italy a promising American jazz player (usually a saxophonist) to play with local rhythm sections- (often a different band for every gig.) No one had ever heard of them (and probably outside of their home states they were unknown) but the posters obviously didn’t worry about this. So you would get in gigantic characters FROM TEXAS U.S.A. FRED SCHITT – Tenor Saxophone, and the often quite respectable local musicians would be at the bottom of the page, just about visible, if they were mentioned at all.
“Hey, Fred Schitt, he’s famous isn’t he?”
I know I’m skirting around the old theme of the “prophet without honour in his own land” situation which in the music profession is very present. Possible the secret is to not be actually at home anywhere; to be permanently on the move.
“Hey Fred Shitt’s back in town and he’s doing a gig on Sunday night! We can’t miss that.”
But once Fred starts to give lessons at the local music school and can be seen doing the shopping, and maybe lives in a real home instead of just sleeping artistically on someone’s sofa, then Fred’s gig on Sunday night becomes less of an event, even though he’s had the time to rehearse, and to get to know his colleagues and the music will be so much better than that one off – fly-in-and-do-some-standards, encounter.
I don’t think I’ve ever wanted the sort of notoriety that can get to be a problem. Maybe when I was 18 I wouldn’t have objected to girls throwing their underwear at me, hanging their bras around the bell of my saxophone, but that sort of hunger soon wore off.
At this point I have to include a weird but true story. (No, forget the bras and the saxophones I’m getting back to my main theme.) This must have been in the early years of the century, but I can’t give the precise year. Anyway, I was on tour in trio with tablas player Badal Roy, with Marcello Sebastiani on bass, and we had a gig at a Festival in the Marche region, central Italy.
For these gigs we called the group either the Badal Roy Trio or the Badal Roy European Trio since it was the only European band Badal worked with.
Badal was a name. Not a massive name like Miles Davis, (with whom he had worked,) but still an American Jazz artist of a certain pedigree.
When we arrived, we found the posters and flyers just said “Roy Trio”. Roy who? Roy Haynes? Roy Hargrove? Roy Rogers? No names with instruments played either, so I and Marcello were absent from all the publicity and Badal’s name just wasn’t there. No mention at all that this was an Indo-Jazz trio with tablas. It was totally meaningless.
The Artistic Director didn’t seem all that worried and just put it down to a mistake by his secretary. (So he hadn’t just checked the posters or the festival program before they went to print?)
Marcello and I tried to work out how this could have happened and the only thing that came to mind was that possibly one of the demo CDs had had Roy Trio written on it with a marker pen. Nowhere, in any of the info on the band we had sent was there written “Roy Trio”.
It actually seemed deliberate, but that didn’t make sense either. We were paid well, good meals, nice hotel, just that total lack of billing.
On the night, fortunately there were various bands playing on different stages at different times so people were moving around. Those who came to see us were appreciative and afterwards were asking who we were and where we came from. Great! You, organizer, bring an American name artist to a festival in Europe and then you do your best to keep it a secret.
I still can’t work that one out.
During my first year out of University I regularly wore on my lapel a badge which said, “I’m Nearly Famous”. Someone told me this was the title of a Cliff Richard album, but I never wore it for that reason.
I think I have been, at various times during the ensuing 45 years, famous, a bit famous, nearly famous and not at all famous.
The other day (writing on 2023) I was in pizzeria and a guy came up to our table saying, “Excuse me, are you Geoff Warren?”. He had even checked online, finding a photo of me just to be sure. He said the usual “Thank you for the music,” we shook hands and off he went. That’s nice if it happens once in a while and it makes you feel you haven’t been wasting your time.
If being famous means lots of people are listening to my stuff on Spotify or are buying my publications, looking out for my gigs, then that’s fine. If it means I get paid well for what I do, then of course I’m happy with that. Is that being famous?
Maybe I should just find that badge again.

25 Mar 2023, 4:16pm

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The Quartet Album – now on Spotify

My CD from 2014, with Raffaele Pallozzi, Marco Di Marzio and Walter Caratelli is now available on Spotify and other digital platforms.

1986 – That Night in Belgrade

This is the latest chapter in my musical autobography. You can read the whole story following the link above on the left.

That night in Belgrade.
Back in 1986 I got the chance to take my quartet on tour in what was then called Yugoslavia, with support from the British Council, who in those days were still willing to promote British Jazz around the World.
A year before I had written the preliminary letters to the State organizations and sent tapes from our BBC Radio sessions, and they had responded saying that they were willing to put us on at some of their festivals if we could get some funding from the British Government.
It turned out that in the same week in October of that year, there were the major jazz festivals in Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Serbia.
I had taken the quartet to Hungary in 1985 and I kept the same line-up for this tour, with Ed Speight on guitar, Olly Blanchflower on double bass, and Malcolm Ball on drums. Stylistically I was moving away from the more open moments, as seen in Other Storeys, and was writing shorter tunes with more jazz rock- Canterbury influence, and making ever more use of the soprano saxophone.
We rehearsed in Greenwich. This was when the riverside area was still pretty down-market; in fact, in places, it was positively squalid, but the rehearsal room, which overlooked the Thames, was well equipped and convenient. These pictures were taken outside.

Back in 1986 Yugoslavia had no motorways, and the best way to get from one city to the next, in time to play on consecutive days, was to travel by plane. There were, it seemed, daily flights between the cities, and these internal flights were always early in the morning. In order to check in the instruments, we needed to be at the airport usually a couple of hours before take-off so this was the tour of the early morning calls: very early morning calls. On arriving we needed to check in at the hotel and usually there was little time, if any, to rest, before going to the venue for the sound check. I don’t know how my colleagues managed but by the end of the tour I was suffering from a serious lack of sleep.
This was life on the road, and of course, as a musician I was used to it. But I was less used to it as band leader. We didn’t have a road manager thinking about every detail. After landing in the new town, we would of course be met by someone from the local organization. The nice thing about being a sideman on tour is that you only have to think about playing, eating and sleeping. Here I had to be conscious, responsible, and even chatty, most of the time.
Here is the tour schedule and you can see that after a fairly easy start it gets a bit intense towards the end.
Monday 20 October Flight London to Zagreb.
Tuesday 21 October Concert in Zagreb
Wednesday 22 October – Free day
Thursday 23 October Bus to Ljubljana – Concert in Ljubljana
Friday 24 October Plane to Skopje- Concert in Skopje
Saturday 25 October Plane to Belgrade. Concert in Belgrade.
Sunday 26 October. Flights- Belgrade-Zagreb. Zagreb – London.
The night after our gig in Zagreb we were out of the theatre by about ten p.m. and looking for a restaurant. Everything was closed apart from some really seedy looking places where they wanted dollars and the meals came complete with hostesses.
We wandered around the Croatian capital looking for something to eat, and eventually got to the main railway station where there was a greasy burger bar. That was our dinner. On the wall behind the man flipping the burgers was a photo of Marshall Tito. Ed remarked, in a voice that I felt was a little too loud “I’ll have a Tito-burger”. I was horrified that the chef might take offence. but it seemed he wasn’t listening.
It was on this occasion that Ed Speight offered me a piece of wisdom that I have kept with me all my life. “First rule of the road – Eat while you can.” An excellent rule, but possibly more applicable to a jobbing back-line musician than to a front man. Also, getting older, one’s stomach starts to need more time to digest. In recent years (writing in 2023) I have occasionally forgone a big meal pre-concert and played on an empty stomach, only to grab a sandwich afterwards.
The Wednesday night, after our only free day, our appointed driver took us to a restaurant out of town, possibly run by relations of his . We had a fantastic meal, consisting mostly of grilled meats, and we paid very, very little.
There was a problem waiting to kick in. My Selmer Mark Six soprano saxophone, at some point during the tour – about halfway, started to have problems. It seemed to have taken a knock and I really don’t know how or where. The funny thing was the problem was gradually getting worse! – As if the instrument was slowly bending! – As if the tension in the rods was too much for the body and was pulling it round. I used it in Zagreb and Ljubljana but for Skopje and Belgrade it was out of the question.
I remember being driven around Belgrade on the Saturday afternoon by one of our local organizers, desperately searching for an instrument repair man. But that afternoon there were no instrument repairers available in the Serbian capital.
Like I said earlier, the repertoire I had been developing had been very dependent on the Soprano sax. So now I found myself short of material. I think maybe one of the pieces could be adapted to the alto sax but the rest couldn’t. There was, of course, the option of filling the set out with some jazz standards, but at that time I wasn’t much of a standards player. I taught standards in my evening classes of course, but rarely performed them on my own gigs, and had never played standards with this band. Also, my personal repertoire didn’t really mix well with standards.
So, I was tired, slightly disorientated by having to adapt the set, and the instrument I had been relying on most was now unavailable.
Belgrade was a weird gig.
I got the impression we had been stuffed into an already full festival program. Someone had thought, “This band is here, and the Brits are paying for them, so let’s put them somewhere.” They used us as an opening act to what was essentially a jam session. And I seem to recall the organizers of the event were, not exactly hostile, but a little cold, in that we seemed to be holding up their fun.
Miles Davis was playing Belgrade that night and before our performance we were kindly driven to the big hall where he was performing. (I think we saw Miles before we played our gig, but it may have been afterwards.) This was the band with Robben Ford on guitar and Bob Berg on sax. I can remember really enjoying a couple of beautiful solos by Berg, who for some reason was wearing a long leather coat on stage. Ford was a little too rock for my tastes. And Miles? I can remember him playing some chords on a keyboard he had for his personal use on stage, and I can remember them having an almost endless delay that got in the way of the music and…I don’t remember much else because I fell asleep. The hall was full, all the seats were taken, so we were sitting on the floor at the front between the seats and the band- right on front of the band, and I just nodded off. So, I can’t really say if I appreciated the great man or not. The lack of sleep accumulated during the week finally took its toll. We were escorted out before Miles finished his set, as it was time for us to go to work. (I think that’s how it went.)
So, the only time in my life I got to see Miles Davis live, and had a place right up front, really close to the band, I fell asleep. I’m not proud of it, but that’s what happened.
Overall, I think we generally played well during the tour, and I remember having a good feeling about our gigs in Zagreb and Skopje, but also feeling relieved when we finished our set in Belgrade.