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.

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