My Musical Life
This is an autobiography, focussing on the musical events in my life. It is is how I remember things. If I’ve got anything wrong, do let me know.
It started with my older brother, Philip, taking violin lessons. (A lot of things are his fault.) Following our mother’s egalitarian way of handling things this meant that I had the right to some sort of music lessons a couple of years later. I chose the recorder (blockfloete) and despite Philip’s well meant attempts to put me off, warning me that music was full of “nasty crotchets and quavers” I stuck it out.
My first instrument (in a recent photo with passing cat.)
The first note I played was a G and that has somehow remained my favourite note. Doing everything in G, I learned F sharp almost straight away and was rather put out to discover, about a year later, that there were actually F naturals too. This somehow didn’t seem right.
By the time I got to grammar school I wanted to carry on playing in some way. The recorder was out of the question for the school orchestra, and since they had a plethora of clarinettists but a lack of flautists the thing was quickly decided. My parents took me off to Sidcup and bought me a third hand Boosey & Hawkes flute for £30. This must have been about 1968.
At school, for some reason I could never work out, I kept getting good grades in music. It never crossed my mind that this would have any bearing on my future. The brother had now switched to electric guitar and was playing in his own rock band at the local youth club. Sometimes when he was out I would creep into his room and try out chord shapes from his guitar books. We never had a piano in the house until I was sixteen and studying for A Level Music, and my music teacher asked my parents how I had managed up to now. I had trained my ear during those clandestine guitar sessions, and occasionally grabbed a minute at one of the school pianos during lunchtime.
It’s interesting here to note that music was already becoming something to be done furtively. No-one ever told me that music was “bad”, although I later learned that my Headmaster had done everything possible to prevent me from taking music A level. Still we musicians live most of our lives being considered people who have avoided getting real jobs.
I was having flute lessons from a guy who lived near my school, but at a certain point he had to move away for a job with an orchestra in Birmingham so he referred me to his teacher, Derek Honner, who just happened to be the head flute teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, as well as playing with the London Philharmonic. Fortunately he lived a short train ride from my parental home, and he offered to take me on at half his usual private tuition rate.
By now (at fifteen years old) I was getting into “progressive” bands like Van Der Graaf Generator and Soft Machine, as well as cultivating an appreciation for Schoenberg and his theories. The Avant Garde excited me, and I wanted to scream at the world. This was difficult with a flute (so I thought at the time) so I borrowed a battered old soprano sax and tried to emulate my first saxophone hero, Elton Dean.
Apart from school concerts my first public performances were with the Dartford Youth Orchestra. I was never really asked if I wanted to join, it was just sort of assumed that this was going to happen, as it did. It was a useful experience working my way up to first flute over those three to four years. If I’d been seriously intent on becoming a symphonic flautist I should have been aiming at the Kent Youth Orchestra, but I wasn’t, I was thinking about jazz.
About fifteen years later I learned there had been a sort of reunion of the orchestra to celebrate the conductor going into retirement. No one had thought of contacting me. I’ve never understood that. Maybe they thought I was too far off into jazz, or maybe I hadn’t made that much of an impression.
I suppose my first “jazz” influence were the Soft Machine, a Kentish band, part of the so-called “Canterbury Scene”. They used a lot of irregular time signatures, compositions that took equally from modal jazz and Hindemith, rock, and the avant garde. A nice heady mix. At the time I couldn’t really appreciate where they were getting it all from, and like most fans assumed they were completely original.
Elton Dean played alto sax and saxello ( a slightly curved soprano) in a style that recalled Rhythm ‘n’ Blues and Ornette, and he was part of a London jazz scene that had a strong (South) African contingent as well as a thriving free element and strong blues influences too.
I listened to his solos over and over again, and of course started writing all my tunes in 5 and 7. By the time I was seventeen I was more used to improvising in 5 than in 4, I had some idea of who Parker and Coltrane were but I thought Elton Dean was the best in the world. Looking back I think it’s right that a person gets inspired first by “local” heroes before discovering the “legends”. (This is in no way meant to diminish Elton Dean, who was, I think, an international figure in his own right.)
I took the soprano sax along to my flute teacher, not knowing what his reaction would be. Most Conservatoire teachers would have forbidden me to touch it, because it might have had a destabilising effect on my embouchre. Derek Honner looked at it, and then said “Play me something”. He then gave me a few tips and told me to carry on, because these days it was “important to have more strings to your bow.” He told me that one of his teachers had been a saxophonist, and had played on the atlantic cruises with Geraldo!
I was unsure whether to go to the Royal Academy (having passed my Grade 8 on flute) or go to University. By now (at eighteen years old) I was convinced about pursuing a life in music. Various factors had influenced me; not only the ongoing good grades in music at school, but also my failing Eng. Lit O-level had effectively narrowed , or should I say, rationalised the field. I took A-Levels in Music , Maths and German, and by the time I was sitting the exams the only one I cared about was music.
I eventually chose to study music at University, partly because I wanted to get away from home, and studying in London at the RAM would have meant commuting, whereas University meant going to live on campus somewhere. My parents were cool about this. I think they sensed my need to get away and have space. So it was decided. I went to Royal Holloway College, a cute little College of the London University, situated away from the metropolis in well-healed Surrey.
I had chosen University because I wanted to know about music, not just play it, and my contact up to now with Conservatoire elements (apart from the great Honner) had been negative. I didn’t want to sit around all day agonising over my little finger technique, I wanted to know what music was about. I also identified the Conservatoires with Classical Music, and I saw University as a chance to study all musics from all angles.
At University I adopted the role of the angry young man of jazz, carrying my old soprano sax around with me everywhere, trying to organise free jam sessions, and probably being just a little bit obnoxiously alternative.
But these were the seventies and the establishment loved that sort of thing, so my dissenting voice was listened to. I was invited to give a lecture on jazz for the 20th C. Music History course, since I knew more about it than the Professors. This must have gone down well somewhere because I came away from university with a decent degree, and even today I still wonder how I got it, when I consider the attitude I had at the time.
During the Summer break after my first year I worked at a bookshop and London and saved enough to buy myself an alto sax. This was mainly to make myself more “useful. I was thinking in terms of being a jobbing musician and soprano sax and flute were more “colour” instruments than mainstay.
University gave me other things too. One of the Lecturers put me in touch with Roger Dean, a bassist/pianist working on the free end of the jazz scene, and in contemporary chamber music. We met up and played together and started to collaborate. A few gigs, the Edinburgh Fringe, and he recommended me to Graham Collier when his saxophonist (Alan Wakeman) had turned down a tour because he was busy with a rock singer whose name I have long forgotten. Art Themen was busy too, so Graham had no choice but to risk the young man fresh out of University.
The audition with Graham consisted of meeting for a few beers, talking about music, eating fish and chips, and talking more about music. That was all. Graham had tapes,and therefore knew my limitations. He knew I could offer three instruments (alto and soprano saxes and flute) that I read well, that my academic background meant there would be no problems with his concepts. He just needed to know what I was like as a person.
And so the collaboration with Graham Collier got underway. I got into Graham’s band just as he was getting out of playing (bass) and more into composing and band-leading. His music was becoming more and more “directed” and my academic background helped me in coming to terms with his techniques. I wasn’t a “volcanic” soloist like other saxophonists but I could offer a variety of sounds and styles. So I went from obscurity to BBC Radio broadcasts and the Camden Festival, (supporting Sam Rivers.) This was 1979; I was poor but happy. The old soprano was replaced with a Selmer Mark VI (which I still have) thanks to the few hundred pounds left in a building society account my grandfather had opened for me years before.
Me as multi-instrumentalist with Graham Collier Music in 1981. On bass; Paul Bridge, at the keyboard; Roger Dean.
Up until leaving university I had no real idea about what making a living in music actually involved. I had heard a ‘cellist on Radio Three say that, in music “The cream rises to the top like in no other profession” and I had believed this. I imagined that all I had to do was work at my art; practice and compose, and things would just happen. The rude awakening didn’t take long to arrive.
Actual directly paid work involved performance, recording sessions, and teaching. For every hour spent in these activities several other hours would need to be spent practicing, preparing lessons, composing and arranging. But in order to have that work, several other hours (and this was the new discovery) had to be spent on the ‘phone or writing letters (no computers at that time). So: two jobs for the price of one.
Then, add that at the start of a musical career it’s not always easy to make a living just out of music, so some sort of “day job” is needed. (I worked in an office for a year.) Bearing in mind that the day job will probably have nothing to do with what one has been training for all these years the chances are that the pay won’t be amazing. So: three jobs just to get by.
After my year of office work I had the good luck to be taken on part time by Graham Colliers’ small independent record company, Mosaic Records. That was at least in my sector and it helped me though until evening class teaching for the I.L.E.A. (Inner London Education Authority) finally gave me self-sufficiency in musical activity.
Directing a jazz workshop for ILEA in the early ‘eighties. Olly Blanchflower is helping out on double bass on this occasion.
My only film appearance.
It must have been about 1982. I was living in a bed-sit in Hackney at the time and somehow I got a call to go and mime the part of a flautist in a film. I still, to this day, don’t know how they got round to calling me, since I didn’t know the person who rang me. Someone must just have passed on my number. At the time I was doing quite a few studio sessions , mostly for adverts, so the contact might have come from one of those agencies.
Anyway I was to turn up with my flute at, I think, Shepperton Studios and they would think about everything else. I was given a black jacket and they applied some stuff to flatten my hair down, a sort of non-greasy gel, then we were taken to the set where they positioned us on a platform that was supposed to rise up in a cloud at the start of the scene. From there on we were to mime while the track was played over the speakers.
I had been told it was for the new Monty Python film , but the famous faces weren’t really visible from where I was sitting. In fact all of us in the band were wondering where they had got to, untll finally one of them did a silly voice. Most noticeable were the angels with their plastic breasts. Somehow they caught one’s eye.
We managed a few takes on the first day, but the producers weren’t happy, Then there were problems with the platform. I can still remember the nasty jolt that went up my backbone every time it returned to basement level- Same story the second day. The third day we just hung around waiting to be called. On the fourth day we got the job done, It was four days’ work at Film Artist Association rates. One day was enough to pay me a week’s rent so the four days put me alright for the month.
Here’s how it came out.
Even if I was aiming at being a session musician/sideman it was also important for me to have an “own band”; something that would play my tunes and put across my ideas. In the ‘seventies “jazz-rock” had become a sort of staple pub music, and the typical formation was a quintet with one “horn”, a guitar, an electric keyboard, electric bass and drums. I started off from this formation and then at a certain point decided I could do without the keyboard. My influences were jazz-rock, free jazz, the avant-garde and even progressive rock. So no standards and no blues – these were things I would play with other groups; my band was for my thing.
The seventies had been an interesting decade. The major record companies (in UK) had dropped jazz almost completely and in response a lot of artists had started producing their own records on their own independent labels. Distribution was difficult but enthusiasts were still willing to search for records, or order them by post. This had led to, I believe, an increase in creativity, because artist-owned labels gave the artist total freedom whereas previously the commercial record companies had had their say.
Then in the early eighties a funny thing happened. Post modernism collided with jazz and everything suddenly seemed to be in quotation marks. Just for short moment (a year or two) the major record companies came back, wanting to sign up only young, smart, (clean) jazz artists because it seemed jazz had become trendy. I remember reading an article in the New Statesman which began “Young blacks are discovering that jazz is savvy and cool”. I can assure you that on my South-east London council estate there were no young blacks (or whites for that matter) driving around with Kind of Blue blaring out of their car windows. (Hip-hop was just arriving; maybe that’s what the journalist was thinking of.) Yet there was a strong desire on the part of journalists and record companies to believe in this, and a few musicians managed to get records out with real distribution and promotion, but the general effect was, in my opinion, negative. One London jazz club proudly proclaimed that it was only putting on bands with current recording contracts. One prestigious jazz magazine started off a review with “Jazz today is all about style” and proceeded to base its review on the artist’s haircut. (I’m not kidding.) The listings magazines were full of bands apparently offering “Blue Note Repertoire”. This , decoded, meant tunes from the sixties written by jazz musicians (so not “standards”) for quintets (two horns, piano, bass and drums) of young guys in suits; basically tonal or modal, not free, and certainly not original.
Needless to say these were difficult times for me. I’d grown up thinking that jazz was about originality, and non-conformism, now I was being asked to do my best to pretend to be someone else or at least repackage my originality in inverted commas. Fortunately I was getting enough gigs with funk and latin outfits, as well as advertising jingles and Graham Collier’s bands but my “own band” went on a back burner with just the occasional BBC radio broadcast or a gig at the RFH Foyer. I started sending tapes abroad and got some positive replies from east of the Iron Curtain, and in 1985 my band, with help from the British Council toured Hungary; then in ’86 we went to Yugoslavia. I was also at this time making contacts in Italy and for the first time, in 1986 I flew to Bologna on my own (with just my instruments and my English-Italian dictionary) to stay with and do three gigs in quartet with bass player Felice Del Gaudio.
Greenwich 1986. Photo taken during a break in rehearsals for the Yugoslavia tour: Ed Speight on guitar, Olly Blanchflower on bass, Malcolm Ball on drums.
There’s no such thing as a demo.
When a musician talks about a demo he is referring to a recording that gives an idea of his music: how his band plays, how his compositions go, without being the actual finished product. It may have been recorded economically or quickly, or may even be incomplete.
Musicians understand the term “demo”. Promoters, festival directors and generally those on the other side of the barricade say they understand what a demo is but actually they don’t.
Here are two episodes from the early ‘eighties.
There’s no such thing as a demo #1.
A friend of mine had a jingle company. That is, he wrote music for adverts; usually 25-30 second pieces, sometimes original, sometimes closely copying existing pop tunes but never enough to infringe copyright. These were commissioned by advertising companies who would then incorporate them in their TV adverts. In the ‘eighties these jingles were performed by real musicians since samplers didn’t exist and synthesisers and drum machines were still in their infancy.
It would often happen that an advertising company would contact a jingle writer asking him to present a demo jingle for an advert; if the client was convinced the next stage would be a “master” recording (in an expensive studio) and the jingle would go on air.
So, you may say, it is obvious that the advertising company have understood that the first recording is a “demo”. Well, yes and no.
My friend was asked to provide a jingle in ska/reggae style with lots of brass. No problem there, but they wanted the recording to play to the client the next day. My friend explained that he didn’t have time to arrange for a brass section and get the musicians together in a studio at such short notice and offered to do a version just using a keyboard for the brass parts. ”Fine” said the man from the agency.
“But remember” said my friend” The sound of the keyboard will be nothing like a real brass section.
“That’s OK, we just need a demo” came the reply.
The demo was recorded and dispatched by courier to the advertising agency the same day and my friend waited for their reply.
A week passed and he had heard nothing. So he called up.
“Er, yeah” said the guy from the agency, “Well, you see, the client didn’t like the jingle because the brass didn’t sound very good.”
Here I am paying tenor sax in a beer advert,around 1982.
There’s no such thing as a demo #2,
In 1983 I had the luck to be awarded an Arts Council Bursary to compose an extended piece for my jazz quartet. The piece “Other Storeys” was about 25 minutes long and had a rather spacey central section where the percussion had a cadenza and then swapped phrases with the guitar. I managed to obtain a BBC Radio recording for the work and on the day we went into the studio, my percussionist, Malcom Ball, brought with him some “Sculptures Sonores” made by the French Baschet brothers. These are amazing instruments with very particular sounds so we left a little more space in the central section to show what they could do. The BBC were very happy –they broadcast my piece twice in the space of a year, something rather unusual and possibly due to the presence of these instruments.
Having enjoyed this experience I discussed with Malcolm the possibility of maybe writing something with these instruments particularly in mind from the start; of integrating the jazz quartet with these sounds. It seemed a nice idea but also quite a lot of work, so I decided to write around and see if there was any chance of getting a commission to do this from a contemporary music festival.
One festival wrote back saying they were interested and asking for a demo. I replied that what I was proposing-. to integrate a jazz quartet with the Sculptures Sonores hadn’t been done yet so I had no actual example – in fact I was asking to be commissioned to do something new, but I included a copy of the BBC recording just to give an idea of the sounds of these instruments and also how my band usually played.
A week later I got a letter back saying they weren’t interested in commissioning me because on the recording the jazz quartet wasn’t integrated with the Sculptures Sonores.
One of the jobs with Roger Dean’s Lysis Ensemble took me to India (1980): a three week British Council sponsored tour playing some Jazz, some Contemporary, and some Free. I think I got the job, because again a saxophonist, in this case Art Themen, was busy but this didn’t bother me, I had my first foreign tour. We did the tour in quartet, with me playing saxophones and flute, Roger playing piano and some double bass (if I remember correctly), his wife Hazel Dean on violin and Ashley Brown on drums.
We were in India nearly three weeks and played a dozen or so gigs. We were well received everywhere, although sometimes I got the feeling it was more the novelty value than a full understanding of what we were doing. This wasn’t the India of the 21st Century, you could still quite easily meet an elephant coming down the road towards you. They understood their music, but many had a limited perception of western music, probably thinking it all sounded a bit the same. I was 22 but the on the photo on my fresh new passport I looked about 15 and it became a joke that wherever we went someone would ask me how old I was.
At a post-concert cocktail party at the British Consulate in Calcutta I met a load of bored Diplomatic Service time-servers, a couple of enthusiastic critics, various elderly ladies who kept asking me how old I was, and Aparajita (Pinky) Zachariah, a dancer and writer. The contact with Pinky has remained; first through letter writing, and later through collaboration on our musical Poker soon after she moved to Germany. Later on I have worked with her and her dancers . Through Pinky I met Peter Wiessmueller the jazz record producer, the man, who, among other things would tell me in 2008 that I needed to do a solo flute album.
After India there were other excursions abroad, mosty with Graham Collier’s bands. Several times we flew over to Cologne to record for WDR the regional radio station, and other times we were on tour for the British Council, going to Hungary, The Far East (Thailand, Indonesia, Hong-Kong and the Philippines) and in 1986 Israel.
Working for a living
All musicians are aware of the general consensus that we don’t have real jobs; or if we do, this is in addition to our playing music. Apart from when I have been supporting myself as a musician there have been periods in my life when I have been earning my way from other activities. My first ever job was as a “milk boy”, helping our milkman deliver pints of milk in glass bottles to peoples’ doorsteps. This was at weekends while I was still at school. During the Summer break after my first year at university I worked at Foyles books shop in the Charing Cross Road, down in the bowels of the building in the mail-order department. Then for a year after university I was answering the ‘phone for a company in the West End who ran theme-banquet restaurants.
I suppose we should also include my helping out at Mosaic Records, Graham Colliers’ record company, as a sort of “real job”. After that it has been performing, teaching, recording, arranging, composing and examining.
Perhaps my nearest experience to being a wage-slave on a production line was during my first year in Italy. I turned up in Emilia Romagna in the Summer of 1988 and started making my contacts with (mostly jazz) musicians there. I was getting a few gigs, and I think I had one saxophone student but something else was needed to pay the rent. At the time there were quite a lot of dance bands who worked fairly regularly and the obvious thing was for me to get into one of these to tide me over. Friends told me not to try a “ballo liscio” (folk dance) band, warning me earnestly that I, an English jazz musician, would never be able to master the style required. The alternative was to find a “modern” band playing pop-dance stuff, but these were less common and worked a lot less, whereas the folk-dance bands were playing 10-12 gigs a month during the Winter and 20-30 gigs a month during the Summer. Inevitably I got offered a trial with a folk dance band. Getting the hang of the style took me about an hour. It consisted of playing the saxophone in the way you would imagine a circus clown would play it: an absurdly wide vibrato and squawky tonguing. The tunes were either in B flat or F so the only real danger was of falling asleep on the job – which was a real danger because the hours were devastating. The gigs would average 4 hours long, with just a short break at half-time. So we would play from 9p.m. to 1 or 2a.m., but before we got on the stage to play we had to unload the bus, and set up the P.A, and lights (yes we travelled with everything except the stage itself), and then after the gig it all had to be taken down and loaded back on the bus. Bear in mind too that this band usually played in places about three hours’ drive from where they were based and you get the idea that the working day could be 12 to 16 hours long, and sometimes longer. After three or four back to back gigs you had a face like an ageing rock star, and when you did get a day off you spent most of it in bed catching up on your sleep.
I stuck it out for a year, and can honestly say I was working for a living by anyone’s standards.
The guys in the band were mostly young and easy to get on with. Some were jazzers, who, like myself did this to get by. The classic sound check scenario of a Liscio band would consist of the individual sound check, where each musician played his jazzy chops into the mike just to let off steam, then at the sound check for the band together out came the mazurka!
The Ballo Liscio scene in 1988 was on its way to a slow decline, It had a proud history of virtuosos on sax (in the circus clown style) and accordion- churning out fast and furious variations in a sort of “I bet you can’t play this fast” manner. The original dance bands of the ‘thirties, from which these had developed had had a more varied and sophisticated repertoire, something like tea room orchestras. The music had, over the years, been simplified and very much standardized. The pieces all conformed rigorously to the same limited selection of harmonic progressions, but at least it was all played live; sequencers and drum machines hadn’t come in just yet but were there lurking in the wings
I was surprised to find that the keyboard player in our band had spent most of his adult life in the States, and had only come back to Italy to look after his ageing parents. He was a very good cocktail bar pianist (thoroughly wasted on I- V – I in B flat) with a soft Carolina accent. We could chat away in English and, when necessary, with a careful choice of vocabulary, could make sure that no one knew what we were talking about.
The band leader was, as was the tradition, the accordionist, and his wife was the singer. She was considerably younger than her husband and was having an affair with the quiet American. This too was almost a cliché. We jokingly referred to our, ratty and quite often unpleasant band leader, as “The old cuckold”
I worked through from October ’88 to September ’89. Right from the start of that last Summer I was telling my colleagues (the band leader and his wife) that I was going to be leaving soon, that I was being offered more jazz gigs and that they should be looking for a replacement saxophonist, They ignored all this, unable to conceive of a person living from playing jazz. They were actually convinced that the only music you could possibly make a living from was Ballo Liscio. So when I finally said my goodbyes they threw their hands up in horror saying I couldn’t leave them like this without any warning, and the band leader even adopted a menacing attitude. I got off the bus that morning after the last gig and never spoke to them again. The last pay cheque finally arrived a couple of months later. More annoying was that they had stolen my book with all my parts out of my bag. I had no more use for these parts but that they went and rummaged through my things instead of just asking for those parts, which I would have gladly given them, was very annoying.
And so that “particular “Working for a Living” chapter came to an end. I’m glad I did it: I feel it was part of a learning experience; part of paying one’s dues, and I’d always had the feeling that in England I had not really paid those dues enough. At the time it was an economic necessity; and I remember justifying it to a friend like this: “In England a musician signs on and gets a government subsidy to top up his gig earnings. In Italy there is no Welfare State but you can play Liscio.”
In September 1989 I played 30 gigs with my Italian jazz trio. We had one day off that month, but did two gigs on another day. That was working for a living too, but not everyone would agree with me.
The World Music thing.
I think it happened with the onset of sampling, during the ‘eighties,; suddenly sounds from all over the World were available for inclusion into whatever musical context you liked. This in turn led to genuine curiosity about other musics and gradually, the folk festivals that had almost died out, become World Music festivals.
As a flautist I had always been aware that my instrument, in its primitive form, perhaps the oldest (tuned) instrument on the planet, was present in just about every musical culture, and I found no difficulty in adapting myself to various contexts. I had often taken my Bansuri around with me and occasionally played one little theme on it, before reverting to my western flute to improvise: I have no pretensions to being a bansuri player, I realise that’s something you have to dedicate your whole life to, and I make no excuses for my being (just) a western flautist.
Over the years I have built up a collection of ethnic flutes and whistles, sometimes bought on my travels, sometimes given as presents; some real instruments, others little more than toys. I occasionally take one down and play on it, but it’s just curiosity.
I think there are two possible approaches here and I have made my choice. One approach would be that of a leading English World Music exponent, who I met in Spain. He said he aimed to play a different instrument for each piece in the programme, and I have to say he was competent on flutes of various kinds, and stringed instruments. The other approach, espoused by Enver Izmailov (among others) would be – try to get all the sounds out of your one instrument. This second approach appeals to me more, because it has the advantage of allowing you to stay with the same “horn” for the whole gig and not only warm up on it but stretch out too. Constantly changing you get the advantage of the different timbre but you don’t, I think, get to express youself.
So, from the nineties I started to get more involved in groups that were roughly speaking “ethno-jazz” and in which I was principally a flautist, usually being asked to double on soprano sax for a few numbers. This was fine by me, my aural analytical skills helped me understand the genres very quickly and I was able to jot down themes quickly (given the frequent lack of actual written parts) before memorizing them. During that decade I played with Basques, Indians, Brasilians, Moroccans, Tartars, Japanese, and probably some more I can’t remember now. I was still playing themes and improvising but the contexts were new and each band had its own syntax. Straight jazz became a rarity, although I was still playing some funky stuff occasionally, just about the only time I was getting out the alto sax.
What was good was that I was getting work, but there was a downside too that quite soon started to bug me. I pretty soon realised I was usually being called as a guest rather than an integral member, and that was down to my ethnicity. Being English just wasn’t interesting enough. I even had promoters asking me “Can’t we say you’re from Scotland?” Festival programmers just wanted to have as many nationalities a possible on the poster, and quite often the ethnicity was more important than the instrument the musician was playing. Probably if you were Mongolian and just about able to play a couple of notes you could get onto a festival somewhere. (No disrespect to any Mongolians intended here.)
I was frequently praised for my chameleon abilities “How is it you play exactly like a Tartar flautist?” they asked me at a festival of post-Soviet music in Vienna. – Just the same way I learned to play like a ballo liscio saxophonist; listen, analyse and then play. It may have even been uncomfortable for people (like festival organisers) to have to admit that music isn’t always in your blood (or stamped on your passport) but in your ability to understand what you’re playing.
Please don’t get me wrong.
I don’t wish, in any way, to denigrate or undervalue indigenous musical cultures, and I’m not saying that anyone with a University/ Conservatoire education can do all that stuff. What I am saying is that I have come across several instances of a sort of fetishism regarding ethnic origins at the expense of an evaluation of musical/artistic substance.
Personally I can say I’m extremely thankful to have had the opportunity to play with and learn from musicians from all over the World, and I’m still learning.
I hope too to have been able to incorporate some of this into my own playing.
A critic from Bologna once wrote, after a concert I had played with Enver Izmailov, that I was able to adapt myself to the most disparate situations without ever losing my musical identity.
Well that’s what I was aiming for.
For the record, I have had wonderful experiences working with Badal Roy, the great jazz tablas maestro, Enver Izmailov, the tapping Tartar guitarist, Balen Lopez De Munain, Basque guitarist and Jamal Ouassini, Moroccan violinist, and for me the most positive times have been when I could just be myself working with them being themselves.
Solidarity- sort of.
There are times when a musician has be to more workman than artist: you might find yourself for example playing in a restaurant, acutely aware that nobody is really listening. Who hasn’t been there? I can remember some nights with the Italian dance band, all those years ago, when, contracted to play until 3 a.m. we played the last half hour or so to any empty dance floor, and sometimes even to an empty hall. If you want to get through these evenings with your self-esteem still intact it can be a good idea to switch off your artist’s personality (ego?) and just imagine you’re being paid to produce a carefully coordinated noise that someone has asked you to provide during a certain lapse of time. You’re just providing a service.
Just ask yourself. Does the bus driver driving an empty bus feel guilty?
In those situations where we’re part of the staff it can happen that a sort of workers’ camaraderie builds up with the waiters or other employees. It can, but in my experience it rarely does. Maybe I’ve been unlucky but so many times I and the musicians I have been working with have been treated slightly worse by the waiters than by the bosses. Maybe they imagine the musicians are getting loads of money for just sitting there enjoying themselves playing music, so there is an element of (misplaced) jealousy. But usually you just get the impression that you’ve somehow invaded their space and they find you inconvenient and annoying to have around. They can be jealous of every square centimetre you try to take up with your gear. They might huff and puff when you say you need to move a table. They might even have to serve you something to eat as well!
I remember playing at a sort of private party in a big historic house just outside of Modena, North Italy. There were about half a dozen musicians in all and we had to intervene at different times during a carefully coordinated presentation (the launching of some product I can’t remember). We were directed to our dressing room which was one of the smaller bedrooms in the villa and in which the double bed took up about sixty per-cent of the space. So we piled our jackets, bags and cases on the bed and started to get ready. Almost immediately one of the waiters burst in exclaiming noisily and in his best authoritarian (Hitlerite) manner that nothing should be placed on the bed as this was a valuable historic artefact, and implying that we were a bunch of uneducated hooligans for even having considered depositing our proletarian belongings on top of this treasure. He wasn’t any part of the villa staff, he wasn’t a museum assistant or anything like that; he was a waiter contracted in for the job, but he certainly made the most of exercising his assumed authority, and of making our lives difficult. Needless to say, the moment he left the room we chucked everything back on the bed again and I seem to remember the accordion player using it as a trampoline too.
Another time, in a venue that was well quite known for its intelligent and creative music programming I remember the head waitress telling me, with a really big satisfied smile on her face, that the nights they had music were the least busy nights. This was probably true, in that Saturday nights the place filled up automatically so the owner tended to put the music on Thursdays and Fridays in an attempt to fill up on those nights too. No real harm there, what hurt was the smug satisfaction of the waitress who really seemed to want to say “You’re not important, you know.” The owner didn’t make a point of telling us this, but the waitress did!
The last night in Edinburgh.
It had been a long, tiring, but rewarding tour, taking my flute around the UK doing jazz flute demonstrations and workshops, with Yamaha, The British Flute Society, Flutewise, and to round things off nicely, doing a session for BBC Radio Scotland with pianist Richard Michael.
I had a free day in Edinburgh before my flight out to Roma-Ciampino.
I spent the morning visiting Edinburgh Castle, spending my Scottish pounds on whisky, woollen scarves and other gifts, then lunch at a pub, The Ensign Stewart, that recalled the Scots Greys’ capture of a French Standard at Waterloo, then back to my hotel for a siesta.
The plan was then to go to The Wind Section, a musical instruments supplier that had been working with us during the tour, practice for an hour, give them back the alto flute they’d kindly lent me for the week (I’d had a baggage weight problem so mine had stayed at home) then a relaxing evening with Malcolm Kirkpatrick, boss of the Wind Section.
We started off at a rather pleasant pub, in the company of two of Malcolm’s assistants from the shop. Then Malcolm and I went on to a fantastic Punjabi restaurant, before finishing off the evening at whisky bar not far from my hotel, with a series of Laphroaigs.
I was back in my hotel about 11.30, watched a bit of TV, then around 12.30 as I was switching off the light, I looked around to see where the bag with my flute was. It wasn’t.
The information came through to me slowly, thanks to the alcoholic haze. So instead of having an instant heart attack I gradually got my mind around the idea. Maybe I can say Laphroaig saved my life there.
I got dressed and walked quickly out of the hotel and down to the bar we had left not a couple of hours before. A gorilla had been placed on the door, but seeing the determination with which I was approaching he sort of flinched backwards and accepted my “I left my bag in there” without question. But the bag was not there and the same barman who had served us previously said nothing had been handed in.
So, off to the restaurant. I didn’t know the address and was working from memory in my drunken state. But I got there quickly, only to find it closed. I rang the number on the sign and a recorded message thanked me for calling and invited me to call back after 5pm the next day when they would reopen. My check-in was at four, and I didn’t know for sure if the flute was in there or not.
I walked desperately back to my hotel from where I sent e-mails to Malcolm, and to the address on the website of the restaurant.
I then sat. fully clothed, on the bed for the next seven hours, not sleeping, telling myself I was an idiot.
Around 8 in the morning Malcolm sent me an e-mail saying he reckoned the flute was probably in the restaurant, and that if I’d left it in the pub one of his colleagues would have at least texted.
At 8.30 I left the hotel and walked back down to the restaurant. I found it still closed and got the same message when calling the number again.
Across the road was an Italian coffee shop, “Asti Cafè”. I opted for an espresso having decided to stake out the restaurant in case anybody turned during the day. I explained my dilemma to the (very Scottish) lady who served me and she suggested asking at the newsagent three doors up from the restaurant, since he delivered papers to the whole street and might have another ‘phone number.
It seemed worth trying so finishing my coffee I went across to the newsagent. The guy was Asian, quite possibly Punjabi like those of the restaurant. He suggested I knock at a door he indicated further along the street saying that the people who lived there might know someone who worked in the restaurant. I went over but the place seemed deserted; on the door was a tatty sticker saying “British Pakistani Association”. Nobody answered so I returned to the newsagent who this time told me the owner of the restaurant had another business, with an office where he sometimes went, and after a bit he found me the number.
I called . No reply. It was 9.30 a.am.
Back to my hotel room again. I had to be out of there in a couple of hours. I packed my bag for want of something to do and rang the “office” number intermittently. At 10.10 a woman with a strong Scottish accent answered. I immediately thought I’d got a wrong number but I explained why I was calling and she said she would try to contact the people from the restaurant, asking me for a number to call back on. I had an Italian mobile phone with me, so I gave her that number but offered to call back myself in twenty minutes. She said to call back in half an hour.
I stared vacantly at the wall of my hotel room for twenty minutes and then she called me back. The chef would be at the restaurant in ten minutes, could I be there? I asked if they had found the bag, and she said yes.
I think at that point I cried. Or at least my glasses steamed up a lot.
I was at the restaurant in six minutes. The guy who had served us the evening before arrived ten minutes later. We entered and he produced the bag with my flute still in it.
I wanted to thank him so much. I offered to pay for his petrol, for his trouble, but he wanted nothing.
I then went back to the newsagent and thanked him, then to the coffee shop to thank the lady and have an Italian breakfast.
When I checked out of the hotel I told them some of my story and said they should recommend that restaurant to anyone seeking an Indian meal. They told me they always did since the food was great and the people were so nice.
I second that:
32B Broughton Street,
Edinburgh, Lothian EH1 3SB
Some time ago (early 2015) I received an e-mail from someone claiming to be a longstanding friend and associate of a person I apparently knew ( but couldn’t bring to mind) who had passed on my e-mail address.
They were setting up what they described as “an exciting new agency which will focus on promoting the highest quality and most dynamic performers and composers to a wider UK audience. “
Finding management is one of the main problems these days. There is less and less of it and those who are active tend to look after one artist full time (often a relative) and those who are looking for artists tend to want young, cute, phenomena they can manipulate for life. So mature artists like me are not very palatable: being not at all manipulable and not as cute as we used to be.
So, this was a very interesting e-mail. They seemed to be wanting classical music but also said: “We are always listening to whatever high quality music is out there, irrespective of the labels people apply – if we believe your music fits our ethos, then we will seriously consider an agreement. We only choose to work with musicians whose work reflects our own energy and commitment to the highest standards of artistry. “
I worked hard on my reply, proposing a couple of situations I thought might be good for the UK market, thinking of basically ”classical” contexts: music societies, universities and festivals; So, me with piano in a sort of chamber jazz, and me with live electronics; two practical solutions that were easy to get together and to tour with.
Messages went back and forth and the thing started to take shape. We got round to talking about fees and seemed to be talking the same sort of language.
Then, at last came their “draft proposal’ for you outlining in detail exactly how we work for our artists & what we would plan to do for you”
They started off saying how they worked predominantly with classical music so selling me would cost them more time and effort but there was “scope for a deal of some kind”
Then came the sting;
“Our typical fee at XXXX would be 20% of all bookings, but in your case this wouldn’t be appropriate as we are not dealing with music at the core of our market. This means we could spend weeks of our time pushing hard for bookings without success and therefore no payment for our work. Clearly, this is not feasible from our point of view. I therefore suggest a trial period of 3 months on a monthly retainer of £150 offset by a reduced management commission rate of 15%. This will give us a good initial period to really push your music to our market & see whether we get any take-up. If the signs are good, we can then consider a more long-term arrangement should you wish. A typical festival, music club or concert society will book between one and two years in advance so we would be looking to achieve bookings for you during that period. The retainer fee would cover our working time and all associated costs incurred in promoting your work with the reduced commission rate of 15% offsetting your upfront financial commitment.”
Got it? Yes, that’s right, I pay them!
I took this seriously for about a second and a half, Then I put it aside, hoping that maybe if I were to read it again in a day or two I might understand it differently. I didn’t. I forwarded it to Richard Michael (the great Scottish pianist with whom I had proposed the duo) and he didn’t need the one and a half seconds.
The way I saw it, I now had two options; either not write back and forget the whole thing, or send a sarcastic refusal. My canny Scottish friend suggested a third option: politely declining the retainer formula but accepting the scenario of initial investment we could offer a much higher agency percentage for that “trial period”. If they were in good faith they would at least come back to me on this.
I sent off this message and no reply was forthcoming. A couple of months of regular correspondence fell instantly dead.
I found their website. Nice and shiny and new and …empty. No artists, no news. Space waiting to be filled in, presumably by someone who has bought the deal. I still check it every so often: no one has yet.
It occurred to me that this was basically someone who wanted to set up his agency with a sort of crowd funding from his artists.
A second hypothesis was that this was a carefully planned scam, e-mailing hundreds of artists in the hope that enough will take the bait, and sign up for the three months “trial period”, then disappearing with the money. But maybe I’ve spent too much time living in Italy.
If anyone wants to see that website, just write to me privately,
ON THE ROAD
Travel is an integral part of a performing musician’s life: you can’t perform to the same audience every night, you want to show yourself to the World, so you have to move. (The “prophet without honour” saying is also very true.)
Internet has changed things of course. You can get yourself “heard” across the globe quite easily but digital technology has also been responsible for the death of record sales, so real-life performance remains an important source of income.
So, all musicians will have their road stories. Here are a couple of mine, linked by a curious unexpected element.
Of Broken-down Trains and Kindly Arabs
Part One – Destination Bilbao. August 2006.
I was all set to play a tour of the Basque country with my friend, guitarist Balen Lopez De Munian and his quartet.
I was to set off from Pescara, by train to Verona, where Balen and the Sardinian bassist, Salvatore Maiore were waiting for me, and from where we would drive to Verona-Brescia airport to get the plane to Bilbao. There, our accordionist, Joxan Goikoetxea, would be waiting for us to complete the quartet.
Pescara to Verona by train can take up to six hours, so I was up at 5.00 am. The first leg of my train journey, Pescara – Bologna was uneventful: now I just had to do the last hundred kilometres to Verona and for this I was booked on a Eurostar Train that was going on up to Munich.
It didn’t get to Munich. It didn’t even get to Verona. Just after midday under the ferocious August sun, in the middle of an idyllic agricultural landscape, the mighty Eurostar simply died, leaving us on board without air conditioning and with very few openable windows.
What did remain operative were the announcements, which gave us progressively more pessimistic forecasts, from a half-hour delay to an indefinite wait.
I got through to Balen on my mobile and we finally decided that he and Salvatore should go ahead and I should try to get on the train from Verona to Paris, from where I could get the TGV to northern Spain.
After about two hours of waiting a train pulled up on a track about twenty meters from ours and we were asked to leave our train and get onto this other one. There were no platforms so the operation was a little disorderly, and for some people not easy.
I got in to Verona three hours late and proceeded to book myself on the night train to Paris and from there on the first available train “back down” to Spain. This was all at my expense, but fortunately the tour was to pay quite well.
I had a few hours to spare in Verona and took the opportunity to drop in at my friends at the MAT school where I teach. They were busy making structural improvements to the school during the Summer break and must have been somewhat bemused to see me turn up unexpectedly, say “hello” and disappear again.
I got onto the night train in Verona as soon as the doors opened, organising my instruments (flute, alto flute and soprano sax) around me, trying to keep some sort of physical contact, always afraid of losing something during the night , although I knew there was little chance of my getting any meaningful sleep.
So at 9.am. I arrived in Paris, having been on the road for twenty seven hours. All I had to do now was get across town to another railway station from whence my TGV would take me to San Sebastien. For this I had fifty minutes.
I stumbled out of the station, sort of following the crowd and eventually came to the Metro. I descended to train level and looking at the maps identified the line I needed to take me to my desired railway terminus- I found the line but not the trains. They were all going in the wrong direction; away from my objective; It seemed there was no platform offering trains going where I wanted to go.
At this point that nightmare feeling clicked in: paralysed, unable to move in the direction I wanted to go. It was rush hour and grumpy Parisians were barging past me, clearly annoyed that someone should dare to stand still, mesmerised by an information screen. Panic welled up inside me. I started to feel the weight of sleep deprivation , of my baggage and of my total confusion.
I was then approached by a gentleman of North African origin. In clearly pronounced, measured French he asked me if anything was wrong. In awful, scholastic, panic-stricken, garbled French I told him where I wanted to go. He explained to me, slowly and patiently, that I needed to leave the station, cross the square and enter the underground by the other entrance where I would find the trains going in the opposite direction. I thanked him profusely and whilst leaving this wrong station checked if anywhere they had bothered to indicate, in any language, that trains going the other way were only accessible from the parallel station. I didn’t see anything; at least nothing big and obvious that a tired traveller might have understood.
I got my metro and was in the other railway station with enough time to get a watery coffee before boarding the TGV. I was taking this train all the way so even if I did fall asleep I couldn’t miss my stop. I’m not great fan of high speed trains but now I was happy to be on the last leg of my journey, speeding across France in a train that was pretending to be a plane.
I woke up to hear an announcement that seemed to be saying we were at the last station. Everyone was getting up, so I grabbed my things and at last, feeling satisfied with myself, followed the crowd off the train and into a station that for some reason was displaying a French flag. I had got off at the last station….in France. My destination was one more stop over the border in Spain. I rang Balen and he said “Don’t move”, – no problems there. Fortunately the distance between the stations was practically just a bridge over a river. The Basques and the Sardinian came to get me and the quartet was finally united.
We played that evening in Tolosa, and I seem to remember it didn’t go too badly. We knew each other very well as a band, and even if I wasn’t fully pulling my weight, Balen’s music was attractive and the guys were all top class performers.
Part Two – Destination Pescara. July 2015
I’d been in Verona for the end of year “Summer Concert” at the MAT. It had been the first year of my Jazz Flute Academy there, and I was feeling pretty good about the performances my flautists had put in, playing arrangements I had made for rhythm section and four flutes, of two of my pieces; Pete’s Feat and Just Asking.
Now I needed to take the train back down to central Italy, and, setting off in the morning, I would hopefully be in Pescara by late afternoon, with the possibility of having a couple of hours on the beach in what was, so they were saying, the hottest July for 140 years.
Once again it was just outside of Bologna that the train died. Once again everything switched off bar the announcements and there was very little possibility of obtaining any sort of ventilation. We were on a section of the line where several tracks ran in parallel like a motorway and trains were shooting past us on both sides. The crew could not risk opening the doors in case anybody wandered out and onto the other tracks. So we sat for an hour and a half in unbearable temperatures, just dripping with sweat.
After a while people came walking past with bottles of mineral water: some had three or four. They said the bar was dispensing all the water it had for free. No announcement had been made and by the time I got there, there was no water left, but I managed to obtain a can of coca cola, which at least was cold.
Apart from dripping sweat, I spent my time translating the announcements for two Californian girls. The news changed continuously so I was giving constant updates: first we are going to be towed away, then we were going to put us on another train, then we were going to be bussed to Bologna.
A helicopter turned up after about an hour, then police, firemen and some medical workers who took care of the people with serious problems,
After about two hours they managed to get the train moving, and it took us as far as a tiny suburban station where were invited to get out and take the water that the “Protezione Civile” had brought for us. This was in plastic bags which were being dispensed from the back of a truck. As usual some people were getting away with armfuls of water bags whilst others, like myself, never got anything. As I walked despondently back to the train, a little empty plastic bottle in my hand, an Arab, dressed about as Arab as you can get, with the long white shirt, the white cap and the full beard, offered me some water from his plastic bag. It was nice gesture and I felt better as the tepid, tasteless liquid got into me. I was now at the point where by squeezing my shirt I could produce substantial drips of sweat. I remember thinking, maybe you have to be an Arab to understand the importance of sharing water.
The train eventually took us all the way, and they managed to get the air-conditioning working to some extent. I got to Pescara four hours late and probably a kilo or two lighter; too late for the beach.
I don’t want to draw any conclusions or make any generalisations, but I can say that in the Summer months I get anxious when I’m on a train that gets anywhere near Bologna.
I often find myself explaining this title: doing so is a useful intro and fills the time while I change from concert to alto flutes.
It was back in 1982 when I was living in a bedsit in Hackney, East London, recently separated, waiting for my divorce, and very much dependent on the telephone as my connection with the outside world and work. I wasn’t long out of university and was still finding my way in the city.
A friend of mine had offered me a cheap Chinese alto flute. Chinese instruments in the early ‘eighties had a bad name, and this was really very cheap – but I had always wanted an alto flute. The first alto flute recordings I had done with Graham Collier for BBC Radio had been with a borrowed instrument, so it was really about time I had one of my own, and even if it was not a quality flute, it would be a start.
The instrument was a “Parrot alto flute”.
Not only was it cheap to start with but I got it “through the back door” of a music shop in Central London, basically at stock price. So my friend, who was also my landlord at the time, brought it home one evening, and I started trying to get a sound out of it. The mechanism was every bit as bad as its negative pre-publicity had suggested: fast passages were almost impossible and not all the pads closed properly. There were about half a dozen notes that sounded good, and had that warm, dark tone that said “alto flute”. Using the few notes that sounded good I started to put together a theme.
Once word was out that “Geoff has an alto flute” I started getting offers of work on alto. Using the Parrot soon turned out to be embarrassing, so within a year I had bought a second hand DeFord- but that’s another story. I can’t remember where the Parrot ended up. Maybe I gave it away.
The title Nobody Phoned owes much to the age I was living in: before e-mail and before mobile phones. The main thing a freelance musician needed was a phone number, and this had to be a land line. So, when you were out you were not reachable (unless you had a bleeper) and when you came back home either you had an answering machine or you hoped somebody had taken a message. So coming home always meant hoping to find new contacts for work, and finding an empty answering machine with no happy flashing light was disappointing. The tune takes its atmosphere from that feeling I got whenever there were no messages – Nobody Phoned.
I was living without a keyboard at the time, which meant harmonisation of my tunes was done in my head, often leading to chord progressions that I might not have used if I’d been sitting at a piano, following my instincts and employing the patterns I was used to churning out at a keyboard. So, consequently the chord progression looks a bit odd, but I think, it works.
The theme came out at 23 bars long and I left it there. I recorded it for a BBC Radio jazz programme with my quartet, and for the occasion, Mark Wood, our guitarist used an acoustic guitar, which for some reason made the producer very happy. Here we have Malcolm ball on drums and Olly Blanchflower on bass (with me on the Parrot.)
I used the tune with my band up until I moved to Italy and then it got banished to the archives. I think I tried it out once with an Italian band, but the musicians I was working with couldn’t seem to make sense of it: the unconventional harmonic sequence, the odd length phrases, so back into the archives it went.
I wrote a piano and alto flute version with a written out solo and added a B section to flesh it out a bit, into a sort of chamber jazz work, but never got round to promoting this version.
Years later when I finally found the Italian group I wanted to record with, I dug it out again and, using the longer version, with the B section, recorded it for my CD The Quartet Album, as one of duo numbers on that record. Now the piece has come home. I feel it works best in a duo format although I have been asked to do it in quartet again ( mostly by the other band members).
Here is a version of Nobody Phoned with Raffaele Pallozzi in 2015 in Borrello, where I hold my Summer course,. Even on this occasion one of the other band members couldn’t resist contributing (in this case not on his own instrument.)The flute is a Yamaha YFL A 421 and is worth maybe a hundred times the value of that old Parrot- but things had to start somewhere and the shape of that opening motif owes a lot to the peculiarities of that primitive instrument.
The rather atmospheric lack of light is a problem with the camera setting.
The Parrot Alto Flute C.D. al coda.
With the news getting around that I had an alto flute, and my getting a taste for using the instrument, even in this rather primitive version, I soon needed to upgrade and buy a “real” one.
My last job on the Parrot was actually a very important one. It was the Bracknell Jazz Festival, in Graham Collier’s International Big Band, performing his commissioned piece “Hoarded Dreams.”
I was still young, 24 or 25, and although that may not seem young, I was young in character, lacking the confidence to assert myself.
Graham had set up the big band with, out front, a “solo microphone” so that each soloist would stroll out and take his place to play his solo while the band played on.
The problem was just that, the solo mike. There was just the one, and the engineers had to adjust it to each incoming instrument. -Obviously the alto flute was the quietest instrument of all, and the engineers were unable to give me anything of me in my monitor without getting feedback. If I’d been the me of today I would have insisted on them putting up another microphone just for me. I didn’t. The result was that I didn’t hear any of what I played, the band didn’t hear what I was playing, and Graham, a couple of days later, told me he liked all of the recording except..the alto flute solo.
After the Parrot I bought a DeFord, second hand for £600. This was a big step up, although it too had its difficulties. It was tuned very low, (perhaps an American tuning?) Many years later my repair man in Modena, Italy, actually sawed quite a few millimetres off the head joint just to pull it up a bit. So live it was sometimes a problem. In the studio I could always get the engineer to tweek it up a few herz as long as the track was separate.
Still it served me quite well. Here it is on the opening track of the record I made with tablas giant Badal Roy in 2004-