Jazz Professional               


What lies behind the jargon?

Humour by Ron Simmonds

Oh, well played, sir! Wonderful, man! How do you do that? Superlative playing! I like it, I like it!

Ah! Praise, praise. Such heady wine. How it warms the heart!

It is indeed strange, though, that hardened musicians, not always loth to run a colleague’s character into the ground, will show an uncharacteristic delicacy in discussing his musical faults.

While sportsmen will get severely criticised after an event, often ruthlessly analysed and dissected for their failings, the musician will receive unbounded praise if he played well, and polite silence if he did not.

I mentioned that once to an American tenorist who had previously studied with Ashley Alexander in California. He told me that during this period he once played an evening in a downtown jazz club, and thought that he had acquitted himself quite well.

Next day, in the school, Ashley addressed the class: “Most of you were in the club last night, and heard this guy playing.” Pointing at him. “Now that’s a good example of what not to do.”

But normally one doesn’t wander casually up to a fellow–musician and say: “Hey, the way you played last night was really terrible, man.” It happened to me once, though, in the bull–ring in Palma, Majorca with John Dankworth’s band. To enable the place to become filled to capacity, the start of our concert was delayed by one hour. We had all meanwhile discovered the delights of the Champagne Cocktail, which was practically being given away free in Spain at that time. By the time we got on to the stand and had played the first number I realized, to quote Ronnie Scott, that I had suddenly been taken drunk. This was the first and last time it ever happened to me on the job. I found that I had suddenly grown a pair of lips like boxing gloves; the trumpet was two or three yards longer, and I could see Dankworth down front as if through reversed binoculars.

Even in this state I could still see that some of the guys were in more trouble than I was. At one stage of the proceedings I looked hard at the piece of music on my stand, turned to Gus Galbraith, the trumpet player on my left, and asked: “Is this the next number, or have we played it already?”

“We’ve played it already.” said Gus.

“Oh, really? What was it like?”


On the strength of that concert, the band received a contract for twenty–five television programmes in West Germany and John gave me a bonus for arranging it all, so somebody must have done something right.

It is when one has to describe a musical performance critically on paper that the trouble starts, and the search for superlatives begins. In the light of what I have said before, let us now take another look at some of the terms used by jazz critics.

1. Dynamic, aggressive. Loud, offensive.
2. Sparkling trumpet interplay. Each trying to play higher than the other, and failing miserably.
3. Formidable player. Everyone is afraid of him.
4. Screechy. Any note above high C.
5. Shouting brass. They are complaining bitterly about the saxes.
6. Brash. Offensively self–complacent.
7. Verve. He is playing with verve (i.e., brute force and ignorance).
8. The trumpet gleams, darts, and flashes. He is playing brilliant, stabbing, staccato phrases, and his trousers have just fallen down.
9. Growling. The bandleader is in very grave danger.

1. Well controlled. Stiff, unimaginative.
2. Ferocious technique. Dangerous uncontrolled madness.
3. Playing with élan. Is a bar ahead and gaining.
4. Uninhibited. Sounds like a wounded elephant.
5. Forthright trombone statements. Old–fashioned hot licks.

1. Eloquent, meditative solo. Is considering giving up playing.
2. Driving sax section. They are way ahead of the beat.
3. Extremely sensitive. Sounds frightened.
4. Searching, emotive playing. Can’t find the changes.
5. Sympathetic. Take away the first three letters.
6. Sobbing, crying, wailing, moaning. The saxophone sound.
7. Eloquent duet. Both players are convincingly, utterly, lost.
8. Funny, unpleasant noises. Only in the mating season.

1. Thundering style. Deafening.
2. Unflagging swing. He’s away and even the chequered flag wouldn’t stop him now.
3. Propulsive drumming. He’s rushing.
4. Infectious swing. He’s dragging, and it’s catching.
5. Monotonously clattering percussion. A simultaneous exhibition by five drummers wearing suits of armour.

1. Cooking rhythm. The bass is on fire.
2. Soaring, preaching guitar. Has just received a violent electric shock from his amplifier.
3. Gutsy. Has a lot of guts to play like this.
4. Healthy big band sound. Young, red–faced, not together, out of tune.
5. Roaring, riffing big band. They cannot read, and are feeling murderous.

My favourite criticism, however, is still the one John Dankworth once wrote in a letter to me. Talking about his drummer, he said, He is very good, but I would have preferred having him in my band at a later stage of his career, which I am sure will be a brilliant one.

Copyright ©2000 Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved.