Jazz Professional               

The Jazz Experts

He who can, do,
He who no can, tell others do,
He who no can do, and no can tell others do, become heap big jazz expert.
(Old Indian saying)

 Help! We are surrounded by them. Have you met them, the experts? The ones who know; the high priests of jazz? They are the list compilers: lists of tunes, record numbers, record personnel, dates of birth, bands played in, physical characteristics, scars, birthmarks, shoe size, favourite food, previous convictions and intimate personal trivia.

They know everything there is to know about jazz and jazz musicians—everything, that is, except how to play jazz themselves. They speak of the jazz greats on a first name basis. They have mountains of jazz paraphernalia at their fingertips and they sift and filter, nip and tuck until they know more about you than you do yourself. Inevitably they find out all of your deep, dark secrets.

Each of us knows at least one such expert. He attends every jazz happening and he will corner you and bore you silly about events in the past you would prefer to forget. He will trot out his stuff gleaming–eyed, and with such passion that you will not have the heart to tell him to shove off.

In the old days they used to make up lists of Dream Bands. Arriving at the gig one would be accosted by such a zealot. They always seemed to know exactly when the band bus would arrive, even though we didn’t. Either that or they stood there all day waiting. I say, look here, I’ve included you in my Dream Band. If you brushed the guy off, or showed anything less than keen interest you would be struck from his Dream Band. Afterwards he would go home and stick pins in your effigy, giving you stomach cramps. You had to mind your manners with those people.

Luckily for us some become true experts. They are the ones who run our jazz events, write jazz dictionaries, pen heavy works on Miles, Bird, Pres and Hawk, and meticulously analyse famous jazz compositions. They lecture, broadcast and publish their works. For this alone they would be valuable to us, for how many musicians have penned anything worthwhile about themselves or anyone else? And how many jazz festivals have been put on by the musicians themselves?

So let us be kind to the experts. They are the important recorders and analysts of our culture. Without them we would have very little jazz literature and no history of jazz.

Critics are another matter. We don’t need to be kind to critics. We can punch critics if we wish and get our name in the papers (Jazzer Bops Critic). They are mostly older, often failed experts. Some critics even used to play an instrument back in the dim past. A typical test for a jazz critic would be: holding a saxophone from memory. We will smile in a friendly manner as we give a critic our latest recording for review. Behind his back we will mutter, What the hell does he know about it, the four–eyed, bald–headed, toothless old twit?

He will give us a good review, if he knows what’s good for him. It is still legal to punch critics in open season, and there are the occasional organised critic–bashing outings. Oh yes! They had better be jolly careful.

Away from their damning columns, pen–less and therefore helpless, critics are hard to spot. Sometimes a musician will challenge a critic mistakenly and wind up with egg on his face. During the war Tommy McQuater went along to see the Glenn Miller Band of the AEF rehearsing in the Corn Exchange, Bedford. Miller had chosen the place to make his recordings partly because of the hall’s natural echo.

Tommy stood near the back listening to the band play a new chart. He was thrilled by the sound, the precision, the discipline of this great band. After a while he became aware of an American army sergeant standing next to him. The man was muttering loudly, shaking his head repeatedly.

‘Out of tune, out of tune! Not together! Wrong! Wrong! What a mess! Bum note there! Bad phrasing! Sloppy entrance! Ragged timing!’

He went on like this for some time. Finally Tommy could stand it no longer and turned on the man belligerently.

‘Here! Who the hell do you think you are?’

The man brushed him aside and marched up to the band shouting, ‘STOP! STOP!’ Tommy hustled up behind, ready to help throw the guy out.

The band stopped. Miller looked down.

‘What is it?’ The man told him. The members of the band listened, nodding their heads respectfully. The army sergeant was Jerry Gray, responsible for most of the Miller band’s wonderful arrangements.

Tom told me of another incident. The Squadronaires were playing Green’s Playhouse, Glasgow. The place was packed. The band singer went on and did his act, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, shouting, crying, groaning, the lot, putting everything he knew into it. Afterwards he sat down by the side of the stage, flushed with success. A man drifted over to him wearing a very serious expression.

‘Can I have a wee word with you?’ The singer bowed his head graciously. The man came closer.

‘If you don’t mind me saying so,’ he said, ‘That was f______ murrder.’

Amateur musicians are often violently opinionated, and loud in their condemnation of some particular jazz player. A semi–pro sax player I knew was always fiercely critical of Stan Getz. When he played himself it sounded as if his tenor was full of frogs, but whatever Stan did on record he didn’t like the tone, the style, the jazz or choice of titles. When I played a jazz concert with Getz as guest soloist I took the tenor player along to meet him. On the way there in the car he suddenly said. ‘I don’t like professional musicians. They are always trying to put us semi–pros down.’ As soon as he met Stan the guy immediately began to crawl all over him, fawning and sucking up like crazy. Getz put up with as much of it as he could politely stomach, but finally had to beat a hasty retreat. ‘I knew it,’ said my companion to me afterwards, ‘He’s a big–head.’

One drummer was dead set against Mel Lewis, whom he called an itty–bitty drummer. To try and convert him I loaned him the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis record Live at the Village Vanguard, where Mel and everybody else played absolutely superbly.

‘What did you think?’ I asked when he gave it back.

‘Don’t know. All I could hear was someone beating his hand on one of the tables near the band.’

I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t hear anything like that on the record but obviously he could. One of the guys on the band later told me that people often brought along bongos and things to play along with the bands in that club. I’ve seen it happen myself, but no one had ever noticed it on that particular tape. My drummer friend, obviously upset by Mel’s great playing, had to find fault with something else, and zoomed in only on that.

I couldn’t understand his attitude. I listen to music for enjoyment, but some people only seem to look for holes to pick. A trombone player once told Buddy Rich that the band was gaining tempo in one of his numbers.

‘So what?’ snapped Buddy. ‘This isn’t a dance competition.’

Give one of these people a tape of a new recording and don’t tell him who it is. He will give it back later on condemning one of the players. He’ll trash the guy on whichever  instrument he plays himself. On the record fifteen people play great jazz. He will not notice them because he is looking for someone to denounce. That he hardly knows which way up to hold his own instrument is of no importance for he is both a critic and an expert. Tell him the names of the prestigious players he has just screwed and he will look at you with disbelief. Show him the label and he won’t speak to you ever again.

Willis Conover, of Voice of America Jazz Hour fame, was one of the real jazz experts. He was ever loud in his praise and encouragement of all musicians. In Berlin, down in Doug’s Night-club I overheard him complimenting the Hungarian bass player Aladar Pege. ‘How do you play such incredibly intricate bass lines?’ he asked, shaking his head in wonder. Aladar beamed. ‘Is not difficile. First I tink—then I play tink.’

Most bandleaders leave their musicians well alone. They reason: he’s good enough to be in my band so I don’t need to tell him what to do. An exception to the rule was a well-known German bandleader. He was a jazz expert, and also a critic. He had so much to say to the band, most of which was utter nonsense, that one of his musicians started to record everything he said during the sessions. Later a bunch of them would gather somewhere to listen to it all.

A new member of  the band was called upon to dub in an extra trumpet part during a record session. Everyone else left the studio, all except the bandleader. The player wondered why he was hovering around, but put it to the back of his mind as he waited for his cue to come up on the earphones. He was just about to start playing when the bandleader suddenly appeared before him, flailing his arms importantly, conducting him in. He stopped playing at once.

‘What are you doing?’ he enquired politely.

‘I’m bringing you in at the right place,’ said the bandleader.

‘Well I don’t need you to do that.’

‘Oh, I think you do.’

‘No I don’t. You’re putting me off.’

‘Don’t look at me then.’

‘I can’t help it if you’re going to stand right in front of me.’

‘THEN LOOK SOMEWHERE ELSE!’ howled the bandleader, dashing his earphones to the ground. The trumpeter did. He walked out of the studio and started looking for his hat and coat. The rest of the musicians were grinning. They’d seen it all before. Someone else went in to do the dubbing. As the new man left, never to return, he could see the bandleader busily conducting his replacement.

The best bit of positive criticism I ever heard was just after playing a jazz festival with Oliver Nelson’s big band. It had been an evening of out and out modern jazz music, a really exciting band with many great soloists playing Oliver’s inspired charts. As I left the stage I was accosted by a man I knew, a local estate agent. He was wild–eyed with excitement.

‘Do you know,’ he said, grabbing my arm. ‘That was….that was…’ He seemed at a loss for words for a moment, then he blurted out, ‘That was every bit as good as… as…  James Last.’

Ron Simmonds

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