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A JAZZ JOURNEY - 1925-1994


Ken Rattenbury
Parts 1 2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/13/14/Conclusion

PART II: 1936 - 1940


FIRST, a mite of musing and perusing: I suppose that any sort of career in jazz, when viewed in retrospect, has - by the very nature and volatility of the genre - to have been a procession of troughs and peaks, highs and lows and with its fair share of calms, if not doldrums, when one was never quite sure which style to assimilate and espouse, or which direction to pursue. This glorious state of flux has always captivated me; wondering what will appear next around the bend in the road, what fresh vistas of sound and surprise will open up. In opposition, of course, there are always the doubts and the fears; who or what is right, who or what isn't. The critics of those early times - and some after, too (bless 'em all - or the converse) seemed to have held the written word in a state of suspended anarchy, such partisanship; such, dare I suggest (and I do!) blissful unawareness of real musical values and veracity, such total rejection of all things unfamiliar, such hidebound, blinkered, ultra-opinionated dogma. To me, it's always been a miracle that the music survived such thunderous, sloppily-aimed salvoes. But it did - and still goes on; now observed, by and large, by a more comfortable and comprehending critique - specialising by now - and by no means so vindictive as of yore. Room for all, yes, indeed.

And to any who may still regard jazz as a somewhat haphazard, careless tradition, not to be judged by the same standards as the serious (so-called) style of the art, let me just say this: Good jazz, written or improvised - and, yes, you can write jazz down on score, provided, of course, that jazz musicians play it - possesses extra dimensions, extra chromaticisms, extra, oftimes super-complex, possibilities in every department. Many of these qualities, there by intuition, rather than erudition (but where's the rub, there?) are, in truth and of necessity, absent from the carefully composed concretions inside the "serious" camp. (Set aside just now the avant-garde "noises" which beset both factions). The artistry in the latter emerges in the provinces of interpretation, execution and sympathetic direction; in jazz, all of these things, of course, but with the monumental "plus" provided by the blues - that soulful, often bitonal music, which is at the heart of all jazz.

Nowadays, I can write about such detail with the hindsight provided by much pre-listening, research into the musicological aspects of, particularly, the blues idiom - but in my mid-teens, everything was, to me, brand new, in capitals - and blindingly revelatory.

Moving from the higgledy-piggledy, half-chancing jigsaw set up by the chores undertaken by a more-or-less solo piano journeyman into the more challenging, discipline-demanding atmosphere which enveloped a professional band was like taking a dip in the sea on Christmas morning. It left me breathless, covered in duck bumps (American for "goose pimples") and often treading water in some panic and desperation. The outfit in question was an eight-piece (trumpet, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, trombone and three rhythm and a line-up which remains my own favourite palette to this day), plying its trade up and down the east coast between, roughly, Skegness and Great Yarmouth in the summers and venturing into the hinterlands of Lincs., Cambs. and Norfolk during winters. Basically, I suppose, it was a dance band, but it boasted a fair quotient of efficient jazzers: trumpet - a Bix fanatic who had transcribed over one hundred of that lyrical trumpet-laureate's solos (and what wouldn't I give for his neat manuscript today!); alto sax a firm lead, Trumbauer-inspired with the tone and technique, but scarcely the invention of Benny Carter; tenor, a tearaway of my own age who also played fine Walleresque stride piano; baritone sax, the leader, a fine all-rounder, taught me how to rule up a score, a music teacher who had christened his eldest son "Carney"; trombone who didn't take solos, but had a beautiful tone; steady, correct bass and swinging drums plus me - ears like funnels, nightly well-nigh decapitated by wing collar with dickie-bow, belting out the chords and putting my name down for the odd solo. Baritone sax was a martinet - it had to be right and so we rehearsed like mad. His fluent invective after each aural disaster would surely have lowered the tone in a sewer, but the policy paid off generously performance-wise.

I started writing for this crew - valuable experience gained via much trial and error; all a bit derivative, I guess, leaning heavily on the tricks of Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson and the like. But to write, you must just write and write again, yards and yards of it. No other way.

This nomadic scurrying prevailed until 1939 amid all the crescendo heralding total global war - and into 1940, when restrictions played havoc with the gig diary. But I had, well by this time, become increasingly disenchanted by the abysmal pianos encountered on the road. The nightly sight of those gap-toothed, yellowed ivories - I called it a Gorgon's smile - presaged yet another skirmish with yet another clapped-out action, hardly ever a full complement of eighty-eight good notes and, true, always a half-dozen silences in the most-used registers. So much so that, one evening, in conversation with the aforementioned Tearaway Tenorist, my particular buddy at the time, I confessed to a rising ambition to quit the keyboard in favour of front line responsibilities (prophetically, that's eventually what came to pass, but extra-musically after receiving the King's 5p!). I can remember that exchange as if it had occurred only yesterday, instead of over a half-century ago:-

ME: "You know, I think I'd like to learn the tenor sax."
T.T.: (sensing, I reckon, possible competition, although I may have sorely misjudged him and his motives which were then expressed as follows, but maybe not, indeed): "No joy, Ken, what with the War upon us, we just can't get good reeds."
ME: (with, now I come to think of it, a parlous lack of basic observation): "Well, then, is there anything you can blow that doesn't need a reed?"
T.T.: (hopefully) "What about a trumpet?"
ME: "That'll do."

And so it did. It was all as simple as that. Those brief moments way back in 1939 changed my whole musical life. Just how it did will be recalled next time.

Copyright Ken Rattenbury © 1994