It can be small wonder that we British never managed to invent Jazz – or much else in the way of music come to that.
We seem to have been hanging on the coattails of other countries musically for several hundred years – all the great composers were German or Swiss apart from Elgar; Blues and Country both came from the colonies and it’s hard to think how something as tropical but relaxed as reggae could ever have originated on a cold November night in West Dulwich.
In fact about the only thing we can claim any sort of heritage with musically is folk music – which is largely people in Arran jumpers wearing ginger beards you could hide a ferret in, sticking one finger in their ear, screwing up their eyes and singing about how much better everything was 500 years ago – but even this largely comes from Scotland, Ireland or in cider growing country or wherever miners chose to frequent.
With our famous Stiff Upper Lip, no-nonsense view of the world and strict adherence to queueing for everything it’s hard to imagine what Brits must have thought when we first heard Jazz: which is largely people plinking around randomly on a piano in search of a tune. (NB I should probably say at this point that my image of Jazz as a child is largely garnered from brief performances by Cleo Laine and John Dankworth as she scat sang her way through hour after interminable hour that made me want to bury my ears in concrete with every shoobie-do-do-do-wah)
About 4 or 5 years ago now I started learning to play the saxophone – in truth it was something I had thought about doing about 10 years previously and then never followed up on. The saxophone, when played correctly, can be a beautiful instrument that produces a lot of emotion despite its connection to cheesy 1980s pop songs and the inevitable image those bring of a man on a beach without a shirt on. However – it does have inevitably strong links to Jazz, having largely been invented the purpose of playing that particular ilk of music.
Which is probably why I still struggle with the blasted thing: particularly when it comes to improvisation.
Douglas Adams once wrote that his character Arthur Dent could contrive to feel self-conscious if left alone with a pot plant for long enough, let alone with other people and I know exactly what he meant: when you improvise you are awfully exposed and bringing attention to yourself, inevitably inviting other people to comment on what you have just done – when, in my case at least, all you have done is to go up and down the scales in a largely formulaic manner.
I should mention at this point that I never dance in public unless there is a large crowd of people in which I can hide – and that when I do, very rarely, dance attempt to do what I call an “embarrassed boxer shuffle” where I sort of jiggle on the spot with my fists clenched looking at the ground for a shorter period of time as I can politely manage before considering it safe to go and sit on the sidelines and watch everybody else move with abandon – or preferably just go home and read a book. This is a similar experience to trying to improvise because it makes you acutely aware of your failings, particularly when you don’t have a great deal of confidence in what you’re doing in the first place.
Since October last year for a number of reasons I haven’t really played my saxophone and when I first picked it up after quite a long break I found that I had forgotten some of the few scales I had previously managed to remember and become rusty on the others. I’ve also stopped going to my lessons partially at frustration that none of it seemed to be sinking in, partially because I simply wasn't able to go and partially as increasingly large parts of the lesson focus around improvisation.
Since this is something I don’t feel comfortable with in the first place I find that I don’t enjoy the process and that this disinclines me from practising improv outside of the lesson, which presumably only adds to the problem. I feel that I somehow lack the imagination and spontaneity required. I just can ‘t seem to get past that sense of being pointed out in the crowd that we Brits fear so much.
Maybe I should just give up, buy a big woolly jumper, dye my beard ginger and go wassailing in the merry month of May…
…but somehow I doubt I’d manage two streets before I died of embarrassment.