Jazz: “You make me feel so young”


This classic Frank Sinatra title describes how, for a mixture of reasons, jazz still affects me, even in retirement.

It’s 45 years since I discovered jazz, just as I was leaving school. There’s something thrilling about music that swings, that invites improvisation, risk-taking and, let’s admit it, a fair bit of sheer bravura and showing off. Somehow (rightly) knew I’d never play the piano well enough to play jazz: so I took up the trumpet. After about 20 frustrating years I began to play more right notes than wrong ones, and even started to like the sound I made…

In the mid-to-late 1970s some college mates and I formed a band. We occasionally play even now: five members from those early days turned up to play at two of our/their 60th birthday parties in 2017. But back then we were uncommonly young to be playing what’s most conveniently called Traditional Jazz.

Established bands we encountered were invariably 30 to 40 years older than us. They’d learned the style during the Trad boom of the 1950s and early 1960s: heard Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington live on their late European tours; learnt to play inspired by such homegrown British jazzers as Humphrey Lyttleton. When we whippersnappers popped up a in a jazz-pub, they were bemused, amazed that such youngsters wanted to play what was already “grandads’ music”. They weren’t hostile: jazzers are an inclusive bunch. Indeed, chaps like Big Eric (I occasionally played with his Trent Valley Stompers in Staffordshire in the 1980s) used gently to mock my “youthful exuberance”, and try to calm down my wild improvisations.

We were a very young band in c.1980!

We learned a huge amount over decades from two amazing older pianists who smiled indulgently at our wilder excesses and only occasionally admonished us that “the Original Dixieland Jazz Band never did the middle eight like that”.

Decades slipped by. Pubs hosting old-fashioned jazz bands became scarce. As for me, life and work conspired to get in the way, and I heard or played jazz rarely in recent years.

Until recently. In retirement, almost unimaginably, I’ve joined a 20-piece amateur band – Abingdon Swingtime – that needed a lead trumpet-player. Professional big bands are rare. Commercially they’re costly (too many players to pay): even outfits like Jools Holland’s are seldom the size they were in the Golden Age of Swing. But now, to my astonishment and delight, I’m enjoying wrestling with the top line while the full five-each of saxes, trumpets, trombones plus rhythm section tear into Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Broadway scores at gigs in Oxfordshire village halls.

My debut with Abingdon Swingtime in February

Do my fellow bandsmen still make me feel “so young”? Only up to a point. I’m by no means the youngest member of the band. Indeed, I sit in the middle of the age-profile, and we more senior members joke that one teenaged (yes!) saxophonist dramatically reduces the ensemble’s average age: shades of my own jazz-playing youth, then. Some players have been members since its inception 20-odd years ago: all are solid, loyal musicians who just love playing the repertoire, and taking the odd solo, as I do.

Maybe this story is simply illustrating a simple truth, that old jazzers never die: they just fade away, perhaps losing a bit of their puff.

Or do they? This week we visited The Bear, reputedly Oxford’s oldest pub and surely its smallest, with just two-and-a-bit tiny bars wood-panelled and lined with school/club ties. On Tuesday, jazz night, a trio was squeezed into the front bar (see picture at top). If the guitarist was relatively young, the string-bass and trumpet players were truly Old School (the latter played in Soho’s Flamingo Club – once a Mecca for jazz and R&B fans – in 1962).

They couldn’t play too loud in such a small bar: indeed, the trumpeter used a cloth cap as a homespun mute. But they played precisely the repertoire I fell for 45 years ago. The trumpet swooped and soared, and the three managed the twists and turns, the breaks and false endings without a visible signal.  I don’t think they’re paid much, if anything, and they bought their own beer.

But the love was there, and all the old jazz knowledge and wisdom: I felt once more very young, and rather humbled. So, before my next Swingtime gig on Friday, I’ll put in still more solid practice: I’ve been reminded, by yet another old jazzer, how much I can still learn.

Nonetheless, at last, I think I may be starting, just starting, to get there.


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