The “hottest day ever recorded” in Britain (36.5 degrees Celsius at Heathrow) dawns mild and clammy in West Wales. A cooling breeze drifts across the little town, off the Irish sea, along the valley. Clouds lower, a few spots of rain perturb the dusty pavements. Later still, wind-driven pulses of rain will shake the boughs of my neighbour’s trees and freight them low, knocking like ravens on my studio roof, where they hang unusually laden this year with fruit across our fence. I resolve to chop them back one night, when the old man is not out pottering in his unkempt garden, his knocked-up shed. I shan’t bother with the apples, let them rot where they fall. Let them rot. These teeth won’t stand up to apples.
I have opened all the windows I can, drawn the blinds or curtains across to shield the interior of the little house from the fierce desert sun (being over 65, I am of course heeding all the warnings and prognostications of the weatherman and the doctors guesting on Today, gleefully threatening my entire generation with imminent death from heart failure and respiratory complications, advising sagely that we should pour lots of tepid water over ourselves – the prospect of pneumonia clearly thrills them). I have put on my skimpiest T-shirt, shorts and sandals, clothing to enter the fiery furnace outside, to make obeisance to the sungod Ra. Who is nowhere to be seen above the cooling clouds, above the rain.
I have thirty days to organise my departure.
Five years ago I determined to become a professional jazz singer. You have to be something. I had run out of anything else I could think of becoming, in my lifetime. Jazz, of the more romantic, acceptable kind, was the music of my childhood, being as I was brought up in the theatre. Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Carmen McRae provided a soothing holiday counterpoint to muscular termtime Christianity and the antiphonal mumbo-jumbo of the fustian school chapel psaltery. Fifty and more years on, I could still remember the words to Summertime, Come Fly With Me, Stormy Weather. Though some remain to haunt me, I have suppressed most of the religious musical memories, as I have suppressed the Latin grammar I learned from the age of seven; the Greek verbs. Did the Greeks have verbs? I don’t remember.
Becoming a jazz singer in West Wales takes a determined effort. There is no habit of sinful jazz in this most po-faced of Presbyterian cultures. Except that, long ago, there was a bardic tradition of improvisational poetry. I cling to that thought, wandering through the wasteland of winsome folk ditties, the “Celtic fusion” tendency and the tiresome repetitive chanting of what I have unkindly called Zulu campfire songs, stolen from more colourful (and much poorer) foreign village cultures by self-promoting hippie musicologists for easy translation via the Sibelius program into simple harmonised teaching-fodder for quavery sopranos and uncertain basses in community choirs. Whenever I hear the words “natural voice practitioner”, I reach for my Billie Holiday CDs.
In order to launch myself on this Quixotic undertaking, I turned naturally to m’gudfriend Mr Google, where I found there were various summer schools of jazz singing being advertised in France. These were in the nature of boot camps, agreeably chateau-based, with international classes conducted through the medium of my own language and nightly recitals backed by professional musicians. I chose one, completed a questionnaire (“How many songs do you more or less know? Tick 1-5, 6-10, 11-20, more”) and sent off the deposit. It turned out to be the absolute best week of my life, after which all else pales before or since. Had Death arrived on a skinny nag as I battled my way homewards through the French transportation system and across London for three days and two nights (see Posts passim), I should have welcomed him with a bag of oats and a song. It was that good.
So I went again the following year; and the next, when I decided to try something different and travelled to the Dordogne instead, to a partly ruined castle belonging to a couple out of La Cage au Folles, that disappointingly had no pool. The following year, I sent off another deposit, but had to forfeit it and my place on the course when I ran short of money for the main event. Last year, too, I was virtually bankrupt, until rescued by the State and its generous pension system. French dock workers willing, this year will thus be my fourth attempt to absorb in one week, the mysteries of the jazz-singer’s art.
And I am panicking.
For I have let my rehearsal schedule slide. Faced with a rotting mountain of sheet music, ‘fake books’, downloads of lyrics without music, chord charts without words, I do not know where to begin preparing. So many songs, so little talent. I had to take up the guitar again, after forty years, as there was nobody I could find locally who could or would be my piano accompanist – certainly not without payment. But it’s not been going well. Despite having bought (and sold again) around a dozen guitars, some costing thousands of pounds, frustratingly none of them would play themselves.
I needed to learn, somehow. And at the heart of my problem was, I can never remember anything I have ever been taught about music theory. In one ear…
An eighteen-month affair with my music teacher ended consensually when she took up residence with a gay woman. We hadn’t had time for music lessons, I was too preoccupied with my stupid job, on-call round the clock; she with her other pupils. Classically trained, jazz theory meant nothing to her anyway. A wasted opportunity. I found a guitar teacher in town, albeit of the wrong (gypsy manouche) kind, tragically he developed leukemia and had to quit work; which was fortuitous as I had run out of money. I went on a weekend jazz guitar workshop in a dismal northern town and picked up a couple of tips, but the tutor found my playing style too ‘Spanish’ and not sufficiently jazzical; faced with my obvious inadequacies, I bought another expensive guitar, that I eventually had to sell for half what I had paid for it, and signed up for an online course that’s steadily accumulating in my inbox.
So, in answer to your question, what have I been doing about becoming a professional jazz singer between alcohol-fuelled boot camps in France, apart from practising the alcohol-fuelling procedure, the answer is practically nothing.
I don’t have the confidence in my playing ability to accompany myself onstage at either of our occasional “open-mic” local pub venues. I’m starting to forget lyrics, chird sequences; to develop annoying vocal tics, and run short of breath mid-phrase. I ought to be spurred on by the promotional emails I get from one of my fellow students on the first course I went to, Jenny Green, inviting me to her concerts at various venues, including London’s famed Pizza on the Park, or to buy her CD, as her career has taken off. (Curiously, I always thought I might be the better singer.) I can’t go and see her, obviously, living 250 miles away, so I wish her luck – it’s not my style, anyway.
And I have collected, I believe, everything ever recorded by my tutor on that course, the phenomenal Liane Carroll – among the Top 10 best jazz singers of all time, the most phenomenal thing about her being that she isn’t better known, while the tortured, self-indulgent and tragically late Amy Winehouse is hailed as some kind of jazz genius. Not only have I collected Liane’s life’s work, inasmuch as Amazon stocks it, I have captured her music: I know precisely where and for how long to place every sung note, much good will it do me. Now all I need do is master the piano parts…. (I once said to her, if it takes 20 years to get as good as you, I’ll still be only 80…)
Meantime I go on attending the community choirs in my desultory way, mopping up compliments on my vocal abilities with bad grace; knowing I could have been a contender. And in 30 days’ time, if I can just stop writing this stuff and making endless cups of coffee and knuckle down to practising – if Loco2 have indeed managed to reserve my complicated run of tickets so that station machines in the middle of rural France will actually deliver them on demand and I can organise a builder to come and refurbish the kitchen while I’m away and arrange for the new kitchen appliances to be delivered and the old taken away on time and buy some summer clothes to pack in the stupidly expensive, poncy Italian leather travel bag I bought, and find a dogsitter and order my Euros from the bank and decide which guitar I might decide in the end not to take with me after all, and the bloke looking after the B&B I’ve booked remembers who I was when I booked two months ago and hasn’t double-booked my room, and the French dock workers aren’t on strike again, despairing migrants blocking the Channel tunnel – I may get to be a jazz singer for just one more week in my life.
It’s like I’m under some weird enchantment, to be honest.
I blame the weather.
Whenever you buy outdoor clothing from a camping gear shop it’s always got at least six tags welded to it, hasn’t it, excitedly narrating the fascinating story of the incredible scientific advances that have gone into their new, breathable-technology rainwear.
I return from walking Hunzi on this cloudy, humid and lightly showery day, having tried out my new £59.99-reduced-to-£39.99 scrunchable high-tech breathable lightweight nylon showerproof cagoule for the first time, that I bought to go to jazz camp, positively dripping with sweat.
What is the point of it keeping the rain out, if you are going to be broiled in your own juices?
One day we may know.