A Tempest in a Turbot

You could say my last post on Jazz at the Aquarium went splat! – or maybe sprat! – and ruffled a few scales, as it were. This is because it was spread so far and wide on Facebook, which was neither my doing or my idea, but I’m okay with it. I thought I’d wait for things to settle down and for everyone – including me – to unknot their knickers before writing a follow-up on the responses to it, which went way beyond anything I expected. I guess I’m a little naïve, maybe a “cock-eyed octopus”, but I never expected such a fish-storm, you could have knocked me down with an anchovy. Look, I run a nice, clean, quiet blog mostly about obscure corners of music and other stuff that maybe 37 other people are interested in, and everything’s hunky-dory…..Then I write a satirical rant (advertising it as such in bold) and suddenly I’m Bluebeard, Genghis Khan and Oliver Cromwell all rolled into one, with a slice of Captain Bligh on top. It’s not saying much and I’m not doing any cart-wheels, but the post set a record on my site for views, comments left and Facebook “likes”, whatever they are. Facebook “not-likes” or “hates” were not displayed, but I gather there were quite a few of those too, if they exist.

See, I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, in fact I still don’t even have a cellphone, I’m nouveau-Luddite-chic. I’m not bragging about this or anything, the reason I don’t use Facebook is I don’t have time for it. I mean that literally, as in hours in the day. I don’t want people to jump the gun and think I’m criticizing the social media here, no sir. Facebook seems to take up a lot of time and so does writing a blog. I also work a full-time job at a law library and still have a career – if you can call it that – in music. So I’m a little busy, and faced with a choice between being on Facebook or writing a blog, I’ll take the blog, it’s quieter. At least up until now……

At any rate, there have been 87 comments so far, about seven times as many as I might expect on a good day from a post that people like. Clearly, not everyone liked this one, the comments were split right down the middle between those who thought it was funny and liked it and those who thought it was cruel and didn’t. I’ve approved and shown all of the comments – pro and con – because I believe in free speech and democracy and if someone takes the time and trouble to write a comment and puts their name to it then I’ll display it, which only seems fair. I wish I had time to respond to all the comments but I don’t, certainly not in this case. The lack of middle ground was a little surprising and the split became a little predictable…..Those who liked the post and saw the humour in it are generally people my age who know me – regular readers and friends/colleagues who have been heavily involved with jazz for many years as players or fans. Those who were upset by the piece don’t know me and all took exception to my comments about the bands appearing at Ripley’s Aquarium; some are likely members of those groups or friends of theirs. This is what happens, as Jerry Seinfeld once put it, “when worlds collide.”

I could respond to the naysayers in a fairly terse manner and be done with it, as follows: I wrote a pointed, venting broadside with a warning that it may contain rant, coarse language and ill-considered humour. Then all sorts of people read it and complained that it contained rant, coarse language and ill-considered humour. This is a bit like the guy who walks out of a porn-flick complaining that there was too much sex in it – there’s just no pleasing some people. I might also suggest that if people want to read a blog that represents their point of view, then they should write one of their own. However, that would be unilateral and ill-tempered of me, or, if you like, self-serving and churlish. Some of the comments were just noise, but a lot of them were thoughtful and taken as a whole they form an interesting mosaic of contemporary thought, a kind of social dialectic between the young and old. Between those who are concerned about jazz and those more interested in some sort of “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” PC-fairness, maybe those who “get” parody and those who don’t.

Firstly, I want to put what I wrote into context, both in terms of my blog overall, and jazz humour, which not everyone had been exposed to, or understands. There are 137 posts on my site, with many more in draft, I’m just getting started here. Not all of them are about jazz, but most are. The last one was something of an exception, which is partly why I offered a “warning”. I don’t generally use my blog as a soap-box to spout my personal opinions, don’t generally adopt a sardonic tone or curse when I write – maybe the odd “hell’ or “damn” for emphasis here and there, occasionally a stronger word when contextually apt – like say “mother——” and Lester Young. Mostly my pieces are reasoned explorations of musicians, songs, records or other areas of jazz that I feel have been unduly neglected, they generally contain more information than opinion. One of the unfortunate aspects of writing a blog is that some people may get the idea that I think of myself as some kind of jazz authority, which I’m not, and I don’t. I know a fair bit about it, but in blogging I generally learn stuff I had no idea of – either afterward from information in reader’s comments, or from research done while writing on a subject – it’s more about searching and learning than knowing. Those who accuse me of not being “supportive” enough of my fellow musicians, or of not having a sense of musical “community”, might want to visit and read some of my pieces, which I think go well beyond the merely supportive.

As to jazz humour, well, “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” about covers it. For those who want to discover jazz humour, I can’t recommend Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes highly enough, it’s superb. There’s a long, grand tradition of humour in jazz, it’s deeply irreverent and can be rough, dark, sick, downright nasty, even macabre. Like the music, the humour ain’t for the faint of heart, nothing is sacred, it does not seek to mollify the mainstream or be politically correct but rather to subvert. It’s mostly a defense mechanism against the absurd and underdog positions jazz players find themselves in, or a way of venting or pushing back on the “straight” world. The somewhat sardonic humour in my piece comes from the context of being exposed to the best (or worst) of jazz humour from other musicians for 40 years now, which I wouldn’t trade for anything, it’s too funny. Here’s a small sampling.

Some jazz humour is merely ironic and dry, like during the height of fusion when Paul Desmond (or it might have been Jim Hall) asked “Where do I go to sell out?” But it gets darker – if you found my humour a little rough, try these on for size:

Claus von Bulow’s favourite tune is “When Sunny Gets Blue”.

A typical jazz response to John Lennon’s death was “One down, three to go”, or “If John Lennon had been a coal miner like he was supposed to, he might still be alive today.”

But jazz players are rough on themselves too, like when Art Pepper died and the first remark I heard was somebody asking “How could they tell?” The same with Benny Goodman – the first thing I heard after someone broke the news of his death was, “What took him so long?”

Or the joke about the guy who calls Buddy Rich’s house and is repeatedly told that Buddy has only just died – the guy keeps calling back daily because he can’t get enough of hearing that Buddy’s dead, it makes him smile. Not all jazz humour is this black or gallows in nature, some of it is gentler, some far more offensive; these are sort of medium-dark. I don’t expect everybody to find this kind of humour funny – if they even get it – I’m just saying that jazz musicians do, and it’s where I’m coming from.


Before going any further, I want to point out a couple of things about the promotion of Jazz at the Aquarium that have changed since my little rant. One, the wording of the invitation to Friday Night Jazz has been edited and is a little less clumsy now, which may be just a coincidence:

“We invite you on a musical underwater adventure in the heart of downtown Toronto. Join us every second Friday of every month for live music paired with cash bars located throughout the aquarium.

A little better, but not much….The “musical underwater adventure” bit kills me, I hear Frank Sinatra singing “Come drown with me, come drown, let’s drown away……Scuba-dooby-doo. Why not call itDive at Five”, orTanks for the Memories”? It’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Middle C! Maybe it will be interactive and the fish will sing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” or “Mack the Knife” – “Oh, the shark, dear, has such teeth dear…” or perform an aquatic ballet to “Intermission Reef”.

At least they’ve clarified that they’re not offering live music and jazz anymore. That’s a relief, but you’re still going to have to pay for those drinks, folks – the mention of the cash bar must be a liquor licensing requirement. (This reminds me of that old gag about the club that offers “both kinds of music – Country and Western!” Or the other one about the waiter who comes to the house band with a request from the boss – “He wants to hear ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ but he’s in a bad mood, so if I were you I’d play both”).

Secondly, just a few days after I posted the rant, full-page ads for “Friday Night Fish Fry” (or whatever they’re calling it) appeared in The Toronto Star on consecutive days; also half-page ads in The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper. So, Ripley’s is promoting it big-time and these ads cost a lot of money, naturally much more than they’re paying the bands.

While on that subject, I wrote that I suspected that this Seahunt gig was probably not paying too well, based solely on my instincts and past experiences. I didn’t mean that young bands don’t have any standards and will work anywhere for very little, I meant that many employers today expect young musicians, and young people in general, to work cheap just because they’re young. It’s called “internship”. Anyway, I was wrong about that and never so glad to be so. One of the guys in the band Parkside Drive kindly revealed that the gig paid $275 per man for five hours, which is at least respectable – given the venue and host, it could and should be better, but it’s decent. And speaking of Parkside Drive, if I read things correctly, several of their comments revealed that they seem to have a sense of playfulness and humour about all this, identifying themselves as “Boris”, “Hit-Man#4” and mentioning “Stiletto-girl”, which I appreciated. While I’m at it, I didn’t comment on their music specifically because I hadn’t heard them. I checked out their website and they’re basically a wedding/event band, a very good one. They cover a lot of pop styles and cover them well; they seem to be pretty busy and deservedly so, they’re pros. I’m all for wedding bands, I’d much rather see real musicians earning money from weddings than DJs.

There will now be an abrupt yet subtle shift as I drop the ‘satirical veil’ and stop kidding around so as to adopt a more serious and literal tone to discuss some of the issues raised. I just wanted to make that crystal clear.

So, okay, what offended some people was what I wrote about the two bands I saw on the site, Parkside and Lady Be Good. Some thought I could have made my point without involving them, so let me address that. The reason I didn’t skip over the bands is that they were part of the website I was skewering, which was promoting an idea I found foul, namely presenting music as jazz that isn’t jazz at a venue that’s wildly inappropriate for jazz, or any other music. Most of the piece was about the pitfalls of dumb musical promotion, or advertising. We’re surrounded by advertising everywhere we look, it chokes us and pollutes our lives, nearly blots out the sun, it’s basically paid, legalized fibbing with some very elastic “truth guidelines”. It’s great fodder for satire and I’ve found the best way to avoid being driven crazy by this constant barrage is to make fun of it and laugh, so that’s what I did. Not everybody “gets” my humour, but my comments on the two young bands were not attacks, they were attempts at lampooning their promotional material, some of the details of which I found silly in a really funny way, so I poked fun at them. Yes, the tone may have been a little sardonic, but then again this was a polemic, a jeremiad, there was going to be spleen vented and blood spilt. Some people seemed to think it was directed at these bands because they’re young, but if the bands had been older, the commentary would have been riper, I can assure you.

There is one thing I regret, something I should have made clearer: It’s not the fault of the bands playing the Aquarium that they and the venue are being marketed as “jazz” when, to be honest, neither are, not really. That’s the doing of the advertising department of Ripley’s, completely beyond the control of the musicians. I thought I reserved most of my venom for Ripley’s. The bands are just doing a gig to make a living, something I’ve done many times, as I mentioned. In the bigger picture though, when this type of presentation is called “jazz” it’s insulting to jazz, which is, you know, important to some of us, actually a real thing. It means something, people have suffered and died for it. I see it being misrepresented and mistreated like this all the time, this was the straw that broke the shark’s back, so to speak. I saw red and wrote blue.

When I said never trust a young band named after an old tune, or after a thoroughfare, I was kidding, I didn’t think anyone would take that seriously. Re Lady Be Good, I know electric keyboards are a reality of the music “marketplace” today, but that doesn’t mean I have to like them, or that fact. I found the concept of actually showing a PLO (piano-like-object) rather than the real thing in an ad uproariously funny, especially when they’re trying to project the retro-swing image. This ties in with the Telefunken microphone logo, which I couldn’t resist because of the “Telefunken sound man to turn it down”‘ gag, an old favourite of mine.

From there I went to their website and commented that their collegiate cheerfulness reminded me of the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies and I riffed on that, saying they fell short of that famous pair…. but then again, Judy and Mickey were pretty talented people, so that’s hardly damning. My one seriously critical comment was that I didn’t like the way the singer sang “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and I still don’t, it’s too happy, but that’s just my opinion, nothing more. It’s not a condemnation or a denial of her right to earn a living in music – lighten up, people. As I’m being more literal – and liberal here, I’ll give them their due. They’re basically a wedding band too. The electric keyboard-bass-drums rhythm trio is quite good and the singer sounded better on a selection in more of a soul/pop style – the “classic jazz” needs a little work.

From there to Parkside Drive, whom I’ve already touched on slightly. I savaged their name a little, because I found it funny – why not Don Valley Parkway or Gardiner Expressway? – but there’s nothing wrong with it. Two-word names of places or roads used as band names crack me up and always have, probably because I’ve read too much P.G. Wodehouse and other funny writers for my own good – or maybe not enough. I made a semi-educated guess at how a press agent might summarize their style – Latin-funk-fusion – the “breathless dreck” remark was reserved for the imaginary promo-speak, not the music. People, let’s learn how to read here, okay? Then I turned to their promo shot and the fish really hit the fan. There was something about the tableau of four guys in matching suits, their swarthy, glowering looks combined with a mild camera-shyness that made the phrase “lounging around and glaring out like a squad of gay Russian Mafia hit-men” pop into my head. Again, maybe too much Wodehouse, too much Mel Brooks, but it made me laugh and was intended to make others laugh. Not everybody found it funny though. Some seized on the word “gay”, lifting it out of the context of the phrase “gay Russian Mafia hit-men” and found it homophobic. One comment accused me of setting a bad example, putting down kids by calling then “gay”. I wasn’t calling anyone gay; I wrote that, in the photo, they looked to me like a “squad of gay Russian Mafia hit-men”, which is not the same thing. It’s an inherently absurd concatenation of images that don’t belong together, I never dreamed that anyone would take it literally, or seriously. It’s a comedic trope, one too silly and surreal to be insulting to gay people, hit-men, or gangsters of the Russian or Italian variety. Thankfully, the guys in Parkside Drive have a sense of humour and none of them are actually hit-men, else I’d be sleeping with the fishes already, or soon enough. Then I commented that the female singer looked  like she didn’t need any protection, having “quite the sultry, pouting Lucretia Borgia thing going on”. This was interpreted by some as being demeaning to women, female singers, and possibly even the Italian Renaissance, I don’t know. But if you read between the lines, I’m saying she’s formidable looking, sexy, what young people today call “hot”. Oh, and one other thing, she can sing.


“You kill one person, and all of a sudden you’re a murderer” is a favourite line of a good friend of mine; it helps if you imagine his mild and deadpan delivery. I’ve heard it plenty of times and it still makes me laugh, but I suppose not everyone would find it funny. Some would ask, is he trying to say that murder is okay? Or that people that have killed someone aren’t murderers? Well no, you see, it’s absurdist…….never mind, either you find it funny or you don’t. But underneath its supreme irony, it addresses what I call matrix-thought – that is, the tendency of some to go from the very particular to the broadly general in a heartbeat, to cast a small thing into a big stone, then attach a label to it. Ironically, opposites like Stalinism and McCarthyism both thrived on this. If someone was observed saying or doing something that went against the party line, no matter how picayune or innocent, they were soon either in the gulag or up in front of the HUAC, pick your poison. I’m not facing anything like that, but I get the distinct impression that because of some of the satirical remarks I made in the piece, some people are absolutely convinced that I’m against all young musicians, all female musicians, that I’m homophobic and an elitist. I’m not losing any sleep over this because I feel people have misinterpreted me, but I’d like to have my say on these subjects. Starting with the most important one to me – that I’m somehow ageist, or against young musicians.

First of all, I’m 58: oldish, but hardly Methuselah. Most people think I look younger than my years, but I’m the kind of guy who was old when I was five. By that I mean that I’ve always looked back and been fascinated by stuff that came from long ago, I have an historical bent of mind. I’ve been playing professionally for 40 years now, beginning when I was 18. When I first started out, I generally played with musicians my age, which is normal enough. I began to make progress and by the time I was 20 or 21, I was often playing with musicians who were more established and older than me, sometimes a lot older. I learned more than I can ever say from all of them and, depending on the personality involved, sometimes this knowledge was imparted in a gentle, respectful way and other times it was rougher than may be expressed in polite society. As unpleasant as some of the rough stuff was at the time, it still made me better. It toughened me up and thickened my skin, and I’m a guy who almost flunked Kindergarten because I was so shy and inward that it was thought there was something wrong with me, that I was maybe “slow”. I made it into Grade One on a trial basis.

Anyway, getting back to music….As I grew older I was no longer always the youngest guy in the band, sometimes I’ve been the oldest, often I’m somewhere in the middle. My point is I have some wide perspective on this. I know what it is to be a young, green musician and to be scared witless on a bandstand full of veterans, but I never expected to be coddled by them, I expected them to show me stuff and tell me when I was going astray, and they did. I take both approaches when playing with young musicians. If I sense they’re nervous, I try to be encouraging and put them at ease. But sometimes, I’ll throw some musical curveballs, not to mess with them, but to open their ears and to make them realize you have to think on the fly and that there’s always another way to go harmonically. I’m okay with it when they do the same, which they do. This is how I learned and I believe it’s the best way – lessons learned on the bandstand have more meaning and stay with you. As for mistakes, to ignore some of the wrong moves a young musician makes out of not knowing any better is to say that young musicians don’t matter, but they do – they’re the future of the music. I’ve always found that inexperience in a young musician will be forgiven if there’s some talent, effort and sincerity there. If they’re trying hard then they’ll be made welcome.

Here’s another way of looking at it….I’m a bassist and three of my favourites are Jimmie Blanton, who changed jazz bass forever and died at 23; Paul Chambers, who changed it some more after joining Miles Davis at all of 18 (and lived to be only 33); and Scott LaFaro, who changed it a whole bunch more before dying at 25 in a car crash. Trumpeter Clifford Brown is practically a religion for me and he died at 25 in a car crash too. From the perspective of today, and to some young people, these guys are from so long ago they’ve become irrelevant, they’re old. So old in fact, they’re dead. But not to me. As far as I’m concerned they’re still alive, their young, blazing brilliance frozen in time by the magic of records. So yeah, you could say that I like young musicians, I like them a whole bunch.

I like the young ones from today too. In fact, I have a son who’s a young musician, a really good guitarist – well, Lee is 34 now, more “youngish” I guess, but I still think of him as young. I did my best to mentor him however I could when he showed an early interest in music; when this grew more serious I tried to talk him out of music as a career because he had other options. Once he was set upon becoming a musician though, I was all in. I remember one spring Saturday when we scoured the city’s music stores looking for some Dick Hyman books that had standards with the right changes and some other materials that would help him – as I put it, there’s nothing more useless than a guitarist who doesn’t know any tunes, they’re like eunuchs at an orgy. Our quest fulfilled, I took Lee to The Pilot Tavern to hear Ed Bickert, the best jazz guitarist I’ve played with and one of the best ever, period. As Lee sat listening to him open-mouthed, I said, “Okay, that’s the standard, that’s the best, that’s where you can go if you work at it.” I wasn’t trying to intimidate Lee or suggest that he had to sound like Ed, I just wanted him to have some idea of what he was getting himself into. It didn’t seem to faze him, it seemed to inspire him, which was the general idea.

Nine or ten years ago I played a trio concert with Lee Konitz and Terry Clarke – Lee was 78, Terry about 60 and I would have been 49. It went very well and afterward Lee and some local musicians went out to a pub for some beer and food, where I asked Lee how he managed to keep his mind and outlook so young despite his advancing years. He answered that it was really important to play with younger musicians, that they may not know what he knows but they were bound to know some stuff he doesn’t, and that they came at him with some energy and a willingness to try things he might not think of. The wisdom of that struck me hard and has stayed with me ever since. I try to play with young musicians whenever I get the chance and I wish the Toronto scene was healthy enough to let this happen more. Just recently I played a gig at The Pilot where Sam Dickinson, all of 23, filled in on guitar at very short notice – I’ve known him since he was a little boy. Even on standards I’ve played often, his playing was so layered and complex that he nearly lost me a few times, which is not that easy to do. He kept me on my toes but also did some really supportive comping, I loved it.

I still think actions speak louder than words. When I go hear a young band playing at The Rex – something I should do more of – I put fifty bucks in the tip-jar, not five, because that’s how they get paid. A while back a friend asked me to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of his son Daniel, a gifted young drummer, for a scholarship to attend Berklee. I’d played with Daniel only a couple of times briefly, but between the first and second time I noticed vast improvement. Here was a kid with a lot of talent and potential who was also listening and working hard, so I wrote the letter, as did a few colleagues. About a month ago, I found out that he’d been turned down, it was a numbers game. But last week, I received an email from his father saying that Berklee had upped their scholarship budget and that Daniel was in. It made my day.

I sometimes despair for young musicians, worry that there won’t be enough places for them to play or that they won’t be able to make enough money to sustain themselves, that there won’t be any music business left for them. But at the end of the day, I have faith and confidence in them: they’re smart and resourceful and the ones who really want to stay in music will figure out a way to do it, just as my son Lee has. Young or old, it’s never been easy.

Having said all that, young people are hardly defenseless or innocent. I sense in some young people, some of them musicians, an attitude of entitlement, that they think they’re beyond reproach or above criticism. I think this mostly has to do with the technology of cellphones, the Internet and social media – the world is their digital oyster, everything at the tips of their frenzied, texting fingers. I’ve heard a number of musicians my age say that they no longer offer constructive criticism, advice or pointers to young players because they resent it, they get mad and think they’re being picked on. This was unthinkable when I was coming up; if a Rob McConnell or somebody offered criticism, you listened. You didn’t ignore them or question the “relevancy” of what they were saying because you had a better cellphone or more Facebook friends than them, there were no cellphones, there was no Facebook. I also think that the speed and the built-in obsolescence of technology has shortened attention spans, creating an expectation of instant gratification and causing a frantic and obsessive chasing of the “now” only – as in the iPhone 600 being way better than the 599, which is so old news. This is not all that conducive to learning how to play jazz, which is mostly a matter of concentration and patience. It takes a while and among other things involves some investigation of the past, which, believe it or not, is relevant..

One of the comments asked what I would have young musicians do these days. Well, the only difference between a young music student (and by the way, we’re all students) and an older musician is experience, that’s all. So, young musicians should get as much experience as possible, however they can. They should practice, study, listen to as many records as possible, play every day, do whatever gigs they can find, because every gig makes you better. Try to generate work and keep the price and your standards up, because minimums become maximums – if you’re working for $75 now, you may be working for $75 twenty years from now. Try to develop a sense of humour, a thicker skin and a willingness to take constructive criticism, you’re going to need these. Maybe spend a little less time on Facebook and a little more time learning some tunes – I don’t mean that as a shot. Stop worrying about the relevancy of “old stuff” – it’s all relevant and there are no shortcuts. Maybe come to terms with this: Louis Armstrong was not just some old guy who rolled his eyes and mopped sweat off his brow with a handkerchief while singing “Hello, Dolly” in a raspy voice to make nice for the white folks. Instrumentally and vocally, he is still the wellspring, the sun around which jazz revolves, and evolves. Figuring out his continuing relevance is the key to discovering both the depth and joy of jazz, it will sustain you. Jazz must be both serious and fun, I believe that with all my heart.

As for my position on women in jazz, well…. Billie Holiday is way, way up there on my totem-pole, barely a week goes by without me listening to one of her records. In fact, though I’m as open to widely varying jazz tastes as the next guy, I immediately distrust people who don’t like Billie, because there must be something wrong with them. I’m only partly kidding about this. It’s similar but a little less extreme with other artists like Lee Wiley, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Etta Jones and many others. I’ve worked with an awful lot of female singers over the years, it’s one of the things I’m best known for. I wish there were more women instrumentalists, but that’s starting to happen. There are certainly a lot of really good female bassists these days as well as women playing other instruments. I love working with singers, many of whom happen to be women, because they curate and present the songs I love with the words, those beautiful words, intact. They like working with me because they know I have their backs. Enough said.

Am I homophobic? Well, hardly. I’ve already made the case that the “gay Russian Mafia hit-men” line was not homophobic and an old ex-roomie of mine, who happens to be gay, left a comment explaining why he found it funny and that we need to keep our sense of humour. (Thanks, Thomas, nice to hear from you.) But just in case…..I recently played with Molly Johnson at the Gay Pride Pan-Am Games event held in the park next to the 519 Church St. Community Centre and it was one of the most enjoyable outdoor gigs I’ve ever done. The band and the sound had a lot to do with it, but so did the audience. As I’ve often found at gay events, there’s a looseness and humour present, but also a respect for all people and for the process of performing, nobody gets hurt. Everyone had fun and listened at the same time, which is the name of the game. I’ve worked with a lot of lesbian and gay performers over the years, including one artist in particular on a regular basis for about twenty years. If I was homophobic, would gay people hire me? Or, would I take the work? I think the answer is no on both counts.

And lastly, am I an elitist? No, that’s maybe the most laughable of all. For the purposes of discussion, I would loosely define an elitist as someone who thinks they’re better than other people, or most other people. That’s just not me, and I’ll tell you why. I’ve been playing jazz for 40 years and if nothing else, jazz is a humbling experience. It’s hard and elusive, there’s always a tempo, a tune, a set of changes, a saxophonist or a drummer or umpteen other things just lurking around the corner waiting to kick your ass, to cut you down to size. Even after playing for so many years, there are always those nights when you’re suddenly reduced to the level of a beginner and can’t get anything going at all. Jazz is largely a matter of picking yourself up off the mat after being knocked down and willing yourself to continue, which I’ve done approximately a million times. Some people seem to think I’m a pretty good bass player but generally speaking, I don’t. I’m usually bugged that I’m not playing better, that I’m still struggling, and that’s the God’s honest truth. If you think I was a little harsh with the musicians in my last piece, you should hear some of the things I direct at myself, they’re not pretty. And, as I mentioned earlier, I work full-time in a law library and have for 23 years, because I saw that making a living playing the kind of music that interests me was going to get more and more difficult and I didn’t want my kids to pay the price for this This is much more of a working-class position than an aristocratic one. And if I’m such an elitist, why would I write a blog that I earn no money from, that’s free for everyone to read and visit?

I’ve gone on long enough, I’m about done with this tempest in a turbot. I hope this follow-up won’t bloody the waters any further because I’m ready to move on, there’s lots of other things I want to write about that I’ve been neglecting.

Besides, I also have to run because I’m late for my new steady gig. Walmart decided to “jazz up” its image recently and I have a job at one of their stores as a bass-playing greeter. It was a little hard coordinating the spiel with the walking bass at first – “Hi there” – ba-doom boom doom – “Welcome!” – di gang doom doom – “Thank you for shopping at Walmart!!” – spiddledy-dang ging gong….The uniform’s a little degrading and the bread is pretty low, but it’s a living.



© 2015 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

26 thoughts on “A Tempest in a Turbot

  1. Hey Steve,

    I’ll admit it – I shared your last post with a bunch of people. Not only because it was hilarious, but also because it hit home (as someone who loves some Coltrane with my Cousteau). They loved it. I think it was great and I love your writing (and playing too!). First time comment-er, long time reader.


  2. I am surprised to hear your fishy post caused such a brewhaha but glad you felt the need to reply: I enjoy this piece even more than the first. It’s funny, but strangely moving, too.


  3. Great follow up Steve. It puts everying in perspective with no retreat and no surrender. Perfect.

    It shouldn’t shock anyone that jazz dialogue irreverent. Jazz, almost by definitiion, is irreverent.

    I’m not sure why, but some of this reminded me of the story that when an older Chet Baker referred to the deep wrinkles in his face as “laugh lines”, long time trumpet side man Jack Sheldon resoponded by saying “nothings that funny”.

    Keep the words coming, my friend.

  4. Community of thoughts !… Everything said about what jazz represents and means to some of us is just perfectly put !
    Thanks, Steve, and keep following your… fish-eye look on what is so very much important to this music of the heart and… Body and Soul !
    So… Keep Stevin’, please…
    Amitiés d’Europe,

  5. Steve: Both posts were a great combination of humor, insightful comments and helpful advice to up and coming musicians. The irreverent humor didn’t bother me, I’ve long mentioned to country fans that it was a bit ironic when Patsy Cline died in a plane crash and one of her biggest hits was “I Fall to Pieces.”

  6. Steve, I don’t know how you did it, but you DID manage to clarify (in an entertaining way) the complexity of your previous post, and from where you are/were coming.
    Well done.
    When I read the ‘homophobic’ slam I just about choked on my coffee, thinking back to the 3 nights we did at Buddies and Bad Times with the great Lea Delaria.

    I’ll never forget how at ease our trio was working with what was one of the ‘gayest’ situations one could ever experience. We had a great time and so did Lea, and so did Sumner, helping the guys in drag zip themselves into their dresses, saying:
    “No problem, I do this for my wife all the time”.

    It’s impossible for younger players to conceive of the experiences that you (and other experienced) musician have had, and how it shaped your humor.
    But you managed to capture it in your last post, and give them a tiny sliver of where you’re coming from.

    • Not sure if this will show up as a reply to Mark’s comment or a reply to Steve’s blog but here goes!
      The young man with the electric keyboard in Lady be Good is Ewen Farncombe .
      He turned 21 behind the grand piano keyboard at Hugh’s Room as part of Jane Harbury’s Discovery series. A few months later (Sept 2014) he won the $10K Oscar Peterson Grant. In April 2015 he won the Downbeat student music award in the jazz instrumental soloist college undergrad category, and last month he opened for Kenny Werner. Don’t judge the kid by the instrument in that band pic!
      When I made my professional singing debut on Nov 11,2012 (the day I turned 57) he made his debut as an accompanist and he was wonderful. Since I was his “first” I am fiercely protective of him!

  7. Hi Steve

    I found your last two blogs hilarious. There’s something about jazz humour. It must be the mordant tinge that gives it such an edge. I remember hearing a remark about a singer having a laugh that could shell an egg and that he insisted on playing her cd whenever he had lobster for dinner.

    I am retired librarian who worked at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading and if you really want to hear humour at it’s blackest and most irreverent best have lunch in the staff lounge!

    Keep swingin’


  8. Hi Steve;
    I didn’t read the first part of this, but your response made my day. I laughed out loud many times.
    Thanks for putting it out.

  9. Steve, I often repost your blog piece on my facebook page, but made a conscious decision not to on that one. Knew you would catch all kinds of hell and ain’t life stupid enough? It’s a wild world out there. I don’t know whether people don’t know how to read or they’re just purposely misreading. Anyway, both these post made me laugh a lot.

  10. Hey man,

    I heard about your jazz and baseball blog from Bernie at a wedding gig we did last night, where he complained to me saying, “Does every song have to be a Bossa?”. It was the brides request. Anyway, he mentioned at our the table after getting into argument with the vegetarian photographer about whether or not shrimp was meat, what a great writer you are. Told me that your recent post about the Aquarium created quite a back-splash and you got into some murky water..not his words exactly. So first thing this morning I made myself a strong coffee and Googled your blog with great anticipation. Not because of the stir it caused but because I knew it would be a good read. I like my humour dark and bold with a bit of milk. I know exactly what you are talking about after working with a veteran like Norm Amadio for 8 years. Norm always had a stinging, witty yet subtle, twisted sense of humour, who loved to poke fun and who could laugh at himself. Knowing you and how funny you are, I have to say you did not disappoint. It’s really nice to hear your honest perspective on things and I like the way you put it, that musicians have lived and died for jazz. How the word “jazz”, which in my opinion, is an art form of the highest degree, can be bantered around in advertising like an over-used, silly word like “awesome”, simply to spice it up.

    I love that you almost failed grade one, so did I all the way up to grade nine. Being shy, I was also considered slow and grouped in with the class clowns, which turned out to be a lot more fun to boot. It’s inspiring to know that you, as a jazz musician, have been knocked down a million times. Gives me a reason to keep going at it. I have had the good fortune to work with you a couple of times, when I could get you on the phone that is. You are one of the greatest bass players I have ever worked with, with the worst message machine ever. As a vocalist, I can say firsthand you that had my back and then some. What you did on some of your solos impressed the hell out of me and they are imprinted forever in my brain. Not many bass solos do that to me. You are a true artist. It’s interesting how some of the greatest musicians, that I have met anyway, usually are the most humble and love young players. They hold a certain compassion for them, as you said, because they have been there.

    At any rate, I don’t want to go on as long as you did.

    BTW, I have loved Billie Holiday since I was eight.

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