How life turns on single penny! How the outcomes of one’s life rest on a myriad number of decisions and indecisions each of which have altered the course so greatly that if you took all of them and reversed them completely the life you would have lived you might not even recognize as yours. Perhaps not even all of them? Perhaps even just a single one could have completely altered everything?
Not that all decisions have to have that impact. Assuming I went to the same university I think it was inevitable that I would meet the woman who would become my wife – we both trained in the music department after all – and just as inevitably we would divorce ten years later. I might blame the busy itinerary of my life as a musician on the road – I certainly did at the time – but it was clear from our very first kiss, and the row which followed it, that Sylvia and I would both love and hate each other in equal measure. It was what I once heard someone describe as a ‘pathological pull’ which drew us together and which threw us apart.
But I digress. It is not the decisions which made little bearing on our lives which interests me here but the ones which changed everything. There have been so many in my life that I can hardly begin to imagine what my life would have been like had I made other choices. I might well be a professional Jazz pianist now with a career spanning more than twenty years but it could have been so very different. I’ve mixed with the greats – Roy Hargrove, Madelaine Peyroux, Ravi Coltrane, Christian McBride – I’ve played with them all but I would have met none of them had not a series of decisions led to one momentous occasion in my life.
Oddly, taking up the piano isn’t one of them. I was drawn to the instrument before I could talk. I wasn’t, unfortunately, a prodigy, but I did love the instrument with a passion and despite going through three teachers (the first of whom ended our working relationship when she screamed “why can’t you play your scales?! What’s wrong with you?” to this sensitive ten year-old) I worked steadily and practised as well as I could. My mother was always astonished how, every morning, she would come down from the bedroom to find me already up and awake and practising on the digital piano, headphones in so not to disturb the family. She never had to coax or cajole me into practising – it’s possible I was the only child in the history of music who needed no such persuasion – but she couldn’t understand why I practised so hard.
I simply wasn’t very good at the piano. I wasn’t awful but I made such slow progress – especially with my scales. Graded examinations came and went and I would run out of time before a whole new set of pieces would have to be learned and scales remained alien to me throughout. How odd then that I would come to Jazz where scales are taken to the very highest degree (much more than for a classical musician who will content him or herself with the twelve majors and twenty-four minors and consider that more than enough)! Perhaps that’s why I had no interest whatsoever in Jazz throughout my early years and into my teens. I had dismissed that area of music as well outside my capabilities.
I didn’t know it at the time but a Jazz great could have sympathised with me. Charlie Parker, so legend has it, was laughed off the stage when he was a young boy trying to show what he could do with the saxophone. He was rubbish. Most boys would have given up then, but not Parker. No, he spent about four years in his late teens practising his scales as much as up to fifteen hours a day. He came out of all that a red hot player who led the Bebop era of Jazz and blew away all the other Jazz sax players. Man, he was a hot player.
I was no Charlie Parker but I too spent hours sorting out my scales once and for all in my late teens. I intended to take a year out before going to university to study music. In fact, I ended up taking two. Just for the scales.
And that’s possibly the first decision which changed everything for me. It wasn’t the last however. Religion was the next to alter everything; well…religion and a girl anyway.
My mother had always been very religious and she did everything she could to turn me into a dutiful worshipper. I didn’t mind. Our church was quite good actually and the girls there were pretty hot. I learned more than the psalms each Sunday. I learned more about life behind the church hall where the teens hung out and smoked cigarettes, where the church wardens couldn’t see us, than I ever did at school.
To please my mother I went to a Christian rock concert lasting a whole weekend. It was supposed to be ‘cool’ and make religion appealing and, again, it wasn’t bad and certainly could have been as cheesy as hell (excuse the irony) but wasn’t. It was while camping at the event with 30,000 other Christian teens that I met a pretty girl called Ashley. We quickly hit it off and became an item. She went on to study languages at Durham University while I stayed at home and practised my scales relentlessly. I used to make regular visits up to the university to spend time with her and that’s how I met the girl who still to this day I think of as the most beautiful girl in the world.
Julie was another language student and that’s how she and Ashley ended up sharing a house together. When I stayed over I got to see Julie in skimpy shorts and T-shirt she used for sleeping in and she let her jet black hair tumble wantonly down her back. Her figure and face were gorgeous but it was the hair which I found so very, very hot. It’s one of my greatest regrets that I totally failed to get off with her even after Ashley and I broke up after a year. Man, she was hot.
During the second year of not going to university I finally mastered those scales I’d spent so long trying to get right and then took the only music exam I’ve ever sat in my life. It was the top grade and, while the scales had been the thing to hold me back, playing pieces had never been a problem. I powered through the exam with hardly any nerves and passed with distinction. I was tempted to take the examiner’s mark sheet round to my first teacher’s house and shove the paper in her face to show her ‘who could play scales now’ with my perfect marks for that section; but I didn’t.
Now it was time to go to university and it was Julie’s influence which made the next big decision in my life. Julie was older than Ashley and was in her final year when I was deciding where to go for my degree. We kept in touch after I finished with Ashley and I knew Julie intended to return to her home town of Cambridge when her degree was over and get a job there. That was enough for me; I would study in Cambridge. I chose my career path for a girl with gorgeous black hair rather than whether or not the course was the best.
Not that I went to Cambridge University I might add. No, of course not. I had never been good enough for that. No, I went to the Polytechnic where they seemed a lot less picky about who they took on. I’d already got all my qualifications and with two years out that made me a mature student who, statistically, was more likely to pass his degree. They gave me an unconditional offer on the spot. I didn’t even need an interview – I just turned up at the Music department building on the first day of the course and began.
So, determination to get my scales right, religion and Julie were the first life-changers. More came thick and fast.
I could have chosen to stay home that night and write the essay I needed to finish. Instead I chose to sit in the University bar and drink myself into a stupor. That was how I met Chris.
Chris was a short, slightly squat guy, about the same age as me and with a grin which instantly won him friends (and girls) wherever he went. I liked him because he bought me a pint even though we’d only just met. Weirdly, though he was studying music too, I hadn’t noticed him around the department. It was pure fluke we met in a crowded bar. I could have chosen to wish him good night that evening and never particularly see him again, but I didn’t. We became best mates that night and were largely inseparable from then on.
Another key moment was during that first week when we had to choose which modules we wanted to take. The list of options was full of stuff I’d done before – like to death. I didn’t want to study any more Mozart, Bach or the bloody Nationalist composers. I wanted to take risks and learn something new. So I chose the introductory Jazz module. It was madness really. I didn’t know a single Jazz musician at that point, let alone have any idea how to play it and this was a practical module. As luck would have it, Chris also took the module and we became practice partners – he on the sax and me on piano.
And that leads me, finally, after all this, to the big one: the decision which led me directly on to the career I’ve enjoyed for decades. The defining moment where I became a Jazz musician – and it was as crazy as all the other decisions. Who takes modules they have no skills in at university? Who goes heavy drinking when they have an essay to write? Who chooses their degree just to be near a girl they fancy? Who takes time out before going to university to get better on an instrument they clearly weren’t suited to? I should have taken a degree in Math (which I was very good at) two years earlier in a University far from Cambridge and much better suited to my talents.
But sometimes being in the wrong place at the wrong time is the best place to be.
And that was exactly what happened – I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and, trapped like a startled rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, I was frozen to the spot and made a decision in pure panic.
Chris and I were in the main music auditorium that late afternoon, a couple of months into the course, making use of the beautiful Steinway grand piano there and the great acoustics. By then I’d started feverishly listening to Jazz music desperately playing catch-up for the Jazz module. Everyone else on the course, including Chris, knew their shit. Parker, Coltrane, Davis, Gillespie – these were all strangers to me but old friends to everyone else.
I knew, by now, the theory of playing Jazz. I had a book of ‘lead sheets’ the music where the tunes and the chords to go with them were written down but which were just the starting place for a Jazz musician. You had to take the tune, bend it, mould it, make it yours. You had to take the chords and alter them, find new voicings on the piano and give them your unique character. Worst of all, you had to take scales and choose from a variety of options to play over every chord, creating new ideas, improvising new ‘licks’ and your choices either made you or killed you as a Jazz musician. I barely had any idea what I was doing. I wasn’t so much a fish out of water as one which had fallen out of the bowl and into the deep fat fryer.
Francesca, an older (and rather scary) woman on the course burst into the auditorium with a wild, frenzied look on her face.
“Oh thank God,” she cried, spying Chris and I, “you two are here. Almost everyone else has gone home for the night!”
We stared at her blankly but I had a bad feeling already.
“We need Jazz musicians for a gig urgently,” she continued.
Chris nodded and said it might be possible.
“When’s the gig?” I asked nervously.
“You’re having a laugh, right?” There was no way I was going to entertain the idea of doing a Jazz gig with just a few hours’ notice. I needed at least a week to prepare for a gig.
“No I’m not. There’s a poetry recital happening tonight and the Jazz trumpeter they had booked has fallen and broken his arm so he can’t play. They just need musicians to provide a little atmosphere while people arrive for the recital itself.”
I looked at Chris and could see he was getting excited about the idea of a gig. I felt my stomach churn.
“I don’t know…” I began, trying to catch Chris’s attention and signal with my face that we needed to say no. Chris ignored me. He was interested in just one thing.
“Is it a paying gig?”
“Oh yes!” Francesca replied, “£100 to be split between whoever plays.”
You’ve got to understand that a hundred quid was quite a lot of money in those days and for students it felt even more. To me, to do a gig I was barely capable of, it was a frighteningly large amount.
“How many musicians do you need?” Chris asked, resolutely ignoring my eyes pleading with him to pull out now.
“As many as possible but if you two can handle it by yourselves it’s yours. I kinda need an answer now though.”
Chris turned to me with a ‘what do you think?’ look on his face.
“I’m really not sure about this.” Not in a million years am I going to embarrass myself this way.
“Go on,” Chris replied, “it’ll be fun, it’ll be easy. We’ll just play the stuff we’ve been practising here. We’ve got a dozen songs we can limp through. You just need to give vaguely the right chords and I’ll handle the melody and improvising. They won’t listen to you. They’ll be listening to me.”
It was a battle I knew I was beginning to lose. £50 each was a lot of money for just an hour or so. It wasn’t like this was a proper concert or anything. It was a poetry recital and clearly we were just needed for a little elevator music before the recital started properly.
“Go on,” Chris urged again.
“Please,” Francesca begged, “you’d be helping out a really dear friend of mine who’s organising all this. She’s desperate.”
I’m a sucker for being the knight in shining armour. What could I do?
I said yes.
“Great,” said Francesca, “I’ll get on the phone and let my friend know you two are booked.”
Chris and I turned to one another and agreed we now needed to practise like mad before going home and changing into the suits we wore when performing to an audience. I could hardly play a note from the sheets, I was that nervous. What was I going to be like in front of an audience?
We staggered on and then, about twenty minutes later, Francesca reappeared, her look of panic gone and replaced with a look of elation – I wasn’t sure which was the scarier face.
“Right, you’re booked – Anne will pick you up from the corner of Parker’s Piece at 7 pm and take you to St John’s College itself.”
Both Chris and I turned abruptly to the woman.
“Say that again…”
“She’ll take you to St John’s,” she repeated, “I did mention…didn’t I? That the gig is at Cambridge University…arranged by the Dean of the English department?…Didn’t I say that? Oops!”
I groaned and slapped my head on the piano keys which made a comfortingly apt discord while Chris remonstrated against the situation we now found ourselves in.
“I can’t believe you’ve done this to us!” he cried, “we had no idea it was going to be that kind of a gig.”
Now, not only was I going to perform a gig, with almost no rehearsal time and in a style of music of which I had only the most tentative of grasps, but I was to make a total arse of myself in front of some of the top guys of one of the most prodigious universities in the world. I cursed Julie – who I’d not seen once since arriving in Cambridge and who had not returned a single call (in fact, I never did see her or speak with her again – such is the irony of life) – and wished the piano would just open up and swallow me whole right then.
But, idiots for agreeing we might be, but musicians we were and a good musician never cancels a gig while they’re still capable of playing so…we were stuck with it. We practised another half hour and then went to our separate homes to change and freshen up.
Chris and I met up just before 7 at the designated corner of the field known to all as Parker’s Piece. A middle-aged woman turned up shortly afterwards and signalled to us from her car. After the requisite ‘are you the Jazz musicians?’ conversation and introductions we got into her car and let her drive us to the college. If we were nervous before, we were terrified now.
“So, this poetry recital is being held by the English department,” Anne told us, “and it is a well-known Irish poet, Micky O’Brien – you’ve heard of him? No? well, never mind – anyway he is giving a recital of his new book of poetry ‘Welcome, Lady Jazz!’ and – as you can imagine – he wants real Jazz musicians to play beforehand while everyone arrives, drinks wine, eats canapés and so on. He’s a personal friend of the Dean so this is a very important event for us tonight.”
No pressure then.
We entered the college and walked through the ancient and impressive buildings normally reserved for students and college fellows only and were led through stone corridors until we reached the room in which we’d perform. The room even smelt of luxury. The walls were all oak-panelled with original paintings from some of the great masters and a beautiful fire was warming the room from the largest fireplace I’d ever seen in my life. About twenty people had already gathered and there were chairs laid out for about one hundred. In the corner stood a magnificent Bosendorfer grand piano. To play it was to make music from the chords of heaven itself. Strangely, playing such a luxurious piano was a comfort to me: even I could sound good on this beauty, I reasoned.
Chris set up his sax and music stand as quickly as possible and, after a brief tune-up, we got to playing as we saw more and more guests arrive and the conversations began to fill the room. Keeping as low key as we could to avoid anyone actually listening to us, we played through all the standards: Satin Doll, Angel Eyes, Willow Weep For Me, Polkadots and Moonbeams and so on. I had to concentrate every second to keep the harmonies tight and keep up with where Chris was going as he wandered back and forth from the melody as written, but I managed it. Despite my ineptitude, it looked like we were getting away with this crap. The conversations buzzed, the atmosphere was warm and cheery and no one had yet come up to us and ‘out’ us as the amateurs were undoubtedly were.
In fact, the only thing anyone said was to finish playing as the recital was about to begin. We did so, sighing with great relief as the head of English called everyone to their seats, gave a word of thanks to ‘the Jazz musicians’ (which was received with enthusiastic nods and friendly murmurs in our direction) and introduce Mr O’Brien himself.
The bearded poet was a kindly type with a warm, rich Irish accent. Chris and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to his recital as he read selected poems including the title piece ‘Welcome, Lady Jazz!’ itself. Relaxing, we quaffed a couple of glasses of wine which had been offered to us as we sat at the back, enjoying the free recital now our part was over. I don’t know if it was the wine on an empty stomach or just the nerves of the last few hours, but I felt the alcohol from a mere two glasses go to my head a little too easily. In hindsight, it was a foolish risk to take and I have never drunk booze, when gigging, ever since.
O’Brien finished his final poem of the night, thanked all who had come and the Dean for inviting him and then, turned his attention to Chris and I.
“I have spoken of the Lady Jazz,” he said in his lilting Gaelic voice, “but it is a pale reflection of the real thing so now I should hand you over to – and encourage you all to listen and enjoy – the superb renditions of our two experts over there.”
“Oh God,” I choked on my last mouthful of wine, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”
Sure enough, as the round of applause for the poet died away, everyone turned round on their chairs and looked at us, clearly listening and poised for every note as Chris and I tried to look professional when we were, in fact, trying to clear our heads and think of something to play – fast.
We had used up the small collection of tunes we knew at the beginning but decided to play the first couple again. Not many people had been there when we played them the first time around so the tunes were new to most. We hoped that by the time we’d played them the guests would have turned back to their conversations and stop listening. Certainly wine was flowing again all around but conversation was minimal. They were all still listening – including O’Brien, Anne and the Dean.
Chris starting hissing names of tunes he knew but I didn’t for me to look up in the book. I saw masses of dots in rhythms I couldn’t even guess at as he chose bebop and modern pieces each time. I didn’t even know how to play half the chords! Inwardly, I thanked the heavens that I had spent all those hours practising scales because now my improvisations made full use of them to make up for my technical ability.
Desperately praying people would stop listening and go back to socializing I tried to concentrate on the music but it was no good: I was getting hopelessly lost.
“Where are you?” Chris hissed at me between phrases on the sax.
“I don’t know,” I hissed back, “where are you?”
We found each other eventually but our performing was becoming increasingly erratic. Just at the point where it was about to become obvious I hadn’t a clue what I was doing any longer I finally heard the murmurs of conversation and breathed again as I realised the heat was off us. My scales had covered over the cracks.
At least, the heat was almost off us. For now the poet, Anne, the Dean and various other important dignitaries present came up to us as we played to thank us and tell us “how jolly marvellous” we were and “how exceedingly talented”. We did our best to keep playing while thanking them for their kindness and not lose our place again. I wished I hadn’t had that second glass of wine.
Eventually, after about three-quarters of an hour, the guests started leaving and we were allowed to finish playing and pack up. O’Brien presented us with two signed copies of his book (I still have mine on my bookshelf in front of me right where I can see it) and the Dean shook our hands enthusiastically, still going on about our talents, as we set off with Anne back to the car.
When she dropped us at the corner of Parker’s Piece she remembered she hadn’t paid us. We’d pretty much forgotten ourselves and wouldn’t have pushed the point if we had remembered. I felt we were lucky to have gotten away with not ruining an event and was happy to walk away with nothing in our pockets. I was happier still though that I would get my fifty quid anyway.
“Here you go boys, thank you ever so much for helping us out at such short notice,” she said holding notes in each hand towards us, “as agreed with Francesca, here’s £150 each.”
I was stunned. Chris obviously understood my body language and knew I was considering saying there must have been a mistake and this was too much and he gave me a surreptitious kick telling me to keep quiet. I did so and left the car stunned, leaving Chris to be the one to say goodbye to Anne. As she drove off we looked at each other, the wads of money still clutched in our hands.
As one we leapt in the air, whooping and punching the sky. My God we had done it! We had hoodwinked some of the greatest minds in the academic world! We hugged like football fans in the stadium when their team wins the cup and congratulated each other for a job well done.
And that was the birth of my long and successful career as a Jazz musician. Of course I’ve learned a lot since then – not only do I know all the chords but I’ve invented a few and I certainly know a lot more than a couple dozen tunes. I’ve often been asked for the secrets of my success, how I keep my nerve at even the toughest venues, and I’ve kept quiet until now – a musician has got to have his trade secrets after all! The first reason I’ve never dropped a note and why I play it so cool in every gig is simply this:
I have never been so scared and out of my depth as I was at that college gig. Everything else was easy by comparison. Right at the beginning, even before I knew I was embarking on this career at all, I got the best training any guy could ever receive. I was thrown in and had to swim or sink below the waters.
Oh – and the second reason?
God bless ‘em, I couldn’t live without them.
Copyright © 2014 D K Powell