Stumbling into jazz

It’s been a long time since I “discovered” something that just plain outright changed my life.
If you had asked me what I thought of jazz music 6 months ago, I would have shrugged, made a face and said, “yeah, I don’t really get it….”
Despite being a life-long music fan, who can, in all honesty, say that I have an eclectic taste and have listened to, watched, played and enjoyed everything from classical to traditional Scottish to country music, I have never really got a handle on jazz.  The free-form nature of it, the noodling, the way the performers always look like they’re having more fun than the audience.  I just wrote it off as not for me, not something I understood or frankly made any attempt to understand.
I played the trumpet when I was younger, from the ages of about 10 to 15.  I had 1-1 lessons and played in brass bands, wind bands and orchestras. During that period don’t recall being exposed to much jazz music.  Certainly, improvisation wasn’t encouraged.  Lessons were structured around workbooks.  Band rehearsals involved copious sheet music.  On one memorable day, I was invited to participate in a jazz workshop with some guest musicians.  Initially, I was intrigued.  But, to my utter horror, it was an improvisation session.  I was petrified. I had never done anything like that before, had no idea where to begin and was terrified of doing it wrong. We had to take turns improvising on a given theme. After a seemingly endless rabbit-in-headlights moment, I remembered my music theory, spewed out some notes related to the key we were playing in and hoped I hadn’t embarrassed myself or my teachers. The encouraging words I received afterwards were recognisable in their tone as the kind of thing people say when someone is crap, but gave it a bash.  I beat myself up about it, but looking back, nothing in my musical education had ever encouraged improvisation, imagination or straying from the sheet music.  But that awful day stuck with me and this fleeting encounter with jazz was enough to make me give the whole genre a wide berth from then on.
I also played drums back then and my drum teacher was a jazz drummer.  A lot of kit-based lessons involved brushes and swing rhythms but drum kit was only a small part of the percussion curriculum so I never got to develop it much. And not having access to my own kit meant that opportunities to play around and improvise myself were few and far between.
My cousin plays piano, for a while as a semi-professional, and I was vaguely aware that he sometimes played with others but, to my shame, I never saw him play so I never really knew what kind of music they were into.  His band did play at his own wedding, and he joined them for a couple of numbers. Turns out they were a jazz group.  I thought the music was alright, good background for the reception.  I discovered at this time that my brother was also a bit of a jazz fan, but he was once into Meatloaf so clearly his tastes aren’t to be trusted.
But a few months ago several things came together to push me in the direction of jazz and I have rarely felt such excitement at finding something new (to me).  It has led me to experience some kind of revelation and changed my whole outlook on music and possibly life.
So how did this come about? Well, several things coincided.
I started playing drums again.  Jazz drumming was coming up in conversations, in articles I was reading, in the backgrounds of teachers at the studio where I take lessons, in demonstrations and talks at events I was going to.  I seemed unavoidable.  If I was going to take drumming seriously, I was going to have to get familiar with the story of jazz drumming and some of the great names associated with it.
I read Jack Kerouac.  He is always banging on about going to clubs and watching bebop performers.  His writing made me want to explore that world, to put a soundtrack to the scenes he created.
I got moved into a shared office at work.  I used to have the radio on at work, but sometimes even that is too much and I need straightforward music with no talking that mingles with the chat in the office and forms too much of a distraction.  I tried listening to classical music but it wasn’t right.  I wasn’t keeping me focused and motivated.
I was getting bored of listening to indie/rock music.  I just suddenly couldn’t find anything I wanted to listen to. Nothing was interesting anymore.  Or rather rock music wasn’t fulfilling an emotional need I had at the time.  Or rather I realised that I was listening to too much loud rock music to block out emotions that I really should have been paying attention to and dealing with.  I tried branching out into pop/electronic and listened to the likes of Chvrches and Years and Years.  They are both good.  I got diverted into a Bon Iver phase when he(they?) released a new album.  It is astounding.
But I needed something else.
I spent a while browsing around Spotify looking for some inspiration and a few jazz tracks popped up.  They struck just the right balance and made for decent background music while working.  But now and again I found myself stopping, my ear caught by a particular phrase, section or piece.  What had previously been an indecipherable jumble of notes in an incoherent pattern was suddenly making sense to me.  To be honest, I freaked me out. I don’t do jazz! It’s just not my thing! Except suddenly it was.  I didn’t know who I was any more.  All those lazy metaphors about doors opening, light dawning and worlds opening can be inserted here.
I turned to my jazz piano-playing cousin for help.  He very kindly made up a playlist to get me started exploring the world of jazz.  I put it on while doing housework one day.  I really can’t explain it other than to say that IT ALL MADE SENSE. I had to stop cleaning to sit and take it all in.  It wasn’t just making sense, it was making me emotional.  Some of the pieces I found deeply moving.   I didn’t know what was happening to me.
I had already requested that he avoid anything too “big band” and anything too “easy listening”.  I reported back that I preferred the tracks at the start of the playlist, and was less keen on ones at the end.  Unbeknownst to me, the playlist had been in chronological order. So it turns out I prefer older, more traditional jazz.   He sent me some links to recordings that he and his band had made a few years ago.  Hard-bop standards. So Jack and I have the same taste.  I prefer instrumental stuff, although am not averse to vocals.  I’m struggling a bit with the more progressive / fusion styles, although perhaps I have to evolve with the music and in time I will come to understand and love these too.
It occurred to me that one of the reasons it all clicked with me is that I was now listening from a drumming perspective, not a trumpeters perspective.  Trying to follow a melody line left me dizzy. The drum part gives more of an overall impression of the piece, with a clearer route through the sections and the variations in texture and feeling.
And Oh. My. God. Jazz drumming is just ART.
Any old idiot can bash out a rock drum part. It takes proper skills, technique and musical understanding to execute jazz drumming. Every so often I am just blown away by the sheer artistry of the drumming.
So I have explored a bit more, I have sought out some radio programmes that offer not only the music but a bit of info and background too.  Last weekend the BBC did a pop-up jazz station, so I have caught up with a few programmes from that.  One surprise presenter was Colin Murray, whose Radio1 late-night show I used to listen to back in the day.  It transpires he is also a relatively recent convert to the genre and it was good to hear him talk so enthusiastically about his journey, as I am making mine.
One thing Colin Murray spoke about was when he “made public” his interest in jazz, that it is something he had to “admit” to. I feel the same.  I am reluctant to mention it to people, aware that it elicits a certain perception or judgement from people. Hell, 6 months ago, I was one of those judging people!
I am aware that I now need to experience jazz music live.  I have no idea what may be on offer in Glasgow but it is now my mission to find out.  Unfortunately, I have few friends who are interested in going to “normal” gigs with me, so I reckon my chances of finding folk to go to see jazz with me are small to non-existent.  However, I will not let that deter me and I hope to report back here on some jazz gigs in the new year.
So I am excited to explore this new (old) world of music.  Weird keys and odd time-signatures no longer frighten me, they excite me.  I have stopped trying to figure out what the artist is trying to do/say/mean, and have spent time figuring out what the music means to me.  I know I have a lot to learn and discover and I can’t wait.

The Drums!!! (pt2)

Well it’s been 5 years (!) since my last drumming adventure, but events of the last couple of weeks lead to me being in possession of a drumstick for the first time in a long time. It was only 1 (not complaining, the circumstances under which it was acquired were pretty amazing – thanks again, Keith!) but I immediately wanted to hold another and get tapping.  I tapped (with my hands) on the table and my knees the whole journey home on the train. The next day at work I tapped on my desk. I had that drumming itch again.  There was also something about going from festivals and gigs and speaking to musicians to changing bunk beds and trudging around Aldi. I missed playing and having something that was just *me*.  So I thought, f*#% it, why wait. I started looking for drum lessons.

I decided to go back to the same place I went for those 3 lessons 5 years ago.  They were good, encouraging, clearly passionate and there was no attitude about me being female or not a teenager.  I hate that I even need to consider this, but I couldn’t be sure of the same positive approach if I went elsewhere.  I wasn’t sure what had happened to my sticks when I moved house last year, but found them safely under my bed. I must have been unconsciously protective of them.


So I had my first lesson on Saturday.  I was really nervous at first, especially when he did that thing, “I’ll just leave you for a minute or 2 to get comfortable, have a play around”. Eek. I hate that. I know they can hear, I’m anxious as hell and haven’t hit a drum for 5 years. I bashed out a few basic rhythms as best I could and prayed he came back soon. We started off on some really basic “grooves” (not sure just how groovy I really was), involving a simple beat and different bass drum patterns.  It took me a while to get into the way of it again, given that another 5 years had passed since I played regularly and I was another 5 years older.  However, I managed to get them all in the end.


It was fun, when I remembered it was supposed to be fun and relaxed. I think I spent half the lesson with my eyes closed, trying to bring the memory of the movements back up from the deepest recesses of my brain. Lots of times I was trying too hard and it fell apart. I remembered that amazing feeling when you stop trying, relax into it, suspend your conscious movements and let your body do what it knows how to do.

I explained that I wouldn’t be able to come every week, but booked in again for 2 weeks time.  I’ll aim to go every fortnight initially but may have to go down to once a month if finances or time are stretched.  I have my homework to do, so will be air drumming and foot pressing between lessons. Tantalizingly, I was told that back around Christmas time, they had an offer on for a series of lessons and an electronic drum kit for about £250. Although being a current customer/student doesn’t exclude me from any future deals so I’ll be keeping an eye out.  In any case, I wasn’t in the right place to be doing this back at Christmas, so I tried not to be too annoyed.

Interestingly, a whole separate conversation with my cousin about examinations for deaf students, in particular deaf music students, led us to consider Evelyn Glennie.  Evelyn Glennie was a huge influence on me when I was learning percussion at school. My school lessons included a whole range of percussion including timpani (kettle) drums and tuned percussion such as xylophones. I played with various wind bands, brass bands and orchestras through the amazing Dundee City Council schools music programme. I once played triangle at the Edinburgh Festival. The real highfalutin festival, not the Festival Fringe. I mostly played timpani, because that was what the performance pieces called for. If there was ever a drum kit part, there would always be an older, more confident boy there to leap into the stool.

Anyway, I was such a fan of Evelyn Glennie, that my parents took me to see her in concert, although unfortunately I have absolutely no memory of that. My cousin made me aware of a TED talk that Glennie had done a few years ago. Her talk is amazing and you should definitely watch all of it.  Part of what she talks about is the difference between reading music and playing what you see, and feeling and interpreting music. This is why I paniced when left alone with a drum kit. Back when I learned at school, I was never given any chance to play around, experiment, improvise.  Partly due to not having my own kit or access to one, but also the way our lessons were structured were very programmatic and designed to teach technical skills and pass grade exams.  I’m sure this is not the fault of my teacher, he played jazz so I’m sure would have been all about the improvisation, but he was limited by the curriculum. So we spent a lot of time on flams and paradiddles and snare drum only pieces. I found some of my old books.


This is the kind of thing we worked on:


So my snare drum sticking got pretty good, I would have been ideally placed to join a marching band, but that’s not really what I wanted to do.

There was some drum kit work, such as this:


So I learned all that, but never learned to be creative with my playing. I was never given a piece of music and asked to create a drum part to accompany it. So on the few occasions I had the opportunity to play with other musicians, I was a bit lost, had no confidence without a drum score in front of me and was soon de-throned by an older boy whose parents had the space and indulgent nature to buy him a kit.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have my own kit. I don’t know if I’ll ever play with other people. I don’t know if I’ll ever get any good. I do want to pick it up again, so that when I say I’m a drummer I’m not referring to 20 years ago, or 3 measly lessons 5 years ago. I want to build my confidence and my improvisation skills. I want to prove myself and defy expectations.

Editors, Glasgow Academy, 18th October 2015

Helllloooooo there!

It’s been ages! How many of my blog posts begin like this? Once again life has gotten in the way of me telling you about my life. Well an awesome gig has shaken me out of my reclusivity (Is that a word? It should be), and it was Editors again!

I had to go back and re-read what I wrote about Editors last time, cos I felt like I would be repeating myself. Here it is, in case you are interested…

Well a lot was similar to last time. The band had released a new album. I hadn’t listened to it. I had only listened to the previous ones a handful of times. I was ambivalent about buying a ticket and going to see them again. But this time I had the experience of seeing them once before, and that was a bloody good experience, so I thought “what the hell” and bought a ticket.  I later found out that a friend of mine from an early sign language class was also going, so it would be good to have a gig buddy and catch up.

I wanted to get there early to get near the front, also I found out that the Twilight Sad were supporting so I wanted the chance to see them properly after loosely following them for a number of years.  I met up with my friend and her friend, and we lingered just behind the crowd at the front as we chatted waiting for them to come on.  The Twilight Sad were really good.  They seemed to be approaching this as something akin to a headline set for them, so they went all out and the crowd responded accordingly, getting the party started early.  We discussed how we had never purposefully bought a Twilight Sad album or listened to them properly before, then wondered why the hell not, cos they were rocking the roof off the Academy.

After they had finished, and their lead singer looked like he was going to explode from the sheer exhilaration of the whole experience, I noticed the couple in front of us eagerly googling the band, clearly they had made an impression on them too.

During the break, after a suitable pause to let as many people go to the bar / loo as possible, we sidled our way as far forward as we could without being rude. Inevitably, several times during the night various tall people came and stood right in front of us (hate being short at gigs) but the crowd wasn’t so packed that we couldn’t shift a bit and still see.

We didn’t have too long to wait until Editors came on. Just the same as last time, right from the get-go I knew this would be a good gig. Their familiar sound filled the hall, Tom’s voice penetrates your very soul and everything makes sense. They play with an energy, an urgency that I just don’t get listening to their records.  I had managed to listen to the newer albums a couple of times before the night, so I kind of recognised the new songs, but only knew like 1 word in 20. Regardless I did my best to sing along, no doubt annoying the “real” fans who were belting out every word. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t as familiar with the songs, I got swept away in the music and captivated by Tom’s performance.


I will try not to gush here, but with Chris not being pat of the band any more (still hurts) I’m afraid I don’t know the new guys’ names, it’s all about Tom. To some extent he carries the whole band, in more ways that a lead singer should. I didn’t feel like the guitar/synth combo was anything special, their sound is still lacking something.  But I literally couldn’t take my eyes off of Tom, apart from to occasionally look at Ed on drums, cos he’s cool and drums are cool. Ok, really trying not to gush here, but Tom is just so goddam sexy and his voice I think literally melted something inside me.  He moved, gestured, writhed and as we say here “gave it laldy” for the full 1 HOUR AND 45 MINUTES of their set. 1 HOUR AND 45 MINUTES!! According to a setlist site we got 21 songs. Just like last time, the songs were only momentarily punctured with an occasional “thank you!”. He’s not a talker, our Tom.


One thing that was different from last time was that we did get a short, 1-song acoustic section. Tom performed a solo, acoustic version of Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors, which has always resonated with me, as I once lived on a street just outside a hospital – a fucking children’s hospital and maternity unit no less, and it was indeed a sad, sad sight to see people smoking outside. The song may well have a deeper meaning than that, but once you have seen a heavily pregnant woman in a hospital gown puffing away on a fag, that image stays with you. Anyway, I digress.  It was a gorgeous, mass-sing-a-long moment, only slightly ruined by the people who continued to talk during this most intimate, tender performance.  I was hoping for a couple of songs, but 1 is better than none. Thanks Tom. (inset lovey-eyed emoji here)

There was a point, during the very U2-esque “A Ton of Love” that I suddenly wondered why on earth this band were no longer the next U2? Sure, they had a couple of very popular albums, then some less so, but their live shows are amazing, Tom is a perfect front man, they clearly have a dedicated fan base. Maybe their time will yet come, or they will be slow burners, always somewhere on the scene and in 30 years I’ll still be there, singing along and telling my kids/grandkids that back in the day, this ageing rocker was actually a hot young thing….


By the encore, which included a stomp-fest, hands in the air Papillon, I was exhausted. Didn’t want it to stop, but thought I might need a sit-down if it carried on.  Must be getting old. Almost 2 hours of non-stop, jumping, sexy rock music. Why did I ever doubt you, Editors? One of the best live bands I’ve ever seen.

Since the gig I’ve gone back and listened to the “new” albums. I’ve decided that In This Light and On This Evening is pretty shite.  Barring Papillon and Eat Raw Meat, maybe You Don’t Know Love it’s boring. Really boring. But I’ve discovered I really like The Weight of Your Love. Well it gets a bit slow towards the end, but otherwise it’s a much stronger album that I first gave it credit. The actual new one is too new, but I’ll give it more of a chance now. Unfortunately I think Editors are one of those bands whose music really comes to life when played live, but I’m definitely not going to dismiss them as has-beens. And next time they come to town I’ll be there. And I look forward to taking my daughters and future grandchildren.

The Drums!

So paradoxically the only time I have had recently to actually write for my blog has been when I was without internet for a weekend. I did some stuff for work the first night, but thought I’d be as well to get stuck in to some writing while I had fewer distractions than usual.  But then of course I couldn’t remember any of the ideas I had when I didn’t have time to write. Typical. They were of course fabulous ideas. Oh well maybe they’ll come back to me later…

So I’ll just tell you what I’ve been doing recently, which I am very excited about – I had a drumming lesson last week!   It was awesome. It was a special deal where you got three 1-hour lessons for £30 and when I saw it, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.  I hadn’t played drums for about 13 years and it was so cool to get back on the stool with a pair of sticks in my hands.  It felt so right.   I mean I’m comfortable in front of a keyboard, and I love the feeling of playing the guitar, but put me in front of (wait, behind?) a drum kit and it is a different feeling altogether, more like I belong there. I kept thinking why have I waited so long??  Don’t get me wrong, I only mess about on keys and guitar, I’m far from competent on either.  Also some would say drums are the easiest thing to pick up, all you do is bash things in time to the music, which may be true, but anyway I’ve always had an affinity for the drums and it was a great feeling to be back bashing and thumping to my heart’s content.

I played drums when I was at school, well I took lessons in percussion, so that included tuned percussion such as xylophone, timpani drums and all manner of shaking things as well as drum kit.   Of course drum kit was the best part, although my teacher was a jazz man so there was lots of instruction on swing / jazz rhythms and using brushes. I pestered my parents to buy me a kit, but we didn’t have the space and they didn’t have the patience. I got a snare drum to practice on and had to mime the rest. I always wanted to take it further and be in a band, but didn’t know anyone who played the guitar or keyboards or who liked the same kind of music as me. There were a few boys in my school who took up the guitar and tried to play together covering some stuff (can’t remember what it was, but when you went past the music room it sounded loud and thrashy so I was intrigued. But they were older than me, by about 3 years or so, which is an absolute age when you are 14 and they are 17 and in any case they didn’t want to wee girl in their band, especially playing drums. When I was on my gap year between school and university I found a kit and played a wee bit, but a combination of chronic shyness and again a lack of potential band-mates put paid to any possibilities there. When I came back home I just got diverted into different things, occasionally found people who played music, but they had all been at it for years and were far more confident and competent than me so I didn’t dare put myself forward.  And so 13 years passed…

Anyway the lesson was amazing, the teacher was really cool and asked what I’d done before then got me straight into trying some different beats and fills and pushing me to try more complicated stuff. I was having such a good time I must have had a huge grin on my face the entire lesson. He couldn’t believe that I hadn’t played at all in all that time and asked why I didn’t try to get together with others to play. I explained I had an 18 month-old daughter to look after, a job, took sign language lessons, etc etc. He told me I should do it anyway, so I took that as a pretty big compliment.  Also the guys in the shop were a bit taken aback when I walked out of the practice room and had to ask the teacher if it was really me who had been playing.  I tried not to look too smug.  Then again I was in my work clothes, so maybe I should grunge it up a bit next time to complete the look.

I have 2 more lessons as part of the deal then I have to decide what to do – carry on with the lessons (very expensive and time-consuming), try to find people to play with (also time-consuming and probably expensive) or leave it for another 13 years (NOOOOOOO!!!!!)