Modern Times · Stories

Zürich, 1985

Brian is pursuading Dave to return to London where he is appreciated.

(Their names are retained for reasons of anonymity.)

Jazzmen

O 211 Zürich 1985 The Picadilly Six
The Picadilly Six. And yes, they’re still at it.

Summer. The gentle lap of waves against the promenade on a warm summer evening. The sun is still up only cooler as the blue sky turns to ultramarine. Across the water lights flicker on where the moutains cast shadows. Sitting at a trottoir cafe, Brian is cross with Dave for leaving their band. Dave is a talented trumpeter and wanted to strike out elsewhere. So he is here in Switzerland with his friends. In Switzerland you can’t have a band and play unless you have a Swiss player. Steve the bass player found himself without a job.

Bernd the bass player finds himself a job, only without a band to play with.

Only the Swiss don’t understand jazz. He isn’t a bad bassist, in fact he is really very good. He just, well … doesn’t do jazz that’s all. It is a problem that is subtle in the extreme: you see, Bernd thinks he does. In fact he is so wrong that the other five gave up telling him where to start. A lost cause. They let him make a noise somewhere at the back and look as if he is enjoying it. They wonder if he can. Enjoy it, that is.

“He just plays rote” says Dave, trumpeter and band leader. He is in despair. “Steve wasn’t brilliant, at least he could swing along. Bernd would only know swing by the neck”. Bernd makes the sort of noise that jars their teeth. There is no movement to the way he plays, you always know what he is going to do. For a jazz musician it is painful. Agony. To Dave, he is little better than a human MP3 player.

“Dave, come back to London! The scene there is hot”

“I like this stuff. I really like playing this stuff. Look at this place, it’s heavenly!”

“Yeah, and what about the winter time?”

“Then I go skating, Muppet!

“What about Bernd?” says Brian

That’s below the belt, mate

“Yup. It was supposed to be”

“The man is a danger to the bass clef”

“So you’re coming back to London, then?”

“Nope. That’s final.” Dave bangs his beer mug down.

It’s nearly time to start work. Actually, it’s time for their pre-gig feast. That is where the real work is done after all.

“Thinking of Bernd. I mean he just plays the same stuff. Sure, each time he chooses to play something different – only – well – he’s got about six riffs in him. And that’s it. He doesn’t move” A moment’s reflection. Dave turns to Brian and says in a low voice “Did you know Louis Armstrong played his solos rote?”

Brian starts from his seat. Armstrong. Rote. The two thoughts don’t meet in the middle. Brian’s world lurches sideways, hits a hard wall he wasn’t expecting.

“Yup” says Dave. “Just goes to show how good he really was, doesn’t it? He stands up each time, plays his solo. Now you get it so fresh each time you play it? Each time it sounds so … newand he’s repeating it from yesterday. That isn’t being a musician. That’s being a god, Brian! I mean, he loved his audiences so much that he knew how not to make a mistake!”

“Man” says Brian still reeling from the effects.

“You can’t play rote and make a mistake. It just doesn’t work. Only it doesn’t work for Jazz. Brian! Have you any idea what it means if a guy can play that well … and be … like … playing from a book?”

“Well” says Brian nursing his head “You can’t write his stuff down, that’s for sure”

“I guess you’re right. But think. He stands up, and everyone there is a die hard fan. Got all his albums, all his discs. Knows each half beat and semi-quaver … and they are expecting a raw solo. And his piece is so … good … that they don’t even notice? I mean, so good. Man, that blows my mind”

“Have another beer, Dave”

“Good idea”.

Bernd?“.

“Make it two beers, Brian.”

“Numb the pain?”

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