Buster Birch Interview
How did you get started on the drums?
I started off playing snare drum in school, taught by a very old-school military fife and drum player, for two years, learning traditional technique and rudiments and playing in the school orchestra. And then I worked in a green grocers to save up some money to buy a drum kit. I got a drum kit after a couple of years and started working around that, playing in bands with friends. And then as I got a bit older and more serious about it I started getting into jazz, left school, was gigging with a few bands on the rock and pop scene. I tried to get a record contract with a pop band. That didn’t work out so I decided to go back to music college to study more seriously. I enrolled on a part-time course, transferred to full-time, then did a degree in music, a traditional bachelors degree in music playing in a symphony orchestra, studying composition, harmony and everything. That was for four years, then I went to New York for a year. I lived out there in Manhattan and studied with some quite famous drummers there. Then I came back and enrolled at music conservatoire, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I did the postgraduate jazz diploma there and that’s really where a lot of things came together for me as a musician, working with some of the music greats, visiting artists that we had coming there. And we had some fantastic teachers that really taught us about music rather than just playing the drums. On from there I’ve been constantly gigging and working, playing and working with some really fine musicians that I’m still learning from now.
Since 2011 you’ve put music to a Buster Keaton film with your project Buster Plays Buster. How have you scored the music?
What I’ve done for these films is I’ve arranged and scored music for the quartet. All music for the movies are jazz standards and bebop, modern jazz, I suppose repertoire. What I’ve done is arranged all the music and scored it all so that it matches all the timings of the scenes of the movies but also allows for some improvisation within the quartet, so it’s different every time. There’s a lot of improvised solos but it’s all within a framework so that it fits and syncs with the film. What we’re not doing, which a lot of bands do, is that they sit and watch the film and improvise along to it. We’re not doing that. There’s much more that’s been put into it. It all syncs and it’s all done to click track and scored, which is kind of weird for jazz because it does mean you’re limited on the format but it works really well and it’s very effective. People are very knocked out with how the music fits with the film. The idea is that the music enhances every scene and the mood of the scene, and it syncs in with the timing of everything that is going on, on the screen. At the same time I wanted the music to be equally as important. We’re not like a pit orchestra, sitting down in the dark. They’re fantastic musicians in the band. The challenge was making the music fit the film but also have enough space to make it work on its own. The premise that I set myself was that you could turn the film off and it would still work, as a well balanced programme and concert of jazz. I don’t know anyone else who does this, in this way. It’s pretty challenging to pull off.
How did you first get the idea to do it?
It was just one of those eureka moments, I suppose. I’ve always enjoyed Buster Keaton’s films, out of all the great silent classics. I got a box set and then the more I started getting into it, and him as an artist and a person. He directed all of those films. For the time, it’s incredible what he does. You’re talking the early 1920s and he’s doing some quite amazing camera tricks and stunts, and his presence on screen is incredible. I began reading more about his life and basically the music that I know and play and love is modern jazz so I just thought ‘why not?’ and ‘why does it always have to be plinky-plinky ragtime piano?’. Who made that rule? There’s nothing wrong with that. I just wanted to do the music that I know and understand and do a proper job of it. Sometimes people within the film world have this whole idea of being ‘authentic’ and ‘original’ but that doesn’t really make much sense with the music because the pianist back then improvised a lot of music anyway. So there aren’t any scores, as far as I know, of any of Keaton’s films. It’s different with Chaplin because Chaplin wrote a lot of his music and you can’t actually change it. When you show those films you have to use the original music. But with Keaton, certainly with the silent stuff it was very much improvised by whoever happened to be the pianist on the night in the particular venue where it was shown. So if you were showing it now you’d be doing it with different music, so why not do some modern jazz?
The band features Jo Fooks on saxophone, Neil Casey on piano, Pete Ringrose on bass and myself Buster Birch on drums.
Tell us about the Buster Keaton film that you’ve chosen.
Steamboat Bill Jr. is the movie that we’re using for the main feature of my Buster Plays Buster 2 show. It’s from 1928 and it’s the last movie of what many consider to be his ‘golden era’, which was the 1920s when he made about a dozen feature-length films which he had complete artistic control over. They were large-scale and now considered absolute classics. Most people will of course know The General, so it’s from that era. This is the last one he makes. He threw everything at it because at this point, during the filming of this movie, he found out that his contract was being sold on (which is what they did back then). A bit like the old premiership players, there’s lots of horse-trading going on. The studios pass each other’s contracts on. Keaton was being moved to MGM which he later described as the worst decision ever made, because they immediately took away any input that he could have on any of his films. That followed a very dark period of his life. But this movie is the last one of that golden era. The famous scene from this is when the house falls on him but there’s a window and it falls around him. What a lot of people don’t realise is that it weighed 2 tonnes and would have killed him. He was within an inch of getting hit by it. His stunts are absolutely incredible. He had an entire town built and then destroyed it all in a big storm scene. A hurricane comes and blows everything away. The scale and the budget was huge for the time, which is one of the reasons why the film companies were not so tolerant with him. They made the money back in the long run but it didn’t immediately make a huge profit for them so they didn’t look at it too favourably at the time. Now it’s considered one of his masterpieces.
There are lots of chasing scenes and some fantastic stunts and there are some fantastic performances by his other character players. Astonishing acting for silent film, the expression on their faces. They could say so much without speaking. I really think these films are amazing.
The hard thing for me was making a lot of these artistic choices.
The first one was very challenging, putting the whole show together. But for the second show, I’d already learned a lot so I had a much clearer vision of what I could do. It still took me a long time. I worked out that it took me about 350 hours of my time to put the whole thing together. There’s a lot of work that’s gone into it but it was worth it and it shows. It’s the timing and the lovely little moments that make it worth every hour that I’ve spent on it.
Are there other projects that you’re working on at the moment?
I’m very busy touring at the moment with different bands. I play in a number of bands. I’ve just been on tour down in Cornwall with the Alison Rainer Quintet. There’s a latin jazz band called Head South that I work with a lot. My wife, Jo Fooks, is the saxophone player in my band, and is also quite busy doing her own gigs. She has three of her own albums and I play in her band.
Tell us a bit about the Jazz Summer School that you co-run.
I’m co-director with my friend and co-director Dave Wickins, who has been running it for many years before I was involved with it. It’s the longest running jazz summer school in the UK. It’s now known as the Original UK Jazz Summer School. It started as the Barry Summer School in South Wales and then spent a lot of time in Glamorgan at the University, then it moved to Trinity in London and now we’re back in Cardiff at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. It’s the last week of July every year. Next year will be our 52nd year. I’ve not been doing it that long! But it’s been running continuously every year without a gap for that long. It’s the absolute cream of jazz educators that are there every year. We’ve got a very solid, regular team of tutors who are all absolutely amazing musicians and experts in their field. And we have a great time.
The website is http://theoriginalukjazzsummerschool.webs.com.
I also run three jazz workshops for people interested in learning to play. So I keep pretty busy.
And there are also some ‘extras’ in your presentations?
My first show featured the Sherlock Jr. film by Buster Keaton plus a little presentation I put together celebrating the lives of nine of the jazz legends.
This show that we’re doing in December at Splash Point, Eastbourne is the screening of Steamboat Bill Jr. and as well as that I’ve put together a short presentation for the first half highlighting the life of Buster Keaton telling his life story, which is absolutely incredible. He had a remarkable career. His career straddled all three major forms of entertainment from vaudeville through the movies (silent and sound) and through to television. And he worked constantly and prolifically from the age of three to 70. I don’t think there’s anyone who has had a career quite like that. It’s a remarkable story and I felt it needed telling. There was a Hollywood movie on the life of Buster Keaton but anyone who knows will say that it’s quite a travesty. He had very little input so it’s not really an accurate biography by any stretch of the imagination.
What has the audience reaction been like for the Buster Plays Buster presentations?
People have been really enjoying it. We’ve played this show quite a few times now. We did the International Film Festival at Chichester, we’ve done a number of summer festivals and in October we played a few theatres and jazz clubs and things like that.
We get a real broad mix of audience. When we’re playing in more established jazz venues, people come for the music and they see the film and think it’s fantastic. And then we get people who come for the film and they say ‘oh, I really enjoyed that music’. We’ve also got young kids and families and the kids of course are amazed by Buster Keaton and all his stunts. It’s a really nice mix of family entertainment. The jazz is not completely too far out, it’s all very tonal and it’s a nice mix of latin jazz, modern jazz, bebop, swing and mainstream. There are some great tunes, all the classics.
This new show that we’re presenting in Eastbourne on 13th December is very much played in, tried and tested. It’s going really well and we’re really enjoying bringing it out to people.
Buster Plays Buster: Steamboat Bill Jr. is on 13th December at Splash Point Jazz, The Fishermen’s Club, Eastbourne.
For more information on Buster Plays Buster:
[Photo of Buster Birch by Lisa Wormsley]