Column: Sam Carelse – On The Corner

R***** S*****

It had to happen sometime. I set foot in the hallowed jazz institution Ronnie Scott’s after years of working in Soho but being far too intimidated to set foot in it. A boozy dinner followed by a boozy couple of drinks of booze and we were ready to go in, armed with my booking confirmation for two tickets at a cost of £80. Upon sharing news of my visit, many of my older friends were quick to inform me that Ronnie Scott’s was no longer what it used to be – a noisy room with circular tables, Ella Fitzgerald just about visible through clouds of smoke- but I was surprised to enter what I would call some kind of jazz temple – well-ordered pews in a tightly-raked seating arrangement with small fluorescent mushroom lamps and audience members squished in four-to-a-pew. I half expected those in front of me on the far side to stand up with choir books and launch into a rousing jazz rendition of Ding Dong Merrily On High.

The immense jazz titan Joey DeFrancesco was on the menu, and we had caught him for the second of a three night run. He sat at his keyboard altar and served excellent organ alongside exemplary musicians Troy Roberts who seamlessly divided his time between tenor sax and double bass, and Billy Hart on drums. Mr DeFrancesco himself later whipped out his trumpet, and was even knocking out incredible lines on the tenor sax like it weren’t no thang (after the gig we overheard that he’d only been playing sax for nine months!). I had a great time, but then of course I was always going to have a great time despite latter day Ronnie Scott’s being a sanitised jazz cube (No photos! Talking to a minimum!) because a) Joey DeFrancesco and b) I was totally smashed* on Mai tais.

When the bill arrived (and later – the hangover) I realised quickly that my visit to Ronnie Scott’s was likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime affair. But so what if musicians are priced out of going to one of the finest jazz clubs in the country? I can’t be bitter just because a jazz club has found a way to be (shock horror!) financially viable.

Which brings me to

Last month, I revealed that practicing leads to becoming a better player. I have also found out that avoiding alcohol and eating well is conducive to good practice. Oh my, this is all much scarier than Halloween and Brexit. *strokes box sets* I’m sorry my darlings, I haven’t been able to give you all of myself for some time now.

We can point at the great musicians Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and the like, who died doing what they loved (drinking), but sadly most of us non-demi gods must draw upon huge wells of concentration to avoid playing duff notes. While drinking doesn’t make us better, it does make us more likely to accept the sound coming out of us**, despite the truth that you’re only ever a half-step away from the right*** note, it seems for many of us that drinking more makes you more likely to stay a half-step away from the right note. It’s also tempting to get a drink the minute you set foot in a gig and perceive the audience to be slightly hostile. Or for whatever reason you choose to pin your barely-under-control nerves on.

So – with liver and wallet aching – I’ve decided it’s a good time to search for healthier solutions. The night following my trip to Ronnie’s I found myself at a jazz jam, lining up the lime and sodas, and bravely talking to new people without a dash of dutch courage in my blood. I was introduced to an established singer from America whose specialism is improvisation. I confessed that improvisation isn’t my strong suit and the thought of doing it in a gig made me nervous beyond belief. Immediately my new acquaintance suggested that I read a book called Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. This book is considered so important to giving a liberated musical performance that Berklee College of Music named an institute after it. This fact impressed me, but the title seduced me the most. Effortless mastery? Now THAT sounds like something even I could do!

*My word of the month
**Source: https://punchdrink.com/ articles/how-booze-became-the-life- and-death-of-jazz/
***Whatever that means

Sam Carelse