Quartets

BBC4 has just reshown an interesting diachronic trawl through the archives in Classic quartets at the BBC (available online until 2nd January; see also Schubert and the Budapest quartet).

Apart from the inevitable Amadeus quartet, it features the Allegri under Eli Goren, predecessor of Hugh Maguire. Here one can’t help noticing James Barton, left-handed fiddle-player—part of a small group that notably includes Charlie Chaplin:

And among hours of harmless fun on youtube:

How can I resist reminding you that the divine Ronnie O’Sullivan is ambidextrous—though I’m not sure he stretches to Bach.

Of course, the life of a quartet (actually, any performing group that works together regularly—few are so constantly in each other’s pockets as Li Manshan‘s band) resembles that of a marriage, or (still more thornily) a ménage a quattre—that too is a topic for elsewhere (see also here).

But I digress. In the film, I love the quaint early vignettes, as if the swinging 60s never happened—the clipped tones of announcers, and musicians gamely clambering into their dinky little cars to play for expectant audiences keen to worship at the altar of High Culture after the tribulations of the war…*

And before long we will all look quaint. Closer to our times, there are vignettes from groups like the Borodin, Lindsay, Arditti, and Kronos quartets, as well as the Smith quartet playing Steve Reich’s extraordinary Different trains, and the Brodsky quartet’s work with Elvis Costello.

 

* But what of the thankyou letter to the Martin string quartet, I hear you ask?!

Philomena Cunk

Cunk
As another cautionary tale for fieldwork interviewers, how delightful to find Diane Morgan back on our screens, after her deadpan incarnation as “professional TV dimwit” Philomena Cunk.

Among innumerable aperçus, here’s her exegesis of Benefits Street:

They weren’t claiming benefits like MPs do, but a different type of benefits that they weren’t entitled to, because they were poor.

Her Moments of wonder series contains some classics, like her potted history of “Femininism”:

—not least her helpful comment on Emily Davison throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913:

They [women] did this partly to highlight how unfair it was that women didn’t have a vote but horses did. And also because, being women, they really liked ponies.

On Shakespeare (“Did Shakespeare write boring gibberish with no relevance to our world of Tinder and peri-peri fries—or does it just look, sound and feel that way?”):

Among her hapless interviewees (watch from 24.19), she consults the valiant Ben Crystal, co-author of the Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary, testing him on a list of words that Shakespeare, er, might or might not have made up:

cuckoo?
ukulele?
omnishambles?
mixtape?
[fumbles ineptly with script]
sushi?
titwank?

—a list surely on a par with the names in Rowan Atkinson’s roll-call.

Diane Morgan now has a hilarious role in the new TV series Motherland, written by the equally brilliant Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan. I’m reliably informed that it’s horribly well observed:

I really want the children to be brought up like I was—by my mother.

It looks as if a Chinese version might be in order, though I’m not holding my breath.

 

Yet more jazz

Still exploring the trumpet genealogy, another fine player, influenced by Fats Navarro, was Clifford Brown (1930–56):

And the only known film footage of him:

Here’s a tribute from Ken Clarke.

***

I also have to single out the most stunning solo from Roy Eldridge (following a plaintive one from a dying Lester Young) inspired by a spellbound Billie Holiday on their utterly gorgeous 1957 TV session.

That’s in a class of its own, but other early videos (despite the arid studio setting) give a feeling of jazzers relishing each other’s creativity, like this clip of Bird with Coleman Hawkins (and later, with Buddy Rich on drums):

I’ll leave Bird, Dizzy, and Miles for another time—so much material…

As I keep saying, if only we had such a wealth of video footage for Yanggao shawm bands and Daoists in the 1940s—or Bach’s band in the 1720s, for that matter.

Faux nostalgia

In Alan Bennett’s parody The pith and its pitfalls (Writing Home, pp.383–6—”taking the pith”, of course) on the writer and his [sic] roots, he writes thoughtfully of the perennial English fashion for the nostalgia of childhood deprivation—whose Chinese parallel reminded me of The four Yorkshiremen sketch.

Can there be a slag-heap north of the Trent up which ardent young directors from Omnibus, Aquarius, or 2nd house have not flogged their disgruntled camera-crews in pursuit of that forward-retreating figure, the artist?
[…]
What I do recall of my childhood was that it was boring. I have no nostalgia for it. I do not long for the world as it was when I was a child. I do not long for the person I was in that world. I do not want to be the person I am now in that world then. None of the forms nostalgia can take fits. I found childhood boring. I was glad it was over.

There are fashions in childhood as in anything else. A nice, middle-class background was no longer in vogue by the time I started to write. No longer in Vogue, either. Early in 1960, when my colleagues and I were writing the revue that was to end up as Beyond the fringe, we were photographed for that magazine. We sped in a large Daimler to North Acton, where the photographer spent some time finding a setting appropriately stark and gritty for the enterprise on which we were to embark. We ended up gloomy and purposeful against a background of cooling-towers and derelict factories.

I have never done any of those filmed portraits I started off by parodying, though the urge is strong. It is always gratifying to be asked to explain yourself, if only because it makes you feel there is, perhaps, something to explain. I admit, too, that from time to time I catch myself slightly overstating my working-class origins, taking my background down the social scale a peg or two. It is a mild form of inverted snobbery, which Richard Hoggart might dignify by calling it “groping for the remnants of a tradition”. As the man says in the sketch, it is a question of belonging. You would like to think you belong somewhere distinctive, whether it is a place or a class, but you know you are kidding yourself. However, I see that opens up another vast area of humbug and self-indulgence, namely, the writer as rootless man, so I think I had better stop and go home—wherever that is.

Deep in a dream

Chet
Delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, in my little sample of jazz biographies, I didn’t mention

  • James Gavin, Deep in a dream: the long night of Chet Baker, [1]

which goes well with Bruce Weber’s remarkable film Let’s get lost (for the making of which, do read Deep in a dream, pp.328–42):

Born in 1929, Chet somehow managed to live to the ripe old age of 58—this quote seems tailor-made for him:

If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself!

(Like Daoist ritual texts, this has been diversely attributed—to Eubie Blake, Mae West, Adolph Zukor, and so on.)

We don’t expect any artist to be a paragon of moral virtue—and in jazz, there were few angels. The “straight” WAM scene also had its bad boys—not least, trumpeters.

Before we get onto Chet’s iconic slow ballads, I like his early bebop playing:

And here he is with Charlie Parker in 1952:

I often wish someone would do a study of the styles of Chinese shawm players or Daoist guanzi masters like that of Paul Berliner on instrumentalists in Thinking in jazz. He cites John McNeil’s impressive genealogy (more taxonomy!) of jazz trumpeters (p.137):
Trumpet chart
But whereas most of the jazz greats (Billie, BirdMiles, Trane, Bill Evans, and so), through their similar struggles with addiction, were constantly learning, honing their craft, Chet seems to have been gifted with his dreamy cool style very early, and then traded on his angelic image (largely for substances) for the rest of his surprisingly long life, settling for melancholy—without the constant explorations of the other great jazzers.

Donald Byrd, 1959.

Still, taken individually, ignoring the degradation of Chet’s life, his songs are captivating. Apart from his trumpet playing, Chet is one of few male jazz singers I can relate to (that’s my own weakness—the late great Amy Winehouse was devoted to Tony Bennett, for instance); maybe what distinguishes his singing is the way he dispenses with masculine bravado. But the critics are divided: while Chet’s followers revered him as a god, regarding his solos as “models of heartfelt expression, as graceful as a poem”, others were less enchanted, describing him as “a singing corpse”, “a withered goat”, “a hollow-cheeked, toothless, mumbling, all but brain-dead relic”, and “a drug-ravaged ghost” (Deep in a dream, p.5).

But let’s just forget the film, and the book, and wallow. These songs almost add up to a potted biography in themselves:

As with My favorite things, everyone has their favourite versions of My funny Valentine, but this one (live from Turin in 1959 [1] —at the height of Chet’s celebrity in Italy, and just as his substance-abuse was rocketing) is heart-rending:

Another lesson from jazzers in how to use vibrato. And let’s hear it for Lars Gullin on sax…

This next recording (evidently achieved through some editorial sleight-of-hand) contrasts with Bille Holiday’s You’re my thrill—which Chet also sang:

 

[1] I also look forward to reading Jeroen de Valk, Chet Baker: his life and music.
[2] Short of undertaking a global survey, 1959 is widely known as the year of A kind of blue; and in China, for the escalation of famine—still not widely enough known.

 

The art of the voiceover

Talking of media voices, how David Tennant must delight in doing his deadpan voiceovers for BBC TV’s brilliant spoof W1A, successor to the equally fine Twenty Twelve.

My current favourite line (here, from 3.58) is

… the Department of Culture, Media, And Also For Some Reason Sport…

which cracks me up every time he says it, even in the more subtle version

Department of Culture, Media, And Also Sport.

He slips in gems like

Reaction on social media has been almost universally divided.

The choice of theme tune is perfect too.

Further to my paltry comments on filming techniques, I did the voiceovers for my first two films (DVDs with my books Ritual and music of north China) myself, much to the amusement of my friends—who, used to my imp–p-pediment, couldn’t imagine a budget vast enough to allow for all the editing. In the end I recorded both voiceovers over a single morning, doing only a few retakes, and it didn’t take the editors too long.

Still, for my portrait film about Li Manshan, it was much more personal for him to do the voiceovers himself, with English subtitles. After lengthy discussion of the script, we eventually recorded them deep in the night at his home—Chinese villages can be noisy places, with dogs barking, donkeys braying, and tractors making those tractor noises…