Published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, Autumn 2007, and Just Jazz, May 2009
There is an increasing number of countries where the political and economic capitals are located in different cities. This trend, started by Canberra, Ottawa, Delhi and Pretoria in Australia, Canada, India and South Africa respectively has extended into a number of African countries. Including Malawi, that little landlocked former British colony alongside a very beautiful lake.
However, whereas most of the other "split" capitals always had a lively social life in each city, Malawi is rather different. Just about everything apart from government departments and, recently, the parliament, functions in Blantyre, and Lilongwe, built in the 1960s as a gift from the South African government to recognise the only African country to have links with the apartheid regime, is very much a backwater.
So, arriving in Lilongwe to head up the United Nations team assisting the transition to multi-party democracy in Malawi, I didn't expect a hectic musical scene. But then, on my second day there, the 'phone rang and the caller identified himself as the agricultural specialist at the European Union delegation. A lifetime spent in urban centres skilfully avoiding the countryside has meant that the only thing I know about agriculture is that I'm broadly in favour of it. But this Danish colleague's question was on a very different topic. Was it the case that I played jazz clarinet? I felt that I was sufficiently distant from Leeds to compromise with the strict truth, and so I answered, "yes." "Great," he replied, "you've just been auditioned and you're playing tonight!"
Amazingly there was already almost a full dixieland lineup, lacking only a trombone. This was soon to be rectified. I was somewhat puzzled to be getting regular direct telephone calls from the German Ambassador without any secretarial intermediary on minor electoral matters. Then I realised that he always asked about the band. Eventually he volunteered the fact that he played the trombone and would like to join. Ulrich was excellent and for his party piece he always played "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?" - just about the best original tune to come out of the dire 1946 film "New Orleans" in which Billie Holiday had to play a maid in order to conform to southern racial stereotypes.
It was all rather surreal. Tucked away in black Africa south of the Sahara, in what from any apparent social viewpoint was a one horse town, were six white men and one white woman enthusiastically playing black music. The white woman was a young American, classically trained, trumpet player. Wendy was keen to play jazz but was glued to the sheet music. She would come round to my house on Saturday mornings for "lessons" and, bit by bit as she abandoned the dots - or more accurately, had them snatched away by me- she become more and more comfortable with the jazz idiom.
Wendy was also sang a particular song: Shug's Blues from the film "The Colour Purple" - lovely tune, with gorgeous changes that, alas, I've never played since. Just to add to the somewhat curious circumstances, we had two other white singers: Ben from the British High Commission who handled the Matt Munro type numbers and Janet, an East Ender, who performed the Bessie Smith repertoire!
The band wasn't brilliant but, rather like the dog walking on its hind legs, the surprise was that it was there at all. Such was the lack of entertainment in Lilongwe that the band played three or four nights a week. It had regular weekly bookings at the British High Commissions's social club and at a small jazz club called "The Nest".
In addition the main embassies would use the opportunity of the band's existence to put on a social function. One such was booked at the American Ambassador's residence. Ulrich was concerned that we would overstay our welcome: "These diplomatic receptions finish around 10pm," he told me, "and we will have to cut down our sets." The band duly swung into a slightly attenuated action but by llpm there was no sign of anyone anxious to leave. I went over to the Ambassador who was splayed out, eyes half closed, on a divan. "Say, Mike, when does this joint close?" I asked him. Without budging an inch he replied, "How about 2am?" The band eventually slunk out around 12.30am only to find ourselves pursued by the Ambassador: "Say, is this an intermission?" We carried on, out into the night. Always leave them wanting more!