Soirees and Swing

Published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, Spring 2009, and Just Jazz, July 2010

Joseph Conrad got the Congo just about right with the title of his famous novel, "The Heart of Darkness," but the unfortunate people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo still suffer from insecurity and violence on a massive scale. For those of us there from Europe on mission, daily life was nothing like as harsh but it was still a tough assignment. Two attempts to kidnap me on the streets of Kinshasa, my belongings all removed at the end of my apartment lease so that "heavies" could extort money for their return, two vehicles suddenly blocking my car in, and regular hassle from police, all meant that one had to be even more streetwise than in other African capitals.

Not a promising venue for jazz! But there was a mix of entertainment, some of it curious, such as a German-funded full symphony orchestra based at a large quasi-Christian church, local rhythm groups which were pleasant but rather repetitious and a Belgian financed arts centre which brought in excellent drama groups from West African countries.

Eventually, I got the usual telephone call. Unusually, for francophone Congo, it was in English, from a German woman working at the Angolan embassy - a pretty good mix! "I gather you're a musician," she asked. "Yes," I replied, compromising with the strict truth. "Well," she went on, "the Dutch Ambassador and her husband want to put on some Sunday evening musical soirées and I was asked to round up some participants."

This was all right by me, particularly as it turned out that, Geert Diemer, the Ambassador's husband, was a classically trained pianist who had always hankered after playing jazz. Would I give him lessons? Of course I would, and we duly set to every Sunday lunchtime. Geert had made his own attempt to learn, by purchasing the sheet music for a number of ragtime and boogie numbers. These he played "as writ" but, of course, without any awareness of the importance of the harmonic sequences that underpinned the tunes and upon which any improvisation would be based.

Ragtime numbers can be beautiful and are often quite complicated, with a number of different themes in varied keys. Usually, any improvisation comes only on the last theme, at which point the rhythm could be opened out to get away from the strict ragtime beat. We worked our way through the popular, including The Entertainer, and the lesser known slow rag Heliotrope.

Given their delicate musical structure, and being a good reader, Geert found the rags fairly straightforward, but the boogie numbers were something else! One of the paradoxes of jazz is that tunes with very simple chord sequences are more difficult to play well. One has to be particularly inventive to make something of, say, Bill Bailey won't you please come home, whereas Georgia on my mind provides the basis for almost endless variations. Boogie is essentially a fast 12 bar blues, with only three basic chords. Geert would play these from the sheet music, at breakneck speed but without much finesse! Worse still, for someone providing fifty percent of a duo on clarinet, he was oblivious of how long each number was taking and every effort to bring it to an end failed! It was almost a case of shutting the piano lid on his fingers.

To recover we worked on jazz standards, hoping to be able to survive in public at one of the Ambassador's soirées. Geert quickly got the hang of playing from chords, rather than melody lines, but I discovered that during the week he was secretly adding the classical method of noting harmonic sequences - ie by number 1-5-3-1 and so on - and playing from these rather than from the actual chords - B♭-B♭7-E♭-F7-B♭. I regarded this as cheating and stressed that, unless he learnt the repertoire as from the accepted chord books, he would have difficulty playing with jazz groups around the world.

I discovered that Geert had one great aim in mind for his playing and that was for us to provide the evening music at Kinshasa's one really plush restaurant. Eventually we decided to risk it and booked a meal. Tentatively we asked the proprietor if we could use the piano. He was very happy for us to play and we accompanied his diners throughout the evening. Geert was blissful and the proprietor was very complimentary, so much so that he insisted that we were rewarded for our efforts - we each received a complimentary glass of port! Perhaps he was a better judge of our talents than we thought!