To the ends of the earth

Published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, Winter 2008, and Just Jazz, June 2010

I really should have known better. Almost every time that one succumbs to blandishments to accompany an unknown pianist or to sit in with a band of unknown modernity it is disastrous. We whose style is resolutely New Orleans and whose repertoire hardly recognises anything after 1929, would benefit immensely from an MU ruling that we should be paid double for diminished or augmented chords. But there's always a friend or a colleague whom one wants to impress, and all too often vanity gets the better of judgement.

The problem is that most lay people regard "jazz" as a single style which we can all play - from Buddy Bolden to John Coltrane and beyond. Thus it was in Paramaribo, Suriname, when the election campaign coincided with a French funded jazz festival. The French ambassador was a particularly longstanding friend and he was very keen to have me join the resident mainstream band. My protestations of incompatibility of style were taken as excessive modesty and I was placated by being offered rehearsal time the evening before the gig!

The rather elegant local professionals were very tolerant of the intruder thrust upon them and were happy to try and home in on points of musical contact but there was the added complication that their repertoire consisted mainly of original tunes composed in a very laid back Caribbean Stan Getz idiom. Anyhow we finally alighted on Jerome Kern's All the things you are and Gershwin's Someone to watch over me as being potentially survivable.

The hour for the performance duly arrived and I turned up in good time to find the stage cluttered with microphones, cables and loudspeakers and a "sound check" in process. When the gig finally got started the sound was ear splitting and by the time I was summoned on stage the band was hyped up. The leader was clearly oblivious to anything agreed at rehearsal and called tunes I'd never heard of. I looked suitably intense as I attempted to play something - anything - in tune. Being unable to hear myself I had no idea whether I succeeded but the audience applauded wildly. Maybe they couldn't hear the clarinet either.

My friend the ambassador had the seraphic smile of a diplomat having achieved the impossible: linking Leeds, New Orleans and Paramaribo in a single cultural moment.

My experience in Jakarta round about the same time was completely different. My Indonesian assistant knew of a regular jazz evening in a local hotel and I turned up to listen. It was a quartet of trumpet, piano, bass and drums who played pleasantly enough. Then a slight young woman came to the microphone and proceeded to sing the Billie Holiday repertoire in a remarkably sympathetic style. It is difficult enough for English speaking jazz singers to absorb the Billie idiom, but for an Indonesian it must be very strange. She had clearly heard the records and had copied the intonation but did it in a very sensitive fashion.

The band leader told me that he had a Sunday lunchtime booking at the biggest hotel in Jakarta with a full dixieland band, and that I would be welcome to sit in. Most of my musical experiences in Africa and Asia have been with expats who happened to be in some far off capital. This was different. It was a local band, in a country whose indigenous musical heritage employed a different chromatic scale to ours but who played classic jazz with real verve and enthusiasm. If one shut one's eyes one could have been in any jazz pub in England but to see them was uncanny, as the photograph shows.

I was welcomed on to the stand for a couple of sitting in sessions each Sunday and I enjoyed the experience of playing jazz in a completely different environment, many thousands of miles away from its home. What the mainly tourist punters in such a posh hotel made of a tall and rather overweight white guy playing with a group of small and dark Indonesians, I never dared ask. They probably thought it an added attraction put on for their exclusive benefit.