There are not many pleasures as fine as good, real, live beer, but one of them is good, real, live jazz.
Luckily, for the 25 years I’ve lived back in London, in eight homes and four different boroughs, I’ve never been more than about 15 minutes’ drive from the Bull’s Head at Barnes. Young’s beer on handpump in the music room itself, almost invariably great performances from the stage by terrific musicians: it’s one of the regularly available delights of the capital that make up for the hassle, the noise and the expense of living in London.
Last Saturday, for example, the band at the Bull’s Head was a quintet led by the piano player Stan Tracey, a man justly called by the BBC “the godfather of British jazz”, with Stan’s long-time collaborator, the Glaswegian tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins, Stan’s son Clark on drums, Andy Cleyndert on bass and Guy Barker on trumpet. Terrific modern jazz, played with panache and passion – and all for £12 at the door. Frankly, I feel guilty paying so little for something so good – it would cost you more for a not-very-good bottle of wine in the restaurant next door.
Seeing Guy Barker reminded me that I have an LP (remember those?) released exactly 30 years ago by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, called In Camra, and featuring tunes “inspired” by real ale and real ale breweries. Guy was in the trumpet section, and I’ve been trying to spot him on the cover, which shows the entire NYJO in the brewery yard at Young’s Ram brewery, with Ramrod the sheep front and centre and a fully loaded horse-drawn dray in the background.
The numbers on the LP include “Young’s Makes Me Feel You So”, an arrangement of the Nelson Riddle version of a tune “with a similar name”; “That Old Peculier Feeling”; “Samuel Smith and His Amazing Dancing Beer”; “Going for a Burton”; and “Drink Tolly Only With Meat Pies”, and Bill Tidy drew cartoons for the back cover. The album even had its own beermat, though that showed a cartoon musician (not by Tidy) drinking beer from a distinctly un-jazzlike (except on Gil Evans records) French horn.
Bill Ashton, the NYJO’s musical director, wrote the sleevenotes, and said: The link between jazz and Real Ale is a very strong one. Not because jazz musicians drink a lot – some do, others are completely abstemious. Not even because so much fine jazz is created in pubs. The link goes much deeper than that, in that both are utterly dependent on the atmosphere, the conditions and the skills of the creators. The parallel between pop music and keg bitter is just as exact. Both are fizzy, bland and utterly predictable, created to satisfy a very real demand for a standardised product, which would not fluctuate from place to place but which, like all standardised products, could not be allowed to offend and could be geared to appeal to the widest possible tastes …
What do jazz musicians drink, incidentally? The attractions of the Bull’s Head include the fact that the musicians come and mix with the audience in the main bar during the interval, so I conducted a very unscientific survey over the past couple of weeks and can tell you
- drummers, being straight-ahead guys, prefer real ale, particularly Young’s Ordinary
- bass players go for a beer with some (allegedly) perceived style, such as draught Leffe blonde
- saxophonists are teetotal, at gigs, anyway, choosing mineral water or tea
- trumpeters drink Beck’s from the bottle (something to do with exercising the embouchure?)
- piano players choose red wine