Peter Batten writes about his obsession with jazz…
Have you ever been taken over, or possessed, by an obsession? I have. This is my story.
The trap was set in a way which I hardly noticed. In my final year at St Olave’s Grammar School in Southwark, my English teacher, Freddy Wickens, was laid low by a slipped disc. Once or twice I visited him at his home to discuss my University application. One afternoon, when we had finished and were having a cup of tea, he asked me if I knew anything about ‘Jazz’. I didn’t, so he played me a couple of recordings by Jelly Roll Morton. They were pleasant, but did not really stir my interest. I soon forgot them. About a year later I was on National Service in the Royal Air Force. This was quite a culture shock. I had not listened to much current popular music at that time; it was 1952. Now, I found myself among fellow airmen who were constantly listening to the radio for the records of Guy Mitchell, Kay Starr, Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray, and a host of others. It was awful. But one singer began to really annoy me. That was Doris Day. Little did I know that she was to prime the trap.
I was sharing a room with four other officer cadets. One of them was a Doris Day addict. At about 11pm he would put one of her records on his gramophone, climb into bed, lie back and relax. This began to irritate me. Somehow I must find a way to strike back. One night I found the answer. I must buy a 78 record, bring it back and insist that he give me a break from Doris by playing my 78. But what would I choose? For one fatal moment my mind took me back to Freddy and I remembered Jelly Roll Morton. The next day I purchased a record by Morton. That evening I struck a bargain with the Doris addict: one playing of my 78 for every three of hers.
It was a disaster. I was in the trap. From the first playing of The Pearls plus Beale Street Blues on the reverse, I was obsessed. Soon I was buying a jazz 78 every week. I moved on from Jelly Roll to King Oliver, then Louis Armstrong, Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Kid Ory – even some of our local heroes – Humphrey Lyttelton, Ken Colyer. Over the next ten years my tastes widened to include almost every type of jazz imaginable, although somehow Dave Brubeck never got into my collection. Now, in my late 70s, I am surrounded in my house by a large collection of jazz CDs. I talk about jazz, I write about jazz, I even give lectures about jazz. I am still totally obsessed.
But worse was to follow. There would be a trap within the trap. As a child, my father arranged for me to have piano lessons. He loved the piano playing of a man called Charlie Kunz who toured the Music Halls and could be heard on the radio. I think he hoped that I would serenade him a la Charlie Kunz in his old age. I managed to play a few classical pieces, but really the piano was not for me. However, as my obsession took hold, I was tempted to try to play jazz on the piano. No chance. I had not a clue how to set about it. Then I made another fatal mistake. I decided to try another instrument. My inability to control my fingers at the piano warned me that I should choose an instrument that made the fewest possible demands on the fingers. It would have to be the trumpet or the trombone. I bought an old brass band cornet. When I put it to my lips I found I could produce quite a pleasant sound. Soon I was playing scales and simple tunes. I had walked right into the trap within the trap.
If I had become obsessed with jazz, that would be as nothing compared with my obsession for playing jazz on the trumpet or cornet. Soon I was practising with a small jazz band. At University a chance encounter got me into a student band. I practised furiously and in my final year I was in the University band which won the annual English Universities’ Jazz Contest. But it did not stop there. After that, wherever I went, I just had to be in a jazz band. I played in many different styles in bands of different sizes, but that did not matter. I just had to spend some time every week playing the trumpet or cornet in a jazz band. I was never particularly good, but that did not matter either. I was obsessed. Finally ill-health forced me to give up. 37 years had passed since I first put that old cornet to my lips. Of course the obsession with jazz continues, but in the less virulent form of the jazz collector. I see no prospect of escape.
Any older person reading this sad story may like to know that they can learn more about jazz through the U3A [The University of the Third Age]. I believe all the U3A groups in Brighton have jazz appreciation sections and there are particularly large sections in both Burgess Hill and Hayward’s Heath U3As. There is also a Sussex Jazz Appreciation Society which meets once a month at the Shoreham Centre, Pond Road, Shoreham. Please ring me for details on 01273 735252. I should be delighted to trap someone else with my obsession.