Trying new things

A saxophone player

Jazz has been a big interest of mine for 55 years or so.  It began as a result of my Dad’s love of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman.  I was soon listening to the likes of Charles Fox and Benny Green on the wireless, and at University helped to organise a Jazz Appreciation Group, which included giving short presentations on a musician or a band, such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.  It also involved putting on Saturday afternoon concerts in the Manchester University Union. In the 60s, Club 43 in Manchester had Saturday evening gigs with the top jazz bands around, and we at the Union were allowed to present these musicians earlier in the afternoon.

In this way, I developed a lifetime’s interest in hearing live bands, presenting recordings alongside talks, and of course buying LPs, then tapes and CDs.  It’s difficult to say what it is about jazz that should have caused such enthusiasms.  At various times, I have enjoyed all sorts of music, and I still do, but jazz stuck deepest and longest.  I don’t have niche interests within the genre, such as Swing, Trad, Be-Bop or Contemporary.  I enjoy it all, although some experimental or pop-influenced stuff doesn’t hit the spot.  I have enjoyed studying the history of jazz and the stories of individual musicians but I’m not musically talented, having failed to progress from an interest in the clarinet to any degree of success.

Family life in my middle years slowed down my jazz listening, but a few years after early semi-retirement, I discovered the U3A, and was soon giving talks and record recitals to the Fleet U3A Jazz Appreciation Group.  That has continued for 11 years.  A special feature of the programme we have now is the 3-times-a-year visit of a top British jazz musician to talk to us, telling us about their life in jazz, and to play a bit.  Among these musicians are Alan Barnes, Art Themen, Enrico Tomasso, Andrew Cleyndert, Alyn Shipton, Guy Barker, John Etheridge, Kate Williams, Tim Whitehead, Andrea Vicari, Simon Allen, Nigel Price, Karen Sharp, Matt Skelton and several others.  Of course, we pay them a fee for coming out on a Thursday morning to enlighten and entertain us.  Members of the group give most of the other presentations, making a total of 20 each year.

About six years ago, a local politician approached me about starting a jazz club in Fleet.  Long story short — the Club began in January 2013 with a gig led by trumpeter Steve Waterman.  Fleet Jazz Club has presented well over 50 performances and we now achieve very healthy attendances every month.  We could have done none of this without the lady who books all our bands.  And it would (probably) not have happened but for the U3A.

In the U3A as in the country at large, jazz remains a minority interest, and within that group of people, many sub-genres of jazz have their supporters.  Each jazz style or period has its fan base, and these fans only occasionally stray into enthusiasm for other styles — such musical tastes tend to become fixed at quite an early age.  Overcoming early biases is difficult – I’m not now just talking about jazz — and a challenge that the U3A might like to take up.  Once a person reaches the age of, let us say, most U3A members, his or her likes and dislikes are not liable to change much.  In jazz, as observed in Appreciation Groups, how to open minds to appreciate new sounds is rather challenging, certainly if the appreciation is to last.  It’s similar to hearing people say, ‘Oh, I don’t like jazz’, when the chances are they have never, since an early age, truly listened to it.

I would welcome a discussion on whether it is a meaningful ambition to get members of the U3A community to expand their preferences in, for example, art, music, literature, craft, sport, film/theatre and food, rather than to stay in their (cliché alert) ‘comfort zone’.  I expect many responses along the lines of – ‘what do you mean, we’re all blinkered?’ and ‘I’m always looking for new experiences’.

Yes, I know and there are no doubt many examples of individuals taking up interests and enthusiasms that they’d never had before.  No doubt the U3A will claim that this is precisely what happens all the time.  My belief is that such widening of interest is unusual; most members stay within their prior zone.  What I’d like to hear from those who have moved out of their zone is how to get others to do so.  Learning surely is about discovering something new, including increasing likes and reducing dislikes.  The tendency is to stay within familiar boundaries; U3A should encourage everyone to push theirs.

Contact Mike via his subject adviser page