I play guitar in a jazz band: The Jazz Monkeys. It’s something the four of us do mostly for the love of playing [although we also play to raise money for a very valuable local charity, MK SNAP, who provide work and life skills training to young people with learning and physical disabilities]. I’ve always loved jazz for the musical daring, the playing challenge and the excitement of not knowing how the next song will turn out – no matter how many times I’ve played it before. But one recent gig made me reflect on it in a whole new way.
We were playing – nay, returning by popular demand! – at The Waterside Festival here in Milton Keynes. Last year we played in glorious sunshine: it had been a beautiful day with a sun-kissed, beer-cuddled audience.
This year, the forecast was driving rain and gales. Uh-oh. Saturday morning, the heavens opened on cue. And then suddenly stopped. Relieved, we assembled at the site, lined up our equipment by the stage and retreated into the crowd to wait for our slot.
The heavens stayed sealed. The sun even began to shine. But the light breeze was getting less and less delicate. By the time our turn came, it was a gale. I don’t know if you’ve ever played on a lightweight, mobile stage head on into a very strong wind, but it was an interesting experience. The stage was visibly moving: at least once, it lifted clear of the ground. I could see the drumkit slide backwards, as Mark played on looking rather nervous. And every few minutes, a gust of wind took the microphone stand clean off stage.
Trying to ignore the fact that the PA might land on me any moment, I realised we had an advantage. As a jazz band, we improvise. We don’t just play songs ‘by ear’, we play togetherby ear too. “Ah, Mark’s changed the rhythm, let’s follow that.” Or “Rich has decided this song is going to be a rhumba today.” The wind was just a different variation. As in “ah, the microphone’s just blown away, so I’ll play some guitar here instead of the third verse.”
It was irritating to talk to friends in the crowd afterwards and realise the wind had pummelled us far harder than our audience. “You were great today – really feisty. Why did you all look so worried?”, asked the ever laidback Will. Perhaps he just thought we’d had wind machines set up to blow our greying locks around heroically.]
With no rigid structure, no constrictions on roles, and no prescriptive arrangements to adhere to, we adapted to the crisis by simply flowing around it. JB, our bass player, probably put it best. A former local authority CEO who had often turned up for rehearsals looking truly exhausted by his working day, one of his most frequently used phrases had been a gently expressed “I’m happy for someone else to take the lead on this one”.
That afternoon, as we left the stage – hastily, before it decided to leave us – he said simply “I thought we all led really well there, guys”.