The past 24 hours have been spent with a load of varied people coming together to play Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, yes, FOR 24 HOURS without break. My friend, colleague, and head of Jazz at uni, Nick Reynolds had this idea of doing a big performance for International Jazz Day that started as a dream, but then when we were in America, Nick was really moved by the school we worked with and decided to use the occasion to raise funds for the school. (you can read about the event here)
Nick organised the players from the university community and I organised the logistics and the tech side of the event – so we could stream the full 24 hours and make this accessible for people to view and potentially join in. Together we made a good team and the event went off without a hitch. Many thanks go to all who helped from set-up of sound equipment, to the performers, to the student who brought us coffee just after 3am, and the audience – special shout out to our Deputy Vice-Chancellor who came three times during the 24 hours, and stayed until 3am !!! and also to David, the sax player from my community orchestra who came for over 12 hours of the event – was there at the 8am start and came back pre-dawn to play with us to the 8am finish.
What’s so special about this event? Why was it not just another concert?
It is a fairly unique situation and I’ll use an analogy to explain. Imagine you are in a kitchen, cooking. Other people come into the kitchen, and you acknowledge them. You even welcome them, but you might never have met them, and it is possible you don’t know their names even after interacting, because you aren’t speaking with words, but are interacting. You are all cooking in the kitchen. Everyone brings their own ingredients and prepares them to their own taste, but somehow you are sharing utensils – sharing and involved to the extent that you might be holding someone’s hand while they chop the garlic. At this point you might wonder if the recipe had garlic, and the answer is that maybe your part of the recipe didn’t have garlic, but the other person decided to put in garlic, and so you embrace their decision to add garlic to the meal – so much so that your hand is on theirs while they cut the garlic.
Of course we were neither in a kitchen nor holding hands while people played instruments, but the image explains an unfamiliar situation. In this jazz there are core ingredients to each tune, and also each person comes playing their instrument, with it’s unique capabilities. A voice can do things an electric guitar cannot do, and likewise a piano is different to a saxophone. Somehow each comes together in this kitchen analogy, to contribute to the meal in a unique way. The meal can have garlic and sugar-strand sculpture and they can somehow coexist but not infringe on one another – because there is space for both. IF we were playing a 5 minute piece we might need to choose one flavour, but we were playing for 24 hours, and over that time people came and went and the flavour developed in so many different ways. Musicians would play for 30 minutes, or an hour, or several hours and the kaleidoscopic effect of changing voices/instruments and their contribution to the musical conversation made it magic.
It was an un-judgemental, open, organic responsive, positive setting. Everyone who came engaged to the best of their ability and was welcomed and respected for what they brought to the musical table. Bliss.
How many times to people get self-conscious in life? Worry about impact or reception of what they do? Hesitate? Avoid things altogether? Perhaps being sleep-deprived after 21 hours of the performance helped, but my having a dance around with a seashell-covered percussion gourd while people riff off one another in the ever developing tune was a care-free moment for me. (sadly that was not on the video 😉 ) When have you last danced like nobody was looking, even when they were?
I found myself smiling and as I looked around during the past 24 hours, there were so many smiles ‘along with’ – they weren’t smiles ‘at’ someone.
After we watched the dusk fade to black and the music continued, there was a magic hour at about 2am that was filled with a remarkable spontaneous creativity. Here’s a snippet of the sort of mixed kitchen metaphor I’m talking about. If you watch a clip of the evening here, and skip forward to 42:50, you’ll hear quite a big sound, then at 43:17 you see a guy move from the piano to the drums (yes people frequently and very competently switched instruments) and you’ll see a gracious changeover, and then… the sax takes over for a bit before the sound quietens, and at 46:18 the bass player starts very dextrously playing a nose flute ! He gets into a conversation with another person (normally a keyboard player) playing a flute off screen to the left. At 48:33 the saxophone joins in with only his mouthpiece. At 49:45 the drummer joins in with bending the pitch of the floor tom. Is this a Mozart concerto? No. It is completely different, and is textural communication. By 52:55 we’re back to a more traditional instrumentation with a keyboard solo. Throughout the night there were moments of conversation like these, and there were also incredibly dexterous and intricate solos. Each was encouraged and challenged to make full use of their musical, harmonic, rhythmic, and interpersonal skills.
I had never met some of the people before they entered the room to play, and I still don’t know all their names, but we all swam in the same music for a while and we didn’t need many words. One of the nice things about playing something for 24 hours is that there is time. That may sound obvious, but there is time to rest and savour and experiment in that moment. The sense that you’re on page 3 of 4 and you’re nearly done is not there and while there are hours to go, now is really infinite. That was magic. Interestingly, the last 10 minutes of the whole event were probably the longest. Everyone was playing a repeated figure and watching for the signal to end, and that hiatus lasted forever, whereas other entire hours were mere moments.
I feel like I’ve been on a pilgrimage. Not the walking kind; I’ve done that- travelled the world, and seen waterfalls and volcanoes, desert and mountains, riches and dearth. This time I didn’t travel outside of a single room, but genuinely feel I have journeyed. Everyone is on a journey and everyone has a story to tell. I am very glad to have taken this journey with these people. What an experience.