The town of Cheltenham is renowned worldwide for many things, from music festivals to the girls school and the racing, depending on your taste and what you want. Behind this rich Edwardian exterior lies a little story that I hope will tantalize your imagination.
During the International jazz festival which is usually held on the last weekend of April, thousands of fans flock to the town to see today's names. This story is a taste of real jazz for you, I hope. With all the festival pomp going on at the Town hall, the Budweiser stage and the theater. Everybody misses the real home, a small venue and now all but forgotten. Walking past the town hall, and heading to the Montpelier district, you have to cross the road, it was here that I first took note of real jazz music. The club is called the Subtone, unless you know where to look and listen, it is so easily missed.
Under all the huge Edwardian buildings used as offices for anything from solicitors to hair dressers, lies a small path to a little club. No more than about fifty feet long by a hundred feet wide and nearly always smoky, this is the real jazz not the big stages for the modern imitation by 20 year olds who think hitting a few notes makes them a jazz icon.
I was standing at the gate, when I thought I heard someone playing a trumpet, thinking it might be from a fringe event, I ventured down and to my surprise came across a wondrous thing. As I stepped through the gate, the door opened to the club, and a doorman met me."Good evening sir, I hope you enjoy the show." he said.
"Thank you,’ I replied. “Can you tell me who is playing tonight, please?"
"That I cannot say sir."
"Cannot or will not." I inquired both intrigued and a bit annoyed.
"Come on in, and you will see why I cannot answer the question sir."
"I will be delighted to see why you cannot say." I said getting more than interested as to the meanings behind the statement.
As I stepped in, I could see the stage at the back, covered in the smoky atmosphere I was expecting, what followed was something truly amazing.I could vaguely see figures moving about. Nobody was solid, just a mist and the outlines of bodies, yet the music was so clear as if the people themselves were there. The forms seemed to change shapes, to suit the mood of the music.
Coming from the stage I could hear a trumpet playing, and recognized the style of West coast jazz,familiar to Chet Baker in his prime, alongside the sax of Gerry Mulligan and clarinet of Art Pepper, on the drums it appeared to be Buddy Rich.
“This is wrong!"I thought. Turning to the man next to me I said "Excuse me sir,but don’t you think Chet is on form tonight, and that clarinet of Art is so clear, after all these years."
The man turned and said "Sorry sir, we are watching different sessions, I cannot see who you do, for me it is Colttrane, Miles Davis, Gene Krupa up there."
"How come? We are in the same room, looking at the same stage at the same time.”
The weirdness of the reply aroused my interest immensely, I started to walk around the club asking various people who they saw and got all combinations possible. I found out that even though there were over a hundreds people in the room, there was little cross over for the session and no two sessions were identical. Musicians were there from Ike Quebec to Coleman Hawkins, Tony Williams to Lonnie Donnegan, and the styles went from the early 20s to the skiffle of the late 60s, the more I found out, the less I found I knew, this was a total mystery.
In the midst of my confused state, I finally got to the door, and had a talk with mine host. "I see what you mean now, you could not tell me who is playing, as you had no idea."
"That is right sir, the secret of the club is that YOU decide who appears. You can come every night and never see the same group of performers playing the same tunes, it is all up to YOU."
"Can you answer a few questions for me please?"
"If I can I will be glad to !"
"Thank you very much," I replied "I see there is no sign of either Jamie Cullum, Polar bear, Ingrid Laubruch here, or any other modern jazz group.Do you forbid it?as the jazz here is so pure.”
"Not at all, everyone is welcomed, but without realizing it, you answered your question when you said MODERN jazz, the people you mentioned are still alive." Seeing my puzzled look, my new friend explained to me "When you asked around, didn't you notice, everyone saw someone different. Yet they had one thing in common, they have all passed the veil of time to this endless stream of jazz."
"I see now, the only qualification is being dead then."
"That is correct sir.
"How come, with all the festival going on in town, so few people have come here and yet standing at the gate, I can hear the music?"
"Again you have answered the question sir, YOU heard the music, because you wanted to and you have been here before, so knew where to look for us."
"One or two more questions, first is there a nationality bar, or is it any dead jazz musicians?"
"No sir, we have no bar at all, the other day someone left saying they were listening to Joe Zawinul, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Django Reinhardt, among others."
"As the festival is over soon, will you be closing down and finishing until next year then?’
"No sir, as I said this is an endless stream of jazz, it never finishes and we play all evenings to ever increasing crowds."
I thanked the doorman as I turned to leave and walked up the steps to the main road. All the time, thinking of the various questions raised. How many variations of styles from 20s through be-bop to skiffle and beyond, all the musicians who had joined the band.And the non-answerable question.
"Who is in the best band ?"
There are as many answers as people asked, as we all like our jazz differently.