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Open Features: Audience Participation

Hurray, she’s back again! Jazz singer Jill Grant, who writes with the vim and vigour of of a New Orleans band playing at full throttle, tells us about some of her experiences, on and off stage.

There are more of Jill's spicy laugh-out-loud articles in Open Writing. If you’re in the mood for some more good reading just type her name in the search box on this page.

I have been singing jazz for over thirty years (with gaps), so you could say I have had some wonderful audiences. Weird and wonderful, some of them. Here’s just a sample of things seen, heard and witnessed in that time.

In the break at one gig (a cabaret gig, so I had been doing show tunes and the like), up came an expert, who said to me: “Can’t you sing some REAL jazz? You know – gutbucket real?”

Naturally, being the jazz maven that I am (and modest), I knew what he meant by gutbucket – the kind of low down and dirty jazz performed in gin mills, flop houses and the like at the dawn of jazz. However, my immediate thought was of those family-sized buckets you can get at a certain fast-food outlet (name omitted to avoid litigation) – grease, gristle, skin and bone wrapped in soggy batter, with fries on the side. Eat one of those to yourself and you’ll certainly acquire a gut. I used to know a woman who ate one of those for lunch – all to herself and every day. Gut? She could have stopped a herd of Gadarene swine in a passage.

I smiled sweetly and said I’d do my best. On my return to the bandstand I sang “I need a little sugar in my bowl” which is gutbucket enough for anyone. The temptation to sing “*Shave ‘em Dry” was great indeed, but I wanted to be booked back, so I didn’t – besides which, I’m a LAAAADDDYYY!

Now picture this. In the dawn of time, when I was a kid and did not know the wicked ways of this world, my pals from the same street used to make a strange noise if I said or did something they thought was weird (this happened a lot). It went “ooohhh-werrr!” The more inventive and articulate among them would render it as “ooohh bleedin’ werrr!”

The sound rushed to the forefront of my memory when I had the following conversation:

Expert: “I don’t know why you choose to sing those ephemeral Sixties pop songs, with chord progressions that don’t lend themselves to jazz.”

(It was “If I were a bell”. Ooohh bleedin’ werrr.)

Not for nothing did I read “Mad” magazine as a kid. One issue was devoted to “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”. So I ruminated for a bit, then came back with: “1950. Frank Loesser. From “Guys and Dolls”. And if it was good enough for Ella Fitzgerald (and Miles Davis), it’s good enough for ME!”

Exit expert covered in confusion. Or something.

Mangled song titles – now there’s a whole subject to itself. Some invented by musicians; a favourite of mine is “Bike Up the Strand”. I believe the late Bruce Turner’s responsible for that one. I worked with him once. He called me “Dad”.

Punters generate them too. Quite recently I got a request to sing “Mere Alcohol”. Threw me a bit, but only a bit, so I sang “I Get a Kick Out of You” for him, and managed to stifle my giggles and save his blushes.

Or sometimes requests can be a bit incongruous. It was a lady’s birthday, so having sung “Happy Birthday” to her (the head waiter reminded me to do this – in mid song – by tapping me on the shoulder from behind. He practically had to peel me off the ceiling), I asked what song she would like to hear. She said “My Way”. Oh dear. Two points. It’s a man’s song. And it royally sucks. So I valiantly offered to sing something else from Sinatra’s repertoire, and came up with “The Lady is a Tramp”. Not one of my brighter moments, but it got a laugh – the lady, her friends, the other customers and all the waiters, not to mention Ernie, my accompanist that evening. She took my blooper in good part so I sang it.

Talking of bloopers, I was doing a gig in the East End, where I had to MC as well as sing, as it’s a singer’s boozer. Somebody called “Ginger” was on the list to sing, but didn’t respond when I called him up. So what do I have to say but “Is there a ginger in the house?” Hysterics from the audience and the band – and me, when the blush had died down a bit.

And finally – a couple of stories from when I started out, in the Seventies. I sang with a Dixieland band in great demand for posh “do’s” of various kinds. One was the annual barbecue for the local hunt. They fed us and watered us – and I don’t think it was fox meat. No, beef, I think. Well Oscar Wilde did describe foxes as “uneatable”. I wouldn’t describe the audience as “unspeakable”, exactly though. Just deeply strange.

The fashion statements! Pie frills and knickerbockers were the in thing way before Princess Diana, it seems. The dancing! St Vitus’ Dance goes disco about sums it up. The band had their work cut out, as did I, to avoid breaking up completely. Perhaps it was break dancing?

The last story is a happy memory for me. Another posh gig in London, and the band were playing an instrumental, so I was sitting at the side of the bandstand. The tune was a waltz. A tall, distinguished looking man, balding and very dapper, came over and asked me to dance. I warned him of my terpsichorean ineptitude (ooohh) but accepted. As he trundled me round the dance floor, he was chatting in a friendly manner. I managed to avoid his feet, and at the end of the number he escorted me back to my seat. “What a charmer!” I thought.

A week or so later, I was reading a newspaper and there was his picture. It was Viscount Portman.

Well, there you go.

*”Shave ‘em Dry” – an extremely vulgar, dirty blues sung by Lucille Bogan. So much so that it makes even me wince instead of laugh.

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