‘Jazz is musical humour.’ Bix Beiderbecke

Following Danny’s piece about Ronnie Scott I was inspired to write something about jazz and humour. One of my favourite stories features the late drummer Laurie Morgan, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Harpo Marx. He appeared in a lovely documentary, ‘The Street’ set in Ronnie Scott’s club in which Ronnie and friends view some old home movies about Soho and recall the characters, who used to hang around Archer street looking for work. Soho was the centre of most things jazz in the 1950’s. The world stopped there. Laurie Morgan was once with the manager of Club Eleven Harry Morris in Marble Arch. After a couple of hours Morris turned to the drummer and said, ‘I’ve had enough of this, let’s get back to town.’

Ronnie Scott’s oft repeated jokes were very funny when heard for the first few times but, of course, he was not the only quick-witted jazz musician. Many are frustrated stand ups and, on stage with mic in hand, are given the ideal opportunity to hone their comedic skills. 

Christian McBride has reached legendary status through his bass playing, but his affability and humour have led him to become the host of Jazz Night in America, a weekly radio show. No gig of his is short of a humorous anecdote or several narrated in his mellifluous tones. He tells a story, while touring with Roy Haynes when he was asked to dep for a Wayne Shorter gig at the North Sea Jazz festival. There had been no time to rehearse so as soon as he arrived in Holland, McBride called quartet member, Danilo Pérez. ‘Danilo what we gonna play?’

‘Okay on this tune, we vamp for the first eight bars … no… no… we vamp for the first sixteen bars…no…we start on the letter ‘C’…then we jump back.’ 

A confused McBride rang drummer Brian Blade with the same question. who replied, ‘You’ll hear it.’

In desperation the bass player rang Wayne Shorter himself, ‘I don’t want to mess things up.  Can you give me some help? Some paper I can look at?’

Shorter’s response was, ‘Well you like all those comedians, Don Rickles, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Richard Prior. Well, play that.’

McBride ‘That’s what I did. Some of the notes I played on that gig were damn sure funny.’  

Charles Hiroshi Garrett’s essay The Humor of Jazz compares jazz music and its performers to comedy. Garrett wrote that ‘Duke Ellington’s guidance to budding players was, “You have to have a good sense of humour before you’re a really great jazz musician.” Horace Silver, the hard bop and soul jazz pioneer, embraced this musical aesthetic as well, explaining that “I try to keep it on the light-hearted side with some fun and laughter in it. It’s uplifting and it’s entertaining…a lot of my music has a sense of humor.” Silver’s last studio album, released in 1998, is titled, Jazz Has a Sense of Humor.

There are, of course, a number of jazz artists who recorded songs with witty lyrics such as Cab Calloway’s I Beeped when I should have Bopped, Fats Waller’s Your Feet’s too big, Mose Allison’s Certified Senior Citizen, Louis Armstrong’s self-deprecating Laughin’ Louie and Blossom Dearie’s I’m Hip.

During the mid-1950’s and early 1960’s a group of stand-up comedians began to appear in American nightclubs. These included West Coast jazz fan Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May and Woody Allen, an accomplished clarinettist himself. 

Many of these comedians were jazz fans, and several performed as opening acts for bands in nightclubs. These comedians had not found success in sit coms. They weren’t gag merchants, but observational comedians, their schtick immersed in politics, race and drug issues, extemporising on already established edgy routines. Some even created on the spot. Improvisation was the essence of their acts – an obvious link to the lifeblood of jazz. 

Arguably the greatest of them all was Lenny Bruce who often compared his working methods to those of jazz musicians. Bruce used hipster slang and performed in a sketch lampooning a fictional, hip French Horn hornist, Shorty Petterstein, “To me the most important thing is to blow… I tried to get into Julliard but it’s a real bad scene. Nothing’s happening.” His flights of fancy, reinvention and unexpected phrases were all part of his act. 

Lenny Bruce was perhaps the Eric Dolphy of comedy.

Ornette Coleman is quoted as saying, ‘Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time.’  

The spontaneity of a stand-up comedians’ club performances and the juxtaposition to live jazz gigs – where no two performances are the same is unique. The intimacy of the club, the accessibility of the performers, ‘reading’ the crowd, and judging the mood of the audience can be linked to both art forms. A solo comedy performer or a jazz musician playing a solo will both deviate from the expected, unearth new material and then revert to the original refrain. Playing in venues that Bruce described as ‘toilets’ was also not unfamiliar to musicians. 

The nature of this article demands that I must conclude with the self -deprecating humour of Ronnie Scott:

St. Peter, at the gates of heaven is checking credentials of people in the queue. He asks a man, “So, what did you do on Earth?”
The man replies, “I was a doctor.”
St. Peter says, “Okay, go right through those pearly gates. Next! You there! What did you do on Earth?”
“I was a school teacher.”
“Go right through those pearly gates. Next! And what did you do on Earth?”
“I was a jazz musician.”
“Go around the side, up in the service lift…through the kitchen…and just beyond the toilets….” 

(Before writing this, I researched an MA thesis by Andrew Blackwell ; Analysing Improvised Music Through a Comedic Lens).