Ah, the Barton-on-the-Heath fete! An annual fixture of the last ten years for The Oxford Classic Jazz Band.
It is perhaps one of the smallest village fetes in Christendom, taking place as it does on a tiny triangle of green beneath the benign arms of an ancient oak tree in an antique Cotswold village.
The fixtures and entertainments have never changed in the decade the band has played here. Children attempt to Splat the Rat as he shoots down his plastic tube while Daisy the Chipboard Cow dispenses her detergent milk to some mysterious amusing purpose that I have never sought to understand. The fish and chip van chugs contentedly to the left of the stage. The tea tent issues forth the sacred brew as well as the ubiquitous Victoria Sponge and Walnut Cake to nourish the punters in their plastic chairs. A few stalls offer alluring bric-a-brac and up-market second hand clothes. There are bales of hay for children to sit on and conveniences provided in the village hall that was once the Victorian primary school and looks as if it could never fall down, no matter how many suns set upon the Empire and its ways of living. Like this fete, it seems designed to endure and weather the winds of change.
A little stage is always provided with a modest canopy and a blackboard strip below upon which the words “Oxford Classic Jazz Band” appear in chalk. As a child I always knew that my band's name would one day be “up in chalk”, and for the last ten years those childish dreams have been dreams no more!
We had a splendid band this year. Although sadly missing our drummer “Wing Commander” Crisp, we were able to feature regular team members “Professor Tuba” Ian Joachim and “King of the Reed Warblers” Mike Wills. In addition, providing the pokiest jazz trombone known to man, the stage was enlivened by the superb Paul Munnery.
People in the world of classic jazz will know how lucky I was to have these chaps playing in my band. If this were rock music, it would be like having Elvis and Bowie together. Fortunately, there being no money in jazz, one is able to procure fellow conspirators with this depth of talent for mere peanuts in order to fabricate sublime syncopated musical seductions on a summer's afternoon with all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire chirping mistily around.
A few of our fans had made it out to this little corner of our “green and pleasant land” and sat contentedly dozing in the balmy afternoon while the pleasant tang of salt and vinegar from the chip van hung drowsily on the warm air. The clarinet soared above the Cotswold stone buildings, the trombone barked out its raspingly precise phrases while the tuba throbbed and snorted like a contented buffalo deep in its muddy water hole. The piano jangled forth its sparkling phrases like pieces of eight trickling through the hands of greedy pirates.
A small girl sitting before us seemed particularly captivated by the piano, lost in dreamy reverie as of one whose attention span had not yet been ruined by that great cultural disaster of our age, the “home computer”. When I announced the availability of CDs for purchase, she was heard to whisper to her mother “I want one!”
The mother seemed unmoved by her daughter's request for this culturally significant and artistically uplifting item of merchandise. So not wanting to miss out on a sale, I quickly resorted to a technique I once heard used by a comedy jazz band up north and said, “Remember children, if your parents refuse to buy you a CD it probably means they don't love you!”
It worked. Sometimes one has to sink quite low for the greater good. I was told the child is to take piano lessons and who knows? That afternoon at the village fete may have set her on the glorious road to musical accomplishment and that CD could be her mentor and guide. She may end up devoting a great swathe of her life to unlocking the sensuous mysteries of this most beguiling of all musical genres, this noble music that unites body and soul in syncopated bliss, this teeming womb of creativity, this Classic Jazz. And all for just £10 (click here to buy a life-changing Oxford Classic Jazz CD)
She might have to do without home, hearth, husband, security and wealth – but it seems a reasonable price to pay, all things considered, for those golden afternoons playing at the village fete where brain and fingers “move in measure like a dancer...at the still point of the turning world” to create magic beneath a benign summer sky. She has heard the siren call of the Joplin Rag and the Irving Berlin song and will abandon her comfortable inheritance to join the bedraggled gaggle of raggle-taggle minstrels-oh!
As we were packing up, a distinguished elderly gent sauntered over. “Splendid show, chaps. I'm afraid the lady in charge had to go home to look after her child but she said she'd make sure there was a cheque in the post next week.”
My expression sagged, pulled groundwards by this horrible, disheartening disclosure. A Poke in the Chest! Not even a Gregory Peck. I tried to hold back the tears and wondered how I could possibly break this dismal news to my tired colleagues.
But the old rascal was having me on. “Just kidding – here's your moolah. Feel free to count it.” And he presented a warm brown envelope, bulging with purple notes. A wad as comforting to an itinerant musician as a marrow-rich bone to a dog. The old boy had enjoyed his wind-up but now the musicians alighted eagerly upon the crisp wedge, as lions to a felled zebra.
With my wallet now plump, the piano packed into the van and the light fading, I felt my work was done for this year at Barton-on-the-Heath, and I was happy to leave Daisy the Cow and Splat the Rat trapped in their Edwardian time-bubble and wind my way through kindly Cotswold lanes warm with moth-light back to the unforgiving, dream-piercing spires of Oxford City.