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Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
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Jazz, as she is spoken
An interesting email dropped into my inbox a couple of months ago - from a chap in the States who's read and enjoyed a few of the articles in this section.
Nothing unusual in that; I get quite a few such emails - often from non-musicians who have been amused by my jottings and feel moved enough to write and tell me as much (for which I'm always incredibly flattered).
However, this one was a little different because it came with an attached MP3...of the correspondent narrating one of my articles.

If I'm completely honest, I was a bit taken aback at the idea. It's a bit like seeing one of my site images appearing on someone else's site - there's a sense of "Oi! That's mine!" - and my most immediate thought was that if anyone is going to narrate my articles, it damn well ought to be me.
But being able to write an article doesn't necessarily mean you can read it - and by 'read' I mean in a manner that would be appealing to a listener. In some ways it's a bit like songwriting - being able to compose a chart-topping hit is a completely different skill from that of being able to perform it - and while I like to think that I'm sometimes able to knock out a readable article, I'm rather less confident in my ability to read it out in an entertaining fashion in public.
So that dealt with my initial concern; and it was soon replaced by another - namely the fact that the narrator was American.

Shock horror! A Yank? Narrating MY articles? How very dare you, Sir...
I should perhaps explain...
I 'write with an accent', which is to say that when I read what I write, I do so in my own voice. This would be a sort of everyday Essex/London accent - which is obviously going to be very different to an American one. It's not that I have anything against an American accent, or indeed Americans themselves - rather it's more like flicking on the TV to watch your favourite show, only to find that the actors have all had their voices dubbed over. It's just not quite right.

And then there was the issue of copyright...or rather how much money was there going to be in it?
Well, the correspondent explained that the idea was to focus mainly on the Jazz Etiquette series of articles, with perhaps one or two others that were jazz related, for broadcast on an internet jazz radio station...and being jazz related there was absolutely no money in it at all.
Sadly, I had to agree.

By this time my curiosity had reached a peak, and having disposed of two out of my three main concerns, I decided the best thing to do was to have a listen to the attached MP3.
I got about 20 seconds in to the demo track before I decided I absolutely loved it - which surprised me as much as it delighted me. I think it's fair to say too that a sense of relief had some part to play... I really wasn't looking forward to the prospect of having to write back and say 'Thanks, but no thanks'.
The quality of the recording certainly helped, as did the carefully balanced backing track - and there was no doubt about it, the accent suited the subject matter perfectly - but it was the presentation that really hit the spot. All the little nuances were there; the small but important pauses, the changes of pitch in the voice that denote an upbeat or a downbeat phrase - and a sense that the narrator was speaking with the voice of experience.

And he is.
He's Clay Ryder (which is just a fantastic name!), and among many of his talents he's a jazz musician and broadcaster.
The latter perhaps explains why the presentation was so slick, and the former why certain lines in some of the pieces were spoken like they'd come straight from the heart. Oh yes, this is a man who's suffered for his art...or at least for the prospect of a $30 gig fee and plate of sandwiches after the first set.
We set about discussing the project, the idea being to record all of the Jazz Etiquette series plus a couple of other jazz-related articles. Something that became apparent quite quickly was just how long they are. I never realised. I sit here, tapping away to my heart's content, without any real notion of how much I've written - and so it came as a bit of a shock to find that some of the articles took more than 15 minutes to read through and had to be split into two parts...mostly to avoid overly large file sizes.
We also got to discussing the 'songwriter' principle, and I found out it works both ways; as much as I was worried about how my jottings might be interpreted, Clay was equally concerned that he'd done them justice.
And that led on to a rather interesting discussion about timing.

There was something about the narration that I couldn't quite put my finger on at first - and then it struck me that a great many of the sentences and paragraphs seem to kick off in rhythm with the backing track.
It's not by accident. Clay described how his initial recording seemed a bit flat and lifeless...so he did what any musician would do when faced with an artistic dilemma - he put his feet up, chilled out and listened to a whole heap of jazz. And that's when he came up with the idea of treating the articles like a musical score rather than a page of text.
Once you're aware of it, it becomes easy to spot; with phrases, sentences and paragraphs falling off and on the beat, and closing remarks hitting chorus breaks and turnarounds.
It was suggested that the words might even have been written to a rhythm - which is a huge compliment - but, alas, I had to admit that all I do is bash away at a computer keyboard until either my fingers bleed or I run out of tea/beer/whisky.

I was very pleased, too, with the overall 'feel' of the pieces.
They're written with a tongue placed very firmly in a cheek, but I was curious to see how my personal sense of humour would translate. Something that particularly concerned me was that where I'd resorted to using 'comical stereotypes' (i.e. drummers, Americans, classical musicians etc.), would it come across in the same gentle fashion with which it was written? This was important to me, because there's a whole world of difference between a spot of affectionate ribbing between friends, or just being plain nasty.
I needn't have worried, and what really tickled me was that it works both ways - I absolutely loved Clay's impression of an English jazz bore...he'd really nailed it a treat.

Of course, we had a few hiccups - but these were mostly to do with that old chestnut of 'two nations being divided by a common language'.
To be fair though there were bound to be a few, what with my tendency to make much use of some of the UK's more colourful phrases - but with a few pronunciation pointers and a couple of swaps, we managed quite well.
What proved to be rather more difficult was dropping these edits into the mix - which, due to a shift in the timing, resulted in one of the articles losing a few words from its last paragraph. Instead of 'Less of a bum...and more of an arse', all that could be heard was 'Less of a bum...' before the track faded out.
This led to one of the most unique opening lines to an email that I've ever seen - namely "Ah, I bet I know what happened to the arse..."

And so all that remains for me to do is to wholeheartedly recommend you check out Clay's site and have a listen to the articles. If you've read and enjoyed them, I promise you you're in for a real treat.
You can find them at jazzstreams.org - and bonus jazz-geek points will be awarded if you can identify each of the backing tracks used in the articles.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015