Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now chime with life at the Bar.
These two numbers by the great Thomas “Fats” Waller exemplify what musicians call “stride piano” a style of playing that touches chords in the human psyche that make you want to dance, sing and smile.
Music is said to release the endorphins in our bodies, more particularly when you are making the music yourself.
Growing up in a family dominated by music – my father Leslie Sarony was one of the most prolific composers of popular songs between the 1920s and 1940s – was a formative influence. Though he wrote some of the most absurd songs such as ‘Ain’t it Grand to be Blooming Well Dead, Why Build a Wall Round a Graveyard (When Nobody Wants to Get in) and Don’t be Cruel to a Vegatabuel (sic) he disapproved of my taste for jazz, contrasting it unfavourably with the works of Chopin and Tchaikovsky.
Given his preference for the classics, from the age of 6, I was condemned to hours of piano lessons from teachers who shared a common characteristic of lacking any sense of the soul of music. I could write a book of my excuses for not having practised.
I longed to break away from this rigid regime of clacking women – they were all women – who failed to discern their wayward pupil’s idiosyncratic desire to improvise. Contrary to the famous adage that ‘those who can, do and those who can’t, teach’ in my experience music teachers could play but they could not teach.
Then I discovered ‘Fats’ and fell in love with stride. The very first record that I bought was his ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’. Most jazz pianists are largely self-taught. We experiment and when we get comfortable in whatever style we adopt, from that point on our music is a special way of expressing ourselves.
I am lucky enough to have inherited my father’s talent for amusing lyrics though my political satire tends to be rather more biting than his, understandably, given the current state of the world.
The Bar and Jazz
But more than just expressing ourselves, jazz liberates emotions in a way that no other medium does.
Which brings me to the connection between life at the Bar and jazz piano.
A barrister’s professional life is a constant challenge. In many respects it is gladiatorial. My friend Michael Ozorio QC once observed, pithily, that we were more like street fighters. The adversarial nature of the common law system means that advocacy often drains one of energy, leaving you mentally and physically exhausted by the end of a hard-fought day in court.
This is when music, particularly playing the freestyle syncopation of jazz, provides the creative dynamic to restore personal equilibrium. It can also provide a most welcome solace when recovering from a particularly wearing courtroom experience before an intellectually impaired tribunal or dysfunctional opponent.
Sadly, humour is largely alien to Hong Kong’s courtrooms.
But the creative aspect is hugely rewarding and redemptive. Writing satirical lyrics which parody ridiculous behavior by people in the public eye demands a keen ear for rhyming couplets that capture the essence of the absurd. Some barristers exercise their brains by doing crosswords, this one prefers composing satire.
To lampoon people’s nonsense, especially the aberrations of arrogant judges and pompous air-brained politicians, is honey to the soul.
In fact, writing both lyrics and melodies engages both sides of the brain.
Anyone listening to ‘Vintage Chart Toppers’ on RTHK Radio 3 on a Sunday morning will hear my ragtime jingle promoting this highly entertaining wander through music from the 1920s to the 1950s by Colin Aitchison, musical director of the China Coast Jazzmen.
I have never actually sung to a jury (though some friends challenged me to do so) but reciting some of the lyrics of a song which catch the essence of a key part of a closing speech has often proved most effective in getting across the message.
In one trial at the Old Bailey, the prosecution was endeavouring to convince the jury to believe some police officers whose evidence, for all its measured delivery, strained credibility. In my closing speech for the defendant, I invited the jury to approach the evidence as though the prosecution were treating them like the great showman P.T. Barnum in the eponymous musical ‘Barnum.’
There’s a sucker born every minute,
Each time that second hand gets to the top
Like dandelions up they pop
Their ears so big their eyes so wide
And though I feed ‘em bona fide baloney
With no truth in it
You can bet I’ll find a rube to buy my corn
‘cos there’s a sure-as- shooting sucker born a minute
And I’m referring to the minute you were born.
The defendant was duly acquitted.
A criminal trial is living theatre and the advocate needs to capture and hold the attention of the jury, in short the barrister must entertain them because there is nothing more calculated to ‘lose’ them than to bore.
The closing speech is closely akin to a song. It must have a shape, with a beginning, a middle that builds to an end just as a song tells a story. And in the telling, the rhythm and cadence of speech has to capture the evidence and the personalities just as though the voice was a musical instrument.
The stereotypical wigged and gowned barrister drily advancing implausible submissions is a far cry from my experiences at The Old Bailey. Amongst the great advocates who starred at that London Palladium of Criminal Courts, Bill Denny QC, Michael West QC and James Mulcahy QC were all tremendous jazz pianists and their music informed their advocacy.
The piano and jazz are massively therapeutic. At the end of a week, if at all possible, I go to Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, a jazz bar in Tsim Sha Tsui where I have the privilege of ‘sitting-in’ with the resident New Orleans jazz band.
Without a musical score or a word spoken, each jazz musician knows what and when to play.
At its best, jazz played together as a group is a magical synergy of spontaneity and homogeneity. If you watch the faces of the musicians you will often see their acknowledgment of a particularly artful or humorous piece of musicianship light up in smiles.
If playing on your own is good for the soul, playing with a bunch of fine jazz musicians is akin to being given a day pass to heaven.
At the start of this article I mentioned two of Fats Waller’s compositions which revolved around ‘Misbehavin’ and ‘Mischief’. I like to think that the counterpoint to my work, especially at the Criminal Bar, is that jazz piano enables me to misbehave mischievously.
Anyone sufficiently interested can sample the flavor of my compositions at https://soundcloud.com/steve-james78/whyd-it-have-to-be-you-neville-saro...