Matthew Wright – ‘Jazz and Cricket – an unlikely combination’
(Cadillac Music & Publishing. 75pp. Book review by Mary James)
Jazz and cricket may seem an unlikely combination – the former conjures up images of smoky basements and very late nights, the latter afternoons on the village green, healthy players and delicious teas. But Matthew Wright soon puts paid to that superficial assessment in this engaging and informative book which combines history with anecdote, where cricket and jazz are equal partners and the characters we are introduced to are memorable and colourful.
Take Frank Parr – a man who ate only fried food and eschewed social niceties. “Even in flannels, walking on to the field, he still managed to look anything but a cricketer,” wrote England fast bowler Brian Statham of Parr, whose promising wicket-keeping career ended abruptly in 1956, who went on to join Mick Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band (of which George Melly was a member), became Acker Bilk’s manager and a film extra, dying in 2012. And Patrick ‘Spike’ Hughes (drawn to cricket after Cambridge and who once dismissed Maurice Tate’s XI for 17, taking 6 wickets) whose musical adventures peaked whilst in New York with a 1933 Decca recording of Spike Hughes and his All-American Orchestra featuring Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins, an event of such magnitude for him that everything else afterwards was an anticlimax and he stopped playing. And more recently bassist Orlando Le Fleming who showed genuine promise as a medium-fast bowler for Devon CC and Somerset Second XI, but then moved to New York where he has made his mark in jazz as both sideman and band leader.
So what is it about jazz and cricket that enables men to move between these two different ways of life? (And, incidentally, it is in essence only men – no female cricketers are mentioned, and woman musicians such as Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald appear tangentially in anecdotes.)
One answer to that question comes from Jim Godbolt, writer and founding editor of house magazine Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s. He wrote: “Both cricket and jazz, irrespective of style, require a sense of rhythm, timing, concentration, improvisation, solo and team work.” It’s as much an attitude of mind as anything else. As Le Fleming says on his website, [my] “facility as an improviser and capacity as a team player were first honed not on the bandstand, nor in the practice room, but on the cricket pitch”.
Wright draws on an article by Mike Marqusee entitled Why Cricket? in which he observes that an extra-terrestrial observing a cricket match, knowing nothing of the rules but able to work them out by observation, might wonder why humans spend so many hours in such a seemingly pointless activity. But we go to a cricket match to watch the unfolding of something unpredictable, dependent on the internal life of the players as much as their skills with bat or ball. Those watching are not just consumers of cricket, they are engaging imagination, interpretation and memory. And so it is with jazz. We never know how it is going to turn out. We love to watch contrasting skills – the elegance and grace of David Gower and the belligerence of Ian Botham, hear the lyricism of Miles Davis alongside John Coltrane’s urgent harder tone.
The book is beautifully illustrated with team photos, album covers and membership cards to long lost London clubs. There are thoughtful and insightful chapters on the development of cricket in the West Indies, South Africa and the USA, and the rich contribution to British life of migrants such as Tunji Sowande who became the first Black judge in the UK, played with Ronnie Scott as well as being a keen cricketer and member of the MCC. There is much of interest in this book, even if you have never cared for cricket, the insights that Wright offers will prompt further reflection on what we enjoy in jazz.
Central to the book is a chapter on the Ravers CC, the jazz cricket team of the 100 Club (then called the Lyttleton Club) comprising personalities in jazz, of whom Frank Parr was the most eminent cricketer. Ray Smith (of Collet’s Record Shop) was a spin bowler of great skill, taking 5 for 9 runs on one occasion. They all took their cricket very seriously. It wouldn’t be a book about cricket that didn’t include some numbers and the book ends with Frank Parr’s First-class career statistics.
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