Archive for Sting

Ba-dum Ching!

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on May 15, 2011 by telescoper

One of the good things about having a blog is the chance to bore the entire internet with your own peculiar obsessions. As regular readers of In the Dark will be aware, one of my fascinations is the origin and evolution of words and phrases. This morning I had an interesting exchange on Twitter with neuroscientist and comedian extraordinaire Dean Burnett, which revolved around the word “rimshot”…and a similar word with quite different meaning which I won’t repeat in polite company.

Ever wondered what the name is for  the (often ironic) drum effect often used in cabaret or night club acts to puncuate a joke, like this?

Well, the answer is “rimshot”.

Or at least that’s the word that’s pretty universally used by comedians.

Curiously, though, if you are a percussionist rather than a comedian then a rimshot is something quite different. My father was a drummer so I had a lot of relevant terminology (flams, paradiddles, chokes, you name it) drummed into me when I was a kid. Technically, in fact, a rimshot is a single sound created by hitting the head of the drum and the rim at the same time with a drumstick. It’s an effect probably used more frequently in jazz than in other forms of music, and a good example can be heard on Miles Davis classic Summertime on which the excellent Philly Joe Jones applies a rimshot to every 4th beat of the bar. The clicking sound is something similar to that produced by claves. Nothing much to do with the word as used by comedians, then…

The word used by drummers for what comedians call a rimshot  is actually a sting. That’s certainly what my Dad always called it anyway. He often had to play in Working Mens’ Clubs and didn’t really like being on with comedians, most of whom were terrible and also told extremely blue jokes. In fact, I’m pretty sure he only ever used a sting in the ironic sense, when the gag was exceptionally poor.

There are many possible variants of the sting but the basic “ba-doom ching” is this:

which involves a tom-tom, closely followed by a kick on the bass drum, then a short pause followed by the bass drum and snare played together at the same time as a choked cymbal crash. Some stings are more elaborate than this, and a sting can indeed involve a rimshot, but most I’ve heard don’t.

Of course it’s not at all unusual for one word to have different meanings in different fields, so I’m not arguing that “rimshot” is wrong, but it’s interesting (at least to me) to wonder how when and why this divergence of meaning happened..

Incidentally, at the risk of boring you all even further, I’d add that the comedian’s rimshot has also evolved via a metonymic shift to refer not only to the sound the drummer makes but also to the joke that provoked it. In other words, an exceptionally good (or, more likely, bad)  gag is often itself referred to as a rimshot.

And with that, my time’s up. You’ve been a lovely audience. Thank you, and goodnight.

Ba-Dum Ching!

P.S. If you’re ever in need of a rimjob rimshot, you can get one here.

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An Englishman in New York

Posted in Biographical, Literature, Music with tags , , , on February 20, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday’s post about Bayesian statistics has generated over a thousand hits in just a day – highly unusual for a Saturday posting at In the Dark. I guess that proves that there’s a lot of interest out there in such matters, so I’ll return to the theme as soon as I have both the time and the energy, which might take a while because those are conjugate variables!

After yesterday’s exertions I felt like relaxing this morning, and I did so by transferring some of my old vinyl (and even shellac!) records into digital format using a USB turntable. I’m a bit frustrated by the fact that some of my favourite classic old jazz records aren’t available on Youtube and am thinking of correcting that at some point myself, despite my latent technophobia.

However, in the course of rooting about in my record collection I found a vinyl single of this record by Sting, the Ben Liebrand remix to be precise. It is, of course, a homage to the late Quentin Crisp whose book The Naked Civil Servant I read after seeing the wonderful film starring John Hurt, which was broadcast on the BBC in 1975, when I was 12. I found inspiration in both, for reasons I probably don’t need to spell out. Crisp emigrated to the United States in 1981 and lived the last years of his life in a dingy one-room apartment in New York City.

There’s another quasi-biographical connection with this record. When I was a little kid living in Benwell, my Dad used to play the drums with local jazz bands. At the time Sting (or plain Gordon Sumner as he was then known) was working as a supply teacher in the area and he played the double-bass with local groups too, including the Phoenix Jazz Band and the River City Jazz Band; the latter was certainly a band my father played with from time to time. My Dad once told me that he had played with Sting on a number of occasions, and he’d even practised in our garage, but I’m not sure how much of that is actually true.

Incidentally, in case you didn’t know, Sting got his nickname playing with jazz bands in the North-East. He always refused to wear the band uniforms but instead tended to turn up for gigs wearing a black and yellow hooped jumper which made him look a bit like a bee, hence the name.

This isn’t a jazz record, of course, but it does feature Branford Marsalis (brother of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis) on soprano saxophone. I bought a soprano saxophone some time ago and tried to play along with the track just now – the chords aren’t very complicated so it shouldn’t have been too difficult even for an incompetent like me. However, I’m finding the soprano sax quite a recalcitrant beast which is very difficult to play in tune. I’m not sure why. I manage all right with its bigger brother the tenor sax. Perhaps it’s my embouchure? Or, as jazz musicians say, I haven’t got the chops?

I’ll just quote one particularly telling  verse from the lyrics:

Takes more than combat gear to make a man
Takes more than a license for a gun
Confront your enemies, avoid them when you can
A gentleman will walk but never run


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Little Bits of History

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , on January 28, 2009 by telescoper

I noticed this morning that I’ve passed a bit of a milestone on here. I’ve actually reached my 100th post. That probably means I’ve been spending way too much time blogging but, undaunted, here I go again.

Ages ago (or it seems like ages ago) I posted an item about Humphrey Lyttelton and during the course of it I mentioned that my Dad had played the drums with Humph some years ago. I did mention in that post that I would put up a picture as soon as I found it, which I have now done. Here it is, taken probably somewhere around 1990.

humph_dad_2

I’m not entirely sure of the venue. I always thought this session took place in the Corner House in Newcastle but on closer inspection it doesn’t really look like it in this photograph so I wouldn’t bet on my memory being right.  It’s not a great photograph, but that’s definitely my  Dad (Alan Coles) on the drums. I don’t know the other personnel, but you do get a  proper impression of how tall Humph was (he’s on trumpet, of course) .

Humph of course had his own band but many jazz venues (including the Corner House) preferred to invite soloists only to come and play with the house band. The main reason I think was that it was cheaper that way. And of course the local musicians loved it because they got to play with their heros. My Dad idolized Humphrey Lyttelton but when he finally got to play with him he was extremely nervous and didn’t particularly enjoy the evening.

Semi-professional bands like the Savoy Band shown here couldn’t afford fancy band uniforms or outfits so for some reason they all seem to settle on cheap red nylon shirts, as shown in the picture. I don’t know why because they’re not at all pleasant to wear if you’re going to be sweaty. But these shirts reminded me of a story that I’ve bored people with over many years. When I was  little (in the  70s) there was a similar band in Newcastle called the Phoenix Jazz Band. They also wore horrible red nylon shirts for gigs, except for their young bass player (a guy called Gordon) who refused to do so. This uppity young student teacher turned up for gigs in a black-and-yellow hooped jersey so he looked rather like a bumble-bee or a wasp. The rest of the band called him, rather sarcastically, Sting. He soon went on to other things but the name stuck.

My dad always claimed that Sting had played the double bass in our garage – when I lived in Benwell village. I don’t remember having seen him though, and I might well have been having my leg pulled. Actually it wasn’t a garage anyway, more of a big wooden shed where he kept his drums and lots of other junk.

Anyway, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this but I did for a while have dreams of becoming a Jazz musician myself. I wanted to be a saxophonist but my Dad persuaded me that I should learn to play the clarinet first and it would be easy then to switch to sax. I don’t think it was very good advice because they’re quite different instruments to play, but I rather think he had pushed the clarinet because he wanted me to play traditional Jazz rather than modern stuff.

I found that I had quite a good ear for music and a pretty good sense of rhythm so I mastered the rudiments fairly quickly but never got much further than that. I even got as far as sitting in with some bands, but never became a full-time member of one.

Sitting in with one of these traditional Jazz bands  is a very informal business. Usually the repertoire consists of standard tunes that everyone knows and there are no real arrangements as such. The trumpet usually plays the lead for a chorus or two, with impromptu clarinet and trombone alongside, then there’s a sequence of solos (usually a couple of choruses for each player, unless you really get into it and the leader shouts “take another!”), and then you play out to the end. Other than that you make it up as you go along.

But there is one notable exception to this, a number called High Society. This probably began as a Mardi Gras parade tune but later on came to be played as an up-tempo flag-waver. Almost every Jazz band, however, plays it the same way. It starts with a sort-of call to arms with drum rolls and a few phrases on the horns a bit like a fanfare before moving into tempo and it has quite a few scored passages that are played straight (i.e. without improvisation). When it breaks eventually into the solos there is an unwritten rule that the clarinet soloist plays a standard set-piece solo obbligato, at least for one chorus, after which it’s back to the more normal improvised solo.

I don’t know how this became such a strong tradition but you can check it out yourself. There are dozens of versions of High Society played by different Jazz bands and the clarinettist will always play the same basic notes. There’s a classic recording by Jelly Roll Morton on which there are two clarinettists (Albert Nicholas and Sidney Bechet) who both play the original licks, one after the other.

The story I heard was that this solo (as well as possibly the tune itself) was written by a man called Alphonse Picou who was born in 1878 and played with the first real Jazz band in New Orleans, which was led by the legendary figure of Buddy Bolden, the first great jazz trumpeter. Bolden died in 1931 but no recordings by him have ever come to light because he stopped playing before 1910 and spent most of the rest of his life in mental institutions. It is said that Buddy Bolden’s band did make a cylinder recording, but this grail-like object has never been found.

High Society is such a well known tune and is such fun to play that it is very often part of after-hours Jam sessions at clubs like the Corner House where I did once actually play the  Alphonse Picou solo from memory (or at least some sort of approximation to it), having heard it so many times on different records.

Last weekend, when I was playing around on Youtube, I chanced upon a bit of film of New Orleans Jam Session from 1958. It was looking back down a very long tunnel into ancient history but you could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw, sitting down next to the piano at the left, the great man himself, Alphonse Picou. I never thought there would be a film of him, thinking that he was, like Buddy Bolden, an almost mythical figure.  I later found elsewhere, a clip from the same session of him playing his own famous solo! However, he was 80 years old and very frail at the time and he doesn’t actually play it that  well so I’ll spare his posthumous blushes (he died in 1961) by picking a rather better number from the same session.

The tune I’ve picked to put on here is called Mamie’s Blues.  They play it with that lovely lazily lilting beat that’s so typical of authentic New Orleans Jazz but is actually so difficult to get right.  And if it  wasn’t enough to see Alphonse Picou, there are several other legendary names too: Paul Barbarin (drums), George Lewis (clarinet) and Jim Robinson (trombone) amonst others. The session happened 50 years ago at which point these were all very old men and they’re all long gone now.This clip, to me, is every bit as important a piece of history as, say, an original score by Mozart.

They may all look like they’ve seen better days, but they certainly still knew how to play!