The Tenement Jazz Band: Last Jazz out of Dodge

The Tenement Jazz Band is so trad that it’s barely even online, despite being only a two-year-old project with a mostly thirty-something line-up. Google them and you won’t find much—so it was enlightening to sit down and chat with the Edinburgh-based players about their bold quest to be old-school yet inventive, quirky yet danceable. They’re clearly succeeding: what you won’t learn from TJB’s bare-bones website is that they’ve played jazz clubs the length and breadth of Britain, gigged in Norway, supported US singing sensation Meschiya Lake, and are fast becoming favorites on the UK swing dance circuit.

They were riding high in March of this year, part way through a twenty-four-date tour, when the you-know-what shut down Scotland’s entertainment industry. And with that country reacting with more conviction than its English neighbor, it’s no wonder TJB are calling themselves the “last jazz out of Dodge”—for a while, at least. Fortunately, they just managed to squeeze a live album out of their paused tour, of which more later. But just who are the TJB, and how did they get here?

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The project was born in a shady corner of The Jazz Bar—Edinburgh’s busiest syncopation destination—the brainchild of self-taught trombonist Patrick Darley. “I grew up in Sheffield and started playing when I was fifteen,” said Patrick. “My brother joined a marching band and they were going all over the place. They were off to the Malta Military Tattoo and I said, ‘I want to go to Malta as well.’ And so I picked up a horn and became a musician, just like that.” Despite a distinct lack of training or experience, Patrick’s choice of instrument guaranteed him plenty of practice. “Trombone has been underrepresented wherever I’ve lived,” he said, “so I quickly became very busy.”

Tenement Jazz Band
The early band lineup

Studying acoustics at the University of Edinburgh, Patrick spent more time jamming than cramming. “I was playing in bands every night except Thursdays, when I was catching up with all the work I’d been neglecting,” he laughed. “But I got my degree then went to do a master’s degree … and spent most of that playing music as well.” Drawn to jazz and New Orleans funk, he also became interested in their historical roots. His researches eventually brought him to trad jazz, with which he soon fell in love.

So he recruited a band of Jazz Bar regulars, most of whom are no longer in the outfit. They recorded one album (previously reviewed by ST’s Joe Bebco) before slowly going their separate ways. But Patrick found fresh blood and TJB rolled on—right up to their enforced hiatus. “We were going to do a big homecoming show in Edinburgh,” said banjo man John Youngs. “We all went home for a few days and didn’t speak to each other, and then suddenly everything was shutting down, saying see you in spring.”

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Norfolk-born John moved to Edinburgh to study music, back in 2008. “My dad was into Bix Beiderbecke and my gran was a Cole Porter fan, so I always liked jazz too,” he said. He met Patrick through a students’ open mic night and they toured Europe in a minibus for a year, branding themselves the Gramophone Jazz Band. “It was basically just a long lads’ holiday, busking to make just enough money to keep having a good time,” said John. (Patrick objects to the term “lads’ holiday,” quipping that they “saw too many galleries and museums to really call it that.”) They worked for a time with clarinetist T. J. Müller (who has since moved to St. Louis) before John spent a few years “not doing music” in Bristol, southern England. But he would later return to Edinburgh (and music) with gusto as TJB’s new bassist, then banjoist.

Tenement Jazz Band
Early this year, back when live music was a thing.

Current bassist Doug Kemp studied music in Glasgow before joining a circus band—a job which took him around Europe, to New York and Hong Kong, but which was pretty punishing on the liver. “The life was good for a while, but it was pretty lively, getting drunk every night,” he said. “When the season ended I decided that enough was enough,” he added—making him perhaps one of few people to run away from the circus, not to it. After a spell of charity work in the Middle East, he too came to Edinburgh and joined New Orleans funk bands, where he crossed paths with Patrick.

Clarinetist Stephen Feast is a veteran of professional music, but a wee bairn (as the Scots say) in terms of TJB membership. He worked as a session musician in Leeds during the 1980s, before moving to London and later Germany. But his eyesight began failing and reading charts became a chore, forcing him back to Britain. A family followed, and thus a twenty-year gap in his music career. His daughter grown, he dove into Edinburgh’s jazz scene and TJB is what he found. “It’s a great city for music,” he said. “The Jazz Bar in particular has a real sense of community and everyone’s very supportive.

“I joined one week before the first gig [of the last tour],” Stephen added. “They said, ‘Here are sixty tunes to learn. We have twenty-four gigs lined up and you’ll have to sleep in a van.’” He appreciates the band’s footloose, chart-free methods. “I mostly make it up as I go along anyway,” he said. “The gigs have been really great fun. I’ve just had a great big smile the whole time.” (Chuck Dearness is the band’s trumpeter, and has been so since its inception. On the day of our chat, he was trapped in Glasgow by recently-imposed local lockdown.)

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And so, what of the group’s methods? TJB’s repertoire is informed by old recordings first and foremost — but their aim isn’t a carbon copy of the originals. They draw on the whole history of traditional jazz, including Dixieland classics and the 1950s British revival led by Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, and friends. “I don’t limit what we played by era,” said Patrick,” because there’s a lot of good stuff from the revival period—although there is a lot of cheesy stuff too. Basically, if it floats our collective boat, we’ll play it.”

The musicians seem torn between rediscovering rarities and reprising the standards. Patrick does much of the transcribing and rearranging, inspired by oddballs like the New Orleans Owls. John explained. “You’ve got stuff which is just a standard thirty-two bar form,” he said, “but then you have some really eccentric intros where you cycle through all of the keys, for example. Recordings where they play on the beat, off the beat, and just don’t do what classical western harmony should do.” (Though Patrick lacks his bandmates’ formal training and theoretical knowledge, he has “a great ear” for these things, Doug said.)

“I like the weird stuff which doesn’t really fit the standard forms,” Patrick confirmed. “Stuff like Richard M. Jones—his tunes are cracking and very quirky.” He added: “I think it’s important to go back to these recordings, because a lot of the standards have been filtered through different bands over the decades. They all sort of meet in the middle and you get a sort of ‘Real Book’ version which has lost the feel of the originals.”

Having gone to the trouble of transcribing the audio, Patrick isn’t precious about it. “I write as many parts as I can hear notes for now and then leave it up to the boys,” he said. “What’s the point of playing exactly like the record anyway? Just go and listen to the record, if that’s what you want to hear. So we write out all the charts, then we usually throw them away.”

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He thinks this is more in the “original spirit of jazz”—hard to argue with, when you consider how many of the old masters couldn’t read music. “It’s like learning French,” the bandleader added. “You don’t want to just learn stock phrases, you want to express yourself. But you need to learn the language to be understood in France—or in trad jazz land, as it were.”

Patrick’s devotion to deviation extends on stage, where new boy Stephen’s trial by fire has continued. “I noticed after a few gigs that Patrick would never count in the same song in the same tempo twice,” he said. “It would always depend on what had just gone before.” Sloppy timekeeping? No: “You don’t just want to find one way to play a tune and stick with it,” Patrick said. “That wouldn’t be very interesting. We’re more Bible-thumping Baptist preachers, than priests dishing out readings.”

Sometimes, TJB’s quirkiness is accidental. “We had a chart for ‘Copenhagen’ once which, due to a transcription error, had the rhythm section playing a semitone higher than the leads,” said John. “And I loved it, so we just kept playing it that way for a while.” Still, it pays (literally) to stick a few standards in any set, the string man added. “When we play jazz clubs around the UK, there’s a canon people really want to hear,” he said. “And there is something joyful about playing music that people have loved their whole lives, especially when they say, ‘I didn’t think I would hear that played so well again before I died.’”

When TJB might resume their tour, nobody knows. Live performances were banned in Scotland from March 16 to September 14 and reopenings have been very slow, as cautious venues leave buildings mothballed and staff on furlough. While smaller venues are eager to carry on, social distancing reduces audiences to a twenty or fewer.

“The Jazz Bar used to run three gigs per day every day—it really was the lifeblood of jazz in the city,” said John. “So there are a lot of great musicians in the city with very few opportunities to play.” Jazz societies are the band’s bread and butter, but they’re generally run by (and for) people who were around during the 1950s revival. “They’re understandably even more reticent about reopening,” John added. “And the rest of our gigs were for swing dances, which aren’t happening either.”

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Pity poor Stephen, then, who had just got back on the bandwagon. “All of the gigs just blew away one day,” he said. “And Edinburgh is such a musical city. So much so that, in a break during the gig, you could go outside and spend fifteen minutes watching someone else play.” The band has experimented with outdoor performances, but the rules even make these difficult—when the weather doesn’t. “Even if we try to organize busking on the street, the police will come and move us on,” said Stephen. “We tried playing outdoor venues like the Grassmarket, but being Scotland it’s chilly and rains quite a lot.”

Tenement Jazz Band Busking Grassmarket
Tenement Jazz Band busking Edinburgh’s Grassmarket

Many of the last tour’s venues cancelled gigs without paying cancellation fees, said Patrick. “A lot of these historic jazz clubs just don’t have the savings to pay cancellation fees, so a lot of them are promising to rebook us next year or perhaps 2022,” he added. Meanwhile, TJB has managed to put out the planned tour CD, called Tenement Jazz Band Goes South, managing the whole project without outside help.

“It was an interesting experience,” said Doug. “Steve mixed and mastered it, and our friend did the marketing. It’s just as well there was no rush to get it done, because we would normally sell the albums at our gigs. And who knows when the next one will be.”

Unsurprisingly, bandleader Patrick doesn’t mind if it’s a bit rough around the edges. “It’s not a polished masterwork,” he said, “but it’s a pretty faithful recreation of what live music was like, in the world before all this. After all, we were the last band a lot of people saw before everything shut down — kind of the last jazz out of Dodge.” Anyone unlucky enough to miss that train can still hear the tour so far on Bandcamp, where … Goes South costs under $12. It sure is a small price to pay, to keep bands like TJB on rails until they can ride them once again.

Visit the Tenement Jazz Band online at www.tenementjazzband.com. Purchase their music (including TJB Goes South) at tenementjazzband.bandcamp.com.

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