Now what the hell will we do for a reed player?

January 19, 2013 at 4:27 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D)

Norman Field at Whitley Bay, October 2012:

Here are a number of jazz heroes and a heroine (Emma Fisk on violin). Hark well, because this could be the last time reedman (on clarinet here) Norman Field will be seen blowing a horn. Norman says he’s decided to stop playing, so this appearance at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party in October may well be his swansong.

Norman is a very profound guy: a witty, sophisticated working-class autodidact who also happens to be a master clarinet and sax player specialising in the “hot” styles of players from the late twenties and early-to-mid-thirties. I’ve heard him “do” Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Omar Simeon, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman – and on one memorable occasion, all of the above, and more, in the course of a single gig (with Keith Nichols, entitled something like “history of jazz clarinet”). But Norman is most emphatically not some sort of musical impressionist, merely copying earlier pioneers: he’s an original, whose playing always bears the mark of his own individualism, even when he’s referencing someone else. In the clip above, for instance, Norman’s brilliant obligatos (to Duke Heitger’s trumpet) and solo spots contain more than a hint of Pee Wee Russell, but it’s a number Pee Wee himself never recorded (as far as I know), and Norman’s playing is 100 per cent original.

When I last met up with Norman we spoke of many things: the Princess Eugenie, Napoleon III and the Franco-Prussian war, the scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla and the ‘mad scientist’ in literature and film, and the possible uses that British intelligence may have made of 78rpm records during WW2. I did not ask him about his decision to stop playing.

A little later I met Tom ‘Spats’ Langham (the guitarist and singer in the clip) and we found we’d both had the same reaction to Norman’s announcement: it was a tragedy and an incalculable loss to classic jazz, but we had no right and no authority to challenge Norman or to try to persuade him to change his mind. Norman has had quite a difficult time of it, one way and the other, over the years and all we can do now is respect his decision and wish him well.

Still, I can’t help thinking of the (alleged) words of Wild Bill Davison, on hearing of the death of Frank Teschmacher back in 1932: “Now what the hell am I going to do for a sax man?”

NB: the Whitley Bay clip was filmed and made available by Michael Steinman, whose great blog Jazz Lives is a brilliant diary of classic and mainstream jazz activity in the US and (occasionally, when he visits) Britain.

1 Comment

  1. Jim Denham said,

    Another endearing quality of Norman’s is his extraordinary personal generosity. He’s far from being wealthy, but when with friends or even just acquaintances, he insists upon paying for all the drinks and food. Spats and I have discussed the various ploys and ruses that have to be employed in order to stop Norman paying for everything in pubs, bars and restaurants….

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