Over a pint in the Post Office Vaults, a pub in central Birmingham, and in a subsequent email exchange. Mike Fletcher talks to Peter Bacon.
So, how do you make sure your child becomes a jazz musician? Well, it’s not a question many parents would want to hear the answer to. It’s not the career path that many parents – those who want them to have financial stability, for example – might be wishing for their cherished offspring.
On the other hand, if we’re talking exploring their creativity, bringing pleasure to those around them, to enriching the artistic heritage, to making our world a better place, to a likely future of at least some self-understanding and self-fulfillment – and wanting all these things for our children and the future – then maybe you would like to know.
The answer seems to lie in the breakfast table test.
Mike Fletcher, saxophonist, flautist, composer, band leader and jazz promoter explains:
A typical school morning in the Fletcher household was as follows. Mike Jr. would scrape himself out of bed and find Mike Sr. in the kitchen listening to some record or other.
Mike Sr ‘Good morning. Would you like a cup of tea?’
Mike Jr: ‘Yeah dad, that would be great’
Mike Sr: ‘Well tell me who the sax player is then.’
Mike Fletcher – the Jr one that is – was born in Birmingham into a musical family where his own musical journey started very early in life. By the age of 16 he was playing saxophone in his father’s big band and the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra both of which featured him as a jazz soloist. He went on to study jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire and graduated in 2005.
Since then he has lived and worked in the UK, Germany and Spain.
Mike’s work has been featured in jazz festivals including London, Cheltenham, Manchester and Harmonic in the UK as well as in Spain, Germany, Cyprus and Brazil.
Mike runs several ensembles, the main two being a trio and a larger jazz ensemble, both of which feature his original writing and the latter of which was featured in collaboration with Andrew D’Angelo and Dan Weiss at CBSO Centre Birmingham in January 2013.
As a co-leader and sideman Mike’s performance credits include work with Tony Bianco, Paul Dunmall, Hans Koller, Bobby Previte, Mark Sanders and Jeff Williams among many others.
Mike founded the highly successful Jazz @ The Spotted Dog series in 2010, which has gone on to become one of Birmingham’s most successful regular jazz events. Featured artists have included Eric Alexander, George Colligan and Peter King as well as a host of the best of the younger generations of jazz musicians from the UK and beyond.
So that is the short biog all done and dusted. Now back to Mike as he amplifies – and most generously – in answer to the question of how he got started:
A To start off with a nice hackneyed cliché ‘I didn’t find jazz, jazz found me’. What I mean to say is that my father is a jazz saxophonist so when I was growing up it was just a part of life. That said I didn’t pop out of the womb ready to play.
I had a couple of cassette tapes with various unrelated tracks that I had come across and so inevitably some of those were jazz, (one of which was a track called Opskud by Brian Abrahams’ band District Six. (I’d love to hear it again so there a couple of pints in it for anyone who knows how to get hold of a copy of the album Imgoma Yabantwana.)), but I seem to remember Morning from Peer Gynt and a couple of TV theme tunes being on there too.
One of the more influential tracks was Glenn Miller’s String Of Pearls, and for a while I listened to this band a fair bit. I didn’t realize at the time but I learned a lot about the standard repertoire from listening to big bands when I was young.
I wasn’t even drawn to the sax initially. I had piano lessons for a bit when I was six or seven and then cello for a few years. Hearing my dad playing sax around the house and being taken to various jazz gigs obviously had an effect on me so I eventually persuaded him to buy me a saxophone. After that it all happened quite fast and once I discovered Charlie Parker there was no way back!
The reason I persist is twofold. I have had rigorous grounding in the history of jazz.
Here is where the breakfast table test anecdote comes in.
Therefore at least a part of my love of jazz comes from the fact that it’s pretty closely tied in with my upbringing and so, cultural and historical differences aside, this is my music.
The other part is a bit less clear-cut but I find it a very natural way of playing music, and on a larger scale of living life. As in all music, preparation (that is to say practice, rehearsal, study, etc.) is essential, but jazz requires that the musician prepare more specifically for the unknown. That is to say that the large part of any performance is left relatively undefined so there is much more of a sense of adventure about it.
In non-improvised music you more or less know, barring disasters, what to expect, but with jazz you have to wait and see!
Q Who were the players that first attracted you and do they still appeal? Who would you say has most influenced you and who are your current favourites?
A The first player I remember really listening to was Louis Armstrong, especially an album called Satch Plays Fats. So Louis would probably me my greatest influence and he definitely still appeals.
Whenever the talk of favourite sax players comes up I like to cite Roy Plomley, creator of Desert Island Discs. When the castaway on the programme was asked to choose one book it was assumed that any reader would choose either The Bible or the Complete Works Of Shakespeare so in order to make the selection more interesting you get those two thrown in for free.
The sax player version of that would be Bird and Coltrane so excluding those two my biggest influence in terms of how I play is Jackie McLean.
Probably my current favourite is the Spanish sax and flute player Jorge Pardo, who is probably best known to jazz fans through his association with Chick Corea but he is generally regarded as the most individual voice in jazz in Spain. His music is a really organic synthesis of jazz and flamenco. I’d highly recommend seeking out some of his own records if you haven’t already.
Q You have been doing quite a bit of collaborational work, or writing and arranging for specific projects recently. Do you enjoy that? Are there difficulties associated with it as well as pleasures and rewards?
A I have been getting a lot more into writing from a compositional standpoint recently. I have always written music but thinking as a horn player, creating jumping off points for improvisation rather than really getting to grips with compositional techniques.
My most recent project was part of the Reich:Influences series run by THSH, the brief being to write a programme of new music combining influences of Steve Reich and John Coltrane with my own music.
This was the first time I have had such explicit guidelines to work with and, to be honest, they were a help and a hindrance in equal measure! Normally when I write I’ll have a vague idea of what sort of band I’m writing for but after that I’m pretty much free to do whatever I want, so the discipline of having to conform to certain rules has done me some good.
I’ve ended up with a lot more music than we played on the gig, most of which I wouldn’t have written if it hadn’t been for the brief. The process itself was quite enlightening too. I found that when I was specifically trying to write with the minimalist/modal thing in mind I was coming up with loads of really great ideas that were completely unrelated to the task in hand. I suppose it’s the same process that leaves me with a spotlessly tidy house every time I’m trying to do my tax return!
I have also been writing a lot for my jazz ensemble, which is a band that has grown out of the big band I have been running for the last few years. I’m planning on making this the main outlet for my writing for the foreseeable future so watch this space…
Q You are not only a musician but also a promoter. How do you see these two roles? Are they easy to combine? Do you feel you have a social responsibility to help promote jazz and other musicians?
A I started the Tuesday night sessions at The Spotted Dog at the end of 2010 when I was getting back into playing after having a few health issues and really just wanted to find somewhere to play on a fairly regular basis without the hassle of chasing after promoters.
I don’t really consider myself to be a promoter as such, or at least if I am it’s as a promoter of jazz music rather than jazz musicians. I think this is a fairly common route for musicians of a certain way of thinking to take. Obviously Ronnie Scott is the best example of this but there are plenty of guys of my generation in the UK who are doing similar things.
I don’t feel obligated to ‘the scene’ as such but I am aware that the music we play is becoming increasingly marginalised and I think if it’s to have any future then the musicians themselves will have to play no small part in that. There are a growing number of regional musicians collectives that are all doing similar things (check out Blam!) so I think there are enough people thinking along the same lines to guarantee gigs for the next few years at least!
QThis is one I ask all jazz musicians: how the hell do you make a living from jazz music?
A I’m still working that one out myself! From what I can tell the best answer is to be versatile and not too precious about what you do. I know there are people who live off jazz but they’re in a minority so those who don’t have to find a viable alternative.
Some guys teach so they don’t have to do function gigs and some do function gigs so they don’t have to teach! I tend to play rather than teach but I’ve done both. The ideal is to find something fairly flexible that give you the chance to take the gigs you want to and earn a living in the gaps. I’ve started getting into instrument repair so I’m hoping this is going to provide the key for me.
Q What are the three things that would make your life easier as a jazz musician?
A Neighbours who were a bit more tolerant of my practising habits would definitely be help, as would a venue owner who wanted to give me a six-month residency with my band! And people normally ask for world peace too in these situations so why buck the trend. I’m sure if some of the Defence Budget were freed up for the arts we’d all be sitting a bit more comfortably.
Q What are the three things wrong with modern jazz music and the business surrounding it?
A I’m not sure if I can give you the three (or at least not the three you are thinking of). – My mind was a blank – Ed – One thing that I’m noticing is that as it gets harder and harder to make money from gigs, that is to say actual revenue from ticket sales, there is a greater reliance on funding.
As much as I think arts funding can be a positive thing, and I certainly don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me, I’m concerned that the tendency is to try and create a project that appeals to a given funding body rather than one that comes from a more honest place musically.
Often projects that are conceived in this way don’t have a particularly long shelf life and so don’t allow much in the way of musical and artistic development. I think a consequence of this is that the emphasis is taken away from the way a musician plays and put on the context he is presented in. This encourages audiences to focus on the context rather than the content of the music, which I think is a shame because it causes many very talented and worthy musicians to remain unnoticed in all the hype.
Q Tell us your favourite jazz album of all time – and why you like it.
A My favourite of all time is hard to say right now but from the ones I have listened to so far Glass Bead Games by Clifford Jordan features quite high up. I like it because it has a quiet and understated intensity and is such a strong statement of one man’s music. As such I find it very inspiring to the artist in me.
Besides that, the actual music is wonderful to listen to as well. It’s a mix between hard bop and more forward-looking jazz and features two quartets that at the time of recording were regular working units, and it shows in the music. The track Prayer To The People is a definite desert island disc.
And if you would like to hear Mike Fletcher tell you more – and all in music – then there will be opportunities around Birmingham and beyond in the future. I predict we’ll be hearing a lot more from him.
He often plays at his regular Tuesday evening haunt, The Spotted Dog in Digbeth. Find out more by adding Jazz @ The Spotted Dog to your facebook pages.