Jerry Garcia once compared his band the Grateful Dead to liquorice. As with the pitch-black confectionery, you either loved them or loathed them, he said. It was impossible to feel merely neutral.
I adore the Dead, and have a corresponding fondness for liquorice. Ever since childhood, I have never been able to get enough of the stuff. Never mind the addictive qualities of crack pipes, it’s liquorice pipes that hit all my buttons. Liquorice comfits aren’t to be mocked either.
Recently, I’ve discovered the quintessence of liquorice. It’s the so-called ‘soft-eating’ variety, manufactured in Australia by a firm called Betta. It comes in nice old-fashioned brown paper bags in big chunky logs, is easy to chew even for those with teeth as unstable as mine and has a deliciously intense flavour, with aniseed much to the fore. I’m beginning to sound like a pretentious wine writer so suffice it to say that, if you like liquorice, you’ll love this. Unfortunately, I’ve been eating so much of the stuff I’ve felt obliged to give it up for Lent, along with my habit of haunting record shops as though under some kind of spectral curse and spending more money than I can afford.
You might think that with no liquorice and no new CDs I’d be climbing the walls by now, but in fact I’m feeling unexpectedly chipper. It’s no longer dark when I go to work, the early blossom is out, and I’ve just discovered something rather wonderful on the radio.
It’s called theJazz, and you’ll need a digital radio, a computer or a satellite dish to receive it. But it’s absolutely cracking. It plays jazz 24/7, as the station idents put it, and whoever is in charge of the playlist knows his onions. Though jazzers are notoriously disputatious, the station seems to me to make a pretty impressive fist of pleasing most of the people, most of the time. Almost all the essential names —Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, John Coltrane — are present and correct, as are such Blue Note favourites as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Grant Green and Jimmy Smith.
There’s plenty of vocal jazz — about one track in four at my estimation — with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald generously represented, along with the newer likes of Jamie Cullum, Chris Botti and Madeleine Peyroux. Personally I could do with more of the former and less of the latter, and both swing and bebop strike me as under-represented. There was no Charlie Parker on the 12-hour playlist I inspected, nor have I heard him on air, but Mingus is played, as is the great and neglected British player Tubby Hayes, and I have been delighted to catch the matchless revivalist jazz of Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden.
At present — and I fear the station is unlikely ever to be quite so enjoyable again — there are neither presenters nor commercials. It’s non-stop music, pure though often far from simple, and the only way to find out what’s playing is to study the scrolling text on your digital radio, which can involve much tiresome getting out of your chair unless you use a handy pair of binoculars.
But these are early days — theJazz is a sister station to the mighty Classic FM, and transmissions began only a couple of months ago. The long-term plan is that it will do for jazz what Classic FM has done for classical music. This isn’t entirely welcome news. There are some of us who feel faintly sick at the very mention of Classic FM’s notoriously smarmy breakfast presenter Sime ‘the slime’ Bates, and the station’s not infrequent injunctions to ‘Relax’ can drive even the most laid-back to a state of twitching fury. Why the bloody hell should we if we don’t feel like it?
However, theJazz’s affable MD Darren Henley was reassuring when I spoke to him. He seems genuinely enthused about the idea of bringing jazz to a wider audience — there is no other specialist station devoted to the genre — and promises that presenter chat will be minimal and information-based while ads will occupy just four minutes of every hour. The present playlist is an accurate representation of what will be on air when the station gets fully into its stride over the Easter holiday, kicking off with a listeners’ poll of the top 500 jazz numbers of all time. As with Classic FM, he also hopes the station will spawn CDs, books and live shows.
I’ve been listening in much of my spare time for several weeks and have been genuinely delighted by what I’ve heard. There are, of course, many who hate jazz as much as they hate liquorice and the Grateful Dead, which is perhaps why we hear so little of it on the radio. But for those who are hooked, theJazz threatens to become indispensable.