When I was a child I loved pop music. As a teenager I listened to rock, and in my twenties I pretty much liked anything, especially if it featured weird bleeping sounds or angry people rapping. But in all that time, I never really found time for jazz.
Now I’m in my thirties, I have a good friend who plays saxophone in a jazz band, so I was never going to escape the velvety clutches of jazz for long. Unfortunately, my first experience was not particularly auspicious. Last year, my friend invited me to a live show by a famous jazz band. Accompanying us was my friend’s girlfriend’s co-worker, who they were trying to set me up with. She was a gynaecologist. I ruminated on this fact as I sipped my drink, enveloped in the moist warmth of the music. The sensation was not altogether unpleasant.
This feeling, however, was soon replaced by irritation as the gynaecologist and my friend’s girlfriend began to talk loudly to each other, completely ignoring the band playing just a few feet away. Before long, a member of the audience wearing a ridiculous hat leaned over to me and demanded, “make them shut up!” I took a moment to weigh up the irritation I felt at being asked to get someone I didn’t really know to shut up and my irritation at hearing two people chat loudly throughout a live show. Then I leaned over and asked the gynaecologist to shut up.
She never talked to me again.
This uncomfortable situation was still on my mind a couple of weekends ago, when I went to see my friend’s band play live in a smoky bar somewhere in Tokyo. Determined to behave properly this time, I’d been so nervous about the show that I’d drunk a large number of beers and whiskies before going. My friends and I turned up a little late, and although we were ushered to our seats like a group of naughty children, the music was good and I soon began to relax.
In a break between songs, the singer began to chat with the audience cheerily. Jazz can be fun, I thought to myself, sipping on a giant whisky. As the show was held during Tanabata, a Japanese festival when people traditionally make wishes on stars, the singer was asking members of the audience what they wished for this year. The first person said that he’d wished for good health for his family, and the singer said a few pleasant words about this. I looked on, smiling beatifically, full of good cheer for my fellow man.
But then, the Bad Thing happened.
An old Japanese man sitting in front of us thrust his hand into the air proudly. When the singer asked him what he’d wished for, the old man seemed to shout, in English: “CHEESE ON THE ARSE!” The whole room was silent. The man just sat there, erect in his seat, apparently proud of what he’d just said. The singer mumbled a few words, and the band launched into their next number.
I spent the next twenty minutes trying not to laugh out loud, completely failing, feeling guilty about laughing, laughing about feeling guilty, and then laughing about laughing about feeling guilty. My mind was a whirl of drunken thoughts. Why didn’t anyone else in the room laugh? Was the old man a bizarre cheese fetishist who liked to have melted cheese poured onto his buttocks, like something in Fifty Shades of Grey? Or was he some kind of stalker who followed the singer to all her live shows and harassed her to put cheese on his arse? And why did he pronounce the word in the British way? Did he spend some time studying English in London?
By the time the next break came along, I was almost hysterical. I walked up to my friend on stage, smirking like a schoolboy who just heard his teacher fart. “Did you hear what the old guy said? Did you hear?!?” I was almost shouting with excitement.
My friend drew back, wiping spittle from his face. “What old guy?” With an exaggerated, drunken gesture, I pointed at the man sitting just a few feet away from us. Every pair of eyes in the room was suddenly on us, including the man’s.
“HE SAID HE WISHED FOR CHEESE ON THE ARSE!” I shouted, almost crying with laughter, my voice echoing around the now silent room. “CHEESE! ON THE ARSE!”
“Mate,” my friend said, looking around warily. “I heard him clearly.”
I nodded vigorously, still smirking.
“He said he was wishing for peace,” my friend said, shaking his head. “Peace on the Earth.”
And that is where my jazz odyssey came to an end.