Despite their lack of mainstream kudos (exemplified in the name of the pop act ‘Johnny Hates Jazz’), there were many brilliant young jazz musicians in nineteen-eighties Britain. Some got quite famous, some not-quite-so famous and others remain not-at-all famous.
The jazz musician Justin Haynes, who died on March 13, was one of the only Canadians I’ve met to have heard of one of the quite famous eighties UK figures, Django Bates. He told me he knew Django and that he would ‘make a record with him’ when Django got less busy.
Both men are associated with the piano, but not only the piano. When it
comes to the ukulele, there can’t be many practitioners to have played it like Justin. He brought his idiosyncratic, manic, subversive humour to that instrument.
On other recordings and other instruments his music displayed a bleak peacefulness, what I would call ‘anti-music’, that was cliche-free, did not contain pleasing melodies or harmonies per se and was devoid of melodrama. You have to be advanced at your art form to turn it into that. And not everyone will get it.
There is a prevailing body of thought which assumes musicians can, and do, have day jobs. To be sure, most have the skills, personality or work ethic to combine regular employment with the pursuit of their art form. Some have enough communicative energy to teach. Some have the virtuosity and adaptability to get them through any and every gig. It seemed obvious to me, though, that Justin Haynes was not the sort of well-rounded chap who could keep all the balls in the air and come out smiling.
There was one time I saw him play when, after the first set, he asked the tiny audience to put some money in the tip jar ‘so I can buy some gum or something’. At the end of the next set he made the same request ‘so I can feed my kid’. On other occasions I’d turn up at gigs and find they’d been cancelled. Presumably his disability lay at the heart of his unpredictability.
Before I came to Canada in 2010 I never once, in 25 years of playing music in public, was required to ask the public to put money in a jug so I could get paid. Sometimes I knew I was playing for free; sometimes there was a raffle; sometimes there was door money; usually I was paid by the pub I was playing in. The people in the room were already buying drinks and/or food so it seemed a bit rich to ask them for more money.
Also, for the last 6 years I was in Britain I received the now-defunct ‘Incapacity Benefit’ for my own disability. That way, instead of being ill while at work and during all my free time I could stay at home and let the illness subside, do things to overcome aspects of it and afford to do gigs while being, if not appreciated, at least remunerated.
I say all this not because my musical ability is comparable to Justin Haynes’ but in order to show that the disabled musician’s lot doesn’t have to be that desperate. And my disability will probably not lead to my demise, as his may have done.
Despite Justin’s well-publicized and brilliant piece on his own situation, I don’t expect that Canadian society will become more supportive of those with episodic disabilities, nor of independent musicians. The ‘tough love’ attitude here seems too entrenched; ten years of austerity in Britain have taken their toll too.
There’s light within the gloom, however: the artist’s desire to do his or her work, no matter what. In the case of Justin Haynes, this desire has left us with loads and loads of great anti-music.