This is an extract from John Harris’s memoir ‘Life Expectancy’, which looks back on his life in light of a diagnosis of motor neurone disease. John was a semi-professonal jazz guitarist and this chapter recalls a seven year residency at Fitzherbert’s — a bar familiar to anyone that has ever raised a glass in Brighton. John died on 14 April 2022.
I stopped at the lights on Dyke Road, the ones before The Level on the way into city centre. I was in the spacious Citroën C5 and in an expansive mood, with Gábor Szabó’s High Contrast on the CD player and the taste of sweet espresso and a little brandy on my tongue. The vibe was early Seventies’ California, with Gábor’s freewheeling soloing and the funkiness of Bobby Womack’s rhythm guitar. It was a mood that set me up for my regular Thursday night at Fitzherbert’s. As I drove on past The Level, I noted that it was still light at 7:45pm and had a sense of having made the identical journey last year, in fact for the previous four years. Four years of things being settled at home and the birth of the twins. Perhaps for the first time in my life I had a sense of time as a seasonal cycle, rather than a restless torrent. Early spring was my favourite time of year in Brighton, before the summer frenzy, and Thursday was my favourite evening, the prelude to the weekend, when workers were tentatively winding down. Four years earlier I had taken an extended break for the twins’ birth in March, and it had been sunny every day. It was a time ripe with promise, and evenings like this were the fruit of that promise. I drove on down The Steine towards the Palace Pier and the play of sunset on water. Just before Pavilion Gardens I peeled right, passing The Dome and turning left into New Road and my destination.
I pulled up outside Fitzherbert’s, noting that it seemed pretty dead inside. Fitzherbert’s was a small shabby bar that had seen better days. The owner, an accountant, never spent a penny on it and the manager, Jenny, knew that the atmosphere of benign neglect was one of its charms. It was the embodiment of low expectations. I unloaded the gear and heaved it through the door, noting the regulars at the bar, the balding man with the mullet and limp, and the man from the wood store. At a table were a group of three post-work drinkers who looked about ready to leave and, in the corner, sat Jeff, smiling broadly as he got up to give me a hand with the gear.
“Hello, man. Need a hand?”
“Hi Jeff. Can you take this? Cheers,” I said as I handed him a music stand. Jeff was the tenor saxophonist and a bear of a man whose watery blue eyes suggested a youthful sensitivity that belied his weather-beaten appearance. He was also a sailor who had taken early retirement from his full-on life as a journalist to come to Brighton, where he had all the time he needed to sail Isobar, his yacht, and play jazz. My favourite Jeff story was how he was thrown out of school at 15 for being lazy or unruly or both, with headmaster saying he would never amount to anything. He then went and got a plum job at The Daily Mirror. A year later he went back to school in his brand-new sports car to show the head how wrong he had been. “Jeffrey,” said the head. “I always knew you’d make something of your life. Throwing you out of school was the best thing that ever happened to you.” Jeff was speechless.
After parking the car at the office car park on the Old Steine, I walked back through Pavilion Gardens enjoying the last rays of sun and the promise of summer in the air. When I got back to the bar, Keith had arrived. Keith was the electric bass player, a couple of years older than me, with white hair and a cool look that had him mistaken for indie film director Jim Jarmusch on more than one occasion. When I first met Keith, he had taken up double bass and had set his sights on being the first bass player people would call when they needed a dep. He was successful and most evenings and weekends would see him playing across East and West Sussex, getting home at all hours though never failing to clock-in to his full-time job as a library manager. At least, until he got tired of it and stopped taking the calls, then people soon stopped ringing and the gigs dried up as anticipated. Fitzherbert’s was a pleasure for him, as it was for all of us, being regular and close to home. Keith and I shook hands, exchanged greetings, and started setting up the gear at the end opposite the bar.
When we were just about ready, Ela arrived, greeting each of us with a kiss. The handshakes and kissing very much part of the weekly ritual, as was the ordering of drinks; a glass of red wine for me, a pint of Stella for Jeff and a Peroni for Keith. It was almost 8:30pm and we were ready to play.
It fell to me to choose the tunes and I called Soft Winds, an unusual blues with a 16-bar form written by Benny Goodman and recorded with pioneering electric guitar player Charlie Christian in 1940. It’s as relaxed as the name suggests so a good tune to warm up on. I knew from the off it was going to be a good evening. I looked up at Keith, who was smiling broadly. Jeff took advantage of the bar being almost empty by soloing for more choruses than he usually did. He started low and slowly built the solo, with each new chorus adding a raucous edge and a more rapid-fire attack. Keith played on the one and the three for a couple of choruses and then started walking four to the bar which, as ever, gave momentum to the rhythm. I enjoyed playing a fresh accompaniment to each chorus, with freedom to voice a variety of substitution chords to maintain my interest. As Jeff built his solo, I started playing backing figures in the manner of a swing band’s brass section, as though egging him on. As he built to the climax, I looked up again to see faces at the window, intrigued at what they were witnessing. Some had even ventured in and were ordering drinks. As he finished his solo there was a smattering of applause. Jeff nodded an acknowledgement and picked up the cigarette he had left burning in the ashtray. Meanwhile, Keith took it down a notch, ending his walking line and returning to the one and the three. I was glad, as there was no way I could compete with Jeff’s climactic ending. Instead, I started my solo by picking out some choice notes, played legato rather than rhythmically, giving the sound a floating feel before digging in. It was one of evenings when I felt I had the freedom to play anything, that I could explore the infinite possibilities offered by the blues form. It was easy to be overwhelmed by this thought, so I simply played the notes, as though writing one word at a time, until the notes became phrases and the phrases became paragraphs, and I was telling the story of how I felt that evening in a fresh, new way. And then it was over, and we went back to the head and finished.
I looked up and saw Daniel at the bar, clapping. When he saw me look up, he gave a half wave and directed his clapping at me, acknowledging my playing. As usual, he was wearing a tweed jacket, which gave him the air of a young fogey and someone who addresses men as chaps. Daniel had discovered us a couple of years back, when he heard the music on the breeze and followed it to its source. This was a common experience. People would come up to us in the break and say, “I don’t like jazz, but I like what you do.” We drew in people of all ages and all nationalities. To young British students, live music in a bar was a novelty. For Southern Europeans and South Americans, it was part of their culture. In art there is the concept of the objet trouvé, the ‘found object’; I liked to think of our music as ‘found music’. It took people by surprise when they were least expecting it, recognising that it was live, unique to the moment, and quite different to recorded music. Unlike Daniel, they generally didn’t come back every week, although a couple from Jamaica came back every year.
We continued with a simple minor workout based on the Suzanne Vega song Tom’s Diner, a tune vaguely recognisable to those around in the Eighties. When we’d finished, we took a break for couple of minutes while I signalled to Ela at the bar. By this time the bar was three quarters full and getting a bit too noisy with chatter, so I thought about a tune that would settle the atmosphere. “Corcovado?” I said to Ela. She nodded and I started to play an unaccompanied bossa nova vamp quite quietly. “Quiet nights of quiet stars/Quiet chords from my guitar/Floating on the silence that surrounds us,” sang Ela to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s theme. Before she had finished the line, the chatter had ceased, giving Keith and Jeff the opportunity to weave their way quietly into the music. Ela had short dark hair, a pretty face with freckles and a voice to match it. She was by nature unassuming, but the combination of the sense of fragility in her voice and her self-possession commanded the room and would often make passers-by stop in their tracks. The daughter of a jazz musician, also called John, we became friends through work, where I was nominally her manager. If she was having a bad day at work, at lunchtime she would go to the pier and ride on the Crazy Mouse roller coaster to cheer herself up. I encouraged her to sing with us at Fitzherbert’s as I loved accompanying her voice, more than I had done any other singer; primarily because it felt like a conversation between friends, rather than lead singer plus backing musician.
We played a few more quiet songs with Ela, then rook the tempo and volume up, ending the set with Horace Silver’s Song for my Father. It was almost 9:30pm and the first set had gone well. We drank and chatted about it for a while, then I got up off my stool, propped my guitar up and went to the bar to chat to Daniel and order another glass of red.
It was the interval and the two of us stood outside, smoking. Every week I bummed a cigarette off Jeff. Keith had recently given up and Jeff, with his lungs of iron, was a 40 plus a day man.
“So, how’s it going?” he said.
“Well, I’ve just handed in my notice.”
“Good on you, man. You said you weren’t happy there. How long’s it been now?”
“Pretty much ten years to the day. It’s about time I moved on. The new owners are clueless.”
“Have you sorted something else?”
“Yes. It’s a corporate job but it’s home based, which means I get all my travel paid. The main office is Victoria, but I only expect to be up there a couple of times a week.”
At this point, Keith came out through the door and joined us on the pavement.
“John’s been telling us about the new job.”
“I know,” said Keith. “Yeah. Great news.”
We chatted for a bit while we finished our cigarettes. I looked at my watch; it was ten past ten. “It’s about that time,” I said, turning to the door and heading in. Since the break the audience had been swollen by people coming from The Dome concert hall in search of a drink. “Excuse me… Excuse me… Sorry,” I said as I slowly made my way back to my stool where Ela was ready and waiting. I already knew what we were going to begin the second set with.
On November 22, 1963, JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The following day, singer Bobby Hebb’s older brother, Harold, was killed in a knife fight outside a Nashville nightclub. A nation was in mourning following the assignation of JFK, Bobby Hebb was also feeling low because he had lost a brother, so he wrote a song about the feeling of having your spirits lifted. Sunny was a big hit for Bobby and spawned countless cover versions, including ours. We always played it at some point in the set, which means we probably played it over 300 times during our seven-year residency at Fitzherbert’s. This is the song I chose to begin our second set.
I don’t know why exactly we played it so much. It certainly wasn’t a favourite with Ela, who tried valiantly to vary the melody each time she sang it. I do know that it starts in a minor key and then quickly modulates to a major key a flattened sixth above before returning to the minor after a couple more bars. It’s rooted in the minor but is constantly pulled to the major, to something sunnier and more optimistic. The movement up and down and up and down is like a roller coaster or perhaps, more accurately, the waltzer, which both rises and falls but also goes round and around. The waltzer also happens to be my favourite fairground ride.
The mood of the audience was buoyant as Ela finished her singing and Jeff launched into his solo. When it came to my turn to solo, I started with a drone on an open string, like Gabor, which often took me into uncharted waters. It also induced a meditative state, so that when my fingers started to move, I didn’t have to guide them; they just landed on the right notes. It was wonderful not having to consciously think about it. I was both within the music and outside of it. A woman lurched drunkenly towards me, bared midriff and low-slung jeans. She was heading for the loo, and my playing wasn’t going to stop her, I simply leaned back and let her lurch passed. Nothing was going to interrupt the flow of a solo that was probably going to put me in a good mood for the next week.
We played a short version Lester Leaps In as an encore. It was 11:00pm and the Fitzherbert’s’ audience had returned to reasonable numbers having peaked in the break. A typical pattern. We packed up the gear within a minute or two of finishing, then Keith and I went to fetch our cars. By the time we returned it was almost empty. The barman was sweeping up and Jeff and Ela were sitting at a table talking with Daniel. Jeff beckoned us over, while Daniel and Ela made room for us.
“Fancy another?” Jeff said, raising his pint.
The thought of a drink after a couple of hours of intense activity was attractive to both Keith and myself. Tomorrow was an office day for me, and Keith knew he would go home and have a glass of Jameson’s anyway. Why not have it here? The barman, probably pleased that the till was bulging, offered to get them for us.
Daniel, who was an engineer who liked to do up old cars, was talking about his Ford Cortina. When we all had our drinks, he raised his glass, saying,” Lovely playing tonight chaps, and Ela.” There was general agreement that it had been a good night.
“I wish it was like that every week,” I opined, knowing that such nights were special because they didn’t happen every week. Knowing too that such nights were worth savouring. Particularly as my mood would be good for the next week.
The residency lasted another three years, by which time we had all grown tired of it. But there were many nights like this had been. Nights in which we played above ourselves, and which almost always took us by surprise.
Read a previous extract from John’s book here.