History of the buskers, by Tony Hughes
In his Gospel, St. Matthew opens his narrative of the Nativity with the words “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about”. He wasn’t there, but doubtless heard about it from others. I was actually there at the birth of the Bagg’s Tree Buskers, which as it happens took place in St. Matthew’s Church in Harwell, Oxfordshire. Others who were present or took some part might have a slightly different account of the birth and development of the Buskers, but my account can have a strong claim to authenticity.
One Sunday morning in February 1997 I was in my usual place in the trumpet section of the Church Orchestra. The leader, David Evans, told us that he had been asked by the Harwell Feast Committee if the Orchestra might lead the Parade at the next Harwell Feast on the end of May Bank Holiday. For some years the Feast Parade had been led by the Reading Scottish Bagpipers, but it seems that this cost a substantial fee and someone had proposed that it would be good to find a local musical group that could do the job The Orchestra had been suggested. I think that the suggestion had come from Betty Pyke.
My recollection is that David felt that he had to ask the Orchestra members, but thought that the Orchestra did not seem quite right for the job. However, he did say that if anyone was interested in following it up, the opportunity was there. It would involve playing on one of the trailers used for the Parade of Floats
In my youth I had, on at least one occasion, played in a jazz band on the back of a lorry. The idea of forming a group that could do something similar for the Feast Parade sounded at least worth thinking about. I asked Jim Sinclair if he would be interested in trying it as the guitarist. He said that he would. The clarinet players in the Orchestra, Jackie Prentice, and Hazel Phillips, also said that they would give it a go. So we agreed to get together and see what we could do.
I fed back to the Feast Committee, probably via Betty Pyke, that we were going to try it out, and if successful would offer ourselves for the Feast.
The first question was the music. None of the others had ever played traditional jazz of the sort that I had in mind as a basis for the music. Written out parts for the clarinetists would be needed and chord sequences for Jim. There might also be some merit in choosing tunes that some people might recognise. A list was produced, that included some Beatles and similar songs from the 1960s, including ‘Those were the days’. Some older tunes like ‘Don’t dilly dally on the way’ were also on the list. We tried them out, mostly at first with trumpet (actually I played the cornet) and clarinets just all playing the melody against the chords provided by Jim as the rhythm section. It seemed that it was good enough, so I confirmed to the Feast Committee that we would play. They would provide the trailer and bales of straw to sit on and the vehicle to pull it, if we would decorate it. Someone also offered to make us red waistcoats so that we would look the part.
We needed a name. After floating a few suggestions we settled on the Bagg’s Tree Buskers, named after an ancient elm tree that stood on the downs just to the south of Harwell.
By mid May we had had a few practices and settled on numbers that we could play at the Feast. One, ‘Bugle Boy March’, which became our early party piece, was relatively ambitious for the time and had been scored into parts for the clarinets so that we could be playing more than just the plain melody. The numbers were mostly ones on which I could also do some improvisation to vary the musical offering. Kate Evans volunteered to play the drum with us and I remember going up to their house to play through some of the intended numbers. We were set for our first public outing at the Harwell Feast on 26th May 1997. The playing schedule for that first Feast is copied in Annex 1
I made a large wooden placard to fit on the trailer to advertise who were, and Betty Pyke helped us decorate the float, including some famous bunting that she supplied and much foliage to go with it. We have used the placard at every Feast since, although we have reduced the density of other decorative items.
The first appearance of the Bagg’s Tree Buskers, at the Harwell Feast on 26th May 1997.
Our efforts at the Feast were well received, but we were unsure how we had really sounded and what, if anything, to do next.
The future of the Bagg’s Tree Buskers was really set by an enquiry from Liz Roberts, sometime after the Feast, about whether we could provide music for a party the following January to mark her husband Tim’s 40th birthday. We discussed this and agreed that we would accept the booking. It meant that our repertoire had to be expanded quite quickly and we soon were up to about 30 numbers. Some of our favourites, for example ‘Shine’, ‘Midnight in Moscow’, ‘And I love her’ and ‘Black and Blue’ date from this blitz, and many of them have not been changed much since. Jim Sinclair acquired a banjo to play in suitable numbers and he also produced a special arrangement of ‘Happy Birthday’ for the occasion. This proved quite a formidable challenge and has been simplified since into the stock rendering that we use when needed.
This event really set us on our way to all the future ‘gigs’ for fêtes, parties and other entertainments, including concerts. Altogether since then we have played at over 220 events. 35 people have played with the Bagg’s Tree Buskers over the years, over a third of them on clarinet or saxophone. Several have been teenagers who have gone on to greater things. Rather than a tour through everything that has happened over the years, it’s perhaps worth covering some landmarks. The Buskers’ policy has been to charge for playing at parties but to charge only expenses for charitable functions. Accumulated funds, totaling over £5,000 to date, have been regularly donated to local charities.
Our first recordings, on video, were made in April 1999 at a charity concert held in the (then) Fairmile Mental Hospital.
After playing clarinet with us at the 1999 Feast, my brother David presented us with the Buskers’ mascot, a monkey referred to either as ‘King Louis’ or ‘Louis Armslong’.
The first time that we had the benefit of a bass was when Mark Rudall joined us on string bass for a concert at the Wantage Day Centre in December 1999.
We played at the Harwell Variety Concert in October 2000 and this was when we first decided to play standing up rather than sitting down.
I produced a CD (labeled BTB-CD1) in 2001 of various recordings made at events, entitled ‘At the Feasts and Fêtes’. It was followed in 2003 by another set of ad hoc recordings on a CD (labelled BTB-CD2) called ‘On their Merry Way’.
In late 2001 Steve Tunstall became our regular bass player, on electric bass guitar, and around the same time Paul Packer joined for a year or so on keyboard. When he left, David Evans took over the keyboard role, providing either a bass line or a piano accompaniment as required.
In 2002 the need to amplify electronic instruments, and provide microphones for reed instruments, caused us to buy a proper ‘PA’ set.
In 2003, after accompanying us on spoons in various audiences, Tony Baker joined us as a washboard player. Hazel Phillips, one of the original Buskers, moved that year and Debbie Greenfield took over as our regular saxophone and clarinet player. Various other clarinetists played with us as well until Helen Young became a regular in 2009.
Jim Sinclair produced a CD called ‘BTB@WB.05’ of our complete set of 21 numbers played at the Westcote Barton Church Fête in August 2005. We have played there almost every year since 1999.
In June 2006, on one of our ‘further afield’ trips, we played at a big charity function held in Phyllis Court by the river in Henley.
For the Buskers’ 10th Anniversary in 2007 we produced a DVD with video material taken at various events. It was produced with the help of Norman Staples and his son Jonathan. About 60 copies were sold or given away.
In 2008 Jim Sinclair masterminded the production of a proper set of ‘studio’ recordings to make a CD (labelled CD-BTB01) entitled ‘Best Yet’. Well over a 100 copies were sold or given away and some of the tracks have been used by local video makers as background music.
On Palm Sunday 2009 we led our one and only ‘Jazz Praise’ in St. Matthew’s Church. Tony Baker had attended a ‘Jazz Vespers’ service in the Lake District and the suggestion that the Buskers could lead something similar in Harwell came together as a service called ‘Palm Praise’.It’s been hot (but sometimes cool and wet!) at our outdoor events such as fêtes. In October 2012 we were asked to play at the opening of the Jubilee Playground at the Harwell Recreation Ground. It was a very cold day and probably the only occasion when we have had to play in arctic conditions, clothed accordingly.
At the Westcote Barton Fête in August 2013 we accompanied an equestrian dressage exhibition. The horse was supposed to have music from a CD, but the CD could not be found.
We’ve played in the Parade at every Harwell Feast since 1997, apart from two years when there was no Feast (foot and mouth disease in 2001 and a hiatus in 2011) and two when we were totally rained off (2007 and 2008). The weather has varied, but it was ‘on the edge’ for being cold and damp in 2014 and the only time we’ve had to play at the Feast in raincoats.
In April 2015 we played in St. Aldates Church Oxford for the wedding reception of our bass player Philip King.
In July 2015 we joined the Didcot Gospel Choir and the Harwell Young Singers for a concert in St. Matthew’s Church Harwell called ‘Raising the Rafters’. This was one of the few times that we have performed some numbers with a choir.
2017 was the 20th Anniversary of the start of the Buskers. We had a dinner together at The Hart of Harwell, but sadly Tony Baker had a fall the evening before which ended his 14 year reign as our washboard player. I produced a CD called ‘Full Score’ with a compilation of recordings from 1999 to 2017. Only a limited number of copies were made for those who wanted one.
The last track on the CD was ‘Don’t dilly dally on the way’, played at the 2017 Harwell Feast. It was the very first number that we played at the 1997 Feast and we must have played it hundreds of times since (and never exactly the same way twice!). After 20 years of not dallying and dallying we could perhaps consider that the genesis period was definitely over.
Reflection on the Buskers’ Music
I don’t suppose we thought in 1997 that the Buskers would still be going over 20 years later. There have been changes of personnel, but our style of music has remained much the same. How should it be described? When asked, I usually say that we are a ‘jazzy’ band. Although our repertoire and inspiration is mostly based on traditional jazz, we are not a traditional jazz band. The line up of a traditional jazz band usually consists of a rhythm section and a ‘front line’ of trumpet/cornet, clarinet and trombone; sometimes there is a saxophone too. A characteristic of such a band, in whatever style it plays, is that the front line players do not play from written music and improvisation is at the heart of the sound that they produce. As an ensemble, the trumpet plays the lead and embellishes or improvises on the melody, the clarinet weaves around it, and trombone fills in underneath and in the gaps in the tune. For more complex tunes the band would use ‘head arrangements’: an agreed sequence of the sections of the musical piece and who is going to play what and where. An important ingredient in playing traditional jazz is listening. Not only to live performances or recordings to see how it is done and learn the music and get ideas, but to each other when playing so as to fit the ‘polyphonic’ sound together.
Can anybody learn how to play in this way? I think that the simple answer is no; it takes a certain dedication, flair and ability to play from the head (or from the heart and mind) rather than from a score. But passable imitations can be produced from written arrangements if played in the right way.
How difficult is it for the various instruments? My feeling is that most reasonably competent trumpet or cornet players could provide the lead by playing the tune and modest variations, provided that they can do what Louis Armstrong called ‘loosening up’ the tune. That means not playing it rigidly as scored. They might not be able to improvise, but could provide an adequate if somewhat uninspiring lead. A competent trombone or saxophone player should also be able to provide at least a rudimentary underneath part. If the players need a written score, it is not very difficult to produce ones for the lead player and someone playing the part of the trombone.
The really difficult component is the clarinet. The clarinet anyway is tricky to learn to play well because it does not ‘overblow’ in octaves and the different registers need different fingering. There are hence a lot of holes and keys to master; holes not properly covered produce squeaks. Then there is the tone. Classical players are taught to play in an even, controlled and somewhat introverted way and the instrument is not naturally loud. A jazz band clarinetist has to do exactly the opposite: be loud, extrovert and full of colour to hold his or her own in the ensemble, whilst being able to play rapid passages over a huge range to provide the weaving counter-melodic lines. This is a tall order for someone who has not grown up immersed in traditional jazz and not everyone has an ability to play whatever comes into their head as they react to what the other players are doing.
It is almost impossible to produce written parts that provide what the clarinet player does in a traditional jazz band. Crafted parts and solos can be produced and exist in the Buskers’ repertoire. But otherwise the best that can be done for a ‘reader’ is usually not like the real thing. However good the written-out scores, they cannot match the spontaneity of a natural improviser giving his or her all.
Fortunately, the Buskers’ audiences are usually looking for an entertaining sound, often just as background music, rather than critically expecting the true sound of traditional jazz. Within this niche we have somehow managed to survive and indeed sometimes produce something memorable.
Annex 1: Schedule for the first Feast*
Schedule for Parade version 23/5/97
(Later numbers may not be needed; or we can play the first numbers again)
- Don’t dilly dally on the way
(Intro: 4 beats of 2/4)
Chorus 2/4; Verse 2/4; 5 Choruses 4/4:
ensemble, clarinet duet, trumpet solo, ensemble, ensemble.
- Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey
(Intro: 4 beats of 4/4)
5 times through:
ensemble, ensemble, trumpet, clarinets, ensemble.
- Bugle boy march
Bugle call intro; A twice; B twice; trio 5 times:
ensemble, clarinets, trumpet, ensemble (quiet), ensemble.
- When I’m sixty four
(Intro: 4 bars on guitar)
As written: twice through complete and then repeat, ending on ‘…..sixty four, ho!’.
- When the saints go marching in
(Intro: 3 beats of 2/4)
Verse 2/4; Chorus 2/4; speed up into 4/4 choruses, played ad lib until signal for one chorus of clarinet duet. Then 2 choruses to finish.
- Those were the days
Verse (pause at end); Chorus; Verse clarinets; (pause at end leading to:) trumpet chorus (no pause at end); 2 Choruses (no pauses) with ending.
- St. Louis blues
Played fairly briskly.
2 bar guitar introduction.
Verse (24 bars); Minor section; Choruses ad lib.
Note that choruses can be accompanied by the verse, so long as the minor section is avoided.
- When you and I were young, Maggie
(Intro: 6 beats of 4/4)
5 times through
ensemble, trumpet, clarinets, ensemble (quiet); ensemble.
- Someday you’ll wan’t me to want you
(Intro: 5 beats of 4/4)
5 times through:
ensemble, ensemble, clarinets, trumpet, ensemble.
- Just a closer walk with Thee
(Intro: 3 beats of 2/2)
Once through slowly in 2/2;
Double speed into 4/4 played ad lib until signal;
Repeat slow version in 2/2 to end.
An approx. 30 minute programme could comprise the following.
- When I’m sixty four
- Mood Indigo
Guitar introduction: first 4 bars of verse.
As written (in three parts). Return to end on the verse after 2 choruses.
- St. Louis Blues
As above, but played more slowly.
Trumpet muted; clarinets play verse with trumpet fill-ins.
- Penny Lane
As written, with clarinet and guitar introduction.
- Just a closer walk with Thee
- Bugle boy march
As above, to go out with a bang.
Not all of these may be needed. Could omit 6 if not needed to fill time.
* (copied from FEAST4.doc)