On November 18 a piece of music will be premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that owes its existence to a lunch I once had with Jeffrey Bernard (below).
A few months ago, I received two phone calls, a day apart, both concerning Soho. One was from the Groucho Club, asking if I had any anecdotes to contribute to a compendium it was compiling for its 30th anniversary. The other was from Guy Barker, saying he had a hankering to write a piece based on Soho for the BBC Concert Orchestra (he is Associate Composer there). However, he was staring at a blank page (well, actually a screen of the Sibelius programme) and needed a framework. Did I have any ideas for a skeleton he could flesh out with his music? We have done this before, with dZf, a re-working of the Magic Flute, and last year That Obscure Hurt, a Henry James/Britten-inspired piece. I give Guy a narrative; he builds his music around it.
Both phone calls, it seemed to me, could involve a story told to me by Jeff when, back in 1987, I interviewed him over a rather disastrous lunch at the back of the Groucho Club brasserie, when he fell asleep in the soup – the only time I have ever had to save a man from death by pea and ham. Anyway, he described an incident involving himself, the Colony Room, Francis Bacon & Co, a window cleaner’s ladder and more profanity than can be repeated here.
I wrote up the story for the Groucho and then met with Guy and said I would like to make that story at least part of the ‘Soho Symphony’ as we began to call it. I talked over other locations and tall tales we could include. I ended up with the task of combining Bar Italia, Mozart, Ronnie Scott’s, Archer St, a serial killer, the French, the Protestant church on Soho Square, Pizza Express, 20th Century Fox, ‘Fifis’ (the French and Belgian working girls of the 1950s), all-nighters at the Flamingo Club, late night drinking at Gerry’s, Harrison Marks, Paul Raymond, The Black Gardenia and, of course, that Groucho lunch, among many others.
And so, I wrote a short story that is (very, very loosely) inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses (but, you know, more readable), about a boy failing to meet a girl and spending 24 hours wandering around the streets of Soho, among its ghosts, its music and its memories, and meeting Jeff with his ladder. To paraphrase the producer/writer Kip Hanrahan, I gave this piece of pressed tin to Guy Barker who proceeded to turn it into rolled gold.
It will be played at an ‘orchestral jazz’ concert – although Guy’s piece does not feature his usual jazz band, it is for the BBC C.O. only – featuring the symphony, plus the excellent saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes, and the vocal legend that is Norma Winstone, at the QEH on November 18, as part of the London Jazz Festival (see http://tinyurl.com/mff9g6n).