13 January 2016


Here's an unusual and wonderful sight - An ENGLISH band busking on the streets of ENGLAND:
It's Bazzer's Jazzers recently photographed in Lancaster.

I run up against surprising language problems occasionally. After I last wrote about busking, an American reader e-mailed to tell me it took him some time to work out what busking was. But it's a common enough word here in England.

When I refer to jazz bands 'busking', I mean 'giving impromptu un-booked concerts in the streets, to promote their bands and pick up some tips' - in the manner of the many street bands in New Orleans.

'Busking' is a word of ancient and obscure origins. It probably came originally from a Germanic word of medieval times. It seems to have entered English via the old Spanish word buscar or the French busquer (meaning seek out or go about selling things). Of course, in addition to musicians, there are other forms of buskers (street performers). And the word 'busking' is also sometimes used by musicians in a slightly different way, meaning 'having a go at playing something by ear, without having seen or properly learned the music'.

But for the purposes of this article, I mean simply giving an un-booked concert in public.

Some of the best venues in which traditional jazz groups can be heard are outdoors, in streets or open spaces, where members of the public are passing by.
Scene in America
We should make a greater effort to take traditional jazz into the streets. That's the way to increase its appeal to the younger generation and give pleasure to the masses.

In the September 2014 issue of Offbeat Magazine, there was an article by Geoffrey Himes in which he sought the views of Tuba Skinny. This band no longer needed to busk for tips: it had plenty of good gigs on offer from all round the world. And yet the players still loved to perform in the streets.

Shaye Cohn told him: It’s important to every single person in the band that we keep playing on the street. If we stopped, something important about the band would be gone. We can take more risks and play more freely when we’re busking. No one’s telling us what to do or what to play when we’re on the street; no one’s telling us when to start or when to stop or how much we should talk. It’s our time and we do what we want to do. When people stop on the street to listen, it’s because they’re drawn to it. It’s not because they’re a tourist in a bar trying to ‘experience’ New Orleans music.

When we travel, we try to busk a lot, because it connects us to the place we’re in. If we’re out in the open, people are going to pass by and react. People bump into you and say, ‘What kind of music is that? I never heard that kind of jazz.’ Which I can relate to because, at one point, I had never heard this kind of jazz either. You’re outdoors, which is nice, and it’s acoustic so we don’t have to worry if someone’s amplifier is drowning out someone else. Some spots are better: small streets with fewer cars and more pedestrians—which are easier to find in Europe than in the States.

I had burned out on classical piano; I had spent so many, many hours practising in a tiny rehearsal room going over the same four measures again and again. I needed more social activity in my life. Until I started busking, I had never achieved such a special rapport playing music with people.

Another joy of playing in the street is that small children are fascinated by the music and react to the rhythms. Toddlers can't stop themselves dancing.
The music also gives pleasure to many elderly people for whom it brings back memories. Street performing is indeed 'Outreach Work' and very important.

To hear an example of three friends of mine attempting a street performance with me CLICK HERE.

If you play al fresco in this way, you give a delightful surprise to people of all ages. Many passers-by (accustomed to ipods and disco music) will never have seen and heard anything like this - live - before.

You will be heard by two thousand people in a couple of hours. (Isn't that better than playing to 25 people in a club or pub?) And a young lady in those two thousand could well book you to play at her wedding reception, so you will attract a good gig too.

As Shaye says, you will not have to meet the demands of a promoter. And you can choose your own programme, even including a few 'experimental tunes' if you like. You can start and finish at any time and maybe take a break in a bar or coffee shop.

In my country (England), there are plenty of buskers on the streets. Yet I hardly ever see a traditional jazz group among them. The few I have spotted attracted great interest.

Things are very different in other countries (especially America) where such street performances as this are welcome and commonplace:-
I don't know why English musicians are reluctant to get out there. It seems such an obvious way of keeping in practice, having fun and spreading joy.

Maybe the English are too reserved and too ready to imagine obstacles. It is a myth that you need some kind of 'permit' or 'licence' (other than in a very few places), though of course you must not cause an obstruction or play in a spot where you could disturb nearby businesses.

(Sadly, correspondent Robert Duis tells me, the situation is bad in Holland, where he says playing music on the streets is permitted only in rare circumstances.)

In England, most people and local authorities will give you a warm welcome for brightening up the scene and making everyone feel cheerful.

If you pick an appropriate location in an English high street, with good acoustics, preferably on a sunny day, you can enjoy a terrific concert and soon have a delighted audience. A reader has told me it is possible in some places to colonise a disused shelter or bandstand, like this:
Another reason why some musicians are reluctant, I suppose, is that this is not a money-making enterprise. You can put down a collection box and hope for donations, but you will be lucky if you collect more than enough to pay for the band's travelling expenses and a drink.

However, I wish more bands (or small groups) would try this form of performance.
It is a great way of keeping the music alive and it can bring you bookings, so it's a way of publicising yourselves too.

I stumbled upon a lovely YouTube video which graphically and movingly demonstrates the points I am trying to make. Please have a look at it:

When a passer-by sees and hears you, the first ten seconds are the most important. Think about this vital point and it will help you get everything else right.

Choose carefully the spot where you set up. It is not fair to play in the same spot for more than an hour. (You may annoy a nearby shopkeeper who tolerates you but is not really happy to have you there.) And it is neither fair nor sensible to set up in a spot with another busker already performing nearby. Similarly, don't get too near someone who is collecting for a charity: people will think you are together.

Have a small repair kit with you, in case there are any problems with your musical instrument.

If you want to attract bookings, have a clear and visible notice; and have business cards available.

When people take an interest, make eye contact. Smile and say thank you if they put a coin in your box - even if it means missing half a bar.

Carry a notebook and pen: somebody may talk to you about a possible booking.

Be clean and smart. You could wear something distinctive – but don’t be scruffy.
When in a busy main thoroughfare, such as a high street, perform if possible between 10am and midday. Between those hours the public is most receptive. Later, people grow wearier and less responsive.

When there are plenty of people around, play merry tunes that you know you can play well.

Choose music that is mostly bright and cheerful.

Do not use amplification, or at least keep iot minimal. You will attract complaints from shopkeepers and annoy your potential listeners if you are 'too loud'.

Don’t try to sell CDs unless you are licensed. In England, this does require a licence.

Don't make the excuse that your instrument is difficult to transport to such a venue. The lady below goes busking on her bicycle. It is a very pleasant tall, upright loop-frame model, complete with dynamo lighting and a very sensible chain-guard. I am a bicycle enthusiast.  I like cellos. I like ladies, especially ladies who play musical instruments. So this is the perfect street scene for me.

The lady cycles with the chair, stool, clothes pegs and CDs in her panniers. But how does she manage to carry the cello? In a cello bag on her back. And what about these chaps? An inspiration to us all!
Finally, here's Hannah - a great happiness-spreading street musician.

For a treat, watch her playing and singing by