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Jon Taylor: On busking

John Robert Brown

Jon Taylor and GIG BED

Almost everyone who has spent time in West Yorkshire during the last twenty or so years must have heard Jon Taylor play the saxophone. Jon, indefatigable, is a very experienced busker. On almost any fine weekday he's to be heard and seen either in Leeds, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Otley, Ilkley, York or any one of a number of other Northern towns, playing his tenor saxophone on the street. Using his own pre-recorded play-along accompaniment he performs a wide repertoire of mainstream standards. He plays fluently, with a good tone and good intonation.

I've known Jon for a long time. I gave Jon's sister, Penny, clarinet lessons back in the late 1960s when Jon, who is now in his late fifties, was barely into his teens. Then, the Taylor family lived in North Warwickshire. They owned music shops in Bedworth and Nuneaton. Eventually Jon completed the jazz course at Leeds College of Music, where I taught.  He and I have been in touch sporadically ever since.

"I started playing because I wanted a girlfriend," Jon tells me. "As a teenager, how do you appeal to the opposite sex?"

I asked whether it worked.

"To some extent," he says, with a smile. "I was fourteen when I started. Previously, I'd played the piano. My sister Penny, four years older than me, had taken piano lessons. I failed miserably. I did four or five years, but didn't get to Grade One, didn't have any interest. Then I mentioned to my dad that I'd like to play the saxophone. Really, I wanted to play the guitar. I started listening to my sister's records. Her boyfriend was into blues music, so I didn't go through that pop music thing. This would have been in 1970. I thought: 'Yeah, I want to do that, to appeal to girls.' But there were too many good guitarists, too much competition. I started buying records with pictures of saxophone players on the cover, then realised that there were a lot of good saxophone players around. I probably got into jazz because of that.

"I wouldn't say that jazz was my first love, but a lot of good saxophone players play jazz. I was trying to listen to saxophones - so I started to hear a lot of jazz. Because of my failure at piano I was determined to have a go at it. Therefore, I used to practice all the time, before school, at lunchtime and after school."

Jon was at Nuneaton Grammar School. He had lessons for three years from Harry Briggs, a North Warwickshire dance-band musician.

"In 1976 I came to Leeds College of Music. I hadn't taken music formally at school. I think we'd already made the 'A' Level choices by the time I took it up. One thing I did do was to take piano lessons again. All of a sudden I found it a great help, because I could visualize the notes. On a saxophone or a clarinet, you don't look at what your fingers are doing. You learn the fingering, but you can't actually see it. When playing the piano, even at a very basic level, I could see what the notes were. And I could also fill in the rests, because I was playing the left hand. I could never count rests! I've never been a great reader. I was a good reader when I was doing it a lot, but at college my reading was very poor. It was amazing. I'd sit in as big band next to people like Pete Hagley, who could read anything. I got my reading up to a reasonable standard.

"Some years later I got a job aboard the QE2, backing cabaret every night. After six weeks of that I was reading everything that anybody threw at me. Now I don't do it at all; I can go five years without looking at a piece of music. I can still read, though now it's physically difficult to see the part without glasses! Reading is not my forte, but it's a useful skill to have.

"I was at Leeds College of Music from '76 to '79. Other saxophonists there were Dave Bitelli (as he's now known), and Mark Ramsden. I rated Mark above all the others there at that time. I thought that Mark was a great player. Alan Barnes was a year below me. Dave Newton (pianist) was in my year. We were best friends, though I don't see much of him now. Snake Davis (Chris Davis, saxophonist) was in the same year as Alan Barnes, I think.

"But what do musicians do? I've been doing it a long time. I'm quite good at doing the things I'm asked to do, but I'm quite a long way from being able to pick and choose my work. I end up doing a lot of gigs which I know are not going to be very enjoyable."

I ask Jon whether he still enjoys himself.

"I like it. I don't do as much playing as I did. I like it when it's easy. In a place like Ilkley, or Otley, I don't have a problem finding a car parking place. I can turn up and play. One of the things I like about busking is that you are playing to the general public, to anyone who happens to be in the town, whether they like music or not.  I like people-watching.

"I play wherever I am. But if you specialise in music for the wealthy, you can work in some nice places. With all due respect, there doesn't seem a lot of point in going to places that are a bit dull. People ask, 'Do you go to York?'  I go there very rarely. There's the problem of finding somewhere to park. Then there's the problem of finding somewhere to busk. There are more people doing it now, meaning that it's increasingly hard to find a street corner on which to do it. More and more you'll find Eastern European accordion 'owners', sitting there playing the same eight bars of nonsense all day. All they are doing is taking up a very good busking spot. There's no joy about them; I think they are run by a gang master!"

Do some local authorities hold auditions, to keep up the standards?

"I saw that in Huddersfield. I used to go there a lot. Then, all of a sudden, the council said: 'You need a licence.' I went along to the licensing place, which was mainly issuing licenses for taxi drivers. I said, 'I'm here for a busker's license.' They asked me to play a tune. Then it turned out that the guy there recognised me, from playing in the pub. He said: 'You don't have to.' So I didn't do it. The intention was to prevent begging, by requiring a certain standard of playing. What a pity the musicians' union doesn't do that! In York you go along and busk, you ring them up, and - this was at least three or four years ago - they'd send somebody out to decide if you are at the required standard.

"On the street, you very rarely get nastiness. It's nice to see the coins going into the box, but it's even nicer to see the smiles. It's a form of communication. I've experienced some ignorance, where they pretend you're not there. I've seen that from musicians. Jon mentions a couple of Yorkshire musicians guilty of this behaviour, people whom we both know. "I don't find it upsetting. I just find it interesting.

"I get offers of gigs. They are a bit surprised when I tell them how much it costs. But it's the best advert, to go out and play."

I ask whether he experiences any pleasant surprises.

"Yes. I was busking in Thirsk once. A down-to-earth Yorkshire farmer stood there for five minutes looking a bit bemused. Then he came across to me. He said: 'That's great.' He gave me twenty pounds! I don't often get that. I've received yogurts, or quite often other food. In Spain, when busking outside a tailor's shop in Barcelona, I was offered a three-piece suit. I don't know whether that was a comment on my attire.

"When I first left college I didn't do much busking. In those days it was hard. You would get moved on for busking. There's a story about the local musician Al Potts. Well-known Yorkshire politician, CASS member and former MP Michael Meadowcroft walked past one day. Potts, who was busking, spotted him, and said: 'I've got to pop off for a minute. You play the clarinet while I'm gone.'"  According to Jon, Michael accepted the clarinet and started to play. "Al Potts goes round the corner to a friendly copper he knows. He says: 'Go round the corner and arrest that guy!' "

"Busking was quite nerve-racking at first. I think that's why I did it, to experience stage fright. It's nice just to play the saxophone, but it doesn't make a lot of musical sense to people. That's why, since the late 1980s, I've used backing tapes. Now I have hundreds of tunes on the iPad. If anyone asks for anything, I can do it.

"I've never been able to understand or work out the money coming in. It comes in rushes. If somebody puts something in, then somebody else will. You'll get three or four people, then ten minutes of nothing. It's strange. I like to play tunes that people know. I think that's one of the big differences between musicians and non-musicians. Musicians like to hear things they haven't heard before. Non-musicians like to hear things they HAVE heard before.

"I do a lot of practice when I'm busking. If there's a tune I've got to learn, I'll busk it several times before I do it on stage. I've never counted, but I know well over a thousand tunes. I do four or five gigs a week, meaning that I play seven of eight hours a week.

"My granddad owned a well-known shop in Nuneaton, and later one in Bedworth as well. It was a piano shop. I think that my granddad was quite a talented pianist. My father played the saxophone. Pianos became less popular, they sold organs, then it went to TVs and white goods.

"The songs from the great American song book are now overplayed. They are great songs, but then the Beatles came along. Everybody thought they could write their own songs. It's not true. There was a lot to be said for the days when there were people who sang, and different people wrote the songs. With the rise of pop and rock, we've also had the rise of marketing. There, image is more important than content, so the quality of songwriting has gone down."

Equipment:
Saxophone: Selmer Mark 7 tenor.
Mouthpiece: Berg Larsen, ebonite, 115 lay, SMS.
Reeds: strength two to two-and-a-half. I have a box of six reeds, which I alternate. They all diminish at the same time.
Fingerless gloves, for playing in cold weather.
Campervan (pictured), for overnight accommodation when away from home.

John Robert Brown

First published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, October 2014. Reproduction forbidden.
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