One of the best things to have come into my life in the last couple of years is the wonderful, swinging aggregation known as the London Gay Big Band. Led by trombonist Peter Jay and managed by trombonist and marketing whizz Stefan Doering, this accomplished bunch of musicians have enriched my musical life in a way I never thought posible. As a singer, a pianist and an arranger I’m a dyed-in-the wool, self confessed big band nut, and along the way I’ve performed with some of the best bands in the business. So any chance to sing with a good, well drilled and hard swinging band is one that I jump at. The minute I met the London Gay Big Band, it was love! They swing, they groove, they roar – all the attributes that I love in a big band, and they liked my singing and my not-to-subtle approach to banter with adult audiences. Besides, they are the best natured bunch of musicians its ever been my privilege to work with. It’s a match made in heaven. Aside from which its great to be an on-stage advocate for the LGBT community.
As an ensemble they’ve come a long way since that impressive first gig: we’ve toured to Germany with the marvellous Drag artiste La Voix, who then took the band to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent. We’ve also worked extensively right across the country with Swing Patrol, the joyous bunch of swing dance teachers who so impressed the Dragon’s Den team that Deborah Meaden gave them a huge wad of cash to help them jive their way to success. Being on stage with the London Gay Big Band in front of 800 swing dancers (few over the age of 40!) is like stepping into a technicolour movie from the early 1950’s and being transported to an age where people really knew how to dance, and dancing was an art practised before a swinging 20 piece band. I’ve documented all of our encounters and you can see photos of us doing our Swing Thing in this gallery, and indeed in the videos below.
But one question pops up again and again, from the community at large and indeed from within the gay community; why does the world need a Gay Big Band?
One of the musicians in the band, saxophonist and multi-wind player Peter Reynolds also works with the London Gay Symphony Orchestra and the London Gay Symphonic Winds. He argues that retaining the ‘gay’ in the name of organisations like this – be they musical or otherwise – is more about respect for the forbears and creators of the gay community who have allowed contemporary gay men and women to the lives we do. And I absolutely agree with him. We expect there will be for a very long time a gay community, and so Peter suspects there will always be organisations that bear that community’s name. Further down the line, even if being gay ever becomes a non-issue, and I pray it does, he suggests that in the same way that Grimethorpe Colliery Band is not at all comprised of members of the mining community anymore and really should just be Grimethorpe Band, so too will gay community groups continue to respect their origins, no matter the mix of sexualities within them. I should point out that the London Gay Big Band is only 95% gay!
With the attention the band has brought to itself with is superb performances it has begun to play important role in becoming the face of the community and aid massively in projecting a positive image of it to the masses. We’re still in a time where much of the media portray gay men as a shady underclass, intent only in hedonism. Organisations like London Gay Big Band, the various orchestras, and the many Gay and Lesbian choirs across the country go a long way to help project a more accurate, more acceptable image of the community and aid the process of normalising it.
It is also a matter of safe space for the vulnerable. In the years I’ve been a professional musician, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of openly gay jazz musicians I’ve met, but have lost count of the number of people who have joined LGBT musical groups because they are trying to come to terms with their sexuality and don’t quite know how to do that. But what they do know is music; being able to do something you love and are happy when doing, whilst also interacting with people who know exactly what you’re struggling through has literally been a lifeline for many. In the 1990’s I was pianist for the Glasgow Gay Men’s Chorus and saw shy, retiring chaps – many in the older age bracket – suddenly flower and emerge from their shells because they had a sense of unity and pride for the first time in their adult lives. Some argue that they could create a “Straight” band. But to the people in the situation I’ve just described (and indeed most gay musicians I know), EVERY band already is the “XYZ straight band”. As I said, the London Gay Big Band is the best natured and most diverse group of musicians I’ve ever worked with. Its an honour to be part of their fabulous Swingin’ World.
I’m performing on Valentines night with the London Gay Big Band at Wilton’s Music Hall in London, in association with Swing Patrol.