Food and all that jazz
PUBLISHED: 09:35 12 May 2015 | UPDATED: 09:35 12 May 2015
Who'd have thought? Food writer Jay Rayner is also a talented jazz pianist. Andrew Clarke met up with him to hear how the two go together at this year's Bury Festival
Food writer and television presenter Jay Rayner is a very recognisable face – a larger-than-life personality.
In this all-seeing, all-knowing media age you would think there was nothing the world didn’t know about him.
But Bury Festival director Nick Wells has uncovered a hidden talent – Jay is a very fine jazz pianist.
So, not only will he be performing his one-man show, My Dining Hell, recounting some of the culinary nightmares he and other food professionals have had to endure, he will also be performing a musical second half entitled My Jazz Heaven.
It’s the first time Jay has combined his twin passions to create a different kind of evening’s entertainment.
“There is a link, of course, and that’s food. My Dining Hell is a one man show that I have touring all over the country, a fun journey through some of my most hated things.
“Then I have a jazz quartet which I perform with from time to time. We have a set-list made up of songs revolving around food, and Nick Wells from the festival heard about my jazz piano-playing and suggested we put the two together.
“So, it’s an evening with me in my many guises. So, if you find your attention wandering in the first half, don’t worry because there’s something completely different in the second.”
The quartet features singer Pat Gordon-Smith, who makes a wonderful front-woman.
“She’s our face, but I provide a lot of patter. Just reassure everyone I don’t sing, but Pat does, quite wonderfully.”
For Jay food and jazz are inextricably linked.
“I’ve long observed that jazz musicians are paid to watch people eat in some of the most expensive and impressive restaurants in the world. But, there is also quite an impressive canon of songs which have grown up around the world of food and drink.
“There are quite a few drunk songs, like the great Johnny Mercer’s One For My Baby, to that great old standard Black Coffee. We also sing songs that audiences may not have heard of, including Save The Bones For Henry Jones, which is an old Nat King Cole number.”
The band has quite an extensive repertoire and the exact set list isn’t finalised until a day or two before. “Like all good jazz, it pays to be spontaneous. I don’t want to be too purist about it but if you stick to the same repertoire all the time, it will sound very tired and the whole performance will become stale.
“We want it to be fun, so you need to be continually expanding your repertoire, playing around, seeing what works and enjoying every gig. If you’re not enjoying it, then the audience isn’t going to enjoy it.”
Jay is also known as the son of iconic agony aunt the late Claire Rayner. His mother and the world of agony aunts play an important role in his linking monologues.
“The jazz is built around the patter, the stories I tell about growing up with my mother and the impact that her world had on me.
“It’s difficult to imagine now but she was so famous. She died five years ago and gradually slipped into retirement ten years before that, but during her time she was incredibly well known.
“She achieved that in a world with just three television channels and a close-down at 11 every night. But, again there is a link with jazz because a vast number of songs sound as if they are letters to agony aunts. Just listen to the lyrics, they are brilliant.
“I have, until recently shied away from talking about my mother, because I didn’t want to be accused of having a career based on nepotism. But I am 48 so either I am well enough established now or it’s too late to worry.
“My mother was such a major figure in my life that I like to talk about her, and the stories are just too good not to use.”
As a teenager Jay wasn’t embarrassed by his mother talking about sex on television, but there was no way he was going to talk to her about his own problems.
“I think that would have been just hideous, but I was never upset by what she did. Woe betide anyone who got prissy about that sort of stuff in our family.”
He always says he landed one of the best jobs in journalism when he was appointed restaurant critic for The Observer.
“It’s not the sort of job that’s ever advertised – I was put up for it by the features editor. I always say it’s a writing job not a food job. Actually the editor had to be persuaded because he valued me as a feature writer but, it’s perfect because I do love my food.
“I have been in love with restaurants all my life, but I had never thought of being a food writer. I would have been very happy staying a feature writer but as it turned out it is a job I was born for.”
n Jay Rayner presents My Dining Hell, My Jazz Heaven at the Bury Festival on May 23.