With its variety, exuberance and knack of making challenges irresistibly enjoyable, Chris Gumbley's music is amongst the most popular at Saxtet Publications. His skill in capturing the real 'feel' of an idiom while keeping it accessible to players of differing abilities is reflected in best-selling titles like 15 Crazy Jazz Studies and Cops, Caps and Cadillacs, which are also represented on exam syllabuses.
Although variety is the spice of Chris's musical life, his very first influences were pop, and then jazz. Like many jazz players, Chris was largely self-taught in these areas. I caught up with him at his Stafford home, and he explained how the whole thing started.
"When I was 13, my clarinet teacher brought a baritone into school, taught me just three notes and told me to join the Staffordshire Wind and Jazz Orchestras. A month later at Lichfield Cathedral I was doing my first gig, opening the Dambusters on a low E - a nerve-racking moment!"
Chris had been transcribing pop songs at the piano since the age of 10, but the bari triggered a change of direction:
"The same clarinet teacher suggested I look for some Gerry Mulligan LP's, and this led me away from pop and Glenn Miller to West Coast jazz. I was down at the library every Saturday, hiring out Mulligan, Getz and Desmond LP's and transcribing the solos from an old record player which played at 16 rpm, exactly half speed and an octave lower than the original. I even transcribed an entire Buddy Rich big band arrangement like this - pretty arduous! All this did wonders for my ears, giving me an acute sense of relative pitch and teaching me the fundamentals of jazz."
Despite the enthusiasm and commitment, playing a cumbersome instrument like the bari isn't always cool for a young teenager, especially if your grandfather has to provide a set of wheels so that you can drag it to school! However, Chris soon learnt that music had other uses:
"At 14 I had a jazz group, augmented for school assemblies into a pop group doing covers. I managed to win over the school hard cases with a rendition of the Benny Hill theme tune and I also realized that a great way of coming into contact with girls was to invite them to do backing vocals!"
Schooldays over, Chris went on to Huddersfield School of Music for his formal musical education and then returned to Staffordshire, where he played first on the ballroom dancing scene, with The New Sound. "It was anything but!" he comments wryly. Touring with the jazz-rock group Heliopolis proved more stimulating, and Chris then went on to form a disco band (narrowly missing out on an EMI contract) and Zoot Suite, a jazz outfit. Meanwhile he was teaching five days a week at local schools and colleges, and, in 1987, he opened Gumbles Jazz Club. Chris continues:
"In 1992, Saxtet were booked there. They invited me to audition and in January 1993, they told me I had four months to learn 45 pages of original material! Originally I doubted that I was up to it, but Saxtet proved to be the most significant move in my career, giving a massive boost to my playing."
Chris is now also in regular demand for theatre work and other freelance performing. He has given up his school teaching, but he is a tutor at Birmingham Conservatoire and lectures in jazz composition at Birmingham University. He is also a Jazz Piano Examiner for the Associated Board. So, where does composing fit into all this?
"It took a lot of nagging by members of Saxtet," he admits, "but I was finally persuaded to start writing in 1995. Reed Fever and 15 Crazy Jazz Studies came first, and Cops and Double Vision Duets soon followed."
He may have been a reluctant starter, but in addition to his Saxtet Publications' titles, Chris is now also published by Spartan Press, Brasswind and Boosey and Hawkes.
In fact, 'Why not give it a go?' seems to have been a very successful guiding principle in Chris' career. I ask him to reflect on what's most important to him amongst all the playing, writing, coaching, examining, lecturing and teaching. He pauses. "Diversity," he says, "Diversity is what I value in my musical life".