Photo credit: Simeon87/ Creative Commons
There’s an old joke that goes like this, writes Peter Vacher. Visitor to a passing New Yorker: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practise, practise, practise”.
Banal as that might seem today, it embodies something of the special significance to any aspiring performer of the justly-vaunted Carnegie Hall. It is the tops, the sine qua non of artistic endeavour: play Carnegie Hall and you’ve arrived or so they say. The Hall itself opened in 1891 with Pyotr Tchaikovsky as the guest of honour and it still stands as imposing as ever at the junction of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street. Largely financed by the Scots-born steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, once America’s richest man and a major philanthropist, it has played host to the greatest names in the wider world of music, even, whisper it quietly, to Bill Haley and the Comets and sundry other rock and rollers.
That said, our purpose here is to celebrate a half-century’s worth of the the Hall’s connection to jazz. This commenced, surprisingly perhaps, in 1912 when the American-American ragtime pioneer James Reese Europe presented his 125-piece Clef Club Orchestra band at the Hall for the first of several appearances. When the US entered World War One in 1917, Reese’s band donned uniform as the Harlem Hellfighters and accompanied the black US Army battalions in Europe, in effect giving European audiences their first taste of improvised music.
As is their wont, Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company researched the Hall’s commitment to jazz and created a celebratory programme to mark an impressive series of musical encounters, each recalled by selected items from the appropriate repertoires. Furthermore, Pite and his regular co-partner Pete Long have assembled an all-star orchestra staffed by the UK’s finest jazz talent to interpret this rich diversity of music.
The concert is to open with Paul Whiteman’s version of Livery Stable Blues as played in 1924, this in part to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s venerable recording but also to mark Whiteman’s first Carnegie Hall concert. The JRC then move back in time to a piece from Europe’s pad before straddling the decades and pinpointing the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, the architect of the justly celebrated 1938 swing concert, said to be the first to present a racially integrated group at the Hall with the inclusion of Count Basie and other African-American stars. Happily, for posterity, a recording of this momentous event surfaced and is now among the most widely distributed of all jazz recordings. Glenn Miller’s popular orchestra followed as did the music’s greatest star, Louis Armstrong whose concert in 1939 over-ran to the extent that he was only able to perform a pair of songs namely, Ol’ Man Mose and What Is This Thing Called Swing?, both to be performed in our concert, with trumpeter Enrico Tomasso reprising the role played by the sublime Louis. No small task!
There came an extraordinary moment in jazz history on 23 January 1943 with the first performance at the Hall by Duke Ellington’s Famous Orchestra, a debut inexplicably delayed given the great man’s status and the first in an annual series. For the occasion, as a crowd of 3000 cheered him on in a concert devoted to the Russian War Relief fund, Ellington conceived a paean of praise for his own race with Black, Brown and Beige, an extended work lasting some 45 minutes that received a lukewarm reaction from the critics of the day, but was later recognised as a sublime expression of his genius. We will be hearing Come Sunday from that suite, now established as one of Duke’s best-loved pieces.
Other key names in jazz who gained the accolade of a Hall booking included Woody Herman , Stan Kenton [1951 and Dizzy Gillespie , each represented here, with Kenton’s immortal Peanut Vendor and Dizzy’s tour-de-force Manteca as the standouts. The mercurial trumpeter Miles Davis first came to the hall in 1962 and Pete Long’s JRC ensemble will perform New Rumba by Miles and his collaborator Gil Evans, this an augury of what will be more completely exploited when the orchestra play their Miles Ahead programme for the London Jazz Festival using the original orchestrations including such instrumental exotica as tuba and French horns. And don’t overlook the vocal stylings of band trombonist Chris Dean who will pay tribute to star vocalist Tony Bennett, a Hall regular, with a trio of songs including Stranger in Paradise before Count Basie’s Swingin’ The Blues rounds out the night.
And there you have it, a cornucopia of musical recreations that can only cement the Hall’s unique place in the jazz scheme of things but which bristle with excitement and authenticity. Not to be missed. (pp)
BOOKING LINK: Jazz at Carnegie Hall at Cadogan Hall