REVIEW (1): Jazz Before Jazz Was Jazz at Two Temple Place (2017 EFG LJF)

Kansas Smitty’s House Band at Two Temple Place
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved

Jazz Before Jazz Was Jazz
(Two Temple Place, 12 November 2107. Review, drawings and photos by Geoff Winston)

(We had two writers, Geoff Winston and Dan Bergsagel, attending different parts of the day at Two Temple Place. Link to Dan Bergsagel’s piece below)

Jazz Before Jazz Was Jazz was an ambitious roller-coaster ride through pre-jazz and early jazz by leading exponents of the repertoire with scholarly, erudite support, ostensibly an in-depth foretaste of the exhibition, Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain, which inaugurates the 2018 exhibition programme at Two Temple Place in January.

Two Temple Place, owned by the Bulldog Trust, a charitable foundation, is one of London’s most amazing settings, an elaborate, architectural jewel built by Viscount Astor in the 1890s and one of the hidden treasures in the city’s cultural landscape. For this venture they partnered with The Arts Society to promote this exploration, by curator Catherine Tackley and the Kansas Smitty’s crew, of the emergence of jazz in the USA, charting its early impact in the UK in the forthcoming exposition, which also has Arts Council support.

I concentrated on the highly engaging live performances by young musicians who have taken the era to heart, investing the songs with fresh energy and broadening its appeal. Pianist Andrew Oliver, bluesman Marcus Bonifanti and the Kansas Smitty’s House Band brought to life, with inspired interpretations, the Ragtime, Tango, Dixieland and Blues of the pre-war era, while mezzo soprano Lotte Betts-Dean offered a panoramic take on the classical and popular songs of the time.

The lecture programme is covered by Dan Bergsagel – which highlights the pitfalls of parallel programming in such an interesting area – you can’t be in two places at once! (link below)

Andrew Oliver, a Londoner via Portland, Oregon, gave an extra lift to the heady brew of Cuban, Tango and Folk rhymes and rhythms which crossed over with Ragtime and Stride, his deft, lively fingerwork picking out familiar melodies. Eubie Blake, noted Oliver, was a key conduit between Ragtime, Jazz and Broadway and in Blake’s technically demanding Sounds of Africa (also known as Charleston Rag) Oliver’s left hand crossed with his right, one hand chased the other all over the keyboard, to deliver the goods.

Andrew Oliver at Two Temple Place
Drawing by Geoff Winston © 2017. All Rights Reserved

Oliver’s virtuosity took in the masters. J Bernie Barbour – also a successful music publisher, whom, Oliver pointed out was, in 1919, the first African American musician to tour the US; the Brazilian, Ernesto Nazareth, doyen of the samba-like Brazilian Tango; Scott Joplin – he included Joplin’s Original Rags of 1899 and the Magnetic Rag of 1914, composed, sadly, while dying from syphilis, also Nazareth’s fate. Jelly Roll Morton was ‘the best’ in Oliver’s view. Buddy Bolden’s Blues was set down firm but not without its jaunty aspect, high-up runs cemented by solid left hand. The Pearls, slower in pace yet not without its fillips, was reputedly dedicated to a waitress to whom Morton had taken a shine.

Swing, spiked with harrumphing chords, bled in to the fin de siècle flow to evoke the atmosphere of the barrooms of the era – all that was missing was fog of the fumeurs and glistening snow outside the window!

Marcus Bonfanti, Crickelwood-based (as he told the audience) guitarist and vocalist steeped in the Blues, and whose playing also greeted attendees on arrival, brought additional authenticity to his earthy renditions and meticulously picked classic blues numbers with asides about the protagonists. Who better to trace its tracks in the often bumpy history of the blues and its relation to jazz?

Josh White, the first African American to trade risky lyrics on tour was represented by a hollerin’ Jelly Jelly, and Bonfanti covered Blues hero Sonny Boy Williamson the First with a wicked take on a nursery rhyme (Sonny Boy adapted both Polly Put The Kettle On and Rub A Dub to his blues format). The Delta Blues of Leadbelly found its way through Midnight Special, also popularised by Jimmy Smith, and apparently not about the salvation brought about through religion but about a busload of hookers who were sent to a prison once a week! Big Bill Broonzy’s Country Blues made its mark with a stirring version of C C Rider.

Lotte Betts-Dean at Two Temple Place
Photo credit: Geoff Winston © 2017. All Rights Reserved

Australian opera singer Lotte Betts-Dean with accompanist Joseph Havlat (piano) added a refreshing zing to the context with beautiful renditions of a range of songs which could be heard at the time when jazz pioneers were shaping the idiom. They took in Hugo Wolff, Wagner, Fauré, Grieg and Brahms from the classical side and Ives’s Down East, Gershwin and Paolo Tosti whose ideas impacted on the evolution of jazz. There was wit and sparkle in Betts-Dean’s delivery and even a spot of whistling!

Betts-Dean also read an apposite extract from an essay by Brad Mehldau which had (metaphorically) struck a chord with her on the fluidity of interpretation by musicians and audiences and the nature of jazz and improvisation.

Kansas Smitty’s House Band, a self-styled ‘group of jazz-addicted twenty-somethings who run their own bar’, impressed with their irrepressible enthusiasm and musicianship in their first set. There wasn’t a score in sight, yet they were faithful to the letter and spirit of each of the landmark songs they took on, kicking off with Washington Lee Swing and revisiting Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and Morton’s The Pearls. Adrian Cox shone on clarinet with razor sharp, fast flowing runs and beautiful tone. Completing the front line were Pete Horsfall on trumpet and Giacomo Smith, another refugee from across the water, on alto, trading melodies and solos that conveyed the immediacy and enjoyment ingrained in the genre.

Between numbers Catherine Tackley offered illuminating historical insight and the key comment that the ‘music exists to be played live and danced to!’ In other words, it wasn’t designed for the staid concert hall, accounting for the polarised reception the first jazz bands received when they hit these shores in 1919, attracting over 2,000 dancers to the Hammersmith Palais, whom Tackley said, had to find a way to dance to this music. She also introduced the idea that improvisation grew out of the boredom of playing the same arrangements each night.

And talking of heady brews, the Kansas Smitty cocktail team ensured that there was a constant supply of Prohibition Era cocktails – including their highly refreshing Mississippi God-Dram!

LINK: Dan Bergsagel’s review
The exhibition The Age of Jazz opens on 27 January 2018

Categories: miscellaneous

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