EXHIBITION REVIEW: Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain at 2 Temple Place

Edward Burra The Band (1934), watercolour, 55.5 x 76cm, British Council Collection
© Estate of the Artist, courtesy of Lefevre Fine Art Ltd, London and British Council Collection
Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain
(Exhibition at 2 Temple Place. Review by Geoff Winston)

No two ways about it – this is an absolutely stunning exhibition! Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain describes the era of early jazz in Britain through an extraordinarily high quality selection of works in multiple media to illuminate and expand perceptions of the music and its impacts in the first decades of the 20th century. This gathering together of diverse art works, film, crafted products and ephemera, so insightfully curated by Catherine Tackley, is beautifully displayed in one of London’s dazzling architectural masterpieces, 2 Temple Place, built at the end of the 19th century, coinciding with the emergent jazz age.

The exhibits, collectively, are less of a counterpart, more a complement to the various strands of music simultaneously being embedded deep in the collective psyche of certain groups and enraging others or, as Tackley put it, inspiring both ‘devotion and complete abhorrence’. Outrage and appreciation were inevitable bedfellows in a climate which exhibited polarised and ambiguous attitudes towards the African-American musicians who had migrated to the UK and Europe from the USA prior to and during the Great War, and in the inter-war period.

On entering 2 Temple Place the visitor is led in to the exhibition with an enticing view of four, wall-mounted, immaculately preserved, vintage banjos, with attendant instruction manuals, the mainstay of travelling minstrel bands at the turn of the century, with resultant popularity as a domestic musical instrument.

A fabulous range of vintage drum kits is spread across a raised area the full width of the lower gallery, including one with the Kit-Kat Dance Band insignia (complete with cat!) painted on the bass drum, along with a rarely seen, collapsible, hence portable, bass drum.

Exhibits which captured music-making in the clubs, stages, recording studios and cinemas of the time include streams of live-action and animated films and shellac platters. The film soundtracks are the only time when the music is actually heard by the visitor, artfully emphasising that the focus of the exhibition is all that surrounded and derived from the music, not the music itself. The film which really caught my imagination was Len Lye’s amazing, abstractly psychedelic Swinging The Lambeth Walk (1939), each animated frame hand scratched, painted or drawn by Lye and set to his seamless edit of various versions of the popular song, including one by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, where he ‘aimed at capturing the emotional spontaneity of good jazz’ as the British Council wrote in their 1940 Film Catalogue.

A gramophone and wireless set from the ’30s sit in display cases alongside key documentation which includes early copies of Melody Maker and programmes from the Rhythm Clubs, which brought together early record collectors in these forerunners of the jazz clubs. An array of cigarette cards of bandleaders’ portraits and a display of vintage postcards on the theme of jazz with a distinctly seaside tone of humour add further immediacy.

Co-operative Wholesale Society, gold and green leather Bar Shoes (1920-1925)
© courtesy of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
Ceramics are represented by an eye-catching range of elegant vases with striking deco-style ‘Jazz’ designs and a richly decorated Royal Winton coffee set, while costume designs for Nijinska’s ballet, Jazz (1925), by the Russian designer Alexandra Exter, who inspired the development of Constructivist art, sit alongside two of the actual costumes on dummy figures, dramatic for their bold geometric aesthetic. (Jazz was set to Stravinsky’s Ragtime and premiered at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth.) In the upper gallery, half a dozen pairs of brogues and two-tone women’s court and bar shoes assert a sense of liberation which briefly pervaded the era.

Paintings and drawings are central to the narrative, notably a group of chalk and pastel sketches and a recreated painting by J B Souter of his controversial Breakdown, showing a black saxophonist and a naked white female dancer, praised when shown at the Royal Academy in 1926, yet condemned by the Colonial Office and subsequently destroyed.

William Roberts’ dynamic Vorticist gem, At The Hippodrome (1921), depicting the rowdy audience in ‘the gods’ at what is thought to be the Camden Hippodrome near to his Mornington Crescent lodgings, and his vibrant The Dance Club (The Jazz Party) (1923), where events appear to be close to getting out of control, are contrasted with the austere constraint of Malcolm Drummond’s gloomily atmospheric Hammersmith Palais de Dance (1920) and Mabel Frances Layng’s portrayal of a conventional Tea Dance in muted beiges and greys.

Edward Burra, a great jazz fan, captured the sharp edges of New York street life in Harlem (1934), and the relaxed wit of the white-suited jazz musicians in The Band (1934), onstage in a Harlem theatre. His incisive brand of macabre surrealism burns through in a grisly, orgiastic party attended by The Grim Reaper in John Deth (Hommage to Conrad Aitken) (1931). Grace Golden’s pencil sketches of dancers and the interior of Sherry’s Dance Hall in Brighton are a minor revelation.

Maybe most revealing are the pastel portrait of a gimlet-eyed Louis Armstrong of 1937 by Jacob Kramer and a couple of uncredited photos of Fats Waller by his piano in Glasgow, portraying him in an unfamiliarly natural, unstaged pose. As another visitor commented, it’s as though he’d been snapped on somebody’s smartphone!

The exhibition resulted from truly collaborative efforts of the Bulldog Trust, owners of 2 Temple Place, The Arts Society, celebrating its 50th anniversary and Catherine Tackley, whose earlier PhD studies, she told us, formed the basis of the project. There was also generous assistance from The National Jazz Archive and from many lenders and institutions.

This is a remarkable exhibition and anyone with even the slightest interest in jazz and the arts is guaranteed a most rewarding experience – and it’s free!

LINK: Exhibition website

RHYTHM & REACTION: The Age of Jazz in Britain
Two Temple Place, London WC2R 3BD
27 January – 22 April 2018

Free entrance

Exhibition opening times:
Monday, Thursday – Saturday: 10am – 4:30pm, Wednesday late: 10am – 9pm,
Sunday: 11am – 4:30pm,
Closed on Tuesday

LINKS : Two of our writers covered the Jazz before jazz was Jazz live shows in the run-up to this exhibition
Geoff Winston’s report
Dan Bergsagel’s report

Categories: miscellaneous

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