FEATURE: Keith Nichols’ Mayfair Orchestra (Midnight in Mayfair, Cadogan Hall, 28 April)

Cadogan Hall is set to party like it’s 1929 on Saturday 28 April when Keith Nichols’ Mayfair Orchestra presents Midnight in Mayfair, writes Rob Adams.

(Including veterans of the vintage and classic jazz scene in the UK, Enrico Tomasso trumpet and Martin Wheatley guitar and banjo. Distinguished all-rounders at home in all eras Robert Fowler and Mark Crooks (sax and clarinet), Dave Chamberlain (bass). Long-time Nichols’ sideman Graham Read on sousaphone and one of the finest young trumpeters in the country Jim Davison – equally adept at conjuring up the sound of Clark Terry as well as Louis. Two distinguished players from overseas – the brilliant Mike McQuaid from Australia and visiting especially for this concert the German saxophone and clarinet virtuoso Matthias Seuffert.) 

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Featuring the music of great British bandleaders including Ray Noble, Lew Stone, Jack Hylton, Jack Payne and more, Midnight in Mayfair celebrates a time in the 1920s and 1930s when orchestras played for dancing and were often strengthened by the presence of American musicians who had come over to Europe on tour and stuck around.

The Midnight in Mayfair Orchestra

As Keith Nichols points out, the first authentic jazz band to be heard on these shores, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, ended up playing in Hammersmith Palais and their influence, as well as the many other American bands who followed, was felt on the dance bands of the time.

Nichols, now 73, has spent his entire adult life championing classic jazz from the music’s beginnings up to around 1950. A boyhood pianist and accordionist, he was improvising before he realised jazz existed. He formed his first band at school in the 1950s, by which time the stride and ragtime styles of piano playing had become a fascination. So began an adventure that has seen him perform at Carnegie Hall, New York – on one of his other instruments, the trombone – and achieve quite the coals-to-Newcastle act by becoming the pianist on a Mississippi riverboat.

“That was quite an experience, not least because the Americans seemed taken aback that an English musician knew all the tunes they wanted,” he says.

One of the pianist’s roles on these boats involved playing a calliope – a steam-driven pipe organ – on call. When the boat steamed into a port, whether Nichols was onstage, asleep or eating dinner, he had to immediately report at the calliope and play a tune associated with the town involved: St Louis Blues, Chatanooga Choo Choo and so on.

Nichols refers to what he does as jazz archaeology.

“When I got interested in jazz the older style of playing didn’t really exist any more,” he says. “Everything had changed when bebop came in in the 1940s and very few people were playing stride and ragtime in the Fats Waller style. You have to listen hard and practise seriously and it’s a lifetime’s work to get anywhere near the standard the original players set.”

His love of and facility with Scott Joplin’s music saw him handily placed when Joplin’s ragtime classics were popularised by the soundtrack to the Paul Newman-Robert Redford film The Sting in the 1970s and it was around the same time that Nichols played on one of Bing Crosby’s last albums. As a trombonist he came to the attention of Dick Sudhalter, an American musician resident in the UK at the time, who enlisted Nichols in his recreation of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra for concerts in Philadelphia and Carnegie Hall.

Nichols’ Midnite Follies, a popular band of the 1980s which specialised in Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway’s 1920s music, paved the way for the Midnight in Mayfair concert with more jazz archaeology back in their heyday. Deciding to celebrate the great British bands of the same era, Nichols discovered that the music was unavailable except in simplified form. To bring it up to the standards of the bands at the time involved much listening to old recordings and transcribing of parts.

Fred Elizalde

“One of the great characters in those days was Fred Elizalde, who departed from the strict tempo rule and featured quite futuristic harmonies,” says Nichols. “He was eventually told by the Savoy Hotel to knuckle down and play for dancing or he’d be out – and he was out. We’re going to feature some of his music but I think we’re safe from being banned at this remove.”

Indeed, Nichols’ 16-piece Mayfair Orchestra, which includes violins and singers Thomas “Spats” Langham and Janice Day, is likely to find favour among dancers across the generations.

“There’s an element of déjà vu for people of a certain age with this music but there are young musicians coming up who are interested in playing the older styles,” says Nichols, who for the past 28 years has taught jazz history at the Royal Academy of Music and has first-hand experience of this wave of interest through leading annual concerts with the Academy Big Band. “And just as the young musicians are getting into it, so the enthusiasm among their peers for jive and swing dancing has grown. So the energy in the room might well be similar to the way it was back when the music we’re playing was all the rage.” (pp)


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