Features/Interviews (PP)

The Roaring 20s (Cadogan Hall, Saturday 25 September 2021)

On 25 September The Jazz Repertory Company will return to Cadogan Hall, London with The Roaring 20s, a programme originally devised by the much missed Keith Nichols, and featuring a dozen of the UK’s leading exponents of vintage jazz including trumpeter Enrico Tomasso, pianist Martin Litton, drummer Nick Ball and reedsman Michael McQuaid. Richard Pite, Director of The Jazz Repertory Company, gives the background:

93 years ago, the British-born American writer Alistair Cooke was a Cambridge undergraduate and enthusiastic jazz fan.  At home during the summer vacation, he took delivery of a package from the USA containing Louis Armstrong’s latest release – the stately King Oliver composition West End Blues.  He put the record on the Victrola and after a minute or so became aware of a strange noise nearby.  He went next door to find his mother in great emotional distress and on asking her what was the matter discovered that the noise he had inflicted on her had been so terrifying she had broken down sobbing.

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Enrico Tomasso with Louis Armstrong in 1968. Credit: The Yorkshire Post.

The music of a hundred years ago often sounds quaint and corny to modern ears but we forget that for many at the time, jazz was the soundtrack of societal breakdown, its jungle rhythms and wild dancing an affront to civilisation (in 1928 Duke Ellington’s The Mooche was blamed for the rise in sex crimes in New York City).

Enrico Tomasso, who takes the role of Louis Armstrong in the Jazz Repertory Company’s show The Roaring 20s on September 25th, was involved in the recording of the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby back in 2013 and told me that the director wanted to capture the essence of what had so affected Cooke’s mother. He did this by letting his executive producer Jay-Z contemporise the music of the era. As Luhrmann said: “In our age the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip hop.”

Whilst we hope our musicians recreating the Roaring Twenties don’t cause mass sobbing to break out, they will be aiming to conjure up the frisson of danger and decadence that the audiences back then would have relished and also been repelled by.

Like all popular music revolutions, the jazz of the 20s was accepted by the young and abhorred by many of their elders and betters.  In 1931 Bix Beiderbecke died just one year too late to join the legendary 27 Club (Brian Jones, Amy Winehouse, Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain) but his life and early exit was a template for all the young, romantic and tragic musical comets who came much later.  He was revered by American college kids, but his parents never opened the packages he sent home which contained his latest recordings (successfully avoiding the horrors suffered by Mrs Cooke).

The Creole pianist Jelly Roll Morton was a remarkable musician and remarkable blabbermouth too, claiming to be the inventor of jazz.  He honed his craft in the 1900s working in the whorehouses of New Orleans and by the time he made his classic recordings with the Red Hot Peppers in 1926 he was a jazz veteran, revered and reviled equally by his contemporaries.  Just the former is the case with our pianist Martin Litton, the UK’s finest exponent of the Jelly Roll style, who has developed his own style without ever taking a gig in the notorious red-light district of his home town of Hay-on-Wye.

Duke Ellington, in contrast to Mr Jelly Roll, was bought up in a far tonier environment – his father being a butler at the White House.  His elegant manners and demeanour were the reasons for his soubriquet and his wonderful band of the late 20s was resident at the uptown Cotton Club in New York City where the entertainers were all black, the audiences all white and the owners all gangsters.  In such a situation elegant manners and demeanour no doubt came in very handy.

The fifth of the five great names of 20s music celebrated in the concert is the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith.  It’s not easy finding someone who can emulate the power and majesty of this extraordinary singer but we are very fortunate to have the superb Vimala Rowe taking on the role. Alongside her commanding voice she has a natural gift for theatrical delivery. A few years back I performed in the band accompanying the astonishing Cécile McLorin Salvant and Vimala shares the same musicality and charisma.

The Roaring 20s will feature a dozen of the UK’s premier specialists in Vintage Jazz including reed players Michael McQuaid, David Horniblow and Mark Crooks, the ebullient 20s percussion stylist Nick Ball, vocalist/guitarist/banjo maestro Thomas “Spats” Langham, Chris Barber trumpeter Pete Rudeforth and trombonist Alistair Allan.  The show will be presented by actor Kerry Shale, an expert on the music of the era.

The music for The Roaring 20s was programmed by the late Keith Nichols, the show’s original musical director back in 2020.  Because of Covid this was not to be but we are grateful to be using the music from his large archive. The 25th September performance will be a tribute to him and his legacy as a performer, teacher and scholar. There will be guest appearances from musicians who had a long association with Keith including trumpeter Guy Barker and singer Janice Day.

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The Roaring 20s is at Cadogan Hall SW1 (one minute from Sloane Square tube) at 7:30pm on Saturday 25 September 2021  TICKETS

Tribute to Keith Nichols (1945-2021)

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