JazzJanuary performance #9
JazzJanuary testers: Oliver (8), Finn (10), Jack (12), Joseph (14), Andrew, Matt B, Matt P (much older)
JazzJanuary advisers: None
Tonight’s going to be a tricky one. In the front row, we have the PlayStation generation. Brothers Joseph, 14 and Jack, 12, are joined by Finn, 10, and Oliver, 8. Our youngest tester is the only one to have seen jazz music played live. In front of them, a formal-looking band is assembling on a formal-looking stage. There’s a fair amount of grey hair. They’re preparing to play three hours of music from the past.
This band, though, turns itself on like a lightswitch. Director Pete Long raises his clarinet, and sound is suddenly just there. This already feels like a party trick.
The Jazz Repertory Company has taken this programme from a landmark jazz music performance in 1938 and aims to re-create that historic evening. Benny Goodman’s big band performance in Carnegie Hall marked a turning point in music – and in American society. It was the moment at which jazz music became respectable. The great and the good of New York filled an upmarket classical music venue to hear something new, advertised as from Louisiana’s swampland….full of improvisations, of life bubbling up in the music from musicians who feel it. The audience left happy. Suddenly, swing music was not only socially acceptable but popular – the reach of the concert having been extended by a live radio broadcast.
Historians quibble over some of the details. Was this or wasn’t this the first performance in North America in which black and white musicians shared a stage without the fabric screens that had previously been used to hide black players from view? This is a practice that has to be explained to the junior jazz-testers twice. They’re not outraged that such a thing ever happened, more confused. It’s simply outside their terms of reference. We’ve come a long way since 1938, though it’s an ironic twist that we don’t see any black people in Cadogan Hall tonight, on or off the stage.
To say they’re playing with ‘verve’ or ‘gusto’ wouldn’t do justice to this band. As they romp through the programme, we get some savage touches. Pete Long’s clarinet on Ted Lewis’ When My Baby Smiles at Me is un-tamed. Simon Marsh (saxophone) gets a silent thumbs-up from two testers after Duke Ellington’s Blue Reverie. Enrico Tomasso (trumpet) is a self-propelled bundle of exuberance. He rushes to the front of the stage for his volcanic solos, which the testers love. He’s particularly effective alongside guitarist Nils Solberg for Bix Beiderbecke’s I’m Coming Virginia.
It’s past bedtime, and Finn’s huge afternoon dose of Coca-Cola has worn off. He’s yawning. Mid-song, Pete Long strolls over and sits on the edge of the low stage, so they’re face-to-face. He plays an extended and very lively clarinet solo. At this distance every touch, every sinewy little detail, is heard and seen in the highest possible resolution. It’s a wake-up call, literally. “You won’t fall asleep now, will you?” smiles the man, offering a friendly handshake as the band plays on behind him. It goes down, of course, as Finn’s highlight of the evening.
In keeping with the 1938 concert, there’s some flexibility in the setlist. Back then, a mid-show jam session over-ran, wrecking the schedule. Tonight, a merry heckler interrupts the applause at the end of a tricky piece: “Play it again!” “Alright, we will,” comes the reply, “if you lot dance.” Pretty much everyone dances. Drummer Richard Pite gets so stuck into Chinaboy that his brushes disintegrate. Briefly, he’s drumming one-handed as he scrabbles for his sticks and pieces of wire spray around the stage. Finn is from Norfolk, which means he’s not prone to displays of emotion. Usually, he’s as inscrutable as Ernst Blofeld’s cat, but he loves all this. There’s laughter, applause, more dancing. Have some barriers crumbled? Were they really there to begin with? Either way, it’s a special atmosphere.
Oliver took up music lessons straight after January’s performance by the Gareth Lockrane Big Band, and his new clarinet goes everywhere with him. In the foyer, as we’re leaving, Pete Long identifies the instrument by the size of the case. “Come on, then,” he says, “let’s have a listen.” The one-minute performance gets a thumbs-up. “He’s doing it right. The timing’s there.” For this child, it’s not the nuance in the feedback that matters, but the fact that one of the world’s most accomplished clarinetists and bandleaders has stopped by to listen. It’s half-past ten and he’s asleep on his feet, but this junior jazz-tester is a happy one.
Before he became famous for snitching on the Queen during the brexit debate, Michael Gove used to be the Secretary of State for Education. One of his more curious aims was to eviscerate music teaching in schools, to make way for an array of Victorian-era English grammar exams.
Here’s where you come in. If you know some kids and you can afford it, buy them some tickets to watch this band. They’ll be soaking up social history, top-drawer musicianship, beautiful songs and a whole notion of music as unpredictable, unruly and fun. They’ll spend a fair part of the evening on their feet, dancing or clapping or both. That’s what this music did to kids in 1938. That’s what it was created for. It’s impossible not to smile, when you see it working just as well today.
1) The experience. These kids loved the spectacle, sound, style and swing of a 1930s big band.
2) The Jazz-people. Yet again, they’re enthusiastic, tolerant, generous.
Jack (12): “I liked the drummer and the trumpet guy. Did you see that dancing man with the long arms?”
Finn (10): “The main guy was my favourite. The best bit was when he played right in our faces.”
Joseph (14): “The trombonists were really good. And the piano guy. And the leader of the saxophones. All of them, really.”
Oliver (8): “Brilliant.”
Much, much more music (see What next?) But no more writing: JazzJanuary is over.
Story and photos: Matt Pannell