Thursday, 1 March 2018

Between the Wars:Hot jazz in a cold country.

John Bullouch Souter's 1926 painting 'The Breakdown' shows a fully, and rather nattily, dressed black tenor saxophonist honking away as a naked white woman dances in rapture to the new 'jazz' sounds emanating from his horn. It seems to suggest that this music, and perhaps even these 'negroes', are somehow a danger to civilised society. This painting says that not only has this, presumably once respectable, woman been driven so sexually crazed by the music that she's taken all her clothes off but, in the broken classical sculpture our saxman perches upon, that civilisation itself has fallen. A victim of jazz.

It's a well made, fascinating, and undoubtedly controversial work - but it's something of an outlier in the rather neat and groovy Rhythm & Reaction:The Age of Jazz in Britain, a show that seeks to show via music, paintings, ceramics, textiles, and clothes how the coming of the jazz age between the wars changed Britain's attitude to music, race, and just about everything else - and, more often than not and unlike in The Breakdown, for the best. All spread out across four rooms in the rather grand folly that is Two Temple Place, a venue whose curatorial policy appears to be all about quality as opposed to quantity. Most years there's only one exhibition but it's normally a very good one.

John Bulloch Souter - The Breakdown (1926)
Rhythm & Reaction was the best I've seen there so far. The music playing in the two largest rooms helps you shimmy round the show and the curatorial decision to resist the tendency to overstuff the space means that, like with jazz itself (and, of course, all music), the space in between the notes (for which here read exhibits) is just as important as the notes themselves.
Britain wasn't completely taken by surprise by this strange new music from New Orelans. It had been readied for the advent of jazz by popular minstrel shows towards the end of the nineteenth century. Despite their exaggerated and derogatory portrayal of black life some of the music was surprisingly good and the banjo, particularly, caught on. William Nicholson's Music shows a banjo (and several more hang on a nearby wall) alongside a fiddle and the sheet music to the Scottish song 'Roy's Wife of Aldivalloch', showing how banjo and ragtime music would improvise and extemporise around existing folk and classical works. Something that would eventually become encoded in the very DNA of jazz itself.

William Nicholson - Music (1890)
In 1903 'In Dahomey; a Negro Musical Comedy' (featuring a fantastically named character called Shylock Homestead) would transfer from Broadway to Shaftesbury Avenue in London where it ran for seven months. Despite being viewed as just a more fancy minstrel show at the time (and featuring black actors blacked up to look more black) its central message, quite radically, was one of African American empowerment and its combination of vernacular folky styles with full blown operatic numbers suggested a blurring of the edges of the high-brow and the low-brow.
These seeds of jazz were to finally flower when the Original Dixieland Jass Band (the spelling seemingly hadn't been prescribed yet) performed in Britain in April 1919. They'd travelled over the Atlantic at the behest of one Albert de Courville, an ambitious theatrical impresario from Croydon, to appear in Joybells at the Palladium but whilst in town also put in a performance at the Hippodrome (where the seated, somewhat starchy, audience were a little befuddled) and, more successfully, at the opening night of the Hammersmith Palais, a venue, that like jazz itself, was designed for dancing.
That same year another group of American musicians, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, also arrived and, perhaps because of their fragmentary nature, they were to have an even greater effect on the nascent British jazz scene. They presented jazz not as something new and from out of nowhere but as part of a grand lineage that that included classical music, spirituals, and blues. Other bands too arrived from the US. The Versatile Three added another member and became, you guessed it, The Versatile Four. A name change that historically looks less advisable was that of Dan Kildare's Clef Club Orchestra to Ciro's Club Coon Orchestra.
More bands meant more variety so while the fashionable of London were able to dress up for the more upmarket jazz performances, the working class found that dancing to jazz was a perfect way of releasing all the pent up frustrations and desires of the working week on a Friday night in the various palais de dances springing up across the country, many of them styled on Heddon Street's Cave of the Golden Calf - a 'cabaret theatre club' that had been running since 1912 which featured modernist design and attracted Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists amongst other such Bohemians.
The Savoy Hotel, just off the Strand, soon starting adding visiting American musicians to its ensembles to ensure authenticity and modernity in performances. In 1924 the resident Savoy Orpheans presented a concert titled 'Revolution of syncopated music from ragtime to symphonised syncopation' which sounds pretty stuffy next to The Exploding Plastic Inevitable or The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream but would've seemed pretty ambitious at the time and would've, via its journey through the history of syncopation in music, given any stragglers a chance to catch up, to get with the programme.
Six years ealier the Polish ballet dancer Bronislava Nijinska choreographed a ballet, Jazz, to Igor Stravinsky's 1918 composition Ragtime which she'd dance with her partner Eugene Lapitzky. Nijinska had left Sergei Diaghilev's legendary Ballet Russes and started her own company:- Theatre Choreagraphiques and Jazz, initially and retrospectively problematically called The Savage Jazz, premiered in Margate before touring such equally unlikely seaside locations as Lyme Regis, Scarborough, Eastbourne, and Penzance.
The original dancers' costumes of masks, tights, and long sleeved tops proved too restrictive so instead they had, in minstrel tradition, their faces painted and wore the below outfits. A mix of the stereotypical (the grass skirt) and the more modern (if somewhat jockey like) spotted and striped gowns. In its mix of the traditional and the new, the stereotypical and the avant-garde, it was something of a microcosm of the jazz experience du jour.

Alexandra Ester - Illustration of costumes for 'Jazz' (1925)

Alexandra Ester - Costume for the female dancer in the ballet 'Jazz' (1925)

Alexandra Ester - Costume for the male dancer in the ballet 'Jazz' (1925)
Frank Dobson's bronze Dancers, also, is another work that reflects how things were changing, how traditional dance, and mores, were being overhauled and revamped. Cartoonists and postcard makers had fun with the changing times and there's a couple of vitrine glasses full of borderline saucy jokes about dancing to jazz that look somewhat dated now but possibly seemed the very height of risque humour in the immediate post-WWI years.

Frank Dobson - Dancers (1919)

Premier Drums, London - Drums for the Kit Kat Club (1928)
If the postcard humour has faded now then the use of drums in music certainly hasn't. The evolution of the drum kit and the evolution of jazz went hand in hand, a symbiotic relationship. Whereas the old marching bands had employed multiple percussionists the new sit down kit, and the advent of foot pedals, meant that only one drummer was now required. This show has a selection including the Premier Drums for London's Kit Kat Club (above) as well as Joe Daniel's kit which had a modified bass drum that featured a secret door from which eggs were 'laid' to add some frankly bonkers novelty to the act. Jazz, still being new, was by it nature a novelty and a drum kit that laid eggs was far from the only novelty that was employed at the time:- a jazz band from Cheshire consisted of circus figures and there were 'all-girl' bands too. Developments in feminist thought were some way off.

Beneath the beautiful stained glass ceiling and at the bottom of the ornate carved wooden stairs of Two Temple Place there's a player piano (sadly, or perhaps thankfully, not in full flow), a German made Steck that would've been sold at the Aeolian Hall, a concert venue in Bond Street. During the twenties, when the piano was still the major form of home entertainment, these player pianos (or pianolas) outsold traditional pianos and many of the 'rolls' that would've been fed into them would've been jazz in genre.

Whilst this was okay for home listening the real jazz experience came in going out and catching a live band, and following on from the visits of the Original Dixieland Jass Band and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra there was a wave of American visitors whose activities were previewed and reviewed by new publications like Melody Maker and Rhythm and Tune Times.
Duke Ellington's first visit to Britain came in 1933 and you can see him and his musicians (including such luminaries as Barney Bigard, Irving Mills, and Juan Tizol) arriving in Southampton docks below. Ellington set up at the Palladium in London but he also toured the country where, for the most part, he received positive notices. Ever articulate and urbane, he posited a theory that jazz was an artistic rather than a commercial venture. It was an improvement on Paul Whiteman's attempts, less than a decade earlier, to civilize this 'primitive' music.
Melody Maker Christmas 1929
Melody Maker Diploma of Merit

Unknown photographer - Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra arrive at Southampton Docks June 1933
The band leaders were the biggest stars but the soloists and the vocalists were beginning to make names for themselves too. Adelaide Hall, the Brooklyn born singer who played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance, sang with Duke Ellington's band on his, cough, Chocolate Kiddies tour before settling in London with her Trinidadian husband Bert Hicks. Another to settle in the capital was New Jersey's Elisabeth Welch, populariser of the Charleston as well as Arlen and Koehler's 'Stormy Weather' and Cole Porter's 'Love for Sale'. 

Amongst the musicians New Orleanians Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong were singled out for praise. The Swiss conductor Ernest Amsermet suggested Bechet's solos 'show the germs of the new style' and suggested, correctly, that jazz might be 'the highway along which the whole world will swing tomorrow'. Bechet's spell in London was not all good though, he did fourteen days hard labour in Brixton prison! Armstrong didn't get into such trouble but the physicality of his stage presence was thought to be 'threatening'! Yes, that nice old man wiping sweat off his brow with a white hankie as he sings 'What a Wonderful World' was once scary. Maybe it was the plus fours?

Unknown photographer - Adelaide Hall at her Old Florida Club, Bruton Mews, Mayfair, 1939.
Unknown photographer - Louis Armstrong in London reading the Melody Maker 1933
Ol' Dippermouth wasn't the only one coaxed into an unusual press shot. Missouri tenor sax player Coleman Hawkins can be seen taking tea in the 'British mode'. As tit for tat measures were mean spiritedly played out between British and American musician's unions in the thirties it became more normal to arrive in the UK alone and perform with a 'pick-up' band and as jazz moved into its swing era Hawkins, along with Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, toured the country like this.

Unknown photographer - Coleman Hawkins Taking Tea in London 1934
Home grown jazz bands, too, were springing up under the leadership of such figures as Henry Hall (from Peckham), the former singing-mill boy of Bolton Jack Hylton, and Claude Bampton who, although fully sighted himself, led a successful all blind dance band that featured George Shearing who later emigrated to the United States, composed Lullaby of Birdland, and worked with Nat King Cole and Mel Torme. In 1992 he was even the subject of Michael Aspel's This Is Your Life. If that's not making it then what is?
British jazz was given a different accent to its American uncle by the influence of musicians from across the Empire, not least the West Indies. Happy and Cyril Blake established the Cuba Club on Gerrard Street and encouraged musicians to move over from the Caribbean to take positions there and under the leadership of Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson the West India Dance Orchestra become hugely popular after introducing swing to mainstream audiences via the BBC and live shows at the Café de Paris. Trigically, Johnson was killed in 1941 when a bomb fell on the Café during a concert, also taking the lives of many of the dancers and the Trinidadian saxophonist Dave 'Baba' Williams. In the aftermath of the tragedy many of the remaining musicians were given gigs by white jazz musicians who were already struggling to fill positions in their bands due to conscription. Just as before a World War was bringing, or forcing, black and white musicians together.
Both on the concert stage and in the home - where, with the phonograph now becoming widely available in British homes (and it becoming increasingly dangerous to go out - there was a war going on), a lot of listening was happening. Previous designs had been cumbersome and space filling bits of kit but with HMV marketing their 102 model as 'The World's Greatest Portable' that was changing and record shops like Levy's in Whitechapel made it easier for jazz fans to get hold of 'hot sides' to spin on their 102s.
Radio too was becoming more available. The BBC had launched in 1922 and the development of Bakelite was making it easier to mass produce these 'wirelesses'. The EKCO SH25 (below) was the first model to have available stations marked out on the dial. Something that was still a rare sight when I was growing up.

The Gramophone Company Ltd - HMV model 102c portable gramophone (1935-1941)
J K White (designed) for E K Cole Ltd - Wireless (1932)
The design of the gramophones and the radios may not have been moving as fast as their technological developments. Muted mud colours and woody finishes just didn't say 'jazz', daddi-o, but, elsewhere, in such unlikely fields as ceramics, London underground poster design, and textiles, designers were getting with the beat, Baggy!
Royal Winton Grimewades coffee sets employed geometric shapes and bright colours, chevrons and vaguely 'oriental' looking patterns gave a generic 'exotic', and thus jazzy, appeal to vases and stitch trays, Gregory Brown's fabrics seem to have located the missing link between Russian constructivism, Bridget Riley's Op Art, and mid-80s duvet covers, while Horace Taylor's underground posters make the circuses of Piccadilly and Oxford look like actual big tops rather than clogged up road junctions.

Royal Wilton Grimwades - 'Jazz' Coffee Set (1930s)
Violet Elmer for Carlton Ware (1930)
Enoch Boulton for Carlton Ware - Jazz ruby lustre vase pattern (1916)
Violet Elmer for Carlton Ware - Jazz Stitch Tray (1933)
Gregory Brown for William Foxton - Furnishing Fabric (1930)
Gregory Brown for William Foxton - Furnishing Fabric (1922)

Horace Taylor - Brightest London and Home by the Underground (1924)

As jazz styles, or the very word itself, became co-opted and whitened some sought more authentic experiences. British jazz musicians, critics, and fans travelled to America to experience the real thing. Included among them were artist Edward Burra whose paintings depicted the vibrant street life of Harlem. John Banting's work was inspired as much by jazz dance as jazz music, Thomas Cantrell Douglas's 1926 Night shows a couple struggling to cut a rug in a room too packed to swing a cat let alone swing your pants, and John Melville (like Banting) brought an abstract sensibility to the jazz game. Even a cursory glance of his 1934 work Dancers II makes it apparent that his contemporaries included both Henry Moore and Paul Nash. It's got more of a sexual frisson about it than any of the equally wonderful figurative works suggesting that jazz, art, and even sex, work best when they're a bit abstract, when they don't quite make absolute sense. Feeling and passion trump proficiency and virtuosity - but if you can combine all of the above then you're on to a winner. I imagine John Coltrane would agree.

John Banting - One Man Band (1934)

Edward Burra - The Band (1934)

Thomas Cantrell Dugdale - Night (1926)

John Melville - Dancers II (1934)

Marie Hartley - Dancing (1929)
Burra's 1931 work John Deth looks like what might happen if Otto Dix and Hieronymus Bosch were commissioned to paint a Day of the Dead festival in Mexico. Even in a room, and exhibition, dripping with colour this work riotously explodes in front of your eyes, it's not so much jazz as psychedelia. Psychedelic jazz perhaps? Perhaps Miles Davis would approve.
Edward Burra - John Deth (Hommage to Conrad Aiken) (recto); Study of a Dinner Dance (1931)

Horrell Ltd - Correspondent Shoes (1935-39)

The paintings are brilliant but they're just one part of an all round excellent show that proves both informative and enjoyable. Elsewhere, scattered around the exhibition, you can see vinyl 78s of Fats Waller's 'Honeysuckle Rose' or Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra's 'Rhapsody in Blue', Al Bowlly's book 'Modern Style Singing - Crooning', Correspondent Shoes for the discerning jazz man about town, and a 1930s Boosey & Hawkes tenor saxophone. These exhibits, as much as the art, photography, and music have all been carefully, and lovingly, chosen to propel forward a fascinating story that helps us to view the interwar history of Britain through the prism of jazz and the history of British jazz though the prism of the arts and crafts of the time. Each strand of the exhibition on its own is impressive enough but when they all come together that's when the Rhythm starts to make sense and the Reaction, of couse, can only be - niiiice!

Boosey & Hawkes - Tenor Saxophone (c1938)
Thanks to Professor Christine Tackley from the University of Liverpool for putting together such a wonderful (and free) show and thanks to Tina for joining me for this exhibition and a quick debrief in Temple's Cheshire Cheese. With the snow settling in the quiet streets of the area things looked positively Dickensian.

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