PREVIEW: The Golden Age of the British Big Bands, (Cadogan Hall, April 23rd)

Jack Hylton, Ted Heath, Tubby Hayes, John Dankworth...
All represented in The Golden Age of the British Big Bands at Cadogan Hall

The Jazz Repertory Company has a new show, "The Golden Age of the British Big Bands." The premiere is on St George's Day, April 23rd, at Cadogan Hall. The concert will present a programme selected from  a large repertoire and long tradition; the earliest arrangement is from 1928, the last from 1980. Peter Vacher explains this great heritage and the background to the concert. He writes:

While we may accept, reluctantly perhaps, that the Golden Age of the big bands, British or American, is a thing of the past, it’s clear that the desire to play in a collective situation continues to exert its pull on jazz musicians, here and elsewhere. Consider the number of rehearsal big bands that exist up and down the United Kingdom, as well as the professional touring orchestras that re-create, say, the repertoire of Glenn Miller. The challenge of executing complex arrangements in an exciting fashion must be a source of great satisfaction to those who meet it: witness the many fine players who have been recruited by Richard Pite and Pete Long to perform for the Jazz Repertory Company’s concert series and the excellence of their achievements.

This time, the challenge is even more considerable – how to replicate and re-energise music as varied as that performed by the Spanish-Filipino pianist Fred Elizalde and his band of US expatriates in London in 1928 and then by the concert’s end, to recall the smart-sounding innovations of John Dankworth in the 1960s? In thinking back to the Elizalde era, it’s perhaps timely given our impending exit from the European community to reflect on the welcome contributions of these overseas musicians, like the Americans, multi-instrumentalist Adrian Rollini and trumpeter Chelsea Quealey who settled here and enlivened Elizalde’s recordings and engagements.

And then again it’s instructive to recall the periods spent in Britain by a number of the commanding figures in jazz when their presence helped to make between-the-wars London such a hot-bed of musical adventure. The great US tenor-saxophonist Coleman Hawkins appeared and toured with Jack Hylton’s band in the 1930s and it’s their version of ‘Melancholy Baby’ that is included in the Cadogan Hall programme. Benny Carter, too, was in town, arranging for the Henry Hall radio orchestra and pianist Fats Waller toured our variety theatres. How sad that the British Musicians Union’s desire to protect UK jobs should then have led them to ban American jazz musicians from working here for the next 20 years or so, thus depriving local musicians and British audiences of the chance to hear the world’s greatest players in their prime.

Bands like those led by Hylton, Ray Noble and Ambrose had already earned their popularity by appearing at top hotels and night-clubs where the glitterati of the day would dance the night away, never giving a fig for any putative jazz talent that might or might not adorn their bandstands. They just wanted a good time and these bandleaders saw to it they had just that, adding to their fame with radio-hook-ups and many recordings. These leaders were the ‘celebrities’ of their day, courted and feted by the elite. Another such band and an unusual one at that was led by Guyana-born dancer Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and consisted of the very best West Indian players then resident in London. Their break- through engagement was at the Café de Paris but sadly their triumph was short-lived for Johnson was killed outright when a German bomb hit the Café mid-performance on 8 March 1941. It’s their version of ‘It Was a Lover And His Lass’ that adorns the programme with Spats Langham recalling the mellifluous tones of vocalist Al Bowlly, another whose career was so sadly truncated when he too was killed in a WW2 air-raid just two months after Johnson. Fittingly for a St George’s Day concert the words are by our national playwright, William Shakespeare.

Easily the most prominent big band of the 1940s and 1950s was that led by former Ambrose trombonist Ted Heath, a canny operator who knew how to keep the pop charts ticking over with popular numbers featuring his star singers Lita Roza and Dickie Valentine, while allowing his superb sidemen their chances to shine with numbers like Bakerloo Non Stop. Like Heath, Dankworth had started his orchestra as a touring ensemble taking residencies and playing one-nighters up and down the country. Gradually, though, as touring opportunities began to dwindle and the demand for social dancing began to wane, Dankworth transferred his exceptional compositional skills to the creation of evocative TV signature tunes and masterly movie soundtracks, his band only re- convened for the occasional tour or one-off engagement. Other bands were re-imagined as ‘tribute’ ensembles and more specifically, as in the case of the Tubby Hayes and Stan Tracey bands, whose music will also be heard at Cadogan Hall, as vehicles for the special jazz arrangements produced by band members. No dance hall gigs for them; here it was the bravura of the compositions and the creativity of the soloists that carried the day.

Our big band journey takes us from the ‘hot’ dance bands of the 1920s catering to the ‘beautiful people’ of the day through to the touring ballroom favourites of the 1930s and beyond and alights finally in to the specialist world of these ‘jazz’ orchestras. From Crazy Rhythm to Tomorrow’s World, you could say, and this all accomplished by Long’s scintillating team and their attendant vocalists, Spats Langham, Chris Dean and Janice Day. And reverting to our opening paragraph, Long’s men will conclude the concert by paying a heart-felt tribute to the National Youth Jazz Orchestra as they recreate NYJO’s 1980s arrangement of Marie Lloyd’s timeless My Old Man Said Follow The Van. This selection underlines the extraordinary contribution made by NYJ0 in their 50-year existence to keeping the British big band tradition alive and well. NYJO alumni have rightly taken their place on the world big band stage and helped to foster and renew the big band tradition. So, bravo the British big band scene old and new: who said the golden age was over… it’s just been resting, that’s all! (pp)

LINK: Details and Bookings on the Cadogan Hall site

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