As the saga of Brexit brings new contortions to Britain on a daily basis, this excellent exhibition, about to enter its final weeks, is a timely aide-mémoire of the longstanding dance that has taken place between ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, as in culture from afar. Curated by Catherine Tackley, Rhythm & Reaction casts a fascinating eye over the arrival of what became known as ‘jazz’ in the UK at the turn of the century, making the point in no uncertain terms that the music has been anchored in contention and confusion as well as propelled by its brilliant progenitors for as long one cares to remember.
The presentation of a number of priceless artifacts, from musical instruments d’époque such as banjos, drum kits and saxophones to posters, cards, prints, paintings and even tea sets that reference jazz in some way shows the extent to which the artform pervaded British society and affected both audiences and practitioners of other disciplines. Seeing all of this paraphernalia from the ‘20s and ‘30s, the period that the exhibition covers in great detail, brings into focus the great sense of invigoration conveyed by music whose humble origins in the life of the American Negro, with his dynamic approach to song and dance and prowess with firstly, percussion, and later strings, brass, reeds and keys, would prove difficult to ignore. Indeed the footage of women and men enthusiastically imitating the steps developed by early minstrels and plantation performers we take for granted today – shimmying, spinning, rubber legging – are striking for their modernity. They are of then and now.
Inevitably the question of race is an integral part of the way the music was perceived. There was an enduring association of Africans and African-Americans with immorality and primitivism, which surfaced in explicit ways – Stravinsky’s 1918 ballet Ragtime also had the title The Savage Jazz – and a huge amount of distortion as to the real originators of the music. Several pathé newsreels presented jazz as a strange novelty with musicians either charming animals in zoos or doing zany stunts on the wings of airplanes. Tellingly, none of the featured bands were black.
Gradually, the likes of Americans such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and West Indians like Happy Blake and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson gained substantial recognition during the swing era, as the sheer verve of their music was irresistible. The vintage portraits of these bandleaders, with their immaculately attired sidemen and glowing charisma, are essential for any contemporary audience to behold. They are nothing less than a glimpse of the next glorious line of geniuses yet to come – the soul innovation of Ray Charles and the funk revolution of James Brown.
Kevin Le Gendre
Until April 22 @ 2 Temple Place, London, WC2R 3DB