A month ago, we finally managed to revisit what was once called the Whitley Bay Jazz Festival, and is now called Mike Durham’s International Jazz Party. This was a long overdue trip – and we have no real excuse for not going, since it’s a legendary jazz event, and it’s practically on our doorstep. This year we spent a whole weekend there, and oh boy was it good.
A little background – Mike Durham started the Whitley Bay Jazz Festival back in 1990. He sadly passed some years ago, but his wife Patti and her dedicated team still run the event – and it’s a jazz event that focusses on the first 40 years of jazz – which makes it of particular interest to dancers, and to me – I confess I don’t really understand or enjoy the more modern forms of jazz.
Each year, they bring in top musicians from around the world, and treat guests to around thirty hours of musical sessions that are probably the closest thing we could ever have to hearing how that music would have sounded when it was originally performed. Yes – we have many many recordings from the day, but the recording technology of the still in its infancy particularly in the early Jazz period, and they just couldn’t capture the quality which we take for granted now. For example – the reason so many early jazz recordings sound very tinny is because they simply couldn’t record bass sounds properly – so it simply wasn’t possible to record the music as they were hearing it back then. As an example – here is Bob Crosby’s Speakeasy – with an original recording, vs what we heard this weekend – a loving recreation of that early arrangement, as I imagine audiences would have heard it eighty years ago.
The best time machine in existence? I would say so.
There were so many amazing sessions over the weekend that it’s hard to properly credit all of them, but among the standouts for myself paid tribute variously to Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Maxine Sullivan, Bessie Smith, Roy Eldridge, Bob Crosby and Jelly Roll Morton – and there were many, many others.
One particular highlight was Nicolle Rochelle, and her various sets through the weekend – it’s hard to pick a favourite from these, but the Bessie Smith set was sublime – and then there was this gem from the Eva Taylor / John Kirby session.
I was a little surprised that Nicolle wasn’t the one to introduce the songs – I felt she would have been the obvious choice to do it – and the presentation seemed to focus more on detailing the original musicians in the arrangements that were used – I would love to have heard more about the music itself and the history behind it.
One of the slightly strange things about the festival – I suppose because I’m used to swing dance festivals, where dancing is the focus. To spend the better part of three days listening to music that was originally written / arranged for dancers, and played for dancers, being played in a style that is as close to the original performances and recordings as is humanly possible – while sitting down with a very static audience – this can can feel a little strange. In the Speak Easy clip further up the page, you can pick us out in the video as the only two people seemingly incapable of sitting still – the audience is (to it carefully) extremely English, quite static, and age-wise – well – we were two of the younger audience members – and we’re hardly spring chickens.
There was a very small dancefloor (but it was wonderful that we had a dancefloor – given how the audience filled the room, it was great that we had a dancefloor at all!), but that was off in one corner, so it felt a little disconnected from the musicians. It was much as we expected, and the music was really what mattered – but I do wonder how we might encourage some of the younger folk to go – there is so much for them to enjoy, and so much they would get out of it! Food for thought.
There were so many amazing moments from the festival, and it’s hard to pick out the best – whether it’s the Ellington set (1929-1931), the Benny Goodman Trio, the Roy Eldridge and Louis Armtrong tributes – all were amazing. Although I do have to show one of the funnier moments – an amazing demonstration from Michael McQuaid on how … not to play the clarinet…
A couple of clips to finish with – from the Thursday night welcome party, Nicolle Rochelle’s take on Billie Holiday was uncanny – perhaps the best I’ve heard from a modern singer.
The organisers have generously allowed huge swathes of the event to appear on YouTube – the entire Thursday night welcoming, for example, set is there to view, and it’s well worth just playing in its entirety. Enjoy!
Final words – this festival is a precious, precious resource, annually giving us three days of incredible and captivating music, brought to us by a supremely talented group of musicians. The music was so good that if this were a dance event, I feel we would scarcely have been able to leave the floor. I wish we’d been able to make it there more often over the years, but we will definitely be back next year, and we play to attend every year it’s on. Highly recommended, and mustn’t be missed.