Tag Archives: Bessie Smith

Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2017: Alison Affleck’s Copper Cats

Alison Affleck’s Copper Cats, George Square Spiegeltent ****

“And Now For Something Completely Different” could have been the title of the early evening concert given by Alison Affleck’s Copper Cats on Friday. Unlike any other gig in the jazz festival programme, this hour-long show drew almost exclusively from the early jazz and blues era – and did so from a woman’s point of view, giving a rare airing to songs by such pioneering women as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Leading the charge on Friday and shaking the dust off the early jazz repertoire was Edinburgh-based American singer Alison Affleck, whose informative and sassy introductions to the songs ensured that the audience was receptive and entertained even before she began singing. 
 
Despite her fairly stylised, slightly theatrical mannerisms, Affleck brought an authenticity to such ancient numbers as Downhearted Blues and A Good Man is Hard To Find. Her natural American accent played a big part in this, along with an obvious inclination towards blues-singing. But where she particularly excelled on Friday was as a musical storyteller. St James Infirmary and The Black-Eyed Blues were stand-outs because Affleck didn’t just churn out the lyrics; she used them to bring the characters mentioned in these songs to life, and to create atmosphere and drama. 
 
Of course, she couldn’t have done all this as enjoyably without a good band playing with her; her piano-less quintet – boasting the crack team of Colin Steele (trumpet) and Dick Lee (clarinet) – did a terrific job of keeping the music swinging in suitably hot style.
 
* First published in The Scotsman on Monday July 24th

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Jazz on Film: Jazz ‘n’ Gin – The Speakeasy Scene

I’ve been reading a brilliant biography of the original Public Enemy No. 1 – gangster “Scarface” Al Capone and it has revived my fascination with the Roaring Twenties, when jazz thrived in the illegal drinking dens operated by hoodlums.

Of course, my earliest impressions of that period were formed by the movies, and particularly a couple of the jazz biopics which usually featured a scene set in a speakeasy. Here’s one of the first I remember seeing: Louis Armstrong and the All Stars with some special guests, in The Glenn Miller Story (1953)

Another family favourite was The Five Pennies (1959), the biopic of the trumpeter Loring “Red” Nichols. A little Danny Kaye goes a long way but he was on top form on the songs in this film, notably When The Saints Go Marching In, a memorable duet with Louis Armstrong. The speakeasy scene in this movie came near the beginning, when hick-from-the-sticks Nichols, whose new, cool girlfriend doubts his hot trumpet skills, reveals all as he emerges from the men’s room… Sounds dodgy on paper, but make up your own mind .. oh, and that’s Nichols ghosting Kaye’s playing.

Of course, the speakeasy scene cropped up in many movies set during the 1920s – remember the opening sequence of Billy Wilder’s masterful black comedy Some Like It Hot (1959)?  Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) – a drama about a jazz trumpeter who runs into problems with the mobsters  – featured some of the best speakeasy jazz – and no wonder: it had two top jazz singers in its cast:

and

Undoubtedly the most authentic evocations of the speakeasy come from the Prohibition era itself and that authentic touch adds immeasurably to the already considerable appeal of this last clip: the “soundie” of Bessie Smith’s majestic St Louis Blues, from 1929.

* Get Capone by Jonathan Eig (JR Books) is out now.

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