Tag Archives: Royal Overseas League

Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2013: Swing 2013

Swing 2013, Royal Overseas League, Edinburgh, Friday July 26th ***

Along with the Queen’s Hall, the Royal Overseas League, at 100 Princes Street, must be one of the only venues that has been a fixture of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival since it began in the 1970s. Ascending the stairs and navigating the maze of narrow corridors to find the always-crowded room – which, in recent years has been the festival home to some of the longest-serving local bands – always triggers flashbacks to the 1980s when the likes of Art Hodes, Milt Hinton and Dick Hyman were the draws.

The place has had a bit of a makeover recently (though one has the impression that the decorators might have had to work around the jazz festival audience since both it – and the volunteer who mans the ticket desk – seem to be part of the fixtures and fittings, never changing) – and so, by coincidence, has the band which was on the stand on Friday afternoon. Earlier this year, Swing 2013 lost its star soloist, the uber-talented Dick Lee – a virtuoso of the clarinet and various saxes. Its line-up may now be subject to change but on Friday it scored something of a winning goal by having as its guest the effervescent swing violinist Seonaid Aitken, whose ability to keep smiling gamely despite being verbally patted on the head at regular intervals by bandleader John Russell had to be admired.

With her bouncy, uplifting style of playing, Aitken evoked the spirit of Stephane Grappelli and enabled the band to dig deep into the Hot Club repertoire which he and gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt made famous. She won the packed house over from the off, but it was her dazzlingly accomplished solo on Bossa Dorado and her un-flashy, swoonsomely romantic contribution to Troublant Bolero which stood out.

* First published in The Herald on Monday, July 29th

Leave a comment

Filed under Concert reviews

The Swashbuckler

The first time I saw the American clarinettist Evan Christopher in concert, I feared for his personal safety. It was a balmy Friday night at the 2004 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, the Spiegeltent (a venue less beloved by jazz fans than by drinkers) was packed, and the liveliest section of the audience was a table of well-fuelled women who were clearly in party mode. As Christopher and his fellow thirtysomething Duke Heitger (trumpet) tore through their programme of traditional New Orleans-style jazz, the hen party went nuts – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience hoping that the musicians were as accomplished at dodging volleys of flying knickers as they were at serving up hot solos.

It was a great concert – and the reaction of the hens helped to underline the fact that this may be the oldest form of jazz but it is still vibrant, fresh, sexy and able to stir a crowd, and not necessarily a crowd of aficionados. What particularly struck me at the time was that, in Evan Christopher, here was a poster boy for traditional jazz. He had a swagger, a sense of showmanship and a swashbuckling air about him when he played that made you sit up and take as much notice of him as the music coming out of his clarinet. It’s little surprise that he has since become something of a TV star in France where his current, hugely successful band Django a La Creole – gyspy jazz with a New Orleans twist – was born while he was effectively living in self-imposed exile after losing his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

There may be an air of what some of the veteran musicians would regard as youthful arrogance and insouciance about Christopher (though he is now 41 years of age), but when he’s not playing, he is actually a surprisingly shy character who, it turns out, has had more than his fair share of obstacles.

Born of a Thai mother, he was adopted as a baby and raised in a predominantly white neighbourhood of Long Beach, California. For reasons he claims not to know – presumably he was gifted or exceptionally bright – he was sent to school two years early and consequently always found “the social side of school a little awkward”. He jokes about it – “basically it meant that chicks and sports didn’t enter the equation until later” – but two years is a big difference in high school, and it seems to have shaped Christopher into a self-sufficient, self-reliant character.

Indeed, he brushes off the inevitable question about how his musical talent was discovered, saying: “Music just happened to be something that I wasn’t bad at. It was something I could work at on my own; it didn’t require that I be around other people.”

It wasn’t until Christopher was in his final year of high school that his talent was taken seriously: he was invited to attend an arts boarding school. Up to that point, his experience of jazz had been gleaned from playing in the school band and from cassettes made by friends of his father, and from the LPs that his dad had in the house; Johnny Dodds (from Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven line-ups) and Artie Shaw emerging as his favourite clarinettists.

At this arts boarding school, Christopher was “discovered” by a bass player named Marshall Hawkins who was working as a sports teacher. “Nobody at school knew he was a professional musician but he’d go and play gigs with whoever was in town – Joe Henderson or Eddie Harris or whoever. I had broken into a classroom to play a piano, and he found me there. I didn’t get into trouble … but he corrected some of the chord changes .. He became my first jazz mentor.”

After university, Christopher did stints in Los Angeles, New Orleans and San Antonio, Texas. He was living in New Orleans, using it as a base for tours and the occasional gig on the riverboats with the afore-mentioned Heitger, when Hurricane Katrina hit, in September 2005 – a year after that famous Edinburgh gig.

When hurricane struck, Christopher was playing at a jazz festival high in the mountains of California – and with no signal on his phone. Over the course of the weekend, his then-girlfriend (now wife) tried to contact him to say that she was going to evacuate (“No big deal – we had evacuated the summer before,” he says), and asking where his passport was and whether she should take any of his instruments with her. Unable to pick up any of these messages, Christopher only learned what had happened when he saw the news a couple of days later, just at the point when the federal levees failed.

His partner was safe but their ground floor home was completely flooded – “Our area was worse than average, about eight feet of water on the street, six in the actual dwelling.” He drove his girlfriend to her parents’ home in Omaha, and he returned to his home state of California. “I set about trying to salvage my tours. I made a great effort to find other musicians and get them connected and make sure that everybody had each other’s contact information. A web designer up in New York donated some money to help me put together a website with resources for places they could get financial assistance. I hooked them up with Jazz Foundation of America if they needed instruments replaced and things like that. It was something to do.”

A month after Katrina, Christopher returned briefly to New Orleans (he only moved back full-time in 2008) to try to salvage what he could, but it was “considerably worse” than he had expected. He’s philosophical about it all. “At the end of the day, it was just an apartment-ful of crap. There are still books I go to the shelf and look for every now and then, and then I remember. There were plenty of people who lost more than I did. Imagine someone who’d actually lived there for a couple of generations..”

Has his Katrina experience changed his outlook at all? Is he less attached to stuff? “Well, I’ve never been hugely attached to anything. I didn’t appreciate losing everything though! I do get mad – I get mad when I find we have accumulated multiple items that we don’t need. Oh, I know one thing that changed – I don’t shelve wine as much any more! I pretty much buy it and drink it…”

This piece was first published when Django a la Creole was playing the 2011 Edinburgh Jazz Festival. In autumn 2012, the band is touring Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. For full details, click here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Profiles

My Silver Jubilee in Jazz (Part 2) – In Photos

Gus Johnson (drums), Harry Edison (trumpet) & Al Grey (trombone) at the 1986 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, (c) Donnie Kerr

So, to recap, the 1986 Edinburgh Jazz Festival was my first …  I was 14, I accompanied my Dad, whose annual jazz festival routine involved taking the week off work and taking up smoking (it seemed to make the Pub Trail pints taste better). The main event and reason for my being invited was to hear piano wizard Dick Hyman play at the Royal Overseas League that night. But, being a youngster, I had to go wherever my father went – and, of course, he had a full day of jazz planned.

Buddy Tate at the Speigeltent, at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on Thursday, August 21st, 1986 (c) Donnie Kerr

Many of the musicians I heard on my first day were already elder statesmen of jazz when I was born. I speak, of course, of the musicians I was privileged to hear playing in the Speigeltent (a venue that I’ll be virtually inhabiting over the next week at this year’s event): Harry “Sweets” Edison (trumpet), Buddy Tate (tenor sax), Al Grey (trombone), Ray Bryant (piano), Milt Hinton (bass) and Gus Johnson (drums). In all honesty, I don’t remember much about what they played (and these were the days before I took notes) but I’m pretty sure that – as with Doc Cheatham eight years later – there was a strong sense of

Michel Bastide,Virginie Bonnel & Jean-Francois Bonnel of The Hot Antic Jazz Band at the Festival Club, Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Thursday August 21st, 1986 (c) Donnie Kerr

being in the presence of guys who were part of the fabric of the music’s history.

From the Speigeltent, we undoubtedly followed part of the old McEwan’s Pub Trail, to the now-legendary Festival Club for a 3pm set by the band which had much to do with my conversion to fully-fledged jazz fan: The Hot Antic Jazz Band. This Gallic group should be compulsory listening for anyone who thinks jazz is po-faced or inaccessible. Humour, style, joie-de-vivre and terrific musicianship are the hallmarks of an Antics concert. They won me over – and they’re still going strong. My seven-year-old sons love them too…

One of my abiding memories of my early jazz festival visits is of hot-footing it from venue to venue (often across town) in order to catch ten minutes of a set and cram as much into the day as possible. With our gold badges we could get into any gig that wasn’t already full to capacity and this meant that if you only

Spanky Davis (trumpet) & Al Grey (trombone), at the Festival Club, at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on Thursday August 21st, 1986 (c) Donnie Kerr

wanted to hear the first band in a three-set evening in one venue, you could take a chance on getting into the second or third set in a different venue – usually (at Dad’s  suggestion) the one furthest from Waverley Station where we’d catch the last train home. These gambles usually paid off (and were worth taking if you realised that you had perhaps chosen the wrong gig to start your night in), though there was a memorable occasion when Dad and I pitched up at the “Tartan Club” in Fountainbridge only to be told that we’d have to listen to Kenny Davern, Scott Hamilton and the rest of the all-star group onstage from outside the front door as the club was already full. I don’t know if I’ve dreamt it, but I am sure I heard Hamilton storming through a superb version of Back In Your Own Back Yard (the only time I’ve ever heard it live) on that occasion – playing it fast and furiously as if to ensure that those of us straining to hear the music from outside wouldn’t miss out.

Dick Hyman, Royal Overseas League, Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Thursday August 21st, 1986 (c) Donnie Kerr

That first year, we didn’t do any of that kind of juggling: there was no way we were going to risk not getting in to see Dick Hyman at the Royal Overseas League, a venue which fills to uncomfortable capacity very quickly.  Indeed, there was no way we were going to risk not getting front row seats – and prime position for requesting Maple Leaf Rag, the Joplin tune which had first got me hooked on Hyman’s playing just a few months earlier.

And in case there is any doubt about my having been there that day, here’s the photographic evidence: you can glimpse my reflection in the mirror on the pillar of the Speigeltent ..

2 Comments

Filed under Concert reviews, Uncategorized

My Silver Jubilee in Jazz (Part 1)

The Edinburgh Jazz Festival starts on Friday, July 22nd and I’m both mortified and proud to declare that this year is the 25th anniversary not only of my first-ever Edinburgh Jazz Festival, but also of my first-ever jazz concert (and first-ever visit to a pub with my dad) … and it all happened on one day: Thursday, August 21st, 1986. I relived that fateful day in my first-ever (bit of a theme emerging here) Edinburgh Jazz Festival preview feature which was written, in 1993, while I was still a student and about 20 articles into my journalistic career. I remembered August 21st 1986 much more vividly when I wrote that article than I do now, so here it is:And here are the pages from the programme with the tantalising list of concerts I attended – as well as those I didn’t..

And then the main event:

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Havana Swing

HAVANA SWING, ROYAL OVERSEAS LEAGUE
****

There’s a first time for everything, as Monday lunchtime’s jazz festival gig at the Royal Overseas League proved. Never before at a jazz concert have I seen the police being called to deal with an incident of alleged assault – though given how cramped this venue is (and always has been), it’s little wonder that tempers get frayed.

The Dundee band Havana Swing was halfway through its first set of Django Reinhardt-associated and inspired music when all hell broke loose at the back of the room. As the band’s leader later said, this music does seem to attract nutters – after all, we had hecklers at the previous day’s Django gig.

As for the music? Well, it was – ironically enough – happy, jaunty, feelgood jazz executed with great panache by the quartet who seemed quite chuffed by the fact that a fracas had kicked off at one of their concerts. Among the many highlights were the snappy Hotel de Palais, which we were told “sounds very grand but was written one night when the lads were in Aberfeldy”, and the superb closers of the first set, I’ll See You in My Dreams and Bei Mir Bist Du Schon, which featured wonderful playing by clarinettist Walter Smith. Indeed, the band, which was really cooking from the get-go, seemed to up the ante even more after the drama.

1 Comment

Filed under Concert reviews