The Story of Swing was a “musical history tour” at the newly opened Rose Street Theatre as part of The Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival 2017, and with the Scottish Swing Orchestra, Lorna Reid, Luca Manning, The Fly Right Dancers (well two of them), and Dave Batchelor on trombone and official compere and musical tour guide, took us on an entertaining and informative history of Jazz music and big bands from their early formative years in 1917 through to their glory days in the 1930s and 1940s to their eventual decline as musical tastes gave way to the new sounds of the far faster Be-Bop and eventually the emergence of Rock’n’Roll in the 1950s.
Along the way we were introduced to a little bit of history of some famous names, but far more importantly their music as the sounds of the great bands, musicians, and musical arrangers of yesterday – King Oliver, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bennie Goodman, Artie Shaw, Billy Strayhorn, to name but a few. Not forgetting of course some of the great vocalists that performed with these big bands – vocalists who went on to define American popular music and “The Great American Songbook” – Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra amongst the most famous names to come out of the big band era…often forgotten today too, but Doris Day is another vocalist given her big chance singing with a big band.
The Scottish Swing Orchestra are one very tight band with many years of combined musical experience behind them, and that quality of musicianship was obvious throughout the evening as the music of “Dippermouth Blues”, “Take the A Train”, “Begin The Beguine”, and one of my favourite of all Glenn Miller arrangements, “American Patrol”, were lovingly brought back to life.
Recreating the era’s classic female vocals in two songs each set, the always accomplished sounds of Scottish jazz vocalist Lorna Reid who as usual brought her own individual style to songs with great covers including “A Tisket A Tasket”, and “Lullaby of Birdland”. Always great to see Lorna Reid duetting with Konrad Wiszniewski. Lorna’s vocals and Konrad’s sax sounds seem made for one another.
Luca Manning covered a few Frank Sinatra songs – vocally fine, but for me that iconic sharpness, coolness and impeccable timing and phrasing I always associate with Frank Sinatra just was not there.
With the light hearted introduction to the history of the music from Dave Batchelor, I learned a lot of new information from a man who obviously knows more than I will ever do on this subject – most fascinating for me was how the time difference between East and West Coast America allowed a totally different audience to listen to the original 12.30 AM radio broadcasts by Benny Goodman which had poor audience figures, to become a youth rally call at a different time slot in another time zone.
There were a few ups and downs in this show – the performance venue itself is a compact space and once the full band were on stage, there was little room for the dancers to really open up with their routines – they were literally confined to a straight line on stage just in front of the band, and obvious careful movements were required not to step over the edge of that stage at times. It would have been great for the dancers to have had the luxury of opening those dance routines out a bit.
One obvious and inescapable fact though of all this wonderful music is the racial divisions of a segregated USA at the time. We were given the names of iconic Jazz clubs of the day, but nearly all of these clubs would have been hosting black musicians and black review shows for a white audience. This was black music tailored for a white audience and away from these venues many of the musicians would have played in a different style if performing at a black only club…early jazz was often a novelty act for a white audience. Due to race segregation, and the opportunities available to black musicians, few would ever be recorded by a major national record company or offered a national radio slot. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to jazz and blues music if some of the pivotal and highly gifted black musicians of the genre had been able to pursue other types of music or other careers in an un-segregated world. Would jazz ever have happened as we know it, or so quickly reached the heights of musical excellence that it did?
Overall though a compact show condensing decades of musical history into roughly two hours and showing just how closely linked Jazz, Blues, Be-Bop, Swing and the emerging sounds of Rock’n’Roll are to one another. They are in fact not separate, just musical threads of a bigger musical tapestry.
Review by Tom King