Review: Rhythm & Reaction

Bruce Lindsay enjoyed the educational and quirky Rhythm & Reaction: the Age of Jazz in Britain, a new exhibition at Two Temple Place

There are some impressive 1880s banjos, a few choice 78s playing in the background and Sidney Bechet’s mugshots and record sheet after his arrest for “assault female”, but Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz In Britain - an enjoyable, educational and occasionally quirky exhibition at Two Temple Place just off the Strand in London - is about more than early jazz and the musicians who played it.

The exhibition, which runs until April, was curated by musicologist and jazz historian Catherine Tackley from the University of Liverpool. Over two floors of the beautiful 1890s building (built by William Waldorf Astor and worth seeing in its own right) Tackley has brought together a wide range of exhibits - recordings, films, photographs, artworks, instruments, costumes and ceramics - that tell the story of the earliest jazz in Britain and how it impacted on art, theatre, design, dance and society.

Exhibits have been drawn from public and private collections, thanks to the staff of the Bulldog Trust, the charity that owns and operates the building. The first exhibit is the largest, a player piano that sits at the foot of the stairs as the visitor enters the exhibition spaces. There’s also an impressive display of drum kits: Joe Daniels’s “egg drum,” (pictured above right, courtesy of the National Jazz Archive) a bass drum which lays eggs through its skin, is a delight.

For me, it’s the smaller exhibits that hold the most fascination. William Patrick Roberts’s 1923 painting The Dance Club (The Jazz Party) (pictured left, courtesy of Bridgeman Images), on loan from Leeds Museums and Galleries, is full of energy and movement, the dancers packed into a tiny room and blasted with jazz from a gramophone. A photograph of Duke Ellington and his band, plus guests, puts Ellington in the centre of the frame: he looks stylish and imperious, dressed in a sharp suit and leaning nonchalantly on his walking cane, but his shoes are scuffed and unpolished in stark contrast to the shiny leather dress shoes sported by Jack Hylton. Short silent films from the 1920s emphasise the “zany” nature of the music and the musicians, a patronising and perhaps slightly concerned attitude displayed by the filmmakers in both the visuals and the captions. A postcard-sized picture of Hilda Ward’s Lady Syncopators reveals a 1920s combo dressed in what seem to be reject costumes from Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Press shots from the 1903 London production of In Dahomey suggest that its star, a heavily made-up George W Walker, bore a startling resemblance to a young Little Richard.

As Professor Tackley explained to me, the idea for this exhibition came from the Arts Society, which approached the Bulldog Trust with the idea of using Two Temple Place as the venue. The property is open to the public for just three months each year when it hosts an exhibition. Tackley was appointed as curator, her first time in this role, and spent a year preparing for opening day. Her efforts have definitely been worthwhile.

The exhibition runs from Saturday 27 January to Sunday 22 April 2018 (closed on Tuesdays, late night opening on Wednesdays). Alongside the exhibition, Two Temple Place is running a series of events including a Hanky Panky Cocktail Class, talks by Catherine Tackley and events for children. Wednesday evenings feature free concerts from artists including Smitty’s Big Four, the Meg Morley Trio and the Cassie Kinoshi Trio.

Entry to the exhibition is free, events have various ticket prices. For further information please visit Two Temple Place’s Rhythm & Reaction webpage.

Bruce Lindsay

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