JJ 11/59: Jazz at the Royal Festival Hall

Graham Boatfield reviews Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, The Weavers, Vic Ash, and Dave Brubeck. First published in Jazz Journal November 1959

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Nine hours in the air-conditioned nightmare of London’s Festival Hall may seem a somewhat excessive price to pay for culture, but there seemed no way to avoid it on a hot Saturday in September [1959] when a really fantastic array of American talent was due to show itself, all in one day.

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were first on the scene. Comfortably settled in a dressing room somewhat oddly labelled ” Lady Soloists,” Brownie took over the piano while Sonny blew the dust from his case full of harmonicas. The blues rolled in the small room while Brownie talked: of his new daughter, recording sessions, the German bass fiddle he sold to Gene Ramey, old blues singers and what became of them, including Tommy MacLennan. Jobs and recordings. New songs, with a tryout of his new one, Souvenirs Of Our Trip.

Terry and McGhee took the stage together and showed us once again just how much we really owe to these two incomparable bluesmen

When the concert started, we might have felt that we’d had three-quarters of it already, but that was not so. Jack Elliott, in full gear, started the show with a few of his well-known songs and a lot of wry and rambling talk including the broad, affectionate humour of The State Of Arkansas. The audience loved it all, the general mateyness of this folk concert was certainly helped by having a lot of people seated on and behind the stage. After this warm-up, Terry and McGhee took the stage together and showed us once again just how much we really owe to these two incomparable bluesmen. However good they are as individuals – and in this way they rate very high – it is as a team that they are quite without equal. Hearing them sing together is an experience that no one should miss. Fortunately we are fairly well served by records now.

I know that many people did not expect very much from the Weavers, who took the stage after the interval. There was some feeling that watered-down and possibly over-presented folksong was not to the taste of the great body of purists. But there were many, many more who came away after it was over saying how glad they were to have heard them. As an act, the Weavers are quite magnificent. Their stage presence is very good, their musicianship admirable; but their greatest gift is their overall dynamic quality and their ability to build a song, and their audience with it, to an astonishing climax. The male members of the quartet are a funny looking bunch, although not nearly so fearful as the over-chromatic colour photograph on one of their LP covers. Burly Lee Hays is the leader, and a real comic. Deadpan and serious, with something of a preacher’s manner, his timing is very good indeed and his act extremely funny. The state of Arkansas appeared for a second time when he launched into scurrilous fancies about some unnamed dignitaries of that area. It seemed that we heard all the songs the group have recorded and many more besides. Aimed as their material must originally have been at a radical American audience, it does not have quite that rousing effect on the sombre British, but it connected alright; and had them roaring for more. It is with a song like Wimoweh, their old Zulu best-seller, that one sees just what their act can do.

As this quartet left the hall there was furious activity back-stage as the vanguard of the Newport Jazz Festival shook the cork-lined corridors. Cowboys, Weavers, beards and pork-pie hats congested every doorway, while mysterious dark musicians, strapping blondes, pallid gentlemen in horn-rimmed spectacles, and people carrying bass fiddles filled the place. Through it all strode Harold Davison and the big wheels.

The crannies and byways of the Royal Festival are very complex and there are very many different angles from which one can hear the music. Possibly the least satisfactory is via the indifferent loudspeaker which crackles like a flooded intercom in one corner of the backstage bar. It was from this vantage point that we first heard Vic Ash and his Quintet and the beginnings of the first Dave Brubeck performance. It is hardly fair to comment on anything under such circumstances. We took steps to see and hear the Brubeck Quartet more directly, both then and later in the tour, although partly with the ulterior motive of enjoying the rest of the show. Vic Ash must be commended for opening the show but for very little else. It is difficult to find any justification for this type of group, other than the fact that it exists and presumably finds a listening public.

Dave Brubeck is, no doubt unconsciously, a parody of a jazz pianist. No one can get their teeth into his style, for there is none. It is a hotch-potch of influences and considerable technique, put together with enormous solemnity

On Brubeck’s first tour of this country, the Jazz Couriers shared the bill. It is only fair to say that on that occasion the Couriers were far more interesting than the American group. This time there was no such danger. Brubeck represents a dead-end of near-jazz. There is no risk that anyone will follow him along his particular path; for no one will deliberately attempt to reproduce a pastiche, nor will anyone bother to parody a parodist. For Dave Brubeck is, no doubt unconsciously, a parody of a jazz pianist. No one can get their teeth into his style, for there is none. It is a hotch-potch of influences and considerable technique, put together with enormous solemnity.

It is not so extraordinary that Steve Race, usually an admirable critic, should be Brubeck’s most persistent supporter, for the technical man must recognise ability. But it is most unfair that anyone should have likened Dave Brubeck to Liberace. My own considered view is that he should be called the Harpo Marx of jazz, which is intended partly as a compliment. There are certain striking similarities. Brubeck’s musicians match him in ability, but the rhythm men at least seem to be wasting their time. Joe Morello is a very considerable drummer, and the bass player is quite impeccable. But half – three-quarters – of the time they seem to be idly working at the point of minus effort, watching what the front man is doing, and not being very impressed by it.

Paul Desmond is different. Too many people are put off by his seeming lack of effort, and even more by his narrow piping tone. But he is full of ideas the whole time; every solo is neat and wonderfully constructed. He is overlooked because his music is nonchalant to the point of insignificance. The great virtue of Dave Brubeck’s quartet is that it provides ample room for Paul Desmond to move around.