Ragtime to Swing

Keith Nichols, Digby Fairweather, Kenny Ball and a host of friends paid tribute to three eras of jazz.

Three bands took a packed audience from Ragtime to Swing on Saturday 23 September 2000 at London's Royal Albert Hall. The event was in aid of The British Heart Foundation, and featured tributes to two recently-departed musicians, Bill Skeat and Kenny Baker.

Organised by Peter Clayton, one of the stated intentions of the evening was to bring dancing back into the jazz halls. To this end, an area behind the stalls seats had been kept clear for those who fancied shaking a leg. Unfortunately, so much of the music was played at over 200 beats per minute, there was little opportunity to do so.

Ragtime to Swing programme

First on stage was The Cotton Club Orchestra. Led by the irrepressible Keith Nichols, they featured the earliest repertoire, and the inclusion of a Scott Joplin rag met with great approval. It was good to see Martin Wheatley of the Hula Bluebirds in a bigger band setting, and his work on guitar and banjo was a highlight of the set. Another familiar face was Enrico Tomasso, adding some fine trumpet to the proceedings. Nichols not only led from the piano, but also contributed some effective vocal work, most notably on Fats Waller's This Joint Is Jumpin', and the call-and-response of Cab Calloway's Minnie The Moocher.

Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen played two sets, following The Cotton Club Orchestra in the first half and the All Star Band in the second. The band are accomplished musicians, with outstanding performances especially from bassist John Benson and young drummer Nick Millward. Benson put in a virtuoso performance during his solo on a Cole Porter tune, while Millward powered the unit along from behind his kit.

The general pace of the repertoire was way too fast for dancing, although the old hit Midnight In Moscow did come down to a reasonable pace. St Louis Blues showed that Ball is a fine trumpeter as well as showman. But quite what The Beatles' All You Need Is Love was doing in a ragtime-to-swing evening was a bit of a puzzle.

No review of the concert would be complete without making mention of comedian/compere Nicky Martin. So here it is. Joining in the revivalist theme of the evening, he recycled the jokes that time forgot. He also joined in with his musical tribute to that giant of British swing, George Formby, with a banjo ukelele-led rendition of I'm Leaning On A Lamppost.

The best news given by Martin during the evening was that American singer Carla Valente was to perform. She delivered two excellent songs, and easily won the Frock Of The Evening competition with a long shimmering off-the-shoulder number.

The All Star Band contained some of Britain's finest jazz musicians, including trumpeter Digby Fairweather, saxophonist Tommy Whittle and clarinettist Dave Shepherd. Whittle took a solo spot for the tribute to bassist Len Skeat's brother Bill, with a wonderful rendition of Duke Ellington's Prelude To A Kiss. Fairweather and Tomasso were joined by Kenny Ball for the tribute to Kenny Baker.

At the end of the evening, all the musicians appeared on stage for a jam around Woody Herman's classic At The Woodchopper's Ball. This proved to be the most danceable tune for pace and length. The floor was full and at least two Shim Shams broke out at various points (what, no Jitterbug Stroll?) during the 10 minutes or so that the tune seemed to last.

The whole concert certainly delivered value for money, lasting nearly three hours and featuring around two dozen of the country's best jazz musicians. Special mention too, should be made of the marvellous programme, which was packed full of information and photographs, including an eight-year-old Enrico Tomasso playing for Louis Armstrong!

There's no doubt that the event will be repeated again next year. It's a fine production for a worthy cause, but please - if you want to bring dancing back, try playing more danceable tunes!

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