That this festival even happens could be the most striking fact about it. Located more than five hours’ drive from London, and an hour from the nearest railway station or airport. Bude is a small town in Cornwall with a population of less than ten thousand. Yet this was the 34th annual festival, interrupted only by the Covid hiatus, with a significant number of the audience drawn from substantial distances.
Another unusual fact is that the festival takes place over a period of four weekdays, Tuesday to Friday. In the UK this is the week when schools reopen after the summer break. Apparently, it works well for making the few local hotels available to host the jazz visitors.
Equally remarkable is that it attracts some of the finest Trad and Swing Jazz musicians in the UK plus some from Europe and even the USA.
Once again, we were treated to thirty-three different bands playing music ranging from blues and ragtime to mainstream and bop with an especially rich choice of traditional New Orleans and classic jazz.
The sessions are arranged so that one could experience at least two bands in each time-period—morning, afternoon, and evening plus enjoy a daily 10 am casual jam session on the hotel veranda facing the main area of town.
It was particularly pleasing to note the number of younger groups. The Windy City Weather Birds opened the festival’s main stage with a young family effort featuring a front line of three brothers, Magnus (cornet), Joe (reeds) and Daniel Pickering (trombone), supported by Harrison Dolphin (guitar), Sam Ingvorsen (bass) and Jow Dessauer (drums). Despite their youth they are well-versed in Swing and Dixieland music, drawing frequent rounds of deserved applause. YouTube features some good examples of their sound.
Closing out the first evening was another “young” band though it’s hard to think of Frog & Henry as representing the youngsters because they have been on the scene for several years now. New Orleans based they seem to spend as much time abroad as they do in the USA. An overflowing crowd greeted them for their third appearance here and were not disappointed. Their music very definitely revives lesser-often played New Orleans tunes of the 1920s such as “New Orleans Wriggle” or “Irish Black Bottom.” This is a band not to be missed if they come your way.
The second day’s leading sessions were the exact opposite. Two concerts with Ian Bateman’s Band with Ian on trombone leading six other veterans of the UK and European jazz scene. This is one of the UK’s most polished bands. His brother Alan was superb on trumpet while Trevor Whiting’s clarinet has been a mainstay for more than 50 years with leading UK bands as have Craig Milverton (piano), Tom Clarke-Hill (bass), Nick Millward (piano) and Thomas “Spats” Langham on banjo. Ian dedicated the morning concert to “Kenny Ball’s Greatest Hits” with the evening closing with “It’s Trad, Dad!” a tribute to the best of British trad bands. As was to be expected they played to standing room only.
A special mention must be made about “Spats” Langham. As a sideman his banjo adds a superb sense of the old-time music. But the added pleasure is when Ian brought him forward for a solo spot where “Spats,” in addition to superb banjo playing and singing, also treats us to a discourse from his encyclopedic knowledge on the background of the tune. A true master class.
As many of you know, Jeff Barnhart also has an incredible font of knowledge which adds so much color to his playing as he shares the background to the music. With his wife Anne, they are veterans at Bude for many years, interrupted only by Covid.
This year their venue was the large Methodist Church. I don’t think it would be sacrilegious to think that the Pastor would have been happy for as large a turn out for Sunday service as that which showed up for the Barnharts! The packed audience was not disappointed. Joined by their longtime friends, John Hallam (reeds) and Graham Smith (drums), they treated us to a superb couple of hours of musical delights ranging from Jeff’s piano rag to Anne’s melodious flute and John Hallam’s beautifully melodic saxophone supported by Graham’s steady beat.
As regulars at Pershore for over 10 years we have been enjoying the reed playing of Amy Roberts and Richard Exall even before they tied the knot and became “Mr & Mrs.” They have been around too long to qualify as one of the young ones, yet they do bring a fresh sense to so many of the tunes. Their style is not easy to pinpoint. One number is fresh exciting traditional jazz with the verve and enthusiasm of early Barber, Ball and Bilk. The next could be straight out of a Stan Getz playbook. From “Wild Cat Blues” or “Limehouse” to “The Very Thought of You” or “Tico Tico,” each tune is a gem.
Returning to the theme of young bands, as with last year, I again enjoyed Jools and the Alcoholics. Led by Baby Jools (drums) with Warren “Lonnie” James (guitar & vocals), Mike Henry (trumpet), Karl Hird (reeds), and Jim Swinnerton (bass), this combo has a fast-paced swinging sound which brings out the dancers in the packed crowd. Kevin Grenfell on trombone once again guested with his unique sense of humor which always delights the audience. In a separate session Baby Jools, James and Swinnerton, joined by Alex Clarke (reeds), presented “The Lonnie Donegan Story” honoring the memory of the great skiffle musician.
John Shillito, at 86, was definitely the oldest band leader at Bude. This veteran of many years still plays with a vigor that totally belies his years. He captures the authentic sound of New Orleans which is not surprising since his many visits there.
John Maddox (Reeds) and his Jazzmen are another popular veteran band at Bude. Initially inspired by George Lewis, Maddox developed his own style very reminiscent of Johnny Dodds. He has enjoyed huge success since the mid-1960s as one of the main bands inheriting the mantle of the early British trad bands. Once again, he did not disappoint, bringing new life to the music of the earlier era. Maddox also joined another highlight session with Nick Ward’s Jelly Roll Quartet, with John Penn on piano, Brian Mellor on banjo.
Another young group, aptly named La Vie En Rose, offered a session of fiery swing with romantic waltzes and Latin beats that was satisfying to all lovers of the Django sound.
We always save the best for last. For us the last session, before we drove out of Bude, was simply titled Alan Barnes and John Hallam. Our first encounter with them playing together was at Bude in 2011. I was totally mesmerized. Nothing has changed except maybe they have gotten better, or I have developed an even greater appreciation for their playing. These two fabulous saxophonists produce music that is supremely melodic. They challenge each other with a fast paced “Undecided” before slowing down to a haunting “Poor Butterfly.” They are two masters with a complete understanding of each other built on years of playing together. Adding to the pleasure was having the Craig Milverton trio in support. It was a fitting conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable few days.
Aside from the music, I had an interesting conversation with Graham Smith regarding the demise of so many festivals and weekend breaks. Graham is the Artistic Director of the annual Pershore events as well as being a very accomplished drummer. I asked his thoughts on the paradox that, on the one hand, so many events have gone out of business while at the same time we are seeing a relatively huge growth of new young jazz bands playing our kind of music.
His answer was enlightening: “My 40-year-old son is a better drummer than I am and loves this music. Yet if he were to walk into this hall right now, he wouldn’t stay. There are too many ‘grey heads!’” In other words, the youngsters who might be attracted by the music are also looking for social engagement just as we did 60 or so years ago! It makes sense when one looks at the swing dancing revival. It recalls how impressed I was a few years ago by the number of young people at the Suncoast Festival in Florida. Looking back now, I can remember the significant number of their sessions included space for dancing.
Bude is a very special place. Quoting from a local tourist office flyer… “If jazz is your thing, you cannot go wrong and go to Bude for the whole week. You get the bonus of a nice seaside town and good music throughout the day and night. For a fair price, not only do you get jazz: you get an art and crafts fair and, if you arrive on the Monday evening before, a full fireworks display!” It is the perfect place to combine a quiet vacation with the opportunity to enjoy the warm camaraderie always present at British Trad Jazz festivals.
For most of our readers attending the jazz festivals in the UK may seem somewhat daunting. Yet on the other hand we know that Americans flock to Britian for vacations every year. We ourselves discovered the British jazz scene about 40 years ago while still living in Maryland. Every summer since then we spend two to four weeks exploring the country, putting together an itinerary that includes sightseeing, walking and jazz festivals. Now that we are retired it takes a little research to create a tour friendly to seniors, but it is well worth the effort. I’ll be glad to answer any questions if anyone is interested. Just drop a note to [email protected].