There are two rules I tell everyone when they attend the Whitley Bay International Classic Jazz Party for the first time. One: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It can be very easy to burn out on the continued highs of set after set of your favourite records played live (especially when the alcohol flows freely at the after-hours jam sessions). Two: treat it as a social gathering as well as a jazz festival. There’s something very intimate about the way Whitley Bay is run. There are no barriers between the musicians on stage and fans in the crowd, and everyone is free to mingle and strike up new friendships or renew old ones. At home I know nobody who shares the same music tastes as me. At Whitley Bay I am surrounded by them, and it adds to the intensity of it all. Once you come for the first time, it’s a near certainty you’ll be back.
This year I was delighted to see bookings roll in from so many new names—many of whom have seen the videos on YouTube, diligently filmed by a small army of enthusiasts. The music played at Whitley Bay is so good it’s worth saving; indeed, I spend the rest of the year listening to sets while I am in the gym—and it always puts a spring in my step. Though the musicians aren’t always fans of the cameras, it has been an inadvertent advertising boom for a new generation of jazz lovers who don’t subscribe to the old magazines. We had attendees from Denmark, Germany, France, Norway, Sweden, the USA, and Holland among others. It was especially pleasing to learn that someone would travel thousands of miles to a hotel on an industrial estate in a rather rainy part of the UK to hear the world’s best jazz musicians.
Word has now spread among jazz musicians that this is the festival to hear real authentic music. It was Mike Durham’s legacy to encourage younger talent when he was alive, and so we offer them a free ticket to stand at the back of the room and soak it all in. Young trumpet player Pablo Castillo flew in from Amsterdam, while Lucas Ferrari travelled all the way from Argentina just to be there again. Magnus and Daniel Pickering (of Windy City Weatherbirds fame) travelled up from London. It is the work that the musicians themselves put into it which makes it special. Many spend countless hours writing out charts throughout the year, putting in extra effort to give that extra reward.
The festival starts as normal on Thursday night with a welcome concert. That’s usually the best part—the feeling that a whole three days and nights of jazz pleasure awaits you. Thursday is also the day I get to say hello to countless friends I haven’t seen in months, so it’s a day of happiness for that part too. Matthias Seuffert led the set. “Welcome back to the Whitley Bay Jazz Festival,” he said—and a huge cheer erupted. One hour of music down, around 30 more hours were to come. There is far too much to fit in to one review, so I will do my best to summarise the highlights.
Friday began as always with a half-hour tribute to the late Mike Durham, with Spats Langham recalling their days on the road together. The first official set was “The NORK and their Circle,” a concert theme devised by the brilliant Michael McQuaid. The musicians were discussing this set later in the weekend, and Nicholas Ball said “that was the one where everyone perked up and realised ‘Wow, Whitley Bay really has started now.’” It was a superb hour of rarely heard songs from NORK, but also their contemporaries from Chicago like the Original Memphis Melody Boys with “There’s No Gal Like My Gal,” and Merritt Brunies recordings among others. Next up—a newcomer to the festival, Dan Barrett. “I just heard the guys playing ‘Eccentric,’ and I was going to use that song for my set!” he told the crowd. Instead he gave us a delightful hour of neglected songs from the 20s and 30s, from bands like the New Orleans Owls and Benny Carter songs like “Synthetic Love.”
After that came a series of half hour gems: Jelly Roll Morton trio recordings, “Dickie Wells Meets Django” and “Eva Taylor and Clarence Williams.” The latter was the first opportunity for the spectacular Nicole Rochelle to shine in a formal concert setting. I am constantly in awe of her singing and dancing ability. She’s also a lot of fun to hang around with at the jam session—another privilege of Whitley Bay.
The final session of Friday afternoon was the only one that made the hairs on my arm stand up straight. Mike Davis paid tribute to the music of Hoagy Carmichael. The set ranged from the silly—“Barnacle Bill The Sailor” (which I was overjoyed to hear live for the first time) to a recreation of the famous Bix and Hoagy recording of “Georgia on My Mind” which was so smooth it made me want to melt. I made sure to thank Mike afterwards and he said that was the desired goal with that particular arrangement!
Friday evening was capped off with even more gems. An all-too brief half-hour of music played by Loren McMurray, led by Michael McQuaid, before another newcomer Lorenzo Baldasso led his first set, a tribute to Benny Goodman’s trios. I must give a special salute to Lorenzo—a very unassuming man from the outside—but who is capable of churning out the most fantastic performances. Many musicians who play at Whitley Bay comment on how tiring it can be, and yet Lorenzo played and played in both concerts and jams with superb proficiency, slotting in well with seasoned veterans. The final concert on Friday was a tribute to Doc Cook’s Dreamland Orchestra. Where else but Whitley Bay would you hear a whole hour dedicated to a band whose recording career lasted just four fruitful years?
After a first storming jam session, I emerged weary-eyed into Saturday morning ready for round two of the jazz onslaught. Martin Wheatley opened Saturday with another theme from the depths of the ’20s—a look at Jack Hylton’s band between 1921 and 1923. It was a delightful crossover of late ragtime, music hall and the 1923 “blues” craze which briefly swept the UK. After that I’m afraid to say I ducked out for lunch, but returned in time to catch a welcome change in rhythm, with Michael McQuaid’s Caribbean Clarinets side. Whitley Bay is often a learning experience and this was no exception—here was a half hour set of music I had never heard of, but which swung like hell. The rhythm was infectious and I caught several audience members dancing in their chairs! It celebrated artists like Alexandre Stellio and Eugene Delouche and music from Martinique. I resolved to leave and learn more about these fantastic recordings and I challenge you to sit still listening to them because it is almost impossible.
Later that afternoon, Mauro Porro led a session of Duke Ellington “killers” from 1929 to 1931. Mauro is a gem on stage. He has the audience in fits of laughter with his jokes on his shaky English ability but his playing and arranging skills are top notch. Here, the late Keith Nichols was helping from beyond the grave, as Mauro made good use of charts from Keith’s expansive library.
Saturday afternoon ended with another criminally short set exploring the music of Arthur Briggs (where else but Whitley Bay) and a welcome debut for Cia Tomasso. I am loath to mention her father in a review of her singing because Cia clearly is a star in her own right without saying she is “just” Enrico’s daughter. Cia arranged a half-hour tribute to Billie Holiday and it was fantastic. More of this please!
After dinner I hurried back to get a front-row seat directly behind the piano to watch another highlight: half an hour of Morten Gunnar Larsen playing rags, stomps and general good music for a half hour. He is the most spectacular pianist I have ever watched, and it was the start of perhaps the most solid night of entertainment of the whole festival.
The next set was a glorious hour of King Oliver music, with the inimitable Andy Schumm and Torstein Kubban once again bringing to life King Oliver and young Louis Armstrong including things they might have played. I think there was a moment where I shouted “Yes!” from the back of the room at the last break in “Wolverine Blues” because it was just so sublime.
While my head was buzzing from that set the music avalanche continued, when David Horniblow brought us his recreation of the Five Birmingham Babies and then Nicolle Rochelle paid tribute to Bessie Smith in her own unique way. Finally, Enrico Tomasso left us with a joyous hour of Louis Armstrong’s Californian recordings made between 1930 and 1931. He was clearly having fun on stage and Nicholas Ball drove a solid beat in his recreation of Lionel Hampton.
Saturday’s jam session was kicked up into another gear altogether when David Hermlin got behind the kit. Mr Hermlin was the winner of the Young Talent Award this year. Talent and enthusiasm is something the young man has in buckets, and I practically had to drag him from the kit when the hotel were asking us to close the jam session down in the early hours! I gather some of the musicians went and had a naughty late jam somewhere in the hotel and got reprimanded by the staff that night. That’s jazz for you folks.
Sunday is always the worst day of the festival. When sitting at the breakfast table at the start of rehearsals on Thursday it feels like there’s a whole lifetime of music to hear, and then by Sunday morning you’re already having to think about packing up your suitcase. Mike Davis led the Sunday (and left us wanting more) with a thirty-minute set of New York studio gems by groups like the Charleston Chasers, before Andrew Oliver led us through a fun half-hour of songs that were not the Charleston, and a whole bunch of dances that have faded into obscurity. Some deservedly so for the dire quality of the lyric rhyming, others deserved to have a longer shelf life!
Three more gems on Sunday afternoon of note—a huge big band at 1pm when Michael McQuaid recreated the Bob Crosby Orchestra in all its splendour, Andy Schumm playing the music of Fats Waller’s organ solos and unrecorded compositions for full orchestras and the Charlie Johnson band brought to life by Claus Jacobi later that afternoon. Once again, where could you hear such a variety of songs anywhere else in the jazz world?
One more evening of jazz to power through on Sunday—and it was another feast. We had a solo set by the talented Andrew Oliver at the piano, a half-hour of Jabbo’s Rhythm Aces with another newbie who fitted in so well this year—Jan Kaiser, a trumpet player from Germany. Jan has been fed a steady diet of music like Jabbo Smith by Claus Jacobi this year and Jan really shone in this set. The penultimate set was strictly 18+, when Spats Langham played a set of downright filth and naughtiness with his “listen to the banned” set.
The grand finale on Sunday was a recreation of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra with 27 musicians packed onto the stage (somehow!) Josh Duffee was conducting, and he surprised us all with a little dedication to Keith Nichols. Josh had found a recording of Keith talking about the Whiteman Orchestra from another festival somewhere online, and played it for us all to listen to. Being in that room I could picture Keith sitting at the piano as he always was, giving a mix of an informative background to what he was about to play, before cracking some lurid joke to counteract it all. It was quite a special moment to be a part of. Josh delivered a fitting finale to what was the best festival yet.
There’s 365 days a year, and 361 of them are spent dreaming of the time I get to spend at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party. It is hard to capture in words the sheer intensity of the experience—not only for the outstanding music but to see friends I haven’t seen for a long time. Every musician should be applauded for the part they played this year in bringing all this dusty old music to life. If you haven’t yet become one of the Whitley Bay converts—there is never a better time to start, next year can only top highs reached by this year’s festival!