I have attended quite a few jazz festivals over the years, but none like the Mike Durham’s Classic Jazz Party in Whitley Bay. If I am not saying unique it’s only because I have not attended all jazz festivals the world round.
The Whitley Bay festival does not feature bands, but rather is a repertory one . The only regular band featured at this year’s festival was The Vitality 5, but that band itself is topic oriented. Sure, other festivals feature tributes to musicians and bands of the past, but that is in addition to working or specially organized bands. The Whitley Bay features first-class musicians from all over. This year, in addition to British players, there were Americans, Germans, Norwegians, Australians and Frenchmen. The Aussies and one American have fore the last few years been UK residents.
Listing all the musicians would take a page, but some were internationally recognized stars, such as the reed players Matthias Seuffert and Claus Jacobi (both German), Enrico Tomasso (British despite the Italian name), the Norwegian Morten Gunnar Larsen and the American Duke Heitger, Josh Duffee and David Boeddinghaus. Not that the others were slouches, on the contrary, just less well known.
They paid tribute to the founder of the late Mike Durham, the founder of the festival and the excellent trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, Bix, Jean Goldkette, Jelly Roll Morton, the Louisiana Five, King Oliver, Clarence Williams, various washboard bands, Harry Reser, Joe Venuti and more. Altogether there were 36 “topics,” some half-hour, the others an hourlong. And the
standard of playing was astounding!
The bands varied in size ? from duos to 13 strong big bands. And there were three solo piano shows (The Professor 1, 2 and 3).
Some of the young musicians ? the pianist Andrew Oliver (an American who lives in the UK), the multi-instrumentalist Michael McQuaid (an expat Aussie), Josh Duffee, the British drummer Nicholas D. Ball – turned out to be real jazz “archeologists” who dug less well-known musicians as well as some less well-known sessions and paid tribute thereto in programmes such as “Clarinet Squawk” (tribute to the Louisiana Five), “Jelly Roll Morton’s Other Bands,” “New Orleans Echoes” (tribute to such largely forgotten bands as the Halfway House Orchestra, Johnny De Droit and His New Orleans Orchestra, Johnny Beyersdorfer and His Jazzola Novelty Orchestra, the Crescent City Jazzers, the Sam Morgan’s band, and the early bands of Armand Piron and Papa Celestin.
“Duke’ Big Four” hinted at Duke Ellington but was rather a bow to the Bechet–Spanier Big Four. Heitger didn’t sound like Spanier, Stephane Gillot didn’t sound like Bechet, but the result was just great! When I saw “Emma’s Hot Strings” was a tribute to Joe Venuti, with Emma Fisk playing very hot violin.
On “Bands within the Bands” Joan Viskant proved a better singer than Edythe Whyte. In her own show, Ms. Viskant sang some “risqu?” songs.
I have always held that jam sessions are the soul of a jazz festival, and here it was even more conspicuous: the free wheeling playing at the jam sessions was like a breath of fresh air after all the arranged shows, wonderful as they were. The jams started almost as soon as the “official” sessions ended at 11:00PM, and lasted till 2:00-2:30 AM. On the first night there were just a few changes in personnel, and the indefatigable David Boeddinghaus and Josh Duffee played for two and a half hours unbroken.
On the other two nights it was like a musical kaleidoscope, with too many changes to remember. The last night it was madness, towards the end there were 9 brass, three drummers, two pianists (four hands on one piano), and I don’t recall how many reeds on stage. It was just great!
Not that there were no snags: “The Days Before Jazz” was hardly appropriate for a jazz festival, and the “Music of the German Weimar Republic” with its spoken vocals in German was even worse. I expected something more “jazzy,” as there was a lot of jazz in Germany at that time, but no trace of jazz
could be found; rather, they played Weil’s songs as played before adaptation for jazz, and other equally unswinging things. I was not the only one to walk out; on lady shouted “Are they preparing us for occupation?” before walking out.
Nevertheless, the sum total is: An excellent and well-organized festival, and I am hoping to be able to make the next one! It merits great praise not only for the quality if music, but also for the excellent sound and for having the piano tuned during every longer interval.
Read three more reviews of the 2019 festival:
Worth it to cross the pond for Whitley Bay? Absolutely!, by Dustin Wittman
Reflections on my first time at the Mike Durham Jazz Party at Whitley Bay, by Colin Hancock
Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party 2019 – the best festival yet!, by Jonathan Holmes