William Waldorf Astor, the richest man in America, had made a new home in England by the time he bought the late-Victorian Gothic mansion known as Two Temple Place in 1895. Set on the north bank of the Thames between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges, it became the headquarters for his various business and philanthropic interests. At a cost of $1.5m — imagine how much that would represent in today’s money — he turned the interior into a riot of mahogany staircases, ebony pillars, marble floors, cedar panelling and staggering stained glass. He was 71 when he died in his bath at home in Brighton in October 1919, six months after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had arrived in London to play at the Palladium, the Hippodrome and Hammersmith Palais and, astonishingly, at Buckingham Palace for King George V.
A century later, there’s a less tenuous connection between the building and the band. Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain is an exhibition illustrating aspects of Britain’s embrace of the music in its early decades, from minstrel shows to the end of the inter-war period. Curated by Professor Catherine Tackley, head of music at Liverpool University, it does a pretty good job of conjuring the atmosphere of Britain in the Jazz Age, via ancient banjos and drum kits, 78rpm discs, books (including Al Bowlly’s guide to crooning), blown-up photographs (Ellington arriving at Southampton docks in 1933, for example), early copies of publications such as the Melody Maker and Rhythm, paintings (including William Patrick Roberts’s “The Dance Club” of 1923, above), fabrics and ceramics, bakelite wirelesses, and Wyndham Lewis’s 1912 design for the programme and menu at the Golden Calf, a West End cabaret club.
Perhaps the most haunting exhibit is a pastel study for a work called “The Breakdown”, painted in 1926 by the Scottish artist John Bulloch Souter for the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts. At least one of the layered meanings of this study of a formally dressed black saxophonist sitting on a broken piece of classical statuary as a naked white woman dances to his music was provocative enough to upset the Colonial Office, which complained that it was “obnoxious to British subjects living abroad in daily contact with a coloured population.”
The Melody Maker had already joined in with an extraordinary editorial which, after admiring the artist’s technique, inveighed on behalf of dance-band musicians against “the habit of associating our music with the primitive and barbarous negro derivation…” The painting, it claimed, was “not only a picture entirely nude of the respect due to the chastity and morality of the greater part of the young generation but in the degradation it implies to modern white women there is the perverse anger to the community and the best thing that could happen to it is to have it… burnt!”
Forced to withdraw his painting, Souter destroyed it, leaving only the pastel study (above) and a version he recreated in oils in 1962, which is also on show.
Almost every aspect of Rhythm & Reaction deserves study in greater depth — e.g. minstrelsy, “jazz” motifs in the decorative arts, the “rhythm clubs” formed by the music’s early adherents — but as it stands the exhibition does an effective job of prompting reflection on an important phenomenon. It would be of particular interest, I think, to young members of the newest and highly multicultural generation of British jazz musicians, who might find it enlightening and (despite the fate of “The Breakdown”) even inspiring.
* Rhythm & Reaction is on show at Two Temple Place until April 22, daily except Tuesdays (information on opening hours and special events: https://twotempleplace.org). “The Dance Party” is on loan from Leeds Museum and Art Gallery. The pastel study of “The Breakdown” is from a private collection. Those who want to know more about the subject should read the late Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain 1919-1950, republished in 2010 by Northway Books.