The sound of big band jazz isn’t heard very often in these parts. Indeed, the notion of an intimate smoky nook of a jazz bar where slick dons prop up the bar while coy-eyed drawling beauties decorate the walls seems slightly misplaced in Egypt, let alone the carefree dance hall where teenage lovers swing each other round with serendipitous abandon.
Yet even in the west, these scenes now figure only as nostalgic vignettes of the mind’s eye. As faded sepia prints on the walls of some former dance hall, or – if like me you’ve been raised on a recipe of Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald – emulated with a hairbrush, a battered French horn, and your grandma’s moth eaten frock in your own bedroom.
That is why watching the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra perform at the Pyramids on Saturday was something of a bittersweet pleasure. The backdrop was incredible; the band was superb; but all I wanted to do was get up and dance my socks off. Taking a nonchalant sweep around the open air auditorium specially set up for the concert, it was clear that a fair many of my fellow jazz aficionados felt the same. Toes were tapping, shoulders were gliding and heads were jerking in time with the lush plucks of the double bass.
David Baker, the band’s conductor, whose jazz credentials – 70 books to his name – makes him worthy of the title “maestro, shimmied his way across the stage, fingers clicking and at times eyes closed and head bobbing to the music. There’s some sort of magic formula in jazz, especially big band jazz that uplifts your mood, your worries floating away with the mere puff of a trumpet.
I knew I was cured from my early morning crankiness as soon as I heard myself humming along to Ellington’s smooth “The A Train. I couldn’t do anything but smile as I watched a beaming Chester Whitmore and Shaunte Jones’ tapping, skitting and ‘choo-chooing’ across the stage. Were it not for the Sphinx and Pyramids eminent against the pale Egyptian winter sky, I might have been convinced I was at Sugar Hill in Harlem.
Taking the A train to 1930s’ New Orleans and New York, Baker and his orchestra took the audience right back to the birth of big band jazz, the creation of Benny Carter. The afternoon kicked off with a rippling rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll before breaking into Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside, named after the hotel Basie’s band rehearsed and lodged in during their stay in Kansas City.
As a be-bopping run of melodic solos swelling to a big band crescendo, for a few moments it seemed “Jumpin’ at the Woodside might become “Jumpin’ at the Pyramids, when the wind’s flirtation with the piano sent papers buffering across the stage and the pianist making a leap to catch the truant sheets: “Wind 12, band nil, was Baker’s jovial response.
Other delights included Quincy Jones’ “Tickle Toes and “Soul Bossa Nova – the latter of Austin Powers fame. Jones is a familiar face to Cairo having graced the Cairo International Film Festival with his presence last December. Such was the buoyant atmosphere, one could almost make out the flared trousered Powers with his signature “Yeah, baby! standing on the Sphinx’s broken nose.
So who says jazz can only be enjoyed in its indigenous habitat? Spying the grey silhouette of a distant camel slinking between trumpet and piccolo might have triggered a touch of incongruity, but it does more to credit the efforts of devotees blasting through artificial cultural boundaries in the name of music. “Seeing the band perform in front of the Pyramids is an amazing thrill for me, Brent Glass, the director of Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of American History told Daily News Egypt. “It’s astounding, just looking at it, that it’s a relatively new form of art in front of something so ancient. It’s simply awesome in the true sense of the word, to see Chester leaping against the background of a Pyramid.
“We’ve traveled to Turkey, South America, Canada, Asia, Japan, but this is our first time in Africa. It’s hard to imagine something more moving than this connection of a historical and spiritual port, and jazz, of course, has a lot of spirit too.
The Smithsonian Institution, as Glass explains, is an American cultural organization based on the dying wishes of the 19th Century English bio-chemist Jason Smithson, who bequeathed his fortune to the cause of encouraging the diffusion of knowledge, whether scientific or artistic. Now the organization is worth a massive $10 million, enjoying the cerebral and spiritual fruits of nine cultural centers worldwide which promote and research fields of knowledge including science, art history, folklore and performing arts.
The keyword in defining the sound of the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra is “masterworks. In other words, the orchestra’s recordings and concerts are focused on the classical arrangements of the great composers, performed in their historic original arrangements. “Even the dances are performed the way jazz performers would’ve performed them back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, Glass added. “The unique part of this orchestra is that it performs history.
Although jazz is rooted in the African-American culture, the enormous sweep of jazz in the 30s was embraced by numerous white musicians in New York and Washington DC. “This happened at a time when Americans were not integrated, back when the country was deeply segregated, Glass explained, “but Jazz was a way of bringing people together, and the audiences together.
John Edward Hasse, curator of American Music, was also visibly ecstatic to have the band perform at such a seminal location. “We were so well received at the Istanbul Jazz festival, we decided to bring the orchestra to Egypt, he told Daily News Egypt, “And we wanted to make it as entertaining as possible, so we brought the two dancers and singer Dolores King Jones, too.
Entertaining it certainly was, deserving its two standing ovations. Yet, after the last note has been overwhelmed by rapturous applause, some worries that this musical genre is flailing against competition from rock, rap and RnB. Jazz does not summon the same audiences as it has in the past, and there are those that claim it lacks the dynamic movements it boasted in its formative years.
However, Hasse sees the future of Jazz from a different perspective. “It’s true it doesn’t loom as large on the cultural scene, but it’s become an essential part of the musical curriculum and now it’s taking pride place in the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Lincoln Center in New York, it’s more respected than ever before. Jazz doesn’t go out of fashion; it is, essentially, America’s classical music.
Catch Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra tonight at the Alexandria Opera House. For more information, check the culture agenda.