“I should probably tell you something now…” confesses Emma Stone’s Mia, heroine of the celluloid musical La La Land, to Ryan Gosling’s jazz pianist Sebastian: “I hate jazz”. It is a statement that alludes to something of a cultural running joke: the stereotype being that jazz is earnest, obscure, male, and crashingly passe. Only, today, legions of bright young things are revising that view and falling for the “devil’s music,” just as Mia goes on to: be it its sound, its scene, or its spirit of glamorous hedonism. It seems we are very much entering the new Jazz Age.
There's trendy East London’s Night Jar, a speakeasy-style spot featuring bands seven nights a week which is tapping into the chic 'retro' jazz scene. Poster flapper girl Zelda Fitzgerald is emerging as 2017’s fashion icon du jour and classic cocktails have replaced craft beer as the hipster drink of choice. Anybody who is anybody received a cocktail trolley this Christmas - demand at John Lewis being up 250%.
Meanwhile, La La Land is selling jazz to a whole new audience: mainstream, movie-going, and moonily admiring of Mr Gosling, from his natty facial hair down to his toe-tapping co-respondent shoes. And if the sainted Ryan is giving his blessing to Thelonius Monk, then his acolytes will surely follow.
The late David Bowie’s line-up of jazz veterans for his Blackstar band reminded audiences that jazz and pop can make perfect partners. Jazz band Portico were nominated for a Mercury prize last year, while rapper Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly featured contemporary artists such as pianist Robert Glasper and saxophonist Kamasi Washington.
The revival started life as a New York phenomenon back in 2013, with Vanity Fair noting: “How a Swathe of 20-Somethings Have Tuned Into 1920s Pop,” with the term “Hot Jazz,” that is, the traditional, 1920s, pre-swing sound predominating. Jazz was not only featuring in designated clubs, but at “retro nouveau” events such as the Jazz Age Lawn Party, a music, dance, and style extravaganza, with participants in Twenties drag. Writer Will Friedwald observed: “Hot Jazz is so prevalent now that New York has almost become like New Orleans in the fin de siècle period.”
Four years on, Zelda Fitzgerald – F. Scott’s wife, muse and mooted co-creator - is the epitome of cool for 2017, subject of not one, but three screen incarnations. Jennifer Lawrence will portray her in Ron Howard’s glitzy version of Nancy Milford’s biography. Christina Ricci will play her in the much-hyped Amazon series Z, The Beginning of Everything. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson will feature in an adaptation of The Beautiful and the Damned, regarded as a thinly veiled depiction of the Fitzgeralds’ tumultuous marriage.
The fashion world has particularly embraced the Zelda look. Plunging necklines on girlishly etiolated figures and bobs being the celebrity world’s hair obsession - yes we’re looking at you Jennifer Lawrence, Taylor Swift, or Emilia Clarke. All of course finished off with over-sized earings a trend borrowed from the 20s flapper girls such as Louise Brooks.
Over at Claridge’s, that bastion of art deco elegance, cocktail hour is busier than ever, with Jazz Age sharpeners all the rage: be it the hotel’s Julep, Sidecar, or Corpse Reviver. Architecture tours are available, such is the interest in the design of the period, while the hotel is employing a resident choreographer, Marius Caluser, so great is the demand for dancing.
Caluser remarks: “Students are fascinated by the great Twenties’ dances - the foxtrot and lindy hop, that Gatsby spirit. While weekends are super busy in London: Mayfair is full of tuxedos and feathers. The clubbing era is over, people want to dance jazz and ballroom.” Dinner dances turn out to be undergoing a revival with Marius’s pupils leaving their lessons to swan off to various ritzy hotel evenings. Meanwhile, Gianluca Longo, a contributing editor to W magazine, has started a Sunday thé dansant.
So why this collective turning to the hits, looks and modes of merry-making of the Roaring Twenties? What is it about this decade that feels so resonant today, ushering in a new jazz age.
Jazz is where hedonism meets nihilism, and many have spent the last few months in a resolutely bluesy mood. Uncertain about the future and braced for global turbulence, as one pessimist puts it: “I’ve never partied harder in my not-so young life. The ethos is: eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we shall die.”
Of course jazz and an anxiety about moral and political corruption go together like gin and a shiver of vermouth. The Jazz Era tribute, Chicago, first performed in 1975, and hailed as the great post-Watergate musical, was revived in 1996 for the Whitewater era and a new “celebrity criminal”. When the Clintons attended a performance, all eyes were on Bill.
Today, we have new potential offenders to keep our eye on. As this momentous week rolls on, where better to drown one’s sorrows than in some low bar, a piano riffing, and a horn player giving it her all?
New Jazz Sounds
New jazz clubs seem to pop up every month attracting a young audience. For a club that shows real knowledge of jazz with a terrific ambience try Brighton’s The Verdict (www.verdictjazz.co.uk), Band on the Wall in Manchester (www.bandonthewall.org ), or London’s Vortex Jazz Club (www.vortexjazz.co.uk). For a club that remembers you can actually get up and dance to jazz, you can’t beat The Jazz Café in Camden (www.thejazzcafelondon.com). And for a club that is so out there in its avant-garde tastes it’s actually off the map, try Café Oto in deepest East London’s Dalston (www.cafeoto.co.uk).
As for talented new jazz musicians who are reaching out to a new audience, Britain seems to be full of them. Portico’s brand of atmospheric jazz won them a Mercury nomination, as did Gogo Penguin’s fascinating brand of 'acoustic electronica’. Organist Kit Downes and saxophonist Tom Challenger create electronic-flavoured pieces on an epic scale. Trumpeter Laura Jurd and saxophonist Trish Clowes are at the crest of a new wave of female jazz musicians. In all sorts of ways, jazz is reaching out.
Words: Ivan Hewett