Marking the centenary of the arrival of Jazz in Britain, Rhythm and Reaction offers an eclectic overview of the effect on British society, of this most controversial of musical genres. In particular social and cultural effects and the extent to which the very existence and evolution of Jazz, was driven in no small part by the technological developments of the day.
Jazz is a visual music and lends itself to display, yet this remains a largely neglected area for UK galleries. And the few exhibitions with Jazz as a theme have tended to focus on a single aspect.1 The remit of the 2018 exhibition at Two Temple Place is considerably wider and consequently much more ambitious.
The exhibition space is intuitively curated with the ground floor room devoted to pre- and early-jazz, and the first floor concentrating on the music of British and American dance bands in the 1920s and 30s. The chronological context is supplemented by a number of sub-themes including; art and design, dance, race, technology, and transport. If I have a criticism it is that each sub ‘theme’ felt like a tantalising taster and some could have been an exhibition in their own right.
Brightest London and Home by Underground 1924, © TfL
The expansion of public transport in the interwar years (in particular the London underground) enabled wider access to some of Britain’s existing clubs and newly built dancehalls, in which dance itself was radically changed by the arrival of Jazz – colourfully illustrated here through costume, sculpture and iconic London Transport marketing posters of the era. Improvements in recording technology and radio also increased the accessibility of Jazz beyond those able to enjoy live music, while artists from the conventional to the surreal embraced the genre.
Dancing, M Hartley 1929
Many of these ‘developments’ are represented in the objects on display (sourced from a wide range of lenders including major galleries, the National Jazz Archive and private collections, some of which may be displayed for the first time). These include early examples of; the gramophone, 78rpm records, the radio – and the modern drum ‘kit’ and saxophone, both of which were essential for the Jazz ‘sound’.
Console Drum Kit c.1938 Tenor sax c 1938
Jazz has long been associated with subversion. And in this context Rhythm and Reaction reflects on its role in developing a sense of freedom for some (especially the young) while simultaneously threatening the establishment, at a time when existing social norms had inevitably been disrupted by war. It also acknowledges the extent to which the development of Jazz in Britain was influenced by attitudes to race, and for a period of time, – the implicit operation of dual culture – within which Jazz was ‘sanitised’ into dance music for (among others) the BBC, while African American Jazz thrived in ‘underground’ clubs.
Detail from the Breakdown, J B Souter, 1926
Rhythm and Reaction is likely to have a wide appeal encompassing as it does social and cultural history, the development of popular music and leisure, and art and design. However I am often struck by the extent to which Jazz is one of the most contested of musical genres. What is loved by one enthusiast can be detested by another, and vice-versa, and debates on what even constitutes ‘Jazz’ can be some of the fiercest amongst fans. I suspect purists may wonder (as I overheard a murmur) ‘but what have ceramics to do with Jazz?’ (or similar).
Detail from Royal Winton Jazz Coffee set. (Private collection)
But this is to miss the point. The strength of Rhythm and Reaction is precisely in this breadth of approach. That the influence of Jazz was so pervasive – as well as producing an iconography that gave its name to an entire ‘age’ – only serves to underline its potential for both freedom and subversion. Rhythm and Reaction captures this well, and I suspect Two Temple Place has a major hit on its hands.
About Two Temple Place
For those new to it, Two Temple Place will be a delight. Completed in 1895 (by John Loughborough Pearson) as the estate office for William Waldorf Astor, the building and in particular it’s interior, is a stunning exhibit in its own right. Highlights include substantial wood panelling, carving and stained glass windows.
Visiting Rhythm and Reaction provides a rare opportunity to enjoy this building which closed to the public for most of the year). Since 2011 Two Temple Place has been London’s first exhibition space dedicated to raising national awareness of collections around the UK in collaboration with regional partners, and has treated us to everything from William Morris to Sussex Modernism.
© text and images Later Than You Think (unless otherwise specified)
1 A recent example being the Fashion and Textile Museum’s 2016-17 exhibition ‘The 1920’s Jazz Age – Fashion and Photographs’.
Dates: now – until 22nd April 2018
Times: daily 10-4.30 EXCEPT:
• Closed on Tuesdays
• opens at 11am on Sundays
• closes at 9pm on Wednesdays
Travel: Temple tube station (Circle and District lines) less than 5 minutes walk
Two Temple Place