Swinging at the Cotton Club, Sherborne Abbey Festival

Cotton ClubTHE Jiving Lindy Hoppers and Harry Strutters Hot Rhythm Orchestra performed to a capacity audience in the Big School Room, Sherborne School as part of the fifteenth annual Sherborne Abbey Festival. Superbly fronted by compere / vocalist (and occasional trumpet player) Megs Etherington, we were treated to an action packed show celebrating the music, dance and songs of the Cotton Club – New York’s famous nightclub of the ‘20s and ‘30s.

The eight-piece band, complete with sousaphone, were as authentic sounding as I have heard anywhere – all fine, experienced musicians in their own right of course, but, as an ensemble, effortlessly able to recreate that special something not always present in such groups. Perhaps it was the apparent lack of individual egos or maybe it was just being comfortable with fellow band members, I don’t know. What I do know though, is that they were a joy to hear, and watch too – I loved the little bits of story that bubbled to the surface from time to time, as well as the conjuring trick, the bored “Beano” reader and the shoeshine boy that provided a humorous narrative to “Drum Crazy”. The rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” was another band highlight – brilliant trumpet playing of course, but with an absolutely stunning piano accompaniment too.

The Jiving Lindy Hoppers are no strangers to Dorset, but it has been several years since I had seen them, which was at the Edinburgh Fringe. I am happy to report that they have lost nothing of their exuberance and vitality. As Europe’s first and probably finest jazz dance company, they burst onto the stage in their colourful costumes simply brimming with versatility and youthful energy. Alongside the Lindy Hop we were treated to a spirited Black Bottom, the Charleston of course, and my companion’s particular favourite, the “One Man Dance” – a specialty tap routine in which four of the dancers synchronised their steps so that there appeared to be just one person doing the lot. Clever stuff. The company were joined by solo dance artist Lee Payne for several of the routines – someone well worth looking out for. His Soft Shoe Shuffle and double act with the band’s drummer were further sparkling highlights.

Vocalist Marlene Hill completed the line-up. Her songs in the first part of the evening, particularly “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man”, suffered from a balance problem between singer and band and consequently needed either a bigger voice or better amplification. In contrast, her singing of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child”, after the interval, with its sensitive piano and sax accompaniment came right from the heart and was hugely successful.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the very last number, Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, that some of the more lively members of the audience were able to get to their feet and join the party. Such a pity. However, there was no disguising the fact that we were in a school hall and the décor, seating and general layout did absolutely nothing to take us back in time and help create the Cotton Club atmosphere we had all hoped to experience and which the performers were trying so hard to give us. A bit of imaginative lighting, a few tables, a drink or two, something … anything to have helped the “feel” of the place would have been so worthwhile.



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