All that jazz: celebrating a golden era of music at Two Temple Place’s ‘Rhythm & Reaction’ exhibition

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Visiting Two Temple Place today was a win-win decision for two reasons. Firstly, the opportunity to see around William Waldorf Astor’s late Victorian mansion tucked away on the Embankment, with views overlooking the Thames. It’s a beautiful place: I shall definitely return on Open House Day, to learn more about the building which once belonged to the richest man in the world but is now a philanthropic organisation devoted to helping charities across the UK.

Secondly, seeing Two Temple Place’s ‘Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain’ exhibition, which was excellent – and, for me, enlightening. I hadn’t realised how controversial jazz was in this country when it first made an appearance, during the aftermath of the First World War. Reaction, we learned, ranged from devotion to abhorrence, as ragtime made way for a style of music which would have an extraordinary reaction upon British society.

The exhibition explains all of this through an eclectic mixture of paintings, photos, magazines, postcards, concert programmes from the Palladium and The Savoy Hotel and 78 rpm records (complete with a 1935 portable gramophone). There’s even some crackly black & white British Pathé film footage of jazz musicians visiting London Zoo and performing to the zoo’s elephants and polar bears!

A particular highlight is the series of satirical cartoons by Punch caricaturist WK Haselden: still amusing nearly 100 years after the artist sketched them, they illustrate just how much the Establishment felt challenged by this innovative new musical genre.

Art, too, was permanently impacted. Wallpaper, carpets and ceramics: all benefited from the vibrancy of jazz; there’s a gorgeous 1930s Royal Winton coffee set on display which I would have loved to take home with me. Likewise the clothes – the exhibition contains some beautiful costumes and shoes which wouldn’t look out of place in 21st century London.

You could say the same about the collection of musical instruments that we saw, which included 1930s banjos and drum kits used by high-profile musicians and bands, such this kit belonging to the Kit Kat Club:

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The exhibition concludes with a series of beautiful black & white photographs of performers including Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Adelaide Hall, Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and Louis Armstrong, together with anecdotes about their lives and the lasting influence all of them had upon music. These photos bring the exhibition to life and breathe into it a human element; it’s impossible not to be moved by the triumphs and tragedies the purveyors of jazz experienced. Racism, needless to say, lurked permanently near-by and was behind much of the hostility every single jazz musician faced.

Thanks to them, however, the music lives on. 100 years after jazz arrived in the UK, its popularity remains unabated – and our fascination with it, as this exhibition so ably points out, remains undimmed.

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