‘It’s not 2017. Trump’s not in the Whitehouse. It’s 1945, we have Franklin D. Roosevelt and life is good.’
Politics aside, this pretty much set the mood of the opening night of the fourth Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival. With these words, festival organiser and co-founder of the Bruce Ilett Big Band, Denny Ilett sent an already gloriously cheerful room of swing aficionados into raptures of applause before launching into an hour of living, breathing nostalgia. Armed with victory rolls, braces, bold red lips, brogues, polka-dotted halter-necks and trilbies, there couldn’t have been a more prepared audience for the vintage spectacle to come.
Lovingly dubbed The Big Swing, the Friday night frivolities have fittingly grown up in scale and popularity over the festival’s early years. What may have started as a showcase for Denny’s aforementioned big band project with local trumpeter, Jonny Bruce, The Big Swing has evolved into a bit of a mini festival in its own right. Add to this a retro clothes stall, vintage makeovers and a free swing dance lesson, I can only see this baby getting bigger (and perhaps one day moving into its own field).
Firstly, the foyer stage, home to the festival’s fringe music, was awash with a mixture of Bristol’s talented pro and amateur jazz bands. Eager listeners craned to watch from the helter-skelter stairwell as get-ups of all shapes and sizes gave living proof of how expansive and vibrant the world of jazz still is.
From the 34-piece Bristol Community Big Band – spilling off the stage, but nonetheless keeping it tight for their explosive set (feel free call me biased – I do play in the front line of saxes!) to Ruby Two Shoes, effortlessly drawing people out to dance with their high-energy swing numbers, featuring a delightful Benny Goodman-worthy clarinet line, to the fantastic all-female outfit, the Sisters of Swing, reminding us – with good very reason – that jazz isn’t just for men – there truly was something for everyone.
With all that and more to keep the punters entertained for free, they could have been forgiven for taking up residence on the steps with a box of Pieminister mash and staying put all evening – but what is a festival without its main stage?
This year, the Big Swing attracted not one but two additional acts to the Colston Hall stage, giving both energetic dancers and sedentary listeners the chance to catch some of the UK’s hottest jazz musicians. Well-known in Bristol and to the festival, the wonderful Emily Wright warmed up the crowds with her lush vocals, joined by the infinitely smooth harmonies and upbeat rhythmic backing of the Royals. Skipping effortlessly through well-known swing classics by Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, this was the ideal band to get the party started.
Then came the arrival of the brass army, with the raucous dixieland-blues-gospel inspired Kansas Smitty’s House Band, borrowed for the night from the eponymous London bar. The band packed no end of punches with their fusion of different genres of jazz, yet keeping a contemporary, fresh feel to the music that kept the audience on their toes.
Finally, the audience amassed to hear the headliners in the finely-suited forms of what would be Bristol’s best kept secret if they weren’t so damn loud, the Bruce Ilett Big Band. Kicking off with the Woody Herman classic, At the Woodchopper’s Ball, the band immediately showed everyone why they are such a beloved and unique treasure in Bristol’s jazz scene. The wall of unified sound that hits you when these 15 musicians are in full throttle is completely indescribable. Individually, each solo player is more impressive than the last, and the music gives them ample chance to show of their virtuosic talents, in breath-taking musical acrobatics.
Even those sat watching the whirling sea of over 100 dancers couldn’t avoid the pull of the infectious toe-tapping rhythms
As classic swing hits poured from the band, from the joyful Count Basie’s Opus One, to the sultry Sleepy Lagoon (a nod to the great Harry James), the room was transported back to a different time entirely. Even those sat watching the whirling sea of over 100 dancers couldn’t avoid the pull of the infectious toe-tapping rhythms, leading nearly everyone to the floor by the time they reached dancer favourite, Sing, Sing, Sing. When the final notes died, it was with a sense of slowly coming back to earth from a sort of fantastic, jazz-fuelled dream and all looked somewhat disorientated.
‘Shouldn’t you get to have a big band play for you every night?’ at one point Denny playfully asked the audience. Judging by the crowd’s mood, which by the end of the night was tangibly bouncing around Colston Hall’s high vaulted ceiling, the general consensus was: ‘Yes; yes you should.’
Words: Sophie Jones
Photography: Louise Roberts