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Poetry and Jazz at the Festival Hall

A press-cutting for June 1961 found among the papers of Daniel (‘Dannie’) Abse, CBE, FRSL (1923 – 2014) well respected Welsh and Jewish poet who worked as a doctor much of his life. From the days of poetry and jazz, duffle coats and beards. The Tribune (a left -wing weekly) emphasises the youth of the audience, this is from a time when ‘youth’ meant under 30 – the youth movement didn’t really begin until 1963 (see Larkin’s poem Annus Mirabilis.) Another press-cutting notes the presence of the ‘irrepressible’ Spike Milligan ‘the eminent goon poet.’ Press cuttings, like Poetry and Jazz, are surely a thing of the past. Are there agencies still cutting up (and pasting) newspapers that mention their clients?

The Hampstead Poets and Jazz Group whose first recital was such a success at Hampstead Town Hall last February, greatly daring,took the Festival Hall on Sunday for another performance of their unique form of entertainment. Their optimism was well justified, as the hall was just about full; again the majority of the audience was under 30, and they were given the mixture of poetry and jazz much as before, although unavoidably, the intimate atmosphere of the first occasion was lost in the vast auditorium.

The one newcomer was Laurie Lee, himself a young poet in the thirties when the chief pre-occupation was the Spanish Civil War, as these young men, Adrian Mitchell, Dannie Abse, Jon Silkin, Pete Brown, and Jeremy Robson, the organiser, are poets of the sixties under the H-bomb’s shadow. Cecily Ben-Tovim’s drawing shows Mrs Harriet Pasternak Slater reading to the audience…her poems and her translations of her brother Boris Pasternak’s poems… created a sense of quiet lyricism and nostalgia among the young voices of protest and dissent. The jazz group, helped by Laurie Morgan and Dick Heckstall-Smith, added their own special contribution to the atmosphere.

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‘Come on, Daddy O.’

It was the first visit of Jazz legend Lionel Hampton to England and one of his gigs was seemingly at Hanley Town Hall in north Staffordshire, according to G. A. Roberts, who captured the occasion in an article that appeared in the December 1956 issue cum grado, the student magazine of what was soon to become Keele University.

Photo by William Gottlieb

According to Roberts, the band played one number without Hampton and when the great man was introduced to the audience there was a:

Deafening  roar from the audience, deafening noise from the band. A lean light grey suited  negro ran onto the stage acknowledging his reception. With a wealth of gesticulation, he stopped the band and then led them into another hectic number—loud, driving, swinging. We were away---from the beginning, Hampton’s tactics were clear ---he was going to produce such a dynamic, hypnotic, driving, compelling, metronomic beat that the audience would be goaded  into a frenzy of excitement and enthusiasm…but twice on the evening Hampton sacrificed sheer beat for artistry.
He used the vibroharp to produce sounds of real beauty which even the band could not drown ; caressing the instrument so that its strange tones filled the echoing hall. But then, as though ashamed of his lapse of taste, he returned to the repetition of fast mechanical tunes. The audience loved it…

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The Umbrella Club

Let no-one accuse Jot 101 of being Londoncentric. We at Jot HQ welcome quirky Jots on provincial goings-on and just to prove it here is one issue of the quarterly house journal of a Coventry-based arts organisation called The Umbrella Club.

The club, which was opened by The Goons in 1956 operated first from humble premises in Little Park Street, bang in the city centre, a three minute walk from the controversial new cathedral. In 1960 it described itself as:

‘an independent, non-political, non profitmaking organisation for encouraging interest in art music, music, literature, the theatre and kindred subjects. It arranges lectures, recitals, dramatic performances and many related activities’ 

Its house journal was a well produced quarterly anthology of poetry, short stories, reviews and art work entitled, rather imaginatively, Umbrella, which by 1960 was already into its second volume. In the Spring issue, editor T.C.Watson, a local English teacher, urges potential contributors to submit material that paints a portrait of life in the Midlands, and which reflect or interpret:

‘such problems as labour relations, race relations, the world of the teenager, the changing patterns of family life in a mobile society and the attitudes of the citizen of today to the established institutions of the past’

An earnest ambition this, at the start of a decade which saw sociology take over from English as the coolest degree option. However, it seems that many of the contributors to Umbrella were English graduates, with a strong bias towards that coolest of all English Universities in the sixties, Keele. Of the wannabe Amises, Drabbles and Larkins who contributed to  two of the 1960 issues, only two names stands out---local wunderkind novelist Susan Hill, then just 18, and Keele graduate Zulfikar Ghose, who handled the magazine’s poetry review pages. Hill, now 72, went on to become a sort of heir to Daphne du Maurier, while Ghose, a little older, is an acclaimed poet now based in the United States.

We should add that Hill, whose first scandalous novel had a theatrical background, was also a budding playwright, and must have attended many a production at the Umbrella Club while a sixth former at Coventry’s Barr’s Hill School, while Philip Larkin who, after all was born in Coventry, had at least one poem published in Umbrella. As a jazz nut he may also have heard some pretty cool notes in Little Park Street.[RH]