Rhythm and Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain review

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4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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There are endless documentaries about the counter-cultural musical behemoths of the second half of the twentieth century – Pink Floyd at the V&A anyone? Yet the most significant musical and cultural movement of the first half – jazz – has been ignored of late. A new exhibition at Two Temple Place is here to fix that.

‘Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain’ is lovingly put together, spanning two floors of posters, instruments, vinyl, silent films and more. It begins with postcards of a 1903 musical, ‘In Dahomey’. As you walk in the door, you’re confronted with blackface: worn not by white performers, Al Jolson-style, but by African Americans not considered black enough. That sharp intake of breath continues, with cartoons of staid bishops losing their cool to ragtime, touring shows that use ‘jungle’ imagery such as grass skirts, and crude postcards. England seems extremely worried about what this music is doing to the nation. The only women we see are dance partners or lust objects, and while discomfort will set in at these racially insensitive sights, these are all important aspects of the story of society at the time.

Upstairs sit artefacts that reflect jazz’s influence on wider culture: ceramic pots, silent films of dancehalls and, one of the centrepieces, a copy of a controversial, ambiguous artwork. John Bulloch Souter’s ‘The Breakdown’ (1926) was banned by the Royal Academy on Colonial Office orders, then destroyed. In it, a dapper black saxophonist sits on a smashed statue of Minerva next to a nude woman in the throes of musical ecstasy. It’s not subtle.

Jazz crossed class lines, appearing both sophisticated and populist. It was then, and still is, a radical, modern, thrilling art form. This superb show properly immerses you in how exciting it must have been to escape to a dance floor and jive to music that was unlike anything people had ever heard before. 

By: Liz Tray

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