The Streets – unexpected musical happenings on Leyton High Street – Emma Webster

The Streets is a project devised by EFG London Jazz Festival (LJF) producer, Serious, to ‘showcase the local streetscape and unlock the potential of high streets’ with the aims of spectacle, discovery, and participation. The first phase of the project started in July 2015 and consisted of a series of events across seven boroughs (Waltham Forest, Redbridge, Greenwich, Croydon, Wandsworth, Richmond upon Thames and Kingston upon Thames). As Serious co-Director Claire Whitaker said to a group of students about the event: ‘The sun came out, people spent money in shops; the project was a success’. The second phase coincided with the LJF in November 2015, a deliberate ploy which allowed the organisers to take advantage of the increased number of touring musicians in the city and increased opportunities for the musicians to earn money and build an audience.

I made a short video from the second Saturday of the November 2015 phase at Leyton High Street – the text below accompanies the video:

The Streets gave me some great memories – a New Orleans jazz band in TK Maxx and duelling saxophones in a grand Council Chamber stand out – but also highlighted just how difficult it can be to make an imprint on a city as culturally crowded as London.

I arrived at Leyton tube station around 1.30pm – Leyton is relatively well connected to London’s centre via the Central line, meaning an easy journey. A sign at the station directed people to Leyton Orient Football Club and I was reminded that there would most likely be a game that afternoon, confirmed when I saw men wearing red and white team scarves. It was the coldest day of autumn so far, with my smartphone registering 5°C and a bitter wind whipping the fallen leaves along the pavements. Having events on a cold November day brings its own challenges as events must necessarily be indoors so that musicians and participants are comfortable.

IMAG3164The first sign of The Streets was the coloured plastic bunting attached to railings along both the roadway and along the pavement – as Alison Eales writes about the Glasgow Jazz Festival, ‘The use of bunting was a way of tying together—literally—the spaces in which the music would take place”.[1] The second sign of The Streets was some large green banners outside one of the venues being used for the event: Leyton’s library. First stop, however, was the Palmeira cafe/bar across the road, again marked by green Streets banners. As I went in to the busy cafe, the performer, Alan Hampton, was doing a necessarily public sound check through the small PA system. Many of the seats in the cafe were already taken and it did not appear that many of the customers were paying much attention. Some were watching the football programme on the screen at the back of the room, above shelves full of dried Italian pasta and wine for sale.

Some were chatting with friends, or ordering food or beer. When Alan started, the sound of the chatter died down a little, but was soon up to its previous levels. In the video, it is possible to see people being served food and drink and to hear the football programme, which causes a curious counterpoint with Alan’s music. A Streets steward in a green hi-vis tabard was keeping an eye on proceedings and eventually asked for the TV’s sound to be muted. It was not an easy space to control and Alan did not speak to the room between songs other than after the first song and to say a seemingly relieved ‘Thank you very much’ at the end. This was in marked contrast to the second gig he performed in the same venue after the football crowd had left, where before/after each song he talked about each song’s genesis to the people actively listening.

After Alan’s set I went off to find Smitty’s Big Parade, led by Kansas Smitty, a New Orleans style band with sousaphone, drum, banjo, trumpet and saxophone. As can be seen in the video, I caught up the Parade as they made their way into a small shopping centre, which contained a Subway, Poundland, and a TK Maxx among other shops (the tapping sound is the sound of my crutch ringing on the pavement). As the video shows, the Parade could be heard before it was seen and were accompanied by four glittering dancers, one wearing a bustier, fishnets, and a top hat, another wearing a long velvet purple robe. They were flanked by Streets stewards, who handed flyers to passersby (including me). After playing outside TK Maxx, the Parade dived into the shop and danced its way around aisles full of racks of clothes and shoppers, before heading back out of the door. Some of the shoppers seemed to ignore the music and got on with the task of shopping, but others engaged with the Parade, smiling and taking videos and photos on their phones.

After the Parade left the shop, I noticed a man with a megaphone preaching to passersby about God – he can also be heard in the background at the beginning of the video over the footage of the bunting. About 20 feet away from the man with the megaphone was a busker playing to a lone audience member in-between banners advertising the ‘Busk in Waltham Forest’ project – it appears that The Streets was not the only cultural project in town that day. While I was filming, I noticed that behind him was another busker, a saxophonist, who was quietly harmonising with the busker’s rendition of ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ – a spontaneous jazz moment, undoubtedly, which I was pleased to have witnessed. (You can also hear the sound of the wind and hopefully get an appreciation that the weather conditions were not ideal for hanging around outside.)

IMAG3162Smitty’s Big Parade had headed back to Leyton Library and were playing outside the entrance – notice in the video how the people crossing the street walk straight through the band as if they are not there. Inside the library was a sign advising people that there may be more noise than usual due to a ‘Jazz event’.

I then headed towards the Adriano Adewale gig. On the way, however, a steward stopped me on my way past and asked me to go to the Moon Hooch gig instead as audience numbers were a bit low – he explained that the band were just sound checking. As can be seen from the video, I went up a dark staircase and heard the band before I saw them, as I then emerged into the Leyton Council Chambers, an oval room of Victorian grandeur and a booming echo-ey acoustic. What followed quickly became one of my favourite gigs of the 2015 London Jazz Festival, partly because it was so unexpected and partly because the musicians and the music were, quite frankly, awesome.

Moon Hooch are a three-piece from New York – two saxophones and drums – who, I found out later, gained notoriety by being banned from busking on the subway for causing spontaneous raves with their stomping, headbanging techno/drum&bass/breakbeat jazz music. As can be seen in the video, a small audience watched as the band built up their set, and more people came in as they played, including parents with babies. Both saxophonists played extended arpeggiated solos with cheeks puffing in and out, and the seemingly self-hypnotised drummer scatted in between complex paradiddles. The room was freezing but the band stripped down to T-shirts after a couple of tunes. One saxophonist was slowly headbanging to the music at one point and all three were highly animated in their performance.

IMAG3166The music was relentless with only one break to allow audience applause; from this, I surmised that the band usually played to dancing rather than seated audiences. This was confirmed by the drummer when I spoke to him afterwards, who said that he really enjoyed the gig as a seated gig gives a ‘different energy’ to what they’re used to. As can be seen in the video, parents were bouncing their babies up and down at the back of the room – one baby’s eyes were fixed on the musicians with a huge grin on his face whenever I looked round. It was an amazing performance and one heightened by the juxtaposition of the ferocious music and the formal civic space and the feeling of being part of what felt like a private performance. As one audience member said to me afterwards: ‘You wouldn’t imagine putting a jazz show in here, but actually it worked really well because it’s quite intimate as well … I mean, it’s like Ronnie Scott’s, say … It’s a jazz club and they have a really small stage area … You feel like you’re on that, like you’re in a small stage area and you can really see them and hear them’.

The Streets is an ambitious project, made more challenging because as the example of the busker above shows, there was a lot to compete for people’s attention in Leyton that day. This overabundance of stimulation highlights a symptom of a successful city such as London, which is that it can feel saturated with so many voices clamouring for attention, all trying to sell something, whether it be a tangible product or an intangible one such as music or ‘festival’. As one audience member I interviewed at a separate club gig said to me:-

The problem with events like [The Streets] is, unless there is a proper density to it, in somewhere like London it just gets lost. It’s like ‘Another street performance? What’s this advertising?’ And it’s like, ‘Is it for Malibu Rum or such-and-such gin?’ It’s very hard to discern whether something is about a particular festival with a distinct outreach programme, or is it just another publicity stunt.

The question, then, is how to do something which has substance and a sense of (semi-)permanence?

During the inception event for the new CHIME project (Cultural Heritage and Improvised Music in European Festivals), delegates heard about the GMLSTN Jazz Festival in Gothenburg, Sweden. The promoters had devised a marketing campaign which included leaving fluorescent green pianos in two locations in the city and encouraging people to Instagram photos of themselves interacting with the pianos. Whilst this was a marketing campaign rather than an outreach project per se, it creatively engaged the public and helped to promote the festival in an active and appealing way. The fact that the pianos were on the streets for a couple of weeks and were such a bright colour meant that they had a ‘visible solid presence’ as the audience member above added: ‘So like, we are here and we are a thing, and we’re going to be here for a couple of weeks’. London already has an ongoing street piano project, but perhaps something similar could add an extra dimension to The Streets project and give residents the opportunity for playful participation over a longer period.

 

 

[1] See Alison Eales (2013) ‘They’ve really gone to town with all that bunting’: the influence and (in)visibility of Glasgow’s Jazz Festival. Jazz Research Journal, Vol 7, No 1.

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