By Richard Williams
Dear, doomed F. Scott Fitzgerald found a phrase to describe the sounds that accompanied the party scenes in The Great Gatsby, his most celebrated novel. He called it “yellow cocktail music”, and if you have an ounce of music in your soul then you will know exactly what he meant. And here it is, that very thing, emerging from an unexpected source to evoke the charm of a vanished but still compelling time.
Trumpets shout, trombones bray, a bass saxophone harrumphs and a banjo chinks out a steady rhythm punctuated by the ticking of woodblocks and the splash of a Chinese cymbal. Yet this is not the fictional bandleader Vladimir Tostoff’s “Jazz History of the World”, a composition invented by Fitzgerald as the soundtrack to Jay Gatsby’s lavish parties. These songs were written by Bryan Ferry fifty and more years later, initially part of the repertoire of Roxy Music but now taking a leap back in time in order to re-‐emerge as if they belonged to the brief, shining era that emerged out of the cruel shadow of the Great War and was cut short by the Wall Street Crash: the time that Fitzgerald himself christened the Jazz Age.
The first time I met Ferry, back when he had only just given up his job as a part-‐ time art teacher, we talked about the music that inspired him. He mentioned Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, which caught my attention since these were not names that regularly came up in conversation with aspirant rock stars in 1972. With this record, which delves back even further into jazz history, Ferry reveals the true depth of his love for the music that gave cultural momentum to an entire century. With the aid of the pianist and arranger Colin Good, his musical director for the past decade, and a group of musicians thoroughly familiar with the vocabulary and the nuances of early jazz, Ferry has reimagined some of his best known songs as if they had been written in the 1920s and covered by the bands of the day. Out of the sort of collective polyphony that characterised jazz during the years of its birth in New Orleans, the modern soloists emerge to awaken the spirits of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven, Bix Beiderbecke’s Wolverines and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Ferry’s “The Bogus Man”, which made its debut on 1973′s For Your Pleasure, revives the jungle sounds of Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club band, while the arrangement of “Don’t Stop the Dance” might have come from the pen of the great Don Redman.
This performance of “Virginia Plain”, Roxy’s first hit single back in 1972, summons the spirit of the group of British dance-‐band musicians who pioneered an appreciation of jazz on this side of the Atlantic: adventurous chaps like Billy Cotton and Buddy Featherstonhaugh who combined playing a frantic kind of jazz for dancers at the Savoy Hotel or the Embassy Club with racing highly tuned automobiles at Brooklands. It’s easy to imagine this piece, and its companions, being played on a gramophone in a Mayfair apartment by the characters of Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, another hit novel of the mid-‐Twenties, a succes de scandale in which the heroine, the sexual adventurous Iris Storm, pilots a rakish yellow Hispano-‐Suiza and drives men wild. Like Fitzgerald’s Jordan Baker, Iris Storm is a woman with a dark secret.
Yet this is not music to be enjoyed merely as a charming period piece. The briefest exposure should be enough for a modern listener to recognise its enduring virtues and to fall under the spell of its cunning melodic interplay, glorious instrumental textures and elegant syncopations, and its variety of mood, from the blatantly euphoric to the delicately sinister. This is yesterday calling, its message loud and clear: “yellow cocktail music” lives.