I thought I knew the buildings along the Embankment pretty well, but there are a few that had made me wonder what might go on inside, so it was with a double sense of intrigue that we found ourselves pointed towards an exhibition going by the title of ‘the Age of Jazz in Britain’ at a venue calling itself, quite literally, Two Temple Place. And we weren’t disappointed; the building itself is a rare survivor of late 19th century indulgence, built in neo-gothic style as the estate office of William Waldorf Astor in 1895 and a remarkable survivor of the Blitz that claimed much of the Inns of Court immediately behind it and subsequent commercial redevelopment. Although a regular venue for exhibitions by the Bulldog Trust, partnering on this occasion with The Arts Society, it lent itself particularly well to a collection of artefacts from the first decades of the 20th Century charting the influence that jazz – both as a music type and a wider culture – had on Britain.

I’ll confess that I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the place of jazz in my cultural landscape. When exploration of the world of the 1930s to 1950s, particularly in America, inevitably led me to the world of jazz, it frustrated me that no-one seemed particularly interested in its wider influences. Sure enough, there

were many earnest types willing to discuss chord progression, or the details of Wingy Malone’s recording career, but none of them seemed at all moved by the excitement that the music generated in the society within which it thrived. Likewise, turning up at any live performance in vintage clothing just prompted quizzical looks all round – as much from the musicians as from other attendees. More recently, the wheel seems to have turned full circle, with jazz music providing a very generic musical backdrop to the swing jive and ‘vintage’ scene, but with many, at best, seeking out only those tunes with the right dance tempos and others feeling it only as a kind of musical wallpaper to events focussed more on the look of the era.

Fortunately, this modest exhibition, spread thoughtfully throughout the building, captured many of the aspects of the jazz scene that excited my interest all those years ago. There was a careful blend of material focussing on the music itself and exhibits illustrating the impact it had on the world around it. Nor did the compilers ever give in to the ‘easy’ object, instead drawing heavily on a treasure trove of material held by the National Jazz Archive in Loughton, just outside London. We were taken from the era just before jazz, picking up on the world at the turn of the Century and influenced by the turmoil of the First World War, through to the arrival of the American Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1919 which represented a watershed moment in reinforcing an image of jazz as noisy, comic and anarchic. The insinuation of jazz into the mainstream was reflected in its influence as a style on everything from architecture and interior design to transport imagery, together of course with the technology without which the music itself could not have flourished – particularly the radio and gramophone.

Of particular interest and delight were the contemporary paintings, capturing not only the look but also some of the atmosphere of a jazz-influenced world, from the relatively sedate expanse of the Hammersmith Palais dance floor through the crush of a jazz café to private parties, both restrained and wild. Alongside the more literal representations were those where jazz and surrealism met in a fashion iconic of the era. Items of clothing and footwear typical of those in the paintings took us into the home, and an exploration of the influence of jazz culture on home furnishings and housewares (notably eschewing the obvious Clarice Cliff examples in favour of some more unfamiliar examples). More by luck than judgement, our route around the exhibition finished with a return to the heart of the topic – the musicians and bands who brought jazz to Britain and popularised it. My personal favourite there, apart from a particularly stylish photo of Nat Gonella with a stuffed toy tiger, was a 1937 shot of the less-than-snappily-titled Claude Bampton’s National Institute for the Blind Dance Band, featuring a very young George Shearing, yet to embark on his journey from Battersea to the epitome of post-War cool piano style.

A huge amount to take in, and sadly closing too soon on 22 April for me to inspire readers of this blog to beat a path there. Definitely, though, a venue worth keeping an eye on, not least as this particular exhibition was free of charge.