Women and Jazz: It’s Complicated – in London and New Orleans

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A couple of weekends ago, I was listening to amazing all-women jazz band the Original Pinettes play at Jazz Fest 2015 in New Orleans. The Pinettes call themselves “the world’s only female brass band” and they’re certainly one of the very few that aren’t made up mainly of male musicians.

The relationship of women and jazz culture is a complex one. There’s a long history of unrecognised achievement, troubled performers, and abused women tropes, from “St. James Infirmary Blues” onwards. But, as part of its fundamentally politically radical and progressive nature, jazz has also been productive and freeing in some ways for women.

Jazz was born in New Orleans, but these things are true across jazz worldwide – and that includes London’s own rich jazz culture. One of its greatest stars of latter years was singer Amy Winehouse and it was good to hear that, in their Jazz Fest 2015 set, the Pinettes played a cover of “Valerie”, a song originally recorded by British indie band The Zutons but made famous through Winehouse’s cover of it.

Even before I heard the Pinette’s set, I’d always associated Amy Winehouse with New Orleans. I happened to be in New Orleans for the days after her sad too-early death, and remembering watching a documentary about her life in my room in the reputedly haunted, but lovely, Hotel Provincial.

Amy Winehouse didn’t, to my knowledge, have extensive connections in New Orleans, and didn’t spend much time here. But after her death, the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a charity set up in her memory to help disadvantaged you people, donated $10,000 to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. And her work is embedded in a musical tradition whose deepest roots go back to this city.

So this London girl was both a child of the magnificent musical tradition New Orleans gave to the world, and an example of the tragic experiences that women within it have too often suffered. Let’s hope the Pinettes continue going from strength to strength.

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The Bright Side Of Technology In London and New Orleans

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My last post was about how I worry about the ways in which some aspects of new technology could negatively affect our cities. To even things out, this post is about how I get excited about how some aspects of new technology could positively affect them.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing a mobile game called Silverpoint. On the surface, it’s a simple “match the symbols” game with cute-looking hand-sketched planets that feels sort of like a hipster Candy Crush.

But there’s far more to it than that. For a start, Silverpoint refers to a series of works by a very famous artist. And then there’s the fact that behind Silverpoint are Punchdrunk, a hugely innovative theatre company that, for those who’ve been lucky enough to experience their work, have redefined how we think about the world, and maybe worlds, around us.

Punchdrunk are most famous for their complex and ambitious site-specific shows – most notably The Drowned Man, a very modern morality play set across 1960s Hollywood and London – and a good few other times, places and conceptual spaces – that played for a year in a vast former mail sorting office near Paddington station between summer 2013 and summer 2014.

But Punchdrunk’s director Felix Barratt said a couple of years ago in an interview with Sarah Hemming of the Financial Times that he was interested in melting the boundaries between the real world and theatre: “What happens if you take theatre out of the building and scatter it across town? What happens if the show lasts for three days? Or for three months?”

It looks like these kinds of questions were what informed the creation of Silverpoint, essentially an ongoing theatrical experience encountered on the go through your phone and, if you were lucky, eventually in person.

Those who downloaded the app found themselves tackling a tricky but addictive puzzle game; looking at beautiful Andy Warhol line drawings from early in his career only recently unearthed (see below); being told a story in which you and they were interwoven; and finally discovering new places in their city and novel experiences. It felt like a experiment simultaneously in time, space, and within yourself.

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Much of Silverpoint’s world was very London-specific, from the touches of occult Victoriana to the general insouciance of its inhabitants. But, as with Golem, aspects of it reminded me of New Orleans too – let’s just say things started with a crescent moon and finished with cocktails.

Before I gush too much, I should point out that it was also all a big advert for Swedish vodka brand Absolut. Yes, I know what you might be thinking right now, and part of me is thinking the same. But then again, I have a professional interest in marketing, so I find the current craze through doing so through content pretty intriguing  and tend to be a bit of a sucker for the funny stuff plus freebies format that often gets used.

Provided certain communications and controls are in places, I’m not one for sealing everything commercial up in a jar. After all, buying, consuming, and selling is a part of the fabric of London, New Orleans and all cities, and always has been.

I should also say that, although Silverpoint got me pretty excited about how technology could illuminate and enhance the relationship between people and their cityscape, I didn’t reach the end, or work it all out. But maybe, as with The Drowned Man, that’s the point.

As one piece of the story reads, as a character looks at reflections of herself: “Perfection is constant transformation, and everyone must change. Pieces of herself, waiting to be aligned.” I think that’s a good metaphor for what a city – London or New Orleans or anywhere else – represents and can offer us, and why technology has a place here.

Second image: Serious girl in From Silverpoint to Silver Screen, Warhol: The 1950s Drawings edited by Daniel Blau Photograph: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc