Category Archives: Jazz

Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

New Orleans is one of the few places in the world where walking the streets at all hours consuming alcohol from an open container is not just allowed, but actively encouraged. This is party city USA. Bars shut only when the last customer leaves, and will gladly sell you drink to go – and while that used to be, generally, cocktails such as the take-away daiquiri, or the infamous Hand Grenade (equal parts vodka, rum, gin, melon liqueur and pure grain alcohol, with a dash of pineapple juice, served in a hand grenade-shaped vessel), since a change in the law two years ago, that drink is increasingly likely to be a local craft beer.

The beautiful but sadly long-closed Jax brewery by the weaterfront in New Orleans

I was in Louisiana ostensibly for a music tour: the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and then a trip out to the south-west of the state, where settlers expelled by the British some 260 years ago from Acadie, the French colony on the Atlantic Canadian shore, eventually settled and became known as Cajuns. The plans included an open-air Cajun crawfish boil, with music from masters of Cajun song and dance. But there was enough free time to fit in plenty of beer tourism as well, and multiple places to choose from. Louisiana may have almost the lowest number of breweries per head of any state in the union (only neighbouring Mississippi is worse), but the world brewery boom has not completely passed it by. The state now has 30 craft breweries, three times more than in 2010, and New Orleans is home to nine of them, after losing its only surviving large brewery, Dixie, to the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (The Jax brewery had closed in 1974). What is more, since New Orleans is one of the top eight tourist destinations in the United States, at least a couple of operators have started organising minibus tours taking in several local breweries at once, reckoning that the huge growth in interest in craft beer makes for a potentially lucrative niche alongside the other organised tourist attractions, such as paddlesteamer trips along the Mississippi and visits to spooky cemeteries and antebellum plantations.

You have to be prepared to be flexible here, since beer tourism is still at the toddler stage, and if not enough people book a tour, it will be cancelled at almost the last minute, which is what happened to one trip I had organised before I arrived in New Orleans. But I still managed to get to see eight different breweries, or more than a quarter of all that Louisiana offers, AND hear some wonderful music AND eat some fantastic food AND see some amazing, beautiful sights AND get soaked almost to my underpants in one of the drenching hours-long thunderstorms New Orleans is prone to.

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The ten best songs about beer

Singing about beer: almost as good as drinking it. Except there are as many rubbish songs about beer as there are rubbish beers: which is to say, far too many. When the Beer Crimes Tribunal is convened, Tom T Hall will be among the first in the dock for “I Like Beer”, a dreadful dirge. Alongside him will be David Gordon “Slim Dusty” Kirkpatrick, for the even more awful “Pub With No Beer”, a song than which there is none so dull or so drear. Just because the song has the word “beer” in the title, or the lyrics, doesn’t make it any good.

Search among the dross, though, and you’ll find beautiful gems. Here’s my top ten selection, some of which you’ve probably never heard. I sincerely hope you’ve heard Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”, though. Written by Wesley Wilson and his wife Coot Grant, and released 80 years ago, just when it was legal to drink beer in the United States again, this is still, for all its years, as powerful a call to combine pork products and the juice of malted grain as you’ll find on the planet.

Atongo Zimba
Atongo Zimba, griot and beer celebrator

“In Heaven There Is No Beer” is generally performed by cheesy polka bands, but the marvellous Atongo Zimba from Ghana had a big hit in his homeland in 2004 with a version called “No Beer in Heaven” that is so far above the accordion band renditions they should slink away off stage in shame. Why this isn’t better known in the West – why Zimba isn’t better known in the West – is beyond my comprehension.

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Cask beer equals live music, bottled beer equals CDs

A few weeks ago I went to a performance by Wynton Marsalis, whose music I have been buying since the early 1980s. He arrived then as a young trumpeter who could play jazz and classical music with equal genius: I remember listening to his recording of the Hayden Trumpet Concerto in 1983 and feeling that every note he blew was placed in exactly the spot required: not a femtosecond too early or late, too long or too short. At the same time it was Hayden’s music, but played by someone who was aware of everything that had happened after Hayden.

All the work he’s done since, I think, has been while standing on that same platform: technically impeccable, respecting the music’s history, recognising that we listeners come with modern ears. I commend to your own ears Mr Jelly Lord, his CD from 1999 of Jelly Roll Morton tunes first put down by the fellow New Orleans master 75 or so years earlier. It’s properly Morton, but played by people who are aware, and who know that we the audience are aware, of bop and other developments in jazz history in the decades since Morton’s death.

And yet … I came out of the Marsalis concert feeling that I had listened with real enjoyment to musicians who had played flawless improvisational jazz, rooted in the music’s history, though with enough of a flavouring to show this was not merely a reproduction, a tribute band. But I wasn’t blown away. Was that evening much different to listening to Wynton Marsalis on CD? Not a lot.

Seven days later I saw a performance by the Zawose family from Tanzania – and if you don’t have a grin across your face within 45 seconds of starting to watch those ladies, have yourself checked by a doctor: you may be dead. Fantastic, exhilarating, explosive: as a live experience they shove Wynton Marsalis off stage and out the door. I wouldn’t want to buy their CD, though. The Zawose family are an excellent illustration of a great live act that won’t reproduce well on an MP3 player, or similar sound-only recorded music deliverer. Tremendous visually, fantastic enthusiasm, send you home very happy, but paddling about in the shallows musically.

What has this got to do with beer? Only that while I was thinking about the difference between live and recorded music, and how ultimately live music, when it’s good, is unbeatably superior to the best recorded music, because nothing surpasses the enjoyment of being there while it’s happening, it occurred to me that I have similar feelings about cask beer, proper live maturing-in-the-cellar brews, and bottled beer.

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Young’s makes me feel you so

There are not many pleasures as fine as good, real, live beer, but one of them is good, real, live jazz.

Luckily, for the 25 years I’ve lived back in London, in eight homes and four different boroughs, I’ve never been more than about 15 minutes’ drive from the Bull’s Head at Barnes. Young’s beer on handpump in the music room itself, almost invariably great performances from the stage by terrific musicians: it’s one of the regularly available delights of the capital that make up for the hassle, the noise and the expense of living in London.

Last Saturday, for example, the band at the Bull’s Head was a quintet led by the piano player Stan Tracey, a man justly called by the BBC “the godfather of British jazz”, with Stan’s long-time collaborator, the Glaswegian tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins, Stan’s son Clark on drums, Andy Cleyndert on bass and Guy Barker on trumpet. Terrific modern jazz, played with panache and passion – and all for £12 at the door. Frankly, I feel guilty paying so little for something so good – it would cost you more for a not-very-good bottle of wine in the restaurant next door.

Seeing Guy Barker reminded me that I have an LP (remember those?) released exactly 30 years ago by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, called In Camra, and featuring tunes “inspired” by real ale and real ale breweries. Guy was in the trumpet section, and I’ve been trying to spot him on the cover, which shows the entire NYJO in the brewery yard at Young’s Ram brewery, with Ramrod the sheep front and centre and a fully loaded horse-drawn dray in the background.

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