A Jazz Age Nightclub Recreated in a Historic British Cinema – The Syncopated Times
The leafy, affluent spa town of Cheltenham, UK, is about as far from the sticky summer heat of New Orleans or the skyscraper-thick metropolises of New York and Chicago as you can get. And yet it’s the often overcast and sleepy suburban setting of one of Britain’s biggest jazz celebrations.
The Cheltenham Jazz Festival applies the widest possible interpretation of the term, with six days in April and May featuring acts ranging from street performances with banjo to high-profile performances by soul singers (Gregory Porter, Gabrielle) and pop stars (Paloma Faith, Corrine Bailey Rae). The 2022 festival was a welcome return to live music, after the 2021 event went live during yet another UK lockdown.
But strictly pre-bebop jazz fans might have struggled to find their jam, with one notable exception. Tucked away in an alley on the fringe of the festival is the Daffodil, a 1920s art deco cinema that has been lovingly restored into a restaurant, bar and cabaret. Having dined there myself, I can say the food – which includes traditional English afternoon teas and Sunday roasts alongside scallops, lobster and Waldorf salad – is good.
But the Daffodil was previously rather drab inside, with its brown walls and rugs not at all complemented by its brown furniture and fittings — until early 2022 the space was renovated, shutting it down for months. This injected some much-needed opulence into the venue, slathering the interior in royal blue and gold while retaining original features like tiled wickets and twin staircases. Potted palm trees, sliding stained glass on stage, and daffodil-engraved mirrors add to the property’s Cotton Club cred.
The newly embellished club has reopened just in time for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which will be christened for three nights by Italian-American trad star Giacomo “Kansas Smitty” Smith and special guests. Born in Italy, Smitty grew up in upstate New York, learning jazz from his mother, a huge fan of Dave Brubeck. He plays the piano, clarinet and saxophone, is a regular at London clubs like the Nightjar and Ronnie Scott’s, and can count BBC Radio 2 DJs Iggy Pop, Cerys Matthews and Jamie Cullum among his UK fans.
Smitty’s nightly takeovers began at 11 p.m., lasting until midnight and ending around 1 a.m. With the Daffodil’s early 20th century fixtures and historic projection equipment now enhanced by tastefully jazzed up carpets and wallpaper, a fitting stage has been set for the triumphant return of real live music to Cheltenham.
Thing is, in the venue’s new layout, this stage is separated from the audience by the main bar – a bit of an odd choice that saw Smitty and co perform over the top (and, to boot, the vocals) bartenders and patrons leading loud parties. transactions throughout the night. And the prices – damn it, the prices.
Maybe the management was going all out with the speakeasy theme, costing drinks like they had just been smuggled in by moonshiners. Perhaps it was a one-time (or triple) cash grab from spendthrift bettors who had already shelled out hundreds for concert tickets and wood-fired pizza. Either way, £28 ($35) for two double mixed drinks is enough to get even the most avid drinker going.
Also, a half pint of lager was not an option for those of us with shallow pockets – the choice offered seemed to be spirits, wine or nothing. Someone should tell officials that even in 1926, when Prohibition sent prices skyrocketing, you could still get a whiskey and soda for 35¢ (about $5 today).
Seating was in leather-lined booths or on circular tables, although many of the latter were cleared to provide standing space forward. (Previously, there were high-backed booths at the edge of the stage, facing it—a similarly incomprehensible choice of furnishings.) the band’s performance was all but lost, even to the keen-eared listener.
After going through two press passes, I brought along a friend, a professional music producer, who agreed the listening experience was less than fantastic. What we could hear was splendid, with Smitty’s clarinet solos hovering over the searing rhythms of Joe Webb’s stage piano. But Dave Archer’s rhythm guitar was almost entirely lost, drowned out by the din of several hundred Britons making up for months of lost socializing time. Similarly, Laura Jurd’s trumpet, when not playing in the upper registers, was at times little more than a soft mumble.
This was despite Smitty and co giving it their all, after a slightly bored start. To be fair, it was their third night on the job and, with excitable punters chatting from the banister to the balcony, it might have looked like another wallpaper gig. But as midnight approached, the crowd calmed down a bit and listened a bit, started clapping more often (not always on the one and three) and thus gained more attention in return.
Previously nearly mute, Smitty began introducing his players and others of their tunes – “Blue Lou”, “Sugarfoot Stomp”, “Louisiana Fairy Tale” and many more – by playfully nudging the pitch bend wheel of Webb and apparently enjoying the experience just a bit more. Surrounded by a sea of bebop, hard bop, post-bop and other distant trad descendants, Smitty’s gig was a welcome island of old-school jazz, syncopated and swinging.
It’s just a shame that no space was made for couples to dance, which would have suited the vintage vibe of the cabaret club perfectly. I spotted a pair valiantly attempting a college shag near the bar, but the constant bustle of the stage made even this compact style of dancing difficult for them.
Cheltenham’s beautifully renovated attempt at a Harlem-style cabaret club should have been the perfect setting to recreate (a sanitized and egalitarian version of) Jazz Age America in the southern suburbs of England. And while a few decisions unfriendly to jazz fans have dulled the shine somewhat, the daffodil played by Kansas Smitty is perhaps as close as we can hope to get.
Dave Doyle is a swing dancer, dance teacher and journalist based in Gloucestershire, England. Write to him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DaveDoyleComms.