13 March 2019

The Jazz Centre UK - to be found in the basement of Southend's Beecroft Art Gallery - is the UK's first-ever cultural centre for jazz.

CEO Digby Fairweather says: 'it's been a long time coming too! Jazz has been in the UK in some form ever since the 1890s and up until the 1960s it was definitely Britain's youth culture. Then rock took over for quite a while! But these days young people in their thousands are re-exploring and enjoying jazz more than ever. So I think we've opened our doors at exactly the right point in history - and by the way  they're  open five days a week now from Tuesday-Saturday!"

One of The Jazz Centre's closest friends (and also one of  its most distinguished patrons) is Dame Cleo Laine. From the mid-1970s Dame Cleo (with her late husband Sir John Dankworth, Britain's first jazz knight of the realm) was Britain's only truly international jazz star. Following a  concert at the Lincoln Centre's Alice Tully Hall  in 1972, she and John took New York by storm, returning to Carnegie Hall for countless concerts thereafter  and simultaneously extending their touring circuit to the greatest concert halls throughout the rest of the world until shortly before Sir John's death in 2010.

But long before that Dame Cleo had forged an unusual relationship with Southend. From 1962-65 the BBC ran a soap-opera called 'Compact'. Intended to rival ITV's 'Coronation Street, 'Compact' (which starred Frances Bennett and Ronald Allen) told the story of a high-class fashion magazine and its weekly activities. And one of these included a staff-outing  to - guess where? - Southend-on-Sea! For the outing the series' creators Hazel Adair and Peter Ling decided to put together  a song to celebrate the event. And - co-composed with jazz musician, author and man-about music, Steve Race - the result, predictably enough, was a rackety-rowdy sing-along waltz called (yes; you've guessed it again!) 'Southend'!  Celebrating what was then Southend holiday highspots 'from the first cup of tea/to the queue for the loo' in a town 'where the sea may be grey but the postcards are blue'  the song is very much a time-capsule; an image  of the borough which doesn't pertain today . But in 1963 it made the charts nonetheless and Dame Cleo - unquestionably one of the greatest singers in jazz history - has fond memories of the song. "Every time I've been down there" she told Digby " - all the taxi-drivers remember it and usually ask me to sing it too!" One of her most unique claims to fame!

But there's soon to be yet another one. Last year Dame Cleo was a chosen subject for Sky TV's 'Portrait Artist of the Year' and the results of the competition will be announced on Sky TV at 8pm on April 16th. "Of course we can't tell you who's won!" says Fairweather " - but we already have a special area of our Centre which celebrates  the 'Dankworth Dynasty'. And there just happens to be a big available space on our walls if Cleo's portrait wins!  If it does  we plan an extra-special 'Cleo Laine Day' in May 2019 to celebrate one of 'The Jazz Centre UK's greatest friends. So that's another space to watch - and of course we'll let you know if the news is good!"

Art Napoleon