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Dr John Whiteoak is the author of Playing Ad Lib: Improvisatory Music in Australia, 1936-1920, Sydney: Currency Press 1999 and is General Editor for the Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia.
Peter Milley's Cairo Club Orchestra looks and sounds interestingly and exotically different to the conventional Swing or 'stage' or 'big' bands that are still plentiful in Australia. Yet, from the beginning of the jazz age and throughout most of the interwar period, syncopating dance orchestras just like Cairo Club were the main source of jazz and other popular music whether in New York, London, Capetown, Jakarta, Tokyo, or Melbourne. George Arnold's St Kilda Palais Orchestra photographed in 1920 looks strikingly similar to Cairo Club in instrumentation, dress and demeanour. In the 1920 jazz age, modern dance orchestras like this were referred to as jazz orchestras.
Most large 'jazz orchestras' throughout the world adopted a jazz band model attributed to Art Hickman, the white San Francisco dance orchestra leader often acknowledged as having created and led the first modern dance orchestra in the late 1910s. The, then, novel features of Hickman's orchestra included the addition of a saxophone section and a style of orchestration that allowed for interplay between brass and reed sections, and the showcasing of reading or improvising soloists. This was the basis of the 'symphonic' style of jazz developed by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and others in the USA. Interestingly, Hickman's own jazz orchestra came to Australia in 1923 under the leadership of pianist Frank Ellis and significantly influenced Australian jazz era dance music. The early Australian jazz trombonist, Frank Coughlan, recalls that their trumpet, trombone and saxophones 'played together in a particular rhythmic style, which really made people dance. ...Ellis demonstrated for all time how to swing a piano in a dance band. ...Their influence on dance music was tremendous, introducing correct vibrato for saxophones and trombones, drumming for rhythm instead of noise, swinging bass on piano, pizzicato bass, and featuring of artists'. Approximately thirteen overseas jazz orchestras reached Australia between 1923 and 1928.
Unlike the collectively improvising cornet(s), trombone, clarinet and rhythm section bands that today's public commonly associates with the jazz age, jazz orchestras such as those described above were literally 'orchestras'. They were--especially when augmented with strings--capable of reproducing most of the tone colours and effects of, say, a theatre pit or cinema orchestra. This ability was needed for the numerous popular music styles of the day including Hawaiian waltzes, Hawaiian blues, oriental foxtrots, or hits from musical comedy or cinema. This orchestral tonal range is apparent from the Cairo Club sample of Egyptian Ella downloadable from this site. Yet, they could also play the very hottest jazz arrangements of the day by leading black and white jazz musicians, and showcase the ensembles hottest improvising soloists.
To play this music convincingly players need advanced sight reading skills to follow the often complex and break-neck tempo 'routines'. They also need to be able to bring a classical sensibility to tone production, control of dynamics, and precision of sectional interaction. Yet, they also need an intimate knowledge of the 'sound' of the many style of 1920s and '30s jazz and other popular music. Although the music is played from notated arrangements, with the exception solo improvisations, the essence of music is in the ability of the ensemble to play with the dynamic 'feel' of collective improvisation.
From the 1980s there has been a revival of so-called 'twenties orchestra' and the establishment of a Twenties Orchestra Society in the USA with world wide membership. Cairo Club, formed in 1983 by Peter Milley is claimed to be the first Australian orchestra to revive this early global popular tradition as full time professional concern. Cairo Club's ongoing success in more than partly due to Milley's unique and detailed historical knowledge of the sound, repertoire, and performance nuances of 1920s and Swing era jazz, dance and other popular music, and also the cultural and social and entertainment industry backgrounds in which this music was shaped. Similarly important for the orchestra's ability to achieve authenticity is Milley's unmatched collection of original band arrangements and 1920s and '30s sound recordings. Several members of the orchestra are skilled arrangers and have the ability to re-score stock arrangement to how leading dance orchestras once performed them.
As contemporary entertainment and dance and listening music, the Cairo Club can play music of the 1920s jazz age in the most authentic manner heard in this country. Yet the high calibre and versatility of individual Cairo Club performers and the precision and cohesiveness developed through playing challenging arrangements in the relatively small and compact line-up of a twenties orchestra enables them to play Swing era music with better balance, more colour, tighter rhythm and sectional interaction, and hotter soloing than most Swing era bands.
© Dr John Whiteoak 2001
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