Friday, August 20, 2010

Life Vs. Death: Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen: "Midnight in Moscow"

And so we are in 1962; a year when the past infiltrates the present and thus, the future. This is, after all, a traditional song played in a relatively traditional way; but it would be a mistake to think this as some kind of throwback to an older, perhaps wiser time in the midst of show tunes, pop music and so on. The traditional music (known as trad, as opposed to modern, jazz) craze was tied quite specifically in the UK to the anti-nuclear movement, a movement which grew out of the late 50s dismay with the Cold War and in the UK's involvement in the production of nuclear weapons. Every rebellious movement needs music of some kind, and trad jazz - for reasons that will become apparent - was the choice of the campaigners and followers of the CND - Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The world in 1962 was on the brink; people sensed that the arms race was getting far worse and much closer to home than they would like, and everyone alive knew about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, not to mention the newly built Berlin Wall. Post-war peace was beginning to look more like the run-up to yet another war.

"Anyone who doesn't like jazz has no real feeling for music, or people." This was first heard onstage in 1956, and it pretty much sums up what many young people (not teenagers, but not thirtysomethings either) felt, particularly those who were restless, rebellious, tired of the old UK and all it stood for and represented. Jazz was a simple wordless refutation of it all, representing staying up late, getting buzzed this way or that, and above all not conforming to whatever the 'establishment' thought was proper. Trad jazz nights went on into the wee hours, people took drugs and danced, flirted and fell in love - all with that special intensity of people who want to have a good time in the face of what looks like eminent destruction, not to mention madness. An insistence of life over death, ultimately; and if the CND is still in existence now, it is due to the failure of successive governments to see how pointless nuclear weapons are, not the CND's quiet and persistent efforts to get Trident, for example, stopped.

So trad's rise to number two here shows that the public is starting to catch on, whether or not they knew (I think they must have known) the context of the song - the nuclear clock is poised minutes before midnight, and a guy is missing his gal.

"Stillness in the grove, not a rustling sound/Softly shines the moon, clear and bright/ Dear, if you could know/How I treasure so/This most beautiful Moscow night."

Is this a song of not just love but solidarity? Written by and treasured by Russians in the 50s (and loved ever after), covered by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen here, but I can well imagine a slightly older Jimmy Porter playing it to himself on a lonely night, to give himself some solace one cold Midlands evening. It is music that transcends and laughs in the face of danger and meaninglessness; it is the reason jazz meant so much to those born in the 30s. That it was such a hit everywhere shows that maybe things were going to be all right, after all.

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