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Ambient Jazz at the Whitechapel Gallery…

March 24, 2007

IN AN ARTICLE ENTITLED “ARTFUL LONDON” THE NEW YORKER claimed “the original purpose of the Whitechapel Gallery was ‘to fill the minds of the people with thoughts to exclude those created by gloom or sordid temptation,’ and for a hundred years this bright space in London’s East End has been succeeding…”(March 5, 2007 issue).

That seemed to be the effect of the Whitechapel Gallery on everyone gathered there last Friday, though they all seemed to be far removed from more-stereotypical east-enders. Rather than a myriad of skin colors, languages, and ages…which defines especially the east-end, but also all of London, there was an overwhelming sense that my friend and I were in the midst–instead–of the ghost of the East-End that first inspired this gallery. In the 1960s and 70s the East-End became a sort of bohemian enclave for artists, poets, writers, musicians, and other creative spirits. Rent was cheap in the wild-eyed, hard-fighting, less-beautiful borroughs of central London to the east. The East-End’s heyday of communal creativity has been grown over, yet again, by immigrant working communities. But the remnants of that time and the romance of its memory are visible…in Whitechapel Gallery, Brick Lane, Spitalfields market…and its newer incarnation is peaking, in places like Whitecube gallery. The creative spirit is far from gone in the East-End. And the crowding of so many cultures is as rife with beauty now as I am sure it was then.

So, we sat, among silver-haired men and women, in black-framed glasses, with colorful fringed scarves piled high around their necks, black clothes, and enough of an aloofness mixed with an obvious joy taken in the arts to make me wish for my own fiftieth birthday to come around, so I might claim a piece of their obvious erudite and persistent enchantment with the world. I admire, and am a bit mystified by, men and women who maintain their ability to chase books, art, music at its cutting-edge through their whole lives. Life-long learners, they are, interested in the whole world…they just don’t seem jaded, the way that so many other people do.

The venue within Whitechapel can only be reached by a green-lit alley and industrial staircases right now, while most of the gallery is undergoing major renovations. Emerging from the bare walls and the choking smell of new paint, we found our way past a tiny red sitting room with an inviting large leather couch, into a room with glass ceilings, a few tables, a floor-level set up of musical instruments, and a bar lit from beneath the table and framed in mirrors. We waited an hour in the buzzing room, sipping organic ale and wine, and having a too-loud conversation. We seemed to be the only foreigners.

By the time the music started, the room was deadly silent, and packed with extra chairs placed in every available space, and spilling into the hall. Every seat was full. And every person was completely silent. The woman sitting on the same wall-mounted booth as me, to my right, even slid off her several silver bangles to preserve the absolute quiet. The bartenders were completely absorbed. And buying drinks, between the songs of the set of course, was an exercise in leaning in close, whispering, and then witnessing the precision with which the two men gently pulled bottles from the ice, and tipped the till upwards to release the drawer without its customary *ching*. I can only describe the mood as reverent.

And the music itself! The band, a recently created collaboration of several veteran jazz musicians with a bit of a vision, was eclectic and serious. I knew the show would be good when we walked in. Every man had sheet music perched in front of him. There were standard drums and a snare drum, an electric piano, a cello, two saxophones (one fat, one thin…played alternately by the same man), a laptop synthesizer attached to pedals, a trumpet, and a gourd-shaped object with a tube through the middle that acted as a voice-distorter. The set was incredibly moving. The thing about jazz anyway, and their particular version of ambient jazz, is that it can be as quiet as breathing, and invasive, and swelling with so much emotion that you actually feel the music, more than any other, rather than hearing it. The band is called ONL. You can buy their newly released album on the website. Fantastic.

The gallery has Thursday night poetry readings as well… Very exciting.

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