Clare Teal with the Count Pearson Proms Band & Duke Windsor Proms Band at the Battle of the Bands, BBC Proms 2014. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2014: a triumphant blaze of 1930s jazz with Clare Teal's Battle of the Bands

Clare Teal brought an imagined “jazz off” between the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands to the Royal Albert Hall.

The Proms is, of course, primarily a classical music festival. Other kinds of music are regularly featured, but the rule is always that it must be the very best that it could be. Novelty for novelty’s sake is not welcome.

This directive was amply fulfilled in jazz singer Clare Teal’s “Battle of the Bands” concert. The “Late Night” slot on a Friday evening was extremely appropriate for this programme - an imagined “jazz off” between the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands. To the best of our knowledge such a clash never actually took place between these two celebrated bands of the 1930s and 1940s, although others regularly went head-to-head in New York’s clubs, taking it in turns to try and outdo each other with their interpretations of favourite tunes. As she explained at the start, Teal constructed this battle out of her “wildest imaginings”. Seeing and hearing her vision realised was something special.

Vula Malinga, Grant Windsor & the Duke Windsor Proms Band. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Vula Malinga, Grant Windsor & the Duke Windsor Proms Band.
Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

For one night, James Pearson became “Count Pearson” and Grant Windsor “Duke Windsor”. From the piano, they each directed an identical band of musicians drawn from the UK’s top jazz ensembles. Each “round” consisted of six tunes, three from each band, with guest appearances from vocalists Gregory Porter, Vula Malinga and Teal herself (maintaining her impartiality as referee and announcer, she divided her talents equally between each band). Swing dancers from the JazzCotech ensemble joined them onstage for some numbers, their tapping and twirling adding to the generally gleeful atmosphere.

Particular highlights came in the form of Teal’s vocal on “Moon Nocturne” with the Count Pearson band, her voice blending perfectly with the mellifluous saxophone solo; Vula Melinga’s riotous “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” with the Duke Windsor lot; and all the trumpets, most of the time. The bands were set out on the stage in a sort of mirror image, and it was lovely to see the musicians eyeing their counterparts on the other side, assessing their performances. Count Pearson’s drummer especially didn’t seem to be able to help himself - whenever his opposite number was performing, he was tapping along on his knees, testing out the rhythm.

Finale with Clare Teal, James Pearson & Count Pearson Proms Band, Grant Windsor & Duke Windsor Proms Band, Gregory Porter, Vula Malinga & JazzCotech. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Everyone was a winner.  Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Although ostensibly a competition, the climax of the evening saw both bands play together in a triumphant blaze of big band sound. People were dancing in the arena and in their boxes, unable to keep still. Both bands were eventually declared the winners, as was only right - each had played their part in what was an unforgettable night.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times