Reflecting on his monumental success at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival which represented a rebirth for his orchestra after years in the doldrums, Duke Ellington famously remarked that ‘skill is a wonderful thing to have if and when the four points converge – being at the right place, doing the right thing, before the right people, at the right time.’
The time, place and circumstances were very different, but Keith Ives, Mayank Patel and Jonathan Wingate would no doubt nod their heads in agreement with the great man’s pronouncement as they reflect on the birth of ‘Snug Sessions at Bishop’s Court Farm’, an exciting, hugely ambitious and totally unique jazz project set in the beautiful location of Dorchester-on-Thames. Now in its second season, ‘Snug Sessions at Bishop’s Court Farm’ is a welcome addition to the thriving jazz community of South Oxfordshire.
‘Mayank and I met Keith, landowner of Bishop’s Court Farm, almost by chance in the wake of Lockdown,’ explains Jonathan Wingate, erstwhile spokesman for David Bowie and Bob Geldof and now a music journalist and broadcaster. ‘I’m closely associated with Mayank, the founder of Hampstead Jazz Club located in the characterful cellar of the Duke of Hamilton pub, once a popular haunt for the ‘hellraising’ likes of Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton and involved as Executive Producer of his Lateralize record Label. We were immediately impressed by Keith’s extraordinary vision and tenacity. When we discovered that he shared our passion for the music and that he wanted to ‘open-up’ his then newly acquired farm to the community, the germ of an idea took root in our minds; why not bring our artists from Hampstead, stars of world-class stature like vocalist Jo Harrop, to perform at Bishop’s Court?’
‘I was thrilled by the idea of promoting jazz in my own farmyard,’ exclaimed Keith Ives. ‘It added a unique dimension to my plans to breathe new life into Bishop’s Court and restore it to the heart of the community.’
It’s a measure of Keith Ives’ commitment to this vision that in the earliest days of his tenure as a landowner he removed miles of barbed wire fences erected by his predecessor which denied public access to Days Lock Meadows beside the River Thames and the historic Iron Age settlement of Dyke Hills. Thanks to his efforts they now enjoy permanently protected status as Village Greens.
Meanwhile he has transformed the farm with the introduction of alpacas (numbering 60) and miniature horses, the opening of a farm shop/café, encouraging bees and producing honey, continuing with sheep (lambing days are a great family attraction) and an on-going programme of building renovation embracing the use of re-cycled materials and sustainable energy. ‘I believe that the future of farming depends on carefully managed diversification,’ he fervently declares, ‘I want to encourage agritourism; future plans include setting up holiday-let eco-pods around the lake as well facilities for educational visits and community events.’
As you will have gathered, Keith Ives is not man to do things by halves. The performance venue he has created for jazz whilst totally in keeping with the traditional buildings of the farm is jaw-droppingly incredible as a concept. It deserves a place on ‘Grand Designs’ – a marquee within a barn, built to the highest standards of acoustic quality, able to accommodate nearly 200 people on neatly arranged garden tables and chairs, with its own bar and stage, a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system … and a grand piano.
Keith Ives relishes his role as mein host. On the occasion when I visited the Snug, along with my Jazz in Reading colleague Jim Wade, he generously found time to talk to us amid ushering guests to their seats, moving chairs and tables to create more space where needed, answering queries and keeping the bar staff on their toes with the service of locally sourced food and drink.
The atmosphere buzzed with excitement and the electric anticipation of the entertainment to come – ‘The Songs of David Bowie Reimagined’ featuring virtuoso pianist Chad Lelong and the remarkable voice of Oliver Darley, supported by Nick Ereaut on double bass.
David Bowie, I was surprised to learn from Jonathan Wingate, loved jazz. ‘As a young boy,’ Jonathan explained, ‘David went to see a rock ‘n roll movie with Little Richard backed by a whole section of saxophones. He was knocked-out by the sound. “I’ve got to have one of those,” he told his Dad on his return home. In due course they visited Furlong’s Music Shop in Bromley to buy a white plastic Grafton saxophone (of the type sometimes played by Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman).
But how to learn the instrument? David scoured through the local telephone directory and found the name of Ronnie Ross, the foremost British baritone saxophonist of the day and asked him for lessons. After some persuasion Ronnie reluctantly agreed. Years later when David was producing Lou Reed, he repaid the favour by booking Ronnie to solo on ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.’
Much like the youthful Bowie, Wingate was knocked-out when he heard Chad Lelong and Oliver Darley performing ‘The Songs of David Bowie Re-Imagined’ at the Edinburgh Fringe in the summer of 2022. ‘This was more than a mere tribute to David. It presented a completely fresh perspective of his songs, capturing that special quality of jazz that writer Whitney Balliet described as the ‘Sound of Surprise’. The songs are familiar and yet unlike anything fans would ever expect.’
Judging by the response of the sell-out audience, including many hard-core Bowie aficionados, everyone shared Wingate’s enthusiasm for the Darley/Lelong partnership and will be looking forward with eager anticipation to the release of their album, ‘The Seat with the Clearest View’, on the Lateralize record label later this year.
It remains to thank Keith Ives, Jonathan Wingate and Mayank Patel for their truly imaginative approach to bringing ‘high-end’ jazz to South Oxfordshire with ‘Snug Sessions at Bishop’s Court Farm’.
The season continues from 30 April 2023 at two-weekly intervals with top-stars:
• Jo Harrop/Andy Davies/Alex Hutton: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
• Ian Shaw: The Magic of Joni Mitchell
• Ciyo Brown: Acoustic Soul Session featuring Geraldine Reid
• Claire Martin CBE with Rob Barron (piano): The Great American Songbook
• Jeremy Sassoon: The Ray Charles Project
• Paul Edis Trio: The Music of Bill Evans featuring vocalist Noa Levy
Tickets are priced at £20 and further details can be obtained via bishopscourtfarm.com
Don’t miss any one of these special treats!
Jazz in Reading