Winifred Atwell Revisited: Adam Fairhall and Johnny Hunter

The next TDE Promotions gig in the Hexagon Theatre at mac features a very special project that I am proud to have played a role in creating. The duo of pianist Adam Fairhall and drummer Johnny Hunter will be recreating and adapting the music of Winifred Atwell, the boogie woogie pianist who was hugely popular in the UK and Australia in the 1950s. Atwell was born in Trinidad, but came to Britain in 1946 and studied at the Royal Academy of Music . She supported her studies by playing ragtime in clubs and bars. But this side of her playing, boogie woogie and ragtime, became extremely popular, and she became one of the most successful musicians in the UK in the era before rock ‘n roll took over. She was the first female instrumentalist to have a No 1 hit in the UK, and I believe she remains the only one to have done so to this day. She headed the bill at the London Palladium, sold 20 millions records, and I have strong memories of her music being played regularly on the radio. Her music brought together elements of ragtime and stride piano with the British pub piano tradition, and resonated with the interest in ragtime and traditional jazz of that period.

Then popular music changed with the advent of rock ‘n roll, and she is now largely forgotten. She certainly does not feature in histories of British jazz, and in a sense this is what led to the project. A discussion with George Mackay, Professor of Media Studies at the University of East Anglia, touched on the neglect of Atwell’s music and importance, and led to the suggestion that Adam Fairhall might be interested in developing a project based on her legacy. Adam took to the idea immediately, researched her music and with his regular partner, Johnny Hunter, launched Winifred Atwell Revisited at the Manchester Jazz Festival in 2019. The music has now been recorded and will be available (we hope!) at the Birmingham gig.

Have a listen to one of the tracks, Black and White Rag, here. As you will hear, the interpretation is faithful to the original, but it unfolds through the lens of contemporary jazz. Interestingly, ragtime and boogie woogie piano styles seem to be compatible with contemporary solo piano or piano drum duos, and it certainly works in Fairhall’s version of the tunes.

The Fairhall Hunter Duo will be performing this material in a wonderful double bill shared with another excellent duo: saxophonist Trish Clowes and cellist Luoise McMonagle. They will be performing material developed for the Punkt Birmingham Festival that had to be cancelled last year as a result of Covid. Trish and Louise have worked together for many years, both in jazz and classical contexts, and their set will reflect this with music that, in their words, ranges from Wayne Shorter to the Kronos Quartet.

All this happens on Thursday 25th November 8pm in the Hexagon Theatre at mac; you can buy tickets here.

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