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Debs Hancock Quartet

Debs Hancock Quartet, ‘The Influences of Women in Jazz’, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 30/07/2023.

by Ian Mann

August 02, 2023


An ambitious and worthy production that sought to both inform and entertain and largely managed to do both in front of a capacity audience.

Debs Hancock Quartet, ‘The Influences of Women in Jazz’, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 30/07/2023.

Debs Hancock – vocals, Eddie Gripper – piano, Clem Saynor – double bass, Alex Goodyear – drums

BMJ’s July event featured a sold out performance by the Club’s own Debs Hancock, who was joined by a trio featuring some of South Wales’ leading young jazz musicians.

Vocalist Hancock is a popular presence on the South Wales jazz scene and performs regularly around the area in a variety of different line ups. Her first love is the music of the ‘Great American Songbook’, immortalised by such singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington and Nina Simone, all of whom were celebrated tonight in a show that combined music with a narrative embracing jazz history and social comment.

This was more than just a ‘Celebration of the Jazz Divas’ as it attempted to place the singers and their songs into a wider historical and societal context, while examining the influence and legacy of these ‘glass ceiling breakers’, both in musical and social terms.

The idea for the show came from a presentation that Hancock had made in 2022 to a local branch of the Soroptimist International organisation, an all female volunteer movement founded in New York in 1921 and dedicated to the advocacy of human rights and gender equality, the name of the organisation derived from the concept of ‘sisterhood’.

The success of that presentation, which had touched upon some of tonight’s themes, encouraged Hancock to expand upon the original idea and to assemble a band to perform the songs of those ‘Jazz Divas’ she had been celebrating. She has worked regularly with the young pianist Eddie Gripper and tonight’s quartet was completed by two other young musicians who have appeared regularly at BMJ, bassist Clem Saynor and rising star drummer Alex Goodyear.

The South Wales jazz public certainly got behind ‘one of their own’ and the show was officially sold out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Theatre at the Melville Centre as a jam packed as it was tonight.

BMJ’s ‘head honcho’, Mike Skilton, introduced each musician individually and the quartet eased the audience in gently with “Willow Weep For Me”, which included a concise solo from Gripper, also the leader of his own trio, plus some deft brush and stick work from Goodyear.

Hancock then explained something of the concept behind the project, mentioning the Soroptimists, before referencing some of the social events that had influenced the music of the artists she was celebrating. These included the economic migration of poor Southern Blacks to the cities of the north, such as New York and Chicago, with references to Prohibition and to the Harlem Renaissance.

The narrative was punctuated by the song “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” before Hancock turned her attention to Josephine Baker, the Afro-American singer and dancer who escaped the racial hatred of the US by migrating to Paris, where she gained fame, or even notoriety, for her erotic stage performances. During World War 2 Baker used her status as an entertainer to travel widely and was able to pass vital information to the French Resistance and to the Allied Forces, effectively functioning as a spy.

After the war, Baker, a naturalised French citizen, was awarded the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation, the Croix de Guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General  Charles de Gaulle.

It’s debatable as to whether Baker can really be regarded as a jazz singer but her role as one of the first Afro-Americans to achieve true stardom, plus her later involvement with the Civil Rights movement in the US helps to make her a part of this story. Hancock paid musical tribute with a version of “La Vie En Rose”, a song indelibly associated with Baker. Tonight’s version saw Hancock singing convincingly in French, accompanied only by Gripper at the piano as Saynor and Goodyear ‘took a breather’.

It was perhaps appropriate that tonight’s performance was taking place in front of the ‘Blues’ pop up poster from BMJ’s ‘Jazz Through The Ages’ exhibition, this featuring a picture of Bessie Smith, the ‘Empress of the Blues” and the next artist to be celebrated.

Hancock told us something about the harsh realities of Smith’s life in the segregated South, of how she was exploited by unscrupulous white record label owners and became involved in a series of abusive personal relationships with both men and women. But for all this Smith was a huge commercial success and was the highest paid Black entertainer of her day, even travelling in her own personal railroad car. Smith wrote her own songs, these a reflection of her own fiercely independent personality, while also addressing the social and economic concerns of the 1920s and 30s. The song that Hancock chose to honour her was “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”, performed in suitably bluesy fashion by the quartet.

Another figure to be celebrated was the American lyricist Dorothy Fields, co-writer of the earlier “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” and now honoured with a performance of “I’m In The Mood For Love”. Fields collaborated with many leading composers and in her own way was just as much a ‘glass ceiling breaker’ as the women who sang her songs.

The singer Dinah Washington was celebrated with a version of one of her biggest hits, “What A Difference A Day Makes”, sung by Hancock in the style of Washington.

Hancock went on to talk about such all female bands as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm,  a racially integrated ensemble from the US, and the UK’s own Ivy Benson Band. These ensembles came to prominence during World War 2 when many male musicians were conscripted or drafted but remained highly popular even after the cessation of hostilities. The Benson band played at the VE Day celebrations and at the 1948 London Olympics. Their ranks once included the celebrated saxophonist and composer Barbara Thompson, a ‘glass ceiling breaker’ of a later vintage as the leader of numerous otherwise all male ensembles, most notably her long running group Paraphernalia. Meanwhile Spice Girl Mel C described the Benson Band as the pioneers of ‘Girl Power’.

The next jazz diva to be celebrated was Billie Holiday, another performer with a troubled personal life and another victim of racial discrimination. Holiday was another artist that wrote her own songs, these often reflecting her own unhappiness.

Hancock and the quartet performed two of Holiday’s own songs, with a bluesy rendition of “Fine and Mellow” followed by an achingly sad and poignant “Don’t Explain”,  the latter featuring Gripper’s piano lyricism and Goodyear’s delicate brush work.

Arguably Holiday’s most famous song is “Strange Fruit”, written by Abel Meeropol in 1937. A poem before it became a song the work was first performed by Holiday in 1939 and recorded by her later in the year. The words protest against the lynching of Black Americans in the South and the lyrical imagery has lost nothing of its power to shock.

“It’s not my song to sing” declared Hancock as the sound engineers cued up a recording of Holiday’s harrowing rendition, bringing the first half of tonight’s event to a thought provoking conclusion.

The second set placed a greater emphasis on singing and playing rather than spoken narrative. In 2017 Hancock had undertaken a successful tour, “Ella at 100”, celebrating the centenary of the great jazz vocalist’s birth.  Fitzgerald remains a touchstone for Hancock and was celebrated again here as a swinging version of “Take The A Train” kicked off the second half with Hancock demonstrating her scatting skills alongside instrumental solos from Gripper, Saynor and Goodyear.

The ballad “Someone To Watch Over Me”, another song associated with Fitzgerald, followed, initially performed by the duo of Hancock and Gripper,  with the pianist playing the Melville Centre’s venerable acoustic upright. Double bass and brushed drums were then added as Hancock paid homage to Fitzgerald’s “velvet tones”.

Hancock also told us something of Fitzgerald’s life, which included the usual racial tensions. We heard about her friendship with Marilyn Monroe, who championed Fitzgerald in the face of opposition from white venue owners. As a tribute to Monroe’s support of Fitzgerald the quartet performed the song “After You Get What You Want, You Don’t Want It”, written by Irving Berlin and sung by Monroe in the film “There’s No Business Like Show Business”.

We also heard of a nice local connection, with Erica Lyons, the bassist on the “Ella at 100” tour having once taken bass lessons from the great Ray Brown, Fitzgerald’s husband – a perfect example of the principle of “Six Stages of Separation” in action.

Whatever their colour all of Hancock’s heroines came from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, including vocalist and songwriter Peggy Lee, who had to battle hard to gain the appropriate recognition and royalties for her own songs.

A medley of Peggy Lee material included “Is That All There Is?”, with its spoken word verses, “He’s A Tramp”, written by Lee for the Disney animated film “Lady And The Tramp”, “Why Don’t You Do Right”, “Black Coffee” and, inevitably “Fever”.

BMJ is no stranger to themed shows and all these songs had featured in 2020’s “Remembering Peggy Lee” livestream which was transmitted as part of that year’s online Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. That performance featured vocalists Debs Hancock, Victoria Klewin and Becki Biggins plus instrumentalists Guy Shotton (piano), Nick Kacal (bass) and Alex Goodyear (drums). Again this was an event celebrating the centenary of its subject’s birth. Review here;

Sarah Vaughan was the next ‘diva’ to be honoured, firstly with a swinging version of George Shearing’s “Lullaby Of Birdland” and then by Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”, a song that Vaughan very much made her own and tonight representing a showcase for Hancock’s own vocal abilities.

Next to the indomitable Nina Simone, pianist, vocalist, songwriter, bandleader and activist and a leading voice in the Civil Rights movement. A medley of memorable Simone songs included “Little Girl Blue”, which was presaged by a passage of unaccompanied piano from Gripper, and a moving “I Loves You Porgy”. The pace picked up with a joyous “Feelin’ Good”, this followed by Billy Taylor’s Civil Rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”. This final tune also offered instrumental solo opportunities for the rhythm team of Saynor and Goodyear.

Hancock informed us that tennis player Serena Williams, whose own story mirrors that of some of the ‘divas’ celebrated this evening, had helped to finance the conversion of Simone’s former home into a museum, performance and exhibition space.

The evening concluded with Hancock adding her own lyrics to the song “W O M A N”, very much in the ‘vocalese’ tradition pioneered by Fitzgerald and others, and encouraging the audience to sing along – which they did, with considerable gusto.

This was an ambitious and worthy production that sought to both inform and entertain and largely managed to do both. It had clearly been a labour of love for Hancock,  who had obviously invested a great deal of time and effort in the project.
Her source material had included two books by the Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay, the novel “Trumpet” and Kay’s biography of Bessie Smith.

It was the first time that the project had been performed in public and there were occasional glitches and moments when the singer and the instrumentalists weren’t all on the same wavelength, but these were quickly and readily forgiven by the very supportive crowd.

Hancock and Gripper had been able to get together to work through the medley sequences and these worked very well, with Saynor and Goodyear quickly getting on board. It was the instances where the instrumentalists were required to provide musical backing to Hancock’s spoken narrative that the occasional misunderstanding occurred, something that was perfectly excusable given the lack of rehearsal time and the fact that the live event was the first time Saynor and Goodyear had performed the show in full.

Overall “The Influences of Women in Jazz” was a highly successful event and audiences will get the opportunity to enjoy the production again when Hancock takes it to the Aberjazz Festival in Fishguard on 28th August 2023. I suspect that the presentation will be even more polished second time around. For ticket details please visit;

Next up at Black Mountain Jazz at the Melville Centre are;

06/08/2023 - BMJ Collective with Paul Smith

23/08/2023 – Simon Spillett Quartet

Further details at;


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